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News > Northern Ireland - Still Troubled

Northern Ireland

Still Troubled

by Michele Gassman

(from Report from the Peace Council, October, 2002)

The words peace and Northern Ireland can almost seem a contradiction. The region of six counties has never fully known peace. Since its beginnings in 1920, Northern Ireland has been plagued with violence stemming from its divisive existence. Protestants wish to remain linked to Britain, and Catholics strive for a united Ireland. What has resulted is a divided society where both sides have become imprisoned by loyalty to their identities in the conflict.

I first visited Northern Ireland when I studied abroad in Derry/Londonderry in 1998. I was fortunate to be there during the heart of the peace process, which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. I returned in 2001 to complete an internship and to conduct research for my MA thesis. I have no ancestors from Ireland or the UK, but I was interested in learning how peace can be achieved in a region where conflict has been a dominant force. It was my first visit to a country where conflict is part of daily life, and I quickly learned how much the conflict is a part of the culture. I cannot claim to fully understand the conflict in Northern Ireland because I am not from the region. What I did learn is how resilient the people of Northern Ireland are, and that they truly have the capacity to change.

Northern Ireland can seem to be a starkly divided society. Culture in Northern Ireland is defined in terms of one’s religious affiliation, and individual identity and politics are centered on community loyalties. Catholics and Protestants have isolated themselves from the ‘other’ side, and they live in predominantly Catholic or Protestant areas. The terms “Catholic” and “Protestant” have intentionally served as boundary markers.

Violence has existed in every decade in Northern Ireland, but the conflict reached its peak during the ‘Troubles’. Heightened violence by paramilitary organizations and the British Army characterized the period from 1968 through the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. More than 3,000 people lost their lives in the mix of terror attacks, riots, and retribution during the Troubles.

On January 30, 1972, fourteen civilians were shot and killed during a disturbance following a civil rights march in Derry/Londonderry. Speculation exists as to who fired the first shot on what has become known as Bloody Sunday. The Saville Inquiry, which came at the request of the families of those killed, is currently re-examining the events and taking into account any new information relevant to the series of events that took place that day.

In 1972, 468 people died as a result of the conflict. The death toll gradually declined in the subsequent decades. The numbers are staggering, however, considering the relatively small population of Northern Ireland. Everyone in the province knows someone who has been directly touched by sectarian violence. For four decades peace in Northern Ireland has only been an ideal.

In 1996 former United States senator George Mitchell was asked to chair multi-party peace talks. After nearly two years of negotiations a peace agreement was finally reached. The parties in the negotiations firmly believed that violence in the region should be brought to a permanent end. On 10 April 1998 all the parties in the peace process signed what became known as the Good Friday Agreement. More than a month later, on 22 May 1998, the people of Ireland (North and South) voted ‘Yes’ to the Agreement. The emphatic Yes vote signified that people wanted peace in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement differs from earlier proposals to resolve the conflict. The Agreement offers a potential answer to the Irish question because it allows for the construction of a new, inclusive democracy. It creates multiple options for mutual gain, and it is the product of all segments of society. In theory, at least, the Agreement seems to offer the capacity to truly transform the conflict.

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, however, violence continues to plague Northern Ireland. The region has not been free from conflict, and paramilitary violence has increased. Sectarian attacks against Catholics and Protestants continue to escalate. The August 1998 bombing in Omagh, which killed 29 innocent people, made real the fact that although a peace agreement had been reached, peace itself had not yet been achieved. A real reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants has yet to take root, and sectarian attitudes still prevail.

Sectarian intransigence reached new lows in 2001 when protests against Catholic school children were used to advance a political agenda. Children from the Catholic Holy Cross Primary school in north Belfast were prohibited from attending school due to Protestant blockades. The school is located next to a Protestant enclave, and Protestant residents were angry at Catholic parents who walked their children past their houses. Catholics insisted they had the right to do so. Parents and children who attempted to continue on the route to school met with intimidation, threats, and violence. Nightly rioting quickly broke out and the result has been a continued surge of violent clashes between both Protestant and Catholics rivals and security forces. In the past year the interface area of north Belfast has been witness to hundreds of attacks and multiple deaths as violence has intensified. The region is experiencing some of the worst violence since 1998.

Unfortunately, violence does not exist in isolation. The consequence of a society being in conflict for so long has resulted in depressed economic and social conditions for both Protestants and Catholics. Violence is not restricted to the streets, but has infiltrated the home. In violent societies, such as Northern Ireland, domestic violence has been rationalized as a man’s response to stress. Economic and social instability has also contributed to women’s subordinate position in society. Women in particular have been affected by an economy that has produced high levels of unemployment, because it is also an economy where women’s jobs primarily have been confined to clerical, health, and education — jobs that are typically underpaid.

Northern Ireland currently is experiencing heightened levels of poverty and homelessness. Northern Ireland is the poorest region in the UK, and almost 13,000 people were homeless last year. The statistics affecting children are even more disturbing. One in two children in Northern Ireland is living in poverty or is at risk of poverty [Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network]. Children living in poverty also face greater educational difficulty. The result is a cycle of poverty that can seem inescapable. Further, it perpetuates the conflict.

The situation in Northern Ireland can seem overwhelming. What, then, is the answer? How can a just and peaceful society be obtained? The Community of the Peace People, founded in 1976, believe peace can be achieved by “refusing to accept a life of fear, and injustice, by rejecting sectarianism and all forms of violence… We should not underestimate the extent of this problem, but neither should we give up hope.” Máiread Maguire, a co-founder of Peace People and a Peace Councilor, further asserts in a letter to her son, Luke, “It is possible to change this kind of world. You just have to refuse to accept the old ways of ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ things, and begin to ‘think’ and ‘act’ in a way more in tune with the magnificent goodness of man”.

Since its inception in 1976 the Peace People has been committed to a just and peaceful society through nonviolent means. The organization was formed shortly after the tragic death of Máiread Maguire’s two nephews and niece, who were hit by a getaway car after the driver was shot by a soldier. Along with Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeown, Máiread Maguire formed the Peace People because she wanted to find peaceful ways for ordinary citizens to reject the violence in Northern Ireland. Máiread Maguire and Betty Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize for1976. Betty Williams has since moved to the United States, but Máiread Maguire continues to lead the movement that has played a part in convincing people in the region that peace is possible.

Through the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the people of Northern Ireland have proven that they want the future of Northern Ireland to move in a positive direction. Recent attempts to stall the peace process by those opposed to peace have been increasingly unpopular. Change will not come easily, and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement places a heavy obligation on all the people of Northern Ireland. The Agreement is ambitious and by no means perfect, but it confirms that the people of Northern Ireland want resolution. History still weighs on the present, but there are increasing signs that people are willing to compromise to ensure that a political settlement is secured.

What I learned when I first visited Northern Ireland is that the people there know pain and suffering, but also they know how to survive and to succeed. The peace process is lengthy and complex, involving a continued commitment to peace. The road to peace will not be easy, but the foundations for a lasting peace are visible.

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Page Published: 10/15/2002 · Page Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2007
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