LEICESTER, United Kingdom – As violence flares up in Northern Ireland, there are fears that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended ‘The Troubles’ is beginning to fray.
The agreement called for power sharing between the predominantly Protestant Unionist parties and the predominantly Catholic Nationalists, and largely ended the 30 years of violence that left over 3,500 people dead.
However, the deal was largely undergirded by Ireland and the United Kingdom’s common membership in the European Union, and Brexit is putting incredible strain on the peace agreement.
A new young adult novel chronicles the story of the generation born after the peace, and the strains that still exists between Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities.
Guard Your Heart, by Sue Divin and available in the UK and Ireland, tells the story of Aidan and Iona, two teenagers from Derry born on the day of the Good Friday peace deal was signed.
“I wrote it to help readers understand Northern Ireland, but also as a fast-paced story laced with dry Derry humor, a contemporary romance of young love across divides. Whilst it’s about Northern Ireland, the issues will resonate more universally,” Divin told Crux.
“This generation faces diverse challenges from the legacy of the Troubles. Religion is just the simplest label for complex political, historical, cultural, human rights and identity issues,” she said.
Divin said the legacy of the Troubles means that “this ‘peace’ generation is still living in a largely segregated or divided society.”
“People need to feel a peace dividend. They need to feel hope. The peace deal in 1998 marked the end, to a large extent, of violent conflict here. It changed how conflict happened – moving it from violent to non-violent, guns to democracy. What it didn’t do overnight was to build peace.”
What follows is Crux’s email conversation with Divin about Guard Your Heart.
Crux: What was the impetus behind the novel?
Divin: Guard Your Heart is a Young Adult / Adult cross-over novel. I wrote it to help readers understand Northern Ireland, but also as a fast-paced story laced with dry Derry humor, a contemporary romance of young love across divides. Whilst it’s about Northern Ireland, the issues will resonate more universally.
Another reason I wrote Guard Your Heart relates to my day job. For over fifteen years I’ve worked in peace and reconciliation in Derry, Northern Ireland. In 2016 much of the peacebuilding focus was on what we term the ‘Decade of Centenaries.’ Ireland from 1912 – 1922 went through a period of turbulence and violence – politics and power struggles for and against independence. 2016 was the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in WW1 and the Easter Rising. In the Community Relations field I work in, people were asking how can we explore history in a way which also remembers our future? My brain was asking who is telling today’s story? Aidan and Iona and Guard Your Heart were birthed out of that process. I wanted to tell the story of two teenagers, both born on the day of the Good Friday peace deal who had never lived a single day during The Troubles. I wanted to write the legacy of the Troubles and the complexity of peace.
You grew up in Northern Ireland with a Protestant background. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences?
Being asked a question like that feels alien – possibly because ‘Protestant’ is a term that’s only ever been applied to me rather than chosen by me. I grew up with the convention ‘don’t talk about religion or politics.’ I’m getting more used to it now that Guard Your Heart is published.
It’s not surprising that when you grow up in an identity-based conflict, you learn to keep quiet about your identity – especially if, like me, you cross the lines between communities and don’t fit a box of assumptions and stereotypes about what others assume that label should mean.
Though I’ve lived in Derry over twenty years, I’m from Armagh. Did I experience sectarianism? Some. Did I witness violence? Some. Did I grow up with teenage angst, exam pressures, fun and laughter? Yes. Do I consider myself a victim/survivor? No.
The estate I grew up on was possibly unusual. The houses told different stories – a Union Jack, a first holy communion dress, an INLA shooting, different school uniforms, an Orangeman, a ‘mixed’ marriage, an IRA car bomb. There were no painted curbs. No sectarian graffiti. We played together. Blessed with amazing parents, I learned that bridges could be crossed and that all people mattered. I attended the Royal School Armagh in a white shirt and blue blazer with red trim yet learned tin whistle with Armagh Pipers’ Club in the Gaelic Athletic Association.
What’s notable is that in practically every non-school and non-church creative environment I socialized in, I was in the ‘minority.’ Whether it was playing classical flute in an orchestra, acting in the youth drama group, dancing (chronically) in the youth dance troop, there were always far more teenagers from Catholic than Protestant backgrounds. I think that speaks of the cultural divides in Northern Ireland.
My aversion to talking about my own background is not just historical. It’s also current. My experience of peace working for local government is that I lose my own voice in the interest of facilitating others. Perhaps that’s why I write. Fiction restores my voice.
Guard Your Heart deals with the generation born after the Northern Ireland peace agreement. What challenges does this generation face?
This generation faces diverse challenges from the legacy of the Troubles. Religion is just the simplest label for complex political, historical, cultural, human rights and identity issues. Consider the pandemic. Somehow, we ‘get it’ for COVID – that the impact is more than the catastrophic numbers in the headlines. That the legacy will endure for years. That mental health support and economic regeneration will be needed on a massive scale. That addiction support and domestic violence services will be more in demand than ever. COVID has devastated families, communities and societies in so many ways, especially those in poverty, marginalized, border areas… Now apply that mindset to 30 years of violent conflict. Any clearer?
Another comparison, if you’ll grant me grace, could be with the Black Lives Matter movement. Challenges in Northern Ireland arise from sectarianism. BLM has highlighted the challenges arising from racism. Neither can be solved overnight with simply more benevolent attitudes and words. The legacy issues include institutionalization of stereotypical assumptions and unseen bias, rights and justice, economy, equality, legislation, structural change… It takes a long, determined and active process to build a positive, inclusive society.
Specifically, the legacy of the Troubles means that this ‘peace’ generation is still living in a largely segregated or divided society – particularly in housing and education. This has not only social, but economic impacts. Poverty and unemployment add to marginalization. People need to feel a peace dividend. They need to feel hope. The peace deal in 1998 marked the end, to a large extent, of violent conflict here. It changed how conflict happened – moving it from violent to non-violent, guns to democracy. What it didn’t do overnight was to build peace. Two quotes from the protagonists in the novel give this context:
‘The attitudes hadn’t changed, just the tools. We fought with culture now, not guns.’ (Iona)
‘Were we building peace only knowing half the war story? In our charity-shop jigsaws as kids, there’d always been pieces missing, we never got the whole picture. Key bits were brushed under someone else’s carpet.’ (Aidan)
Does your novel have a certain resonance right now, with the upsurge in tensions in Northern Ireland?
Yes. Definitely. Unfortunately. But not unpredictably. The current upsurge in tensions is based in the context of the last 5 years. Guard Your Heart is set in summer 2016 – the Brexit vote is even included in the plot. To the best of my understanding, the main UK Brexit campaign literature didn’t mention Northern Ireland at all – that speaks volumes. Although there was a range of opinion, Northern Ireland voted 56 percent remain. For many people here, it was clear leaving the EU would raise questions about the British-Irish border. The vote triggered calls for a ‘border poll’ and, in the same time period, Northern Irish government collapsed for 3 years, leaving a vacuum in political leadership and a backlog in practical everyday decisions. The uncertainty has been a destabilizing factor, stagnating, if not reversing, much progress.
Whilst Guard Your Heart resonates with current difficulties, it also sets out hope. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí (Praise the youth and they will flourish) is a proverb used by Aidan’s Irish teacher. There is definitely something about giving people a hope and a future that helps build peace. I’m more of a ‘glass half full’ person – whilst it pulls no punches with the challenging context, so is the novel.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work as the PEACE IV manager in Derry?
Northern Ireland benefits from ‘Peace’ money from the European Union. I manage one strand of this in the Derry City and Strabane Council area. It involves £6.7 million ($9.35 million) of funding for around 65 cross-community reconciliation projects engaging over 6000 people from across diverse identities. My role is something akin to a blend of mediator/punch bag/facilitator/bureaucrat /listener/ project designer/community worker.
The writers’ mantra is ‘write what you know’ so that’s what I did. Fiction is a powerful tool for creating empathy and empathy is a powerful tool for creating peace. Guard Your Heart is fiction, but the context is real and I only have that depth of understanding because of my peace work. Conflict dehumanizes the ‘other.’ Stories connect us to the ‘other’. My ultimate hope for the novel is that it will make people think – not just with their heads, but also with their hearts. Is treise an peann ná an claíomh. (The pen is mightier than the sword).
In my day job I do have the pleasure of writing the true-life stories too – articles capturing the impact of our projects on everyday lives. If reading Guard Your Heart whets an appetite to understand what’s happening ‘on the ground’ in peace work in Northern Ireland, a good place to start would be https://www.derrystrabane.com/peace-IV where you can see video compilations and read magazines about real lives and reconciliation projects.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome