Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The road to peace in Northern Ireland

The Ulster province of Ireland consisted of nine counties in the northern part of Ireland and has been the scene of ongoing ethno-religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants since at least the 17th century. That conflict was linked to Irish resistance to English rule. Under the Irish partition in 1921, six of the nine counties in the Ulster province formed Northern Ireland and remained under the control of the United Kingdom while the remainder of the country formed the Irish Free State (which later became a republic in 1949). Protestants formed a minority in Ireland as a whole but were a majority in Northern Ireland.

Catholics faced discrimination by the Protestant majority. A civil rights movement, modeled after the U.S. civil rights movement, arose in the late 1960’s but was met with fierce, and sometimes violent, resistance from the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force. Violence erupted and the Provisional IRA – a breakaway from the older IRA – formed as Catholics because distrustful of officials to protect them. Segregation promoted polarization. Violence begat violence.

Yet after decades of violence and distrust the different sides to the conflict have come together to work for peace. A few weeks ago they formed a Protestant-Catholic coalition to govern the region.

It was not that long ago that such a scenario would have been unthinkable. What happened? James Carroll in the International Herald Tribune has these thoughts on the different elements that came together to produce peace:
The road to this peace has been twisted and long, stretching back through centuries of Irish resentment of British colonizers, Europe's longest-lasting wars of the Reformation, and deep hatreds bred of 20th-century violence that flared in 1916 and again in 1969. When 14 unarmed Irish Catholics were massacred in Derry by British soldiers in 1972, and when the soldiers were then exonerated by London, the contemporary conflagration was ignited. It was then that IRA recruitment took off in Ireland, IRA fund-raising took off in America (Noraid), and people on both sides began to treat the conflict as intractable. But it was not.

How was peace achieved in Northern Ireland? Among the most important elements were these:

Irish self-criticism.

The hyper-nationalism of Catholics began to be criticized even by Catholics, including the writer Conor Cruise O'Brien, who identified the poisonous mix of redemptive suffering, ready violence, and the myths of 1916 as "the green fog." Garret Fitzgerald (the Republic of Ireland prime minister from 1982-1987) renounced the sacred Catholic ideal of a "free and united Ireland" with the simple recognition that Northern Ireland should never be forced into the republic against the will of its majority. The Catholic Northern Ireland leader John Hume was an unrelenting critic of Catholic violence.

A broader context.

The narrow sectarian strife that wracked villages and urban neighborhoods changed when the Northern Irish world grew bigger, first through the coming of the European Union ( Hume was elected to the European parliament in 1979); then when London and Dublin began to play constructive roles (the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985); and when Irish-Americans replaced support for the IRA with support for peace (Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy established the Congressional Friends of Ireland in 1981).

An involved U.S. president.

In 1994, Bill Clinton granted a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, despite opposition from London and the State Department. Adams began turning the IRA itself away from violence. The high point of Clinton's 1995 visit to Northern Ireland was the day he began and ended with private meetings, first with Adams, then with Paisley. Each man felt understood by Clinton. At the White House, across subsequent years, Clinton transformed St. Patrick's Day from a celebration of green beer to a political time-out, the only place on earth where the ancient enemies would mingle freely. Clinton was key to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Improved economics.

When the economy of the Republic of Ireland took off in the 1990s, the entire island benefited. Northern Ireland went from being an economic backwater to a center of development, with improvements in employment levels and growth that surpassed the rest of the United Kingdom. Joblessness among young men, Catholic and Protestant both, declined dramatically. Today's Belfast is rife with construction cranes and property values are soaring. Investment has been slower in coming to the northwest, centered on Derry, but there, too, hope for a better life is replacing the economic despair that fueled the Troubles.

Peace is realism.

The dream of peace, having transformed Europe and ended the Cold War nonviolently, has taken hold in Ireland. Some might say "even" in Ireland. Religious and class warfare had imprisoned the imaginations of both communities, but now the joined future is unfettered. The prospect of a pope-hating Ulsterman in partnership with a "hard man" of the IRA was beyond conceiving not long ago, yet it has come to pass. The Irish themselves have done this, but they could not have done it alone.

The world is a different place, and, though one lately thinks of social and political change as mostly for the worse, Ireland shows the reverse to be true. A great, historic current is running toward peace. If only certain others would take note.
If this centuries-old conflict can be resolved maybe there is hope for other trouble spots around the world.

1 comment:

Robin Edgar said...

If this decade-old conflict can be resolved maybe there is hope for other trouble spots around the world. . .