Values Questions

The Gritty Peace of Northern Ireland

Welcome to Belfast, the British Isles City of Broad Shoulders. This was the place where the “unsinkable” Titanic was built, so they clearly have a taste for daring experiments. This city was also a center of The Troubles, a too-polite phrase for the state of war between Protestants and Catholics from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, the portion of the island that remained within Great Britain after centuries of Ireland’s control by its larger eastern neighbor. Colonial subordination included the immigration of largely Protestant Scottish people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially to the northern counties of province Ulster. The immigrants became Irish but remained decidedly Protestant in contrast with the Catholics in the rest of Ireland, and they retained their loyalty to the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Wales. The religious differences were markers of deep social and political loyalties, with the Protestants, like deputized representatives of British power on the island of Ireland, generally in the higher social classes of the population.

In the early twentieth century, the worldwide surge of sentiments for self-determination fanned Irish resentments of colonial imposition, and Irish Republicans (named for their politics in defiance of monarchy and hierarchy) fought for independence from Britain, but with little Irish Protestant support. The resulting treaty in 1921 included a compromise, with an independent Irish Free State, but with six of the nine counties of Ulster remaining in Great Britain—Northern Ireland was born.

The smoldering antagonisms between Protestants and Catholics, framed by different readings of the history, fanned by class differences, and symbolized by their separate faiths, ignited into the pitched battles of The Troubles. The conflicts flared in many directions with the paramilitary Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA, quite different from the American shorthand for a retirement plan) and Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) fighting each other with guerilla tactics in the streets, while the occupying British Army were too harsh on the IRA according to the Catholics, but not harsh enough in the view of the UVF.

With the general population frightened and beleaguered, a group of women and a monk took some of the first dramatic steps toward peace. The women, acting on a widely-felt impatience with so much routinized brutality, walked through a line of British soldiers, pushing their children in prams. And in a welcome example of religion promoting peace, Catholic priest Alex Reid secretly lured opposing leaders into talks. But it took still more deliberate work to transform sentiments into action, and to turn a cease fire in 1994 into a peace accord in 1998. Since then, Northern Ireland has lived with its differences, but the street warfare has ended. In a world full of so many troubles, that’s a great accomplishment; the pride shows on every face and on the murals of the Peace Wall separating Protestants and Catholics in 76 “interface areas” where their neighborhoods bump right into each other.

On a Catholic wall, one panel displays African Americans, including Richard Allen (founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church), anti-slavery advocate Frederick Douglass, and Barack Obama.


Irish Republicans honoring American Civil Rights leaders.

Irish Republicans honoring American Civil Rights leaders.

The Catholic Republicans, motivated by their passion against colonial control by the British, are showing their affiliation with other oppressed people. Other panels on the Catholic side include tributes to Steve Biko of South Africa, and Palestinian flags with the slogan “Free Gaza.” Protestant panels present sharply contrasting views, for example, with tributes to Israel.

Israeli flag in Protestant neighborhood

Israeli flag in Protestant neighborhood

A remarkable thing about this peace is that the warring sides have found a way to peace not by forgetting about differences, but by going through them. The peace murals, with these images, and plenty of heart-felt slogans with hopes to “give peace a chance,” are adorning walls with barbed wire on top and heavy metal gates that close at night separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, and police station walls that are even bigger to protect from the RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) that had become street fare during The Troubles.

Fortified gates close at night between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods

Fortified gates close at night between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods

One graffiti artist even took an opposing point of view to these rosy sentiments, writing “Fuck Peace,” but this warrior impulse was indeed expressed in words not bullets. The hot heads vent on.

Did the end of The Troubles mean the erasure of differences and of resentments over wrongs committed over centuries and during the brutalities of recent years? No way. There are plaques on street corners in both sets of neighborhoods commemorating the victims of “Protestant Gangs” and “Catholic murderers.” The flowers steadily placed there are fresh, and so are the wounds.

All the ingredients are here for continued fighting, and small groups still want to. Northern Ireland’s way of peace has not been perfect; witness the North Belfast attempted bombing that was foiled just in time a few weeks ago: see A gritty peace has enabled Northern Ireland to separate such crimes from the ideological commitments. Peace, like democratic freedom, requires constant vigilance to stop the crimes and defuse the bombs, but without expecting to fully defuse the explosive feelings. How could they put stoppers on their hearts?

The vast majority has agreed to disagree: most agree that the fighting, with the shadow of constant fear and the destruction of life and property, creates a massive diversion of energy from other more amusing and productive activities. Northern Ireland is now a delightful place to visit, and the economy has improved. Those who do flare out with anger and resentment are washed over by a larger number, especially among the younger generation, who say: Enough. The Peace Wall includes stern warnings: “Moderate your voice and avoid what you might provoke,” and “Let go of the past—fight for a better future—it is your choice.”

Northern Ireland offers a good example of the power of an agonistic democracy, for a politics with acceptance of positive aspects of difference and conflict. Agonistic derives from the Greek word for struggle, as used in descriptions of athletic contests; it’s a potent model: Boston fans raz the Yankees mercilessly, but they generally don’t try to kill them. The word agonistic sounds like agony, and that helps explain the way the theory works: if you are willing to take on the little “agonies” and frustrations of mixing it up with those infuriating others who don’t agree with you, you get an inoculation to ward off the full-blown agonies of open warfare. So the Northern Irish street declarations of honest reasons for resentment are some of the ways they keep violence at bay. The culture war goes on but without a shooting war.

Let the conversations, and the debates, and even the angry words continue. Carry on, Northern Ireland.




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