Set in 1990’s Derry, Lisa McGee’s ground-breaking comedy series Derry Girls recently concluded its third season. Since its inception in 2018, it has accumulated viewers in Northern Ireland and has been picked up by Netflix across Europe and the US.
The series follows a group of teenage friends and their parents — all grappling with the challenges of everyday life with the backdrop of The Troubles.
The series uses humour to not shy away from depicting the conflict, often using sarcasm to poke fun at its frustrating and complicated grounding principles. Through this, it also reveals the familiar regularities of life in an extraordinarily irregular context and allows us to attach ourselves to the various characters.
However, the humour is punctuated with moments of poignancy; Derry Girls also confronts key events from Northern Ireland’s often-harrowing history with tact. Ithas provided a new outlet for people to reflect on The Troubles.
The hour-long finale, broadcast on the 18th May, puts forth a meaningful message of transition – the personal and political. The anxious anticipation of an approaching 18th birthday party runs parallel with the build-up to the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. Recounting one of the most pivotal weeks in Northern Ireland’s history, the episode is all the more poignant given the current political climate.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed collaboratively by the British and Irish governments in April 1998, represented a watershed moment for Northern Ireland, offering an end to 30 years of violence and more than 3,500 deaths. In May 1998, the peace treaty was put to the people. A referendum gave citizens on both sides of the sectarian divide a chance to decide the future course of their fractured country.
The final episode of Derry Girls picks up here. Orla, on the cusp of her 18th birthday, is registering to vote. In the background, we hear the BBC News reports on the imminent referendum. Thanks to her unique and precious outlook on life, Orla usually stands at a distance from political happenings. She offers an alternative viewpoint as someone who focuses on the present and is happy to delight in small joys. Orla reminds us that political or religious affiliations must not necessarily define Northern Ireland and its people.
However, here we see Orla’s personality and context collide. For the first time, she alone is directly inserted into politics. She retains her happy-go-lucky outlook, striding up the stairs with colourful bobbles in her hair. However, she clearly values this moment and has a tangible sense of significance. After receiving her electoral card, she puts on her headphones, eclipsing the news broadcast with Dario G’s “Sunchyme”. She dances through the streets of Derry, embodying the hope felt by many in 1998. The armed soldiers blocking her path are a continual reminder of The Troubles and the significance of the upcoming referendum.
Throughout the episode, the dialogue and mood oscillate between the tactful humour to which we have become accustomed and an unusually frequent earnestness. Most notable is the friction between best friends Erin and Michelle over arguably the most contentious element of the peace treaty: the immediate release of paramilitary prisoners.
This kind of confrontation is unfamiliar to the group. James quietly utters, “I’m not sure we should be talking about this”. Neither Erin nor Michelle, who always approaches conflict with foul-mouthed humour, is willing to retreat: “This is exactly what we should be talking about”, Erin exclaims.
And she is right. Now is the perfect time to reflect on the Good Friday Agreement, its referendum and the ongoing peace process. Since Brexit talks began, tensions have inevitably been building in Northern Ireland due to the delicate border issue. Nationalists oppose a hard border in Ireland and Unionists oppose a new border in the Irish Sea. Still, a border has to operate somewhere to protect the interests of the European Union. The Conservative Party’s goal has always been clear: “Get Brexit Done” at all costs. However, in terms of Northern Ireland, the price is immensely high. Loyalist riots in March 2021, mainly caused by the border issue, gave us a frightening glimpse of what violence reignited could look like.
Moreover, the Good Friday Agreement was never perfect. Its power-sharing mandate, whereby the leading Unionist and Nationalist parties share the running of the government, effectively institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Mutual resentment and suspicion have remained as a result. It is only natural that for many, frustration at the long-lasting political stalemate casts a dark shadow on the agreement and life in Northern Ireland since 1998.
In contrast, the final episode of Derry Girls highlights the immense importance of the agreement at a time when it is too easy to focus on its faults. In looking back at The Troubles, the many deaths and the people’s choice to vote yes, we must also cast our eyes to the future and remember what still hangs in the balance.
Northern Ireland’s sectarian atmosphere may never completely disappear, and recent re-sparked frictions have exposed the fragility of the peace process. However, they have also emphasised the importance of protecting it. The Good Friday Agreement made it possible for post-1998 generations to live free of armed soldiers and perpetual threats of violence – something which, 30 years ago, would have seemed impossible.
Like many of life’s transitions, the Good Friday Agreement represented exciting yet daunting changes. Choosing peace meant letting go of the life people knew and looking upon those who participated in the violence with forgiveness. Seventy-one per cent of the population took the risk, grasping the opportunity to “take the gun out of Irish politics forever”. The Good Friday Agreement was the start of a rocky road to peace. We now must safeguard this process, adapting and learning as we go.
When Erin voices her fear that a yes vote may not bring about peace, her grandfather replies, “And what if it does? What if no one else has to die? What if all this becomes a… a ghost story you’ll tell your wains one day? A ghost story they’ll hardly believe”.
Image: Rene Belle-Isle via Flickr