This April marks seventeen years since the Good Friday Agreement formally ended one of Europe’s longest-running sectarian conflicts. Lauded as a model for peace processes around the world, the agreement established a new government for Northern Ireland, set in place institutions to normalize relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom and ushered in an era of stability – relatively speaking, at least. But as an outsider looking in, I would argue that separation – not sectarian violence – poses the biggest threat to peace.
The ravages evoked by thirty years of violence are still palpable in Northern Ireland. Tensions persist amidst civilians, police and government officials who struggle to safeguard peace and promote social cohesion in the shadow of the Troubles, as the decades of bombings, assassinations and terrorist attacks that plagued the region came to be known. During this period over 3,500 lives were lost. Of these, 3,269 remain classified as unsolved murders. The Commission for Victims and Survivors estimates that as many as 500,000 people were directly affected by the conflict.
The past two years have seen an upsurge in terrorist activity and civil disorder. From the use of homemade rocket launchers against police in North Belfast to the intimidation of residential communities by masked pseudo-paramilitaries in Larne, a number of serious incidents have tested the persistence of this hard-won peace. While not a daily occurrence, bombs and other explosive devices are periodically discovered throughout the country. In November 2013, a proxy car bomb partially exploded at a major Belfast shopping centre, prompting the return of security measures not seen since the height of the Troubles. That same year, the Orange Order received permission to parade in a sectarian interface area of Belfast, provoking the ire of dissident republicans and compelling Northern Ireland to solicit police reinforcements from England, Scotland and Wales. This spawned the return of British officers to Northern Ireland for the first time since the Army’s withdrawal in July 2007.
Continued clashes over parading and flying the Union Flag have erupted as recently as this month. At present, the Loyalist People’s Protest group is planning a 24-hour vigil at Belfast City Hall to challenge a 2012 decision barring all year-round displays of the Union flag from its doors. In light of upcoming parliamentary elections, these flag protests highlight the treacherous political terrain in which Northern Irish MLAs operate. As members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) scramble to recapture the East Belfast Westminster seat they lost in 2010, the memory of the party’s underhanded campaign to besmirch their political rivals will undoubtedly affect voters’ decisions come May.
These ongoing disputes pollute the political atmosphere and stall policymaking. They also cost the state millions. The violence of 2013 alone yielded £72,136,000 in overtime policing.
But the true cost of partisan infighting is not at the parliamentary level. While public spats among party members provide fodder for political pundits, history and cultural identity take the greatest toll on people’s daily lives.
There is an abiding divide between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Both communities continue to lead segregated lives. In North and West Belfast, neighbourhoods are separated along religious lines by physical barriers called, ironically, peace walls. Most of these walls and fences were constructed by the British during the Troubles, but others were installed by the Northern Irish government. The most recent peace wall was erected in 2013. While the government has set a goal to remove all peace walls by 2023, upticks in violence trigger insecurity among neighbourhood residents, who ask local officials to build walls to protect them from opposing communities.
Yet indifference, rather than recurring violence, will be the undoing of Northern Ireland’s peace. In a society where the vast majority of children – nearly 90 percent – attend schools that are either predominantly Catholic or predominantly Protestant, education serves as an avenue for state-sanctioned segregation. This is highly problematic given that a segregated educational system severely impoverishes students. Not only does this set-up narrow student understandings of past events, it also limits their experiences with people from diverse backgrounds, which in turn inhibits social cohesion. Teaching history in Northern Ireland is another cause for concern. Even though formal education generally covers topics such as the Famine, the Troubles, and the Good Friday Agreement, young people have a ‘partial at best’ understanding of history, one that is greatly shaped by their own family and community values. In other words, geographic and educational segregation are mutually reinforcing.
Many of my classmates at Ulster University had yet to meet a person of the ‘opposite’ faith prior to stepping foot on campus, for instance. While student relations at the university-level are undeniably civil, off-hand quips the likes of “Oh, he’s a Catholic, but he’s all right,” or “You’re not a Unionist, are you?” tend to infiltrate daily conversations. More serious exchanges have taken place in private settings. Take another instance, when, while visiting my dorm room, a classmate and self-described ‘Protestant atheist’ requested that I remove a copy of Ireland’s 1916 Declaration of Independence that I had posted on my wall. Although it was a gift from the Houses of the Oireachtas, he argued that I had no understanding of the document’s incendiary significance and thereby no right to keep it on my wall. This discussion made plain the enduring salience of cultural identity, particularly among young people raised in the aftermath of conflict.
The Good Friday Agreement invariably improved the lives of people in Northern Ireland. British troops no longer patrol the country, young Catholic men no longer face arbitrary internment, and paramilitaries no longer rule communities with impunity. People can feel safe walking the streets of Belfast and Londonderry/Derry. There is a national commitment to investigating the crimes of the past, acknowledging the rights of victims, and reintegrating ex-combatants.
But because of these and other successes, the Troubles are a far-removed reality for many young people growing up in Northern Ireland today. For this generation, inheriting the remnants of a bygone conflict presents a more insidious threat – that of polite indifference. The true measure of Northern Ireland’s peace process will therefore not be the absence of violence but rather the ubiquity of meaningful engagement. Unless individuals make an effort to rebuild and develop collectively, theirs will always be a separate peace.
Photo credit: Kaspar C (Creative Commons).