I was born in 70s Britain to Irish parents. I had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing in Gloucestershire, punctuated by IRA atrocities on the news. My father had a building company and employed a large number of Irish builders, as well as British and other nationalities. When the Birmingham pub bombings happened, some of his employees were taken in for questioning. For being Irish and near the West Midlands. It was a frightening time to be an Irish immigrant in the UK just as it was a frightening time to be an IRA target.
Following the death of my mother from cancer we moved to southern Ireland when I was eight years old. The evening news continued to punch out stories of sectarian violence on a daily basis. Somehow though, there in the deepest, darkest west of Ireland, the violence felt more removed than it had in genteel Cheltenham. The north was another country. A world away, although little over an hour’s drive to the border. In the UK we had felt threatened by the violence – at risk of being caught up in an attack and also of becoming a suspect. A climate of fear, division and hatred reigned. It was good to be out of it.
When the Irish referendum on the Maastricht treaty came around in 1992 I was in my final year at university in Trinity College, Dublin. About to graduate into an Irish economy where jobs were thin on the ground, where emigration was still the norm and where the box in the corner continued to spit out nightly news of bombs and shootings.
I voted ‘yes’ to further integration with Europe at that time because I saw in it the first vague hope of a peaceful resolution to the hatred and conflict that had raged in northern Ireland all my life. For the economic benefits too but primarily my vote was for a philosophy of coming together, of unity as a power for good and for peace.
And so it proved to be. The northern Irish peace process of the 1990s culminated in the signing of The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the unthinkable finally happened. The atrocities stopped. For the first time in my lifetime Northern Ireland knew peace.
Forget the Celtic Tiger, the real miracle that Europe wrought in Ireland and by extension in the UK was not an economic one. It was far more profound, far-reaching and life-altering. It helped create the political environment which made a lasting peace possible.
24 years on and we live once again in troubled times. There are terrorist threats from other quarters. The politics of division and hate are on the rise. And it is the UK’s turn to hold a referendum on their future in the European Union.
For me, the choice is clear. I cast my vote for European unity. For integration, for the celebration of our shared humanity and the resolution of our differences. I vote for peace.