Northern Ireland centenary: Ben Lowry recalls the slow return of normal life as the Troubles receded

People born in 1971, like Ben Lowry, lived through the height of the Troubles but have witnessed decades of NI improving, he writes:

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 4:12 pm
Updated Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 9:28 pm
The reopening of the Grand Opera House in Belfast in September 1980. It was a landmark moment in the slow return to stable life in Belfast city centre
The reopening of the Grand Opera House in Belfast in September 1980. It was a landmark moment in the slow return to stable life in Belfast city centre

Those of us who were born at the midpoint in the history of Northern Ireland 1971, came into the world at the height of the Troubles, or a year before.

We therefore experienced a backdrop of conflict as something of a norm, in that we were never surprised to see soldiers or armed police patrolling towns and cities — it was just the way society was organised.

We also had a front row seat for the slow normalisation of life in the province.

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Tourists were returning to attractions such as Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in north Antrim from the late 1980s

Many people’s memories of the phases of violence have become muddled. In the early 2000s, after Princess Diana died, I noticed a reputable media outlet implying that her 1992 Belfast visit had been brave, “at the height of the Troubles”.

The 1990s was in fact its lowest point. Even the hideous eruptions of killing and bombing in the 1980s came at least a decade after the worst days in the 1970s.

Reginald Maudling’s 1971 reference to an acceptable level of violence was mocked, but in a way just such a level had been achieved as early as 1978, by when Troubles deaths were far lower than road deaths (81 killings in NI that year compared to 288 traffic collision fatalities).

My generation (born early 1970s) remembers well this normalisation because we were at an age when the revitalisation of Belfast seemed thrilling.

With hindsight I now realise the significance of the Queen’s silver jubilee visit in 1977, her first to Northern Ireland in almost a decade. I was aged five and watched with a group from a rooftop the Royal Yacht Britannia sail up Belfast Lough and recall a (presumably military) helicopter flying low above us, obviously to check out whether we were a threat.

That royal visit only happened because officials of the state felt in control of security, which they would not have done a few years before.

By the time of the 1980 re-opening of the Grand Opera House and the launch of eateries such Capers Pizzeria, packed from its first night in 1982, the city centre was already a bustling space that did not feel unsafe to families or school groups.

Around this time, the security gates on Donegall Place were dismantled.

Gradually, night life in Northern Ireland got better and better and by the time I left school in 1990 Great Victoria Street was the lively ‘Golden Mile’, full of restaurants. No teenager would have hesitated before heading out there at night.

Things still improved, with in the 1990s night clubs staying open later and later into the night and early morning.

By the early 2000s people were travelling to the city from the mainland for fun weekends and the Cathedral Quarter was taking shape.

Tourism had been re-emerging from the late 1970s too.

I remember family friends visiting from America at the end of the 1970s, and travelling to attractions such as the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

That tourism industry, like hospitality, continued to improve in the early years of this century, with the first cruise ships.

It all happened so incrementally that we barely noticed it, but now Belfast is a radically changed and more relaxed city.

It had also long since become much safer than many American cities.

In summer 1993, when I was a student working in Berkeley, California, I was struck by a San Francisco newspaper report about the murder toll in nearby Oakland for the first six months of that year, which I could see was higher than Northern Ireland.

Oakland, with around 400,000 people, had less than a third of NI’s population (years later I checked the homicide toll for Oakland for all of 1993, which was 154 killings, NI’s Troubles toll was 84).

Gun violence in Oakland meant that it had six times more violent killings per capita than NI, where there was apparently a “war” bad enough to attract the concern of US presidents.

I write none of this with any glee, nor do I in any way seek to minimise the tragedy of the Troubles and the horror of the lives blighted by violence.

But rather to observe how Northern Ireland has changed for the better and how I happened to be among the generation who were almost the first to be fortunate enough to lead lives that were barely different to those led by the populations of other British cities.

It is already a decade since such a major entertainment organisation as MTV felt confident enough to hold their awards in Belfast and now more than a year since the Open golf returned to Portrush, in a an event that was widely hailed as a major success.

Northern Ireland is a glorious place to live, as Peter Robinson writes in this centenary supplement.

And this is very evident in the way that our expats, wherever they have ended up in the globe, seem so keen to return home for holidays.

Once Northern Ireland is in your bones, it is there forever.

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