Byline: Barry Gibson
I was back in the land of my birth last week. I grew up in Belfast in the 1980s and '90s before deciding in the new millennium that I had outgrown Ireland.
I rarely miss the place to be honest, but I enjoy my fleeting visits. It's good to see family and friends again, to walk along the County Down coastline, to eat proper soda bread and to hear the magnificent twang of Ulster English.
But even on this briefest of returns, Ireland managed to remind me why I had left in the first place.
Last Tuesday Sinn Fein bureaucrat turned British spy Denis Donaldson was blasted twice with a shotgun in his remote cottage in Donegal. Donaldson was an informer, a traitor to the cause of the IRA, for whom he had gone to prison in the 1970s.
In days gone by, such murders were commonplace. When the Provos uncovered a mole in their ranks, punishment was brutal. The double agent would be tortured in some isolated location before being dispatched with a round in the head. How times have changed. Donaldson at least was not tortured.
Which is not to suggest that the IRA killed him - I don't think they did. But the point here is that the Donaldson murder, nearly twelve years since the first ceasefires, has shown that Northern Ireland is still a deeply sick society.
Eight years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the paramilitaries remain in control of large parts of Belfast. Business and crime are now so intermingled in Northern Ireland that it has been dubbed "Sicily without the sunshine".
Sectarian attacks, mainly against Catholics living in Protestant areas continue. None of the peace walls have come down, indeed some have even been heightened. Thousands of people on both sides wait forlornly to discover who murdered their loved ones. 'Normality' remains a long way off.
Nevertheless, only the most contrary fool would argue that things were better in the "good old days" of the Troubles. I remember well those dreary days of political stalemate and "an acceptable level of violence".
There were regular shootings, bombings and punishment beatings. Helicopters hovered overhead and British troops patrolled the streets. Police stations looked like Fort Knox. You kept to the areas you knew and you kept your head down.
About two people a week would be killed, week, after week, after week. For a place with a population the size of Birmingham, it was a heavy toll.
Month after month, grieving relatives would invite the cameras into their home, show them photos of their recently murdered loved ones and beg for no retaliation. Of course, they would be ignored.
On and on this went for decades, misery piled on misery until most of us believed it would never stop. And then one day it did stop.
I was only fifteen in 1994 when the IRA declared a "total cessation" and the loyalists declared an end to their campaign of murder with "abject and true remorse" for their innocent victims. …