It was the most frequently used expression of my entire childhood. Not “Stop that!”, not “What are you doing now?” not even “If you don’t eat that whole dinner there’ll be no more!” was used more within my ear shot for the entirety of my formative years.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but I promise you it’s true. Everyone around me had little else to talk about. Not even the weather supplanted it. The Troubles were discussed or referred to in small talk. In gossip. In political or philosophical debates. They were mentioned in churches, on the TV news, on the radio. Newspapers would afford reams to The Troubles. Eminent journalists and statespeople would devote their time and considered op-eds about The Troubles. It was literally all consuming, ever present, and inescapable.
Even today, the phrase is still used, although more to help explain what a Backstop is than to strike up a cheery conversation. By the time I left Belfast to move to London in the early 90’s I was heartsick of the phrase and the subject. So much so that when I was in social situations in the Big Smoke of Britain’s capital, I used my ennui regarding the subject for sheer mischievousness. Once my accent was heard, it would prompt the same question every time. “Oh, you’re Irish. Are you from the North or the South?” With a glint in my eye I would always reply the same way. “I’m from the East, actually” and then laugh to myself as I watched English brains struggle to compute that Belfast is indeed on Ireland’s East coast.
But now that I’m a bit longer in the tooth and I make involuntary noises when standing up out of a chair, I have, as you will know from my other blog pieces, begun to turn my thoughts back to my home and to those times. And with more conviction than ever before I hold deep misgivings about that phrase. I have trouble with The Troubles.
It’s the very nature of the catch all title that inspires a physical reaction in me. It makes me wince. It makes me flinch even. Why? Well, it is such an underplayed term, one full of understatement and laziness.
It makes it sound like there was a momentary row in a supermarket queue about how many items someone has in their basket. It makes the thirty-year conflict sound like someone’s Aunt has snubbed the rest of the family because they didn’t get a wedding invite. I find it patronising and demeaning.
And all the peoples of Northern Ireland should too. People died. Families were left broken hearted. Communities were riven. Resentments still roil under the surface of my home, all too frequently bursting through into day to day life there still.
Troubles. It makes Northern Ireland and its suffering sound like a minor inconvenience, like a paper cut or an in-grown toe nail. Something that will just heal all by itself after causing a short period of discomfort.
And that is why I believe we should all stop using that phrase. Expunge it from our parlance, exile it from the lexicon of our recent history. Discard it to the feckless, so that they may continue to use it and in turn lay bare just how little they know of our home and how bloated their claims to caring about it really are.
Northern Ireland and its pain shouldn’t be talked about in handy catch all terms. We all deserve better than that.