For much of the last half of the twentieth century, the dateline “Belfast, Northern Ireland” and its associated descriptions of shootings by British soldiers and random bombings by elements of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) made news headlines around the world. As the epicenter of an ongoing regional religio-political conflict, “Belfast” and “Northern Ireland” and “Ulster” represented the bitter hostility between people with a complex set of overlapping yet mutually exclusive identities: Catholics and Protestants, Irish nationalists and Anglo-Irish provincials, Irish and British (“British” here referring to those who were part of and loyal to the United Kingdom). As Jack Holland wrote in his moving book Hope Against History, the two communities of Northern Ireland “shared the same area but owed their allegiances to different nations.”
A brief history
The Act of Union of 1800 merged the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, extending the virtual occupation and colonization of Ireland begun hundreds of years earlier. Unlike the United States, which points to July 4, 1776, as its one date of independence, Ireland has a series of dates representing its progressive independence from the United Kingdom: “declared” on April 24, 1916, “ratified’ on Jan. 21, 1919, “recognised” on Dec. 6, 1922, “constitution” on Dec. 29, 1937, and “left the commonwealth” on April 18, 1949.
However, the majority Protestant and unionist population of Northern Ireland, made up of six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster in the northeast of the Irish island, chose in 1922 to remain part of the United Kingdom. In the 1960s, sparked by the opposing concerns of its Protestant unionists and its minority Catholic nationalists, Northern Ireland descended into sporadic violence involving paramilitaries of both sides, and later, the British military.
Belfast militants made sorties from their neighborhood strongholds—Shankill Road for the Protestant unionists, and Falls Road for the Catholic nationalists—and the body count rose. On Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, British troops fired on civilians during a public demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland. According to Wikipedia, twenty-six people were shot and 14 of them died of their wounds. In the wake of what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” a mob burned the British embassy in Dublin to the ground and the British government imposed direct rule from London on Northern Ireland.
At times the conflict, known by the ubiquitous Irish moniker “The Troubles,” bled over into the United Kingdom. In 1991, the IRA firebombed the London subway, and in 1992, it exploded a bomb in London’s Baltic Exchange that killed three people and caused £750 million worth of damage.
Peace made possible?
Leaders on both sides increasingly sought political solutions to the conflict in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In February 1995, the British and Irish governments made public a set of proposals to resolve the Northern Ireland question. Demands and counter-demands were made, rejected, reframed and debated. Major sticking points included the timing of disarmament by paramilitaries of both sides, British involvement in Northern Ireland and the balance of power between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists.
At the end of that year, Bill Clinton became the first president of the United States to visit Northern Ireland, lending his presence and voice to the struggling peace process. He shook hands in both the Shankill Road and Falls Road neighborhoods and lit the Christmas tree at Belfast’s city hall in front of a crowd of about 50,000 people.
A complex web of secret meetings, multi-party talks and public hand-shaking by old adversaries within and between parties, produced a series of cease-fires. Representatives of the various strains of Irish nationalism began to acknowledge each other in public, and were acknowledged in various ways by the United States, a key, if indirect player in the developing peace process. The British held secret talks with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, and eased the footprint of British military forces in Northern Ireland.
Finally, in 1997, official all-party peace negotiations chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell began. The imposed deadline to reach an agreement: April 9, 1998, the day before Good Friday, when Christians on all sides of the conflict would commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Talks continued despite the revenge-and-murder campaigns of defiant paramilitary groups on both sides. As Holland put it, “The talks became a race against the gunmen…”
Players in peace
As a Catholic nationalist who had rejected armed resistance, John Hume became a key force behind the peace negotiations held at Stormont outside Belfast. A former French teacher who had founded the Derry Credit Union to help working-class Catholics improve their lives, Hume had risen to the head of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), which sought a political solution to The Troubles. According to Holland, Hume had long argued that any negotiation had to deal with the three strands that had produced the crisis: “the relationship between Catholics and Protestants, the relationship between Dublin and Belfast, and the relationship between Ireland and Britain.”
When Good Friday arrived, the negotiations had yet to satisfy some of the key concerns of both sides, especially of Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, and David Trimble, head of the influential Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Last ditch assurances by Pres. Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair led to a moment of truth. Holland wrote: “On Good Friday, April 10, at 4:30 P.M., after a series of last-minute doubts, Trimble said to his still uneasy Unionist Party colleagues, ‘I’m going for it. Who’s with me?'” The UUP and most of Northern Ireland’s other political parties went for it that day, and, with the British and Irish governments, reached the Good Friday Agreement.
The subsequent referenda on the agreement passed by votes of 94.4 percent in favor in Ireland and 71.1 percent in favor in Northern Ireland. Only 55 percent of unionists cast “yes” votes, but the agreement stood. John Hume and David Trimble later received the Nobel Prize for their part in the agreement.
On Aug. 15, 1998, a car bomb exploded on the market street of Omagh, County Tyrone, killing 28 people, including 14 women and seven children. Two months later, another victim died, giving the Omagh bombing the dubious distinction of worst atrocity in the 30-year history of “The Troubles.” Yet according to Holland, a “chorus of unequivocal condemnations” of the splinter group known as the “Real” IRA, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, signaled the will of people on both sides to make peace work in Northern Ireland. They have done so now for more than 13 years, despite sporadic, senseless violence, proving that even the most intractable enemies can choose to live in peace, if not ever in complete harmony.