Northern Ireland's children are more manipulated than traumatised, argues Chris Gilligan
Suffer the little children
Three children's charities, the Save the Children Fund, Barnardo's and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, have this year called for the creation of a post of commissioner for children in Northern Ireland, to deal with the way that children have been 'brutalised' by the militarisation of their communities. It has been estimated that between 1968 and 1993 75 children under the age of 10 were killed as a result of the conflict (just over two per cent of all conflict-related deaths). The three Quinn brothers, killed in an arson attack on their home in Ballymoney in July, are the latest tragic victims added to the death toll.
Hundreds more children have been injured and it is estimated that many thousands have been psychologically damaged. According to a recent study 20 per cent of children aged between 10 and 11 have been near a bomb explosion, and a similar proportion have had a friend or relative killed. Half of all schoolchildren have witnessed a shooting and 90 per cent have seen hijacked vehicles set on fire. Imagine the impact of these incidents on children and you have a picture of what the children's charities mean by brutalised.
It would be easy to draw the conclusion that all children have been traumatised by the conflict. Easy, but wrong. If this were the case I myself should have been reduced to a nervous wreck years ago. Like most children in the UK I started school shortly after my fourth birthday. But my school was in West Belfast and the year was 1968, just before the start of 'the troubles'.
Travelling to and from school I often passed makeshift barricades, and occasionally the smouldering shells of cars and buses. I remember one morning masked men boarding our schoolbus and ordering the driver to turn back, because the IRA was laying an ambush for the British army up the road. Was this bus-full of primary schoolchildren traumatised? No. We were ecstatic! As the realisation dawned that we were not going to get to school, the bus erupted in cheers. 'Up the Ra, up the Ra, up the Ra!'
For us riots were not traumatic but carnivalesque. Cuts and bruises were badges of honour. Even at age seven or eight we were able to help out by finding and stockpiling bricks and stones for our older neighbours to use as missiles. You might be horrified. You might think that we were naïve, that we did not realise the full implications of what we were doing. But that is precisely the point. Children are not traumatised to the extent that adults assume because they do not realise the full implications of what is happening around them. And as they do mature, they develop frameworks within which to understand events. Many of my peers grew up as Irish republicans, a few even joined the IRA.
The child as the 'innocent' is an idealised image. Much of the iconography of children is, in reality, little more than a projection of the hopes and fears of adults. In the uncertainty which pervades the peace process a lot of emotional baggage is being dumped on the shoulders of children. But even worse than this, the Anglo-American political elites are pushing the 'innocent child' image as a means to steamroller opposition.
The defining moment of Bill Clinton's 1995 visit to the province was when Catherine Hamill (aged nine) read her open letter. 'My first daddy died in the troubles', she said. 'It was the saddest day of my life.' Catherine spoke for millions when she said, 'My Christmas wish is that peace and love will last in Ireland for ever'. It was a touching moment. But it was pure theatre. Catherine was hand picked weeks prior to Clinton's visit by White House 'advance man' Jamie Lindsey. She was paraded before the world's media for the benefit of US foreign policy (Tony Lake noted that the coverage would encourage Americans 'to support not just our efforts in Northern Ireland but our efforts in Bosnia and the Middle East'), rather than for the benefit of 'future generations'. But nobody complained about spindoctoring. It would appear that when political elites invoke 'innocent children', critics cannot see past the emotional trappings to the manipulating political machines.
A more recent illustration of the manipulation of child victims was the response to the killings of the three Quinn brothers. The boys were killed in an arson attack on their home in Ballymoney, county Antrim, in the early hours of the Twelfth of July. People were stunned, appalled and distressed. Almost immediately the tragedy was siezed upon and used to demand that Orangemen in Drumcree end their protest. Nobody has claimed that the arsonists were returning from, or on their way to, the Drumcree churchyard. Nobody believes that the arsonists were members of the Orange Order, or acting on instructions from the Order. The argument advanced was that if Orangemen did not desist from their protest they would be condoning the arson attack. Reason says that the Orangemen did not kill the children, sentiment says that they should act as if they did.
Throughout the peace process this sort of sentiment has been used as a battering ram to demolish objections to the peace process run by the British and US governments. Myself and my peers are continually being asked to make sacrifices in the name of peace. Like the suffering little children in Mark's Gospel, the population of Northern Ireland are told that it is only if they receive the Kingdom of Peace as little children that they shall enter therein. If regression to childhood is the price of peace then I am unwilling to pay. I am not willing to trade my independence for the promise of a quiet life under parental supervision. I don't want to rest in peace. *
Chris Gilligan is co-editor of Peace or War?: understanding the peace process in Northern Ireland, published by Ashgate
The Sun after the Quinn brothers were killed
Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998