Peace in Northern Ireland: A model of success?

‘Peace walls’ and the Belfast agreement have brought temporary calm, but are not a solution for the long term.

Peace wall in Belfast
'Peace walls' divide Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast and Derry [Mike Allison/Al Jazeera]

Belfast, NI – While the Northern Ireland peace process should rightfully be considered a success, that doesn’t mean that the country does not suffer from many of the same problems as other, less successful, postwar countries.

Since partition in 1921, the island of Ireland has been divided between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, which comprises the six northern counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone; and the Republic of Ireland, comprising the remaining 26 counties.

The island’s Catholic population was treated as second-class citizens for about 300 or so years and rebelled quite frequently until partition. After partition, Catholics were still treated as second-class citizens in Northern Ireland. During the late 1960s, when women and minority groups were campaigning for greater civil rights throughout the world, Catholics in Northern Ireland did so as well.

The ‘Troubles’

 Reconciliation in Northern Ireland slow

The protesters and their demands for civil rights were repressed by a government that represented the interests of the country’s Protestants, leading to the outbreak of what is referred to as the “Troubles”. For the next 30 years, the people of Northern Ireland suffered through an intense period of violent conflict, pitting a variety of Protestant forces seeking to remain part of the UK – including Unionists, Loyalist paramilitaries and Irish and British security forces – against Catholic Republican and Nationalist groups, including the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). It was an ethno-sectarian conflict caused by “unresolved tensions between two competing communities, from a time when politics and religion were inseparably linked”, in the words of a Protestant bishop.

The Protestant Unionists and Loyalists believed they had a constitutional right to the land (the fact that the land had been stolen from the Catholics and distributed to Protestant plantation owners by the British more than a century earlier was not considered significant). They also supported preserving the union with Britain and resisting the perceived threat of a United Ireland, in which the six counties of the north would join with the 26 of the Republic of Ireland, causing the Protestants to become a distinct minority.

The Unionists also feared that a Catholic government would be subservient to the Pope, warning that “Home Rule is Rome Rule”. Finally, many Protestants joined paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force out of a desire to defend their local community more strongly against Catholic aggression. Instead of joining the state’s security forces, these Loyalists joined the paramilitaries out of a belief that the military and police were too handicapped by the rule of law to protect them against the IRA paramilitaries. On the Catholic side, many simply demanded equality, justice, and human rights, particularly access to housing and employment. Others fought because they believed the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was undemocratic, because a majority of Catholics wanted a united Ireland. Finally, some wanted, or might have settled for, a Northern Ireland independent of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Between 1969 (more or less following the Battle of the Bogside) and 2001, more than 3,500 people were killed in a country with a population of only about 1.5 million at the time. The Republican paramilitary groups killed approximately 60 per cent of all those killed during the conflict. The Loyalist paramilitaries and the British security forces were responsible for most of the remaining killings. While the Loyalists and the British security forces were not one and the same, there was frequent collaboration between members of the security forces and the paramilitaries.

The Belfast Agreement

On April 10, 1998, the Troubles took an important step towards ending with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement. With the signing of the agreement, the major political groups in Northern Ireland, London and Dublin agreed that the future political status of Northern Ireland would be decided by the people of Northern Ireland without the threat or use of force. They agreed on the principle of respect for each of Northern Ireland’s communities and their traditions. The paramilitaries committed to disarming themselves and the British and Irish governments committed to releasing paramilitaries groups from prison. Finally, the British agreed to demilitarise its presence within Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland peace process can be rightly considered a success. Today, Unionist and Republican voices are represented in Stormont through a power-sharing arrangement in a way that is proportional to their share of the electoral vote. The level of violence is now below the level before the outbreak of the Troubles, and the likelihood of being a victim of crime today is lower than if one were living in England or Wales. Significant progress has been made in making the July bonfire celebrations and parades safer and, some might dare say, family-friendly. The bonfires and parades celebrate Protestant culture as well as the victory of King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Queen Elizabeth and IRA commander Martin McGuinness even shook hands in June.    

However, the people of Northern Ireland continue to confront many of the same challenges as postwar countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The negotiations necessary to achieve participation from the Loyalist and Republican hardliners has led to the absence of any significant opposition in the legislature to the government. All the major political actors are represented in the government and therefore there is little incentive for them to challenge a structure that benefits them. Civil society, influential in creating the conditions for a successful political settlement to the conflict, has been marginalised.

The peace process and the new government comprised of many who participated one way or another in the conflict, have failed to tend to the needs of the victims, either through financial compensation, the initiation of trials, or through taking responsibility for the terrorist acts that they committed during the Troubles. Citizens strongly rejected the recommendation of The Report on the Consultative Group on the Past that all families that had lost a member during the Troubles, whether the family member was a victim or a perpetrator, sometimes both, would receive reparations. For the most part, the people of Northern Ireland have also rejected trials for human rights violators at this point in time. Some fear that launching legal proceedings against officials accused of serious human rights violations during the Troubles will destabilise today’s peace. Such a risk is not worth it. Others fear that trials will disproportionately target “their side” and therefore should not be pursued.

‘Peace walls’

Neither the walls nor the agreement resolves the long-term future of the people of Northern Ireland.

There has been a general failure to address the physical, psychological, social, and economic needs of many of the paramilitaries and the economic communities from which they have been historically drawn. Should ethno-sectarian violence erupt at some point in the not-so-distant future, the violence is likely to break out along the nationalist Falls Road (Catholic) and loyalist Shankill Road (Protestant) section of Belfast. Today, approximately 90 “peace walls” are scattered throughout Belfast and Derry. These walls divide Catholic and Protestant areas, helping to reduce violence between the communities. At the same time, these walls prevent the communities from having to find a way for communities, particularly in Belfast, to live and work together. Instead of removing the walls in the years following the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland have found it necessary to increase them, in number and size.

The peace walls, like the Belfast Agreement itself, have brought an important measure of temporary peace to Northern Ireland. Paramilitaries from the Catholic and Protestant communities are no longer killing each other. However, neither the walls nor the agreement resolves the long-term future of the people of Northern Ireland. Even with the important peace initiatives such as those promoted by the Corrymeela Community, the Protestant and Catholic religious and cultural communities are far from coming to an understanding of their shared past and future. Economically, Northern Ireland must find a way to sustain itself as it cannot count on millions of British pounds indefinitely.

Finally, the Belfast agreement left open the possibility that the people of Northern Ireland could vote to change the country’s political status at a future date. While currently there is no pressure from the Catholic population to declare the country’s independence or to join with the Republic of Ireland in a united Ireland, there is a good chance that the question of whether to do so will become much more salient as the country’s demographics continue to favour its growing Catholic population.  

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.