August 31, 1994 remains a hugely important date in Northern Ireland’s history. It was the day the IRA committed to a cessation of all military operations, and the day that the possibility of peace, of change, of a new dispensation and a new Northern Ireland - one no longer defined by sectarian conflict and violence - became possible.
There were many who distrusted the fragile truce; many who felt that an IRA ceasefire would not hold in the way past ceasefires had failed to hold. Many unionists felt that to enter into agreement or any form of political engagement with terrorists was a price too high to be paid.
Republicans were wary of being denied their imperatives by the British government and loyalists were wary of entering into a new era too, one in which guns would have to be put aside and instead replaced by diplomacy.
For those on all sides the ceasefire would lead to two years of talks - two years of sitting down at the table and brokering deals with those they had long perceived as enemies.
The ceasefire was an imperfect one - since the IRA called its cessation of militarism violence has sporadically continued: since August 1994, 179 people have been murdered in Northern Ireland by terrorists, including 29 people in the Province’s worst single atrocity - the REAL IRA bombing of Omagh. Sectarian murders and punishment shootings occur to this day - albeit with much less frequency. The darkest days of the 1970s are far behind us.
Optimists, then, still see the 1994 ceasefire as the beginning of a new dawn and as a significant moment in the brokering of a new, post-conflict Ulster.
Then came the historic signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998 when a spectrum of Northern Ireland’s political representatives negotiated a peace deal with the British and Irish governments, mediated by American Senator George Mitchell. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern are shown in the now iconic pictures signing the agreement; Blair spoke of the ‘hand of history’ on the shoulders of the politicians involved. But the deal was difficult to ratify and negotiations continued until the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006.
But however the peace has been sporadically shattered, August 31, 1994 remains a moment many see as the beginning of the new era, the start of a hugely imperfect but still mightily significant peace deal and the start of a new dispensation in which politics has largely replaced conflict, even if it has not altogether removed the sense of division, bigotry and intransigence felt in certain quarters.
We asked those born on the date of the ceasefire if growing up in today’s Northern Ireland they feel Ulster’s fractious past is at all relevant to their daily lives.
What is clear is that they are resoundingly more concerned with Northern Ireland’s future than its past.
l Liadh White was born on August 30, 1994 and is about to turn 20.
Liadh grew up in Belfast near the Ravenhill Road and attended Our Lady & St Patrick’s College, Knock in the east of the city. In September she will leave home to begin a science course at the National University of Ireland in Galway and would like to work in scientific research.
Liadh is aware of the history of the conflict but is apathetic about politics here.
Liadh said: “My picture was in the paper when I was born and in our house I was always known then as ‘the peace baby’.
“So yeah, I was made aware that I had been born and was growing up in what was felt to be a new era in Northern Ireland’s history.
“I have been aware of the Troubles in terms of things I have been told by teachers and by my parents and then by the things we still see on the news, but these days I’m told it’s more about peace-building than the way it used to be before I was born.
“For whatever reason I feel like in Northern Ireland you can go one of two ways and either be very interested in politics or be completely apathetic to it. I feel apathetic about it sometimes.
“I’m starting university in Galway in September to study science - hopefully physiology and anatomy - and I’m not leaving here because I don’t like it - I just want to try somewhere new.
“I feel growing up in Belfast has been a unique experience and something I have enjoyed, but it would be nice to experience somewhere different too.
“My family are from Cork and moved here in the 1980s when my dad wanted to study at Queen’s and then got a job here and my mum followed him.
“So I have spent a lot of time down south and I think you do notice a difference.
“To me, even 20 years after the Troubles you do notice a slight preoccupation with some people at least always wanting to work out where people are from or whether they are Protestant or Catholic.
“I do sometimes feel that you have to be slightly wary or careful about what you say, particularly when it comes to the Irish language or mentioning the GAA - you maybe don’t want to offend people who don’t see that as a relevant part of the culture here.
“I think going to a Catholic primary followed by a Catholic secondary school can make you insular and you end up with most of your friends then coming from the same background. So there is a divide that is institutionally imposed. But I hope I will meet people from lots of different backgrounds when I go to university.
“I hope to one day work in the research side of science, maybe doing clinical trials for drugs companies.
“I’m happy and proud to have grown up here in Northern Ireland.
“From what I have heard - in terms of how people used to have to negotiate moving around Belfast during the Troubles and the checkpoints and all that went on - the city today sounds completely different to how it used to be.”
l Grace Dundas is about to turn 20 and lives in south Belfast.
She grew up in Lisburn and Whiteabbey and studies sociology and criminology at the University of Ulster. Grace was born on August 31, 1994 but has rarely thought about the significance of her birth date and has never thought much about the Troubles.
Grace said: “I have never thought a lot about the fact that I was born on the same day as the ceasefire - to me it’s just my birthday.
“I’ve been aware that there have been difficult times here in Northern Ireland in the past but they are not something I have experienced as a part of my daily life.
“I am studying sociology and criminology at the University of Ulster and would like to be someone who works to help and support young offenders re-enter society.
“I’ve just always wanted to help people.
“I have lots of friends of all different backgrounds and never really think about where they are from or what their religion is.
“I studied at Hunter House, a school that had people from different backgrounds, so from a young age I have always known people from all different religions not just Protestant and Catholic but also Muslim or Hindu or whatever.
“Now that I am at university I have friends from so many different backgrounds and I never think twice about whether they are Protestant or Catholic or anything like that.
“When I see politicians on TV arguing about parades or the past I find it interesting more from a sociological point of view, but I wouldn’t say I really fully understand their reasons for arguing.
“I don’t really see myself as being part of a tradition that would be described in any way as ‘orange’ or ‘green’.
“I mean every year on the Twelfth we would enjoy the parades and maybe have a drink in the pub, but I wouldn’t say I even fully understand what we are celebrating. It’s a parade to enjoy and an excuse for a party and that’s it for me.
“I love Northern Ireland and have never wanted to move away. I’m a home bird and I really like it here and always have. To me it’s home and it’s all I’ve known.
“People are friendly here and I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else.”