Over the last month, as my sixteen-year-old was doing her GCSEs, I realised one day with some bemusement that her 'history' paper featured as one of its subjects: 'Northern Ireland 1969-1998'. I found this a little bewildering ... particularly since this 'history' was my life!
I was born in 1964, a mere five years before The Troubles broke out. While in my first five years of life I was taken with toys and dolls, the rest of my formative years were spent in the living nightmare that constituted 'life in Northern Ireland' at that time.
From the late Sixties, Northern Ireland (NI) had been plunged into a brutal conflict between republicans and unionists. Violence was perpetrated by paramilitary groups on both sides. Of the 3532 people, who died, the majority were civilians, many of whom were killed in random, tit-for-tat attacks across the sectarian divide.
During my childhood and teenage years, life followed a set pattern. There were areas that you went into and those that you avoided. Trips into Belfast city centre - or any shopping area for that matter - involved being frisked at the security gates, and having your bag searched. I vividly remember buying LPs and having the security woman remove them from the album cover - and indeed the plastic covering - and 'feeling' the records to ensure that they were what they appeared to be.
On rare nights out, we were all attuned to the invariable bomb alerts, which would see us all pile out onto the streets - usually to wait until the bomb squad had declared the call a hoax. Despite all of this, our lives were - to us at least - 'normal'. On one occasion I recall being horrorstruck at an American penfriend writing and asking if we ran zigzag to the helicopter to go for our shopping! 'What the heck,' I asked incredulous, 'does she think we're living in? A war zone?'
Looking back now, I realise, we probably were. What seemed 'normal' to us was far from it and even writing this now seems a lifetime away.
Because, over the last twenty years, NI has not only risen from the ashes, but is now taking great strides forward on a local, national and indeed, global, level.
After so many years of The Troubles, we felt resigned to more of the same, but then, in the 1990s, progress suddenly started to be made. Dialogue between SDLP leader, John Hume, and Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, made moves towards consensus across the nationalist community, while ceasefires announced by the IRA and the loyalists in 1994 were welcomed.
Suddenly, we saw a glimmer of light. A slither of hope for the future.
The Good Friday Agreement
At this point, US President, Bill Clinton, began to take a real interest in NI and sent his special envoy, George Mitchell, to eventually chair the talks between the various parties and groups. When Tony Blair became British PM in 1997, he saw the necessity of including Sinn Féin in the process. After much talking between the British and Irish governments, on 10 April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed at Hillsborough Castle by Mr Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
This agreement was a watershed because, for the first time, it acknowledged both the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK and the principle of consent - ie, that while it reflected the majority of NI citizens, it also stated that a united Ireland would come about if and when a majority of people in NI and ROI wanted it.
The Good Friday Agreement, which was opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party, was put to a referendum on 22 May 1998 and 71 per cent of people voted 'yes'. This effectively ended 30 years of political and sectarian conflict - years which had seen NI constantly on the global media radar - and for all the wrong reasons.
The years that followed were still turbulent and uncertain, but one good thing that came out of the agreement was that the NI Assembly was established and met for the first time on 1 July 1998 - albeit in 'shadow form' untilfull powers were devolved to the Assembly in December 1999.
No sooner had David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, become First Minister, however, the violence returned to the headlines when 29 people were killed by a car bombing in Omagh: the worst single attack in nearly 30 years of violence.
Since then, the Assembly has operated intermittently and has been suspended on five occasions, including the current impasse, which has seen the Assembly inactive since January 2017.
The changing face of NI - the 'chuckle brothers'
One of the strangest things to come out of the Assembly was what turned out to be a great friendship between the Democratic Unionist Party's leader, Dr Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness.
In May 2006, when the Assembly was once again restored, Paisley refused Sinn Féin's nomination to be First Minister alongside McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. Amazingly, after much negotiation, in May 2007, power-sharing returned to the province, with Paisley and McGuinness as First and Deputy First Minister.
Very soon, the two men were appearing side by side, seemingly enjoying each other's company. Nicknamed the 'chuckle brothers' because they always seemed to be laughing, the friendship of these two men, who represented the political extremes in Northern Ireland, was considered a symbol of the 'new Northern Ireland' and offered the face for the future of NI.
The two men's friendship continued until Paisley's death in 2014, after which Paisley's widow Eileen revealed that McGuinness had been very supportive to the family during her husband's long illness and said their friendship had meant a great deal to her husband.
'His friendship with Martin McGuinness,' she said, 'had meant something very special to him.'
McGuinness himself spoke about their friendship at the time.
'Despite our differences,' he said, 'I found him to be a charismatic and powerful personality. He always treated me and those who worked with me with respect and courtesy.The peace process and I have lost a friend.'
How NI business was affected
Throughout The Troubles, the economy of NI was unsurprisingly affected by the violence, the political instability and the consequent inability to compete in a growing global market. Regular bombings saw business owners across the province rebuild, reopen and relocate at an alarming rate, determined as it was to never give in.
The Europa Hotel in Belfast was a classic example. As it now approaches its 50th anniversary, the hotel - which is probably Belfast's most famous place to stay - is a reminder of the resilience and fortitude of many business people across the province.
Ignominiously known as 'Europe's most bombed hotel', the Europa was damaged 33 times by IRA bombs between 1970 and 1994 and played hosts to President Bill Clinton during his two visits to Belfast in 1995 and 1998.
The use of hardboard as a temporary substitute for shattered glass led to the hotel being known as 'the hardboard hotel', but, throughout it all, the hotel was never destroyed and only closed its doors twice in its almost 50-year history!
NI economy gets a boost
Once the peace process was set in motion, it was clear that the groundwork had been established to allow economic progress.
In 1994, the NI branch of the Confederation of British Industry (the CBI) produced a publication called 'Peace - a challenging New Era'. Fortunately, following the paper's publication, the media began to focus on the 'peace dividend'. The NI government capitalised on this and started to promote this approach by hosting events such as the investment conference in Belfast in 1994.
This new approach paid off almost immediately, with the tourism sector increasing by up to 20 per cent within the year.
In 1996, the CBI joined six other leading business and trade organisations to form the Group of Seven, which became known as the G7. The group's main aim was to promote a single peace message, which articulated a strong necessity for NI to decide on a 'stark choice between a future of peace and prosperity, or a destiny as being remembered as one of the world's most irredeemable trouble spots'.
In June 1998, just as the Good Friday agreement was signed, the GP organised a visit to NI for a delegation of leading businessmen. At this point, 30 per cent of all foreign direct investment was from the United States and by 2002-2003 more than £120 million poured into the province from the States. The future, it seemed, was finally looking positive - from all angles.
Since the peace process began, the NI economy has continued to grow at a steady rate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the fastest-growing sectors is that of tourism. Recent statistics have shown that, in 2017, there were an estimated 4.9 million overnight trips in Northern Ireland, with expenditure estimated at £926m: the highest estimates on record.
Overnight trips to Northern Ireland by external visitors was estimated to be 2.7 million, while an estimated 2.1 million hotel room nights were sold in NI. Hotel room occupancy was estimated to be 73 per cent in 2017: a figure reflected in the fact that hotels are popping up all over the province at an alarming - but welcome - rate of knots!
In 2017, 112 cruise ships docked at NI ports: a major increase from the 33, which docked in 2011!
While many may be visiting the province for the stunning scenery and landscapes, NI's popularity as a filming location is worth an amazing £270m to the economy, with global hit, Game Of Thrones alone, estimated to have brought more than £206m into the local economy over eight series!
NI also now boasts 'the world's most famous tourist attraction'! Opened in 2012 to mark the centenary of the sinking of the iconic ship, Titanic Belfast generated £105 million in additional tourism spend for the NI economy over its first three years. In addition to the 576,000 visitors from NI, more than 71 per cent of visitors were from outside of NI.
Over the last three years half a million visitors' main reason to visit Northern Ireland was to see Titanic Belfast.
What peace means to me
Living in Northern Ireland fills me with a mixture of pride and frustration.
In the last twenty years we've come so far but, unfortunately, there are always throwbacks to the dark past. For all of the region's achievements, the strands of green and orange underpin everything and it only takes the slightest thing to bring them to the fore.
Nevertheless, thankfully, for the most part, the number of positive factors about life here today are keeping the voices of nationalism and loyalism quietened while we continue to strengthen our place on the international stage.
The number of food companies exporting around the world has risen dramatically and we're becoming renowned for more than our violent past. You can't walk through Belfast city centre now without hearing a myriad of languages. Hotels are popping up everywhere - and most are full to capacity. New and exciting restaurants are offering top quality cosmopolitan cuisine. It may have taken some time, but NI hospitality has finally kicked into gear and people are now realising what the province has to offer. Next month the 148th Open takes place in Portrush and the eyes of the world will be on the North Coast.
And this time - it will be for the right reasons!
(This article first appeared in Senior Times magazine.)