Contemporary Catholic and Protestant Irish America: Social Identities, Forgiveness, and Attitudes toward the Troubles

Article excerpt

The intractability of ethnic conflicts is due in part to their selective focus on the past. Images of the past are used to legitimate the present social order, but such order presupposes shared memories, and as memories diverge, a society's members share neither experiences nor assumptions. (1) In addition, many of those memories are of past violence and humiliations, which have not been acknowledged or atoned for by the aggressors or their descendants, resulting in continuing pain, fear, and hatred in the victimized people. (2) It is not surprising that interventions seeking lasting peace in ethnic conflicts often involve a revisiting of the history of each side and an acceptance of responsibility for past actions of one's own community. Today this recovering of politically violent pasts can be observed in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (3) and in Guatemala's Recovery of the Historic Memory Project. (4) In addition to accountability for past actions, some also are calling for corporate forgiveness of political violence as an ultimate step in reconciliation; (5) and such interventions are being at least tentatively explored for Northern Ireland. (6)

Political violence in Ireland/Northern Ireland has a history centuries old, and selective "remembering" of that history perpetuates current sectarian attitudes and conflict. (7) Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants as distinct ethnic groups selectively remember, construct, interpret, and commemorate their shared history, resulting in distinct ethnic or social memories. (8) In Lyons's Social Identity Process Theory, these social memories serve to demonstrate each community's continuity, collective self-esteem, distinctiveness, efficacy, and cohesion. (9) Northern Ireland's political violence certainly is not on the scale of the horrific aggression observed in settings such as South Africa or Guatemala. On the other hand, Northern Ireland is inhabited by only about 1.7 million people, distributed among close-knit urban neighborhoods and rural communities. (10) Consequently, the thirty years of current conflict have touched the entire country. (11) Currently, Northern Ireland is experiencing a formal cessation of armed conflict between the major paramilitary organizations and security forces, although violence between the two communities still erupts, and tension provides a constant backdrop. However, it does not necessarily follow that a cessation in armed conflict results in a cessation of sectarian attitudes. (12)

More than any other European nation, Ireland (North and South) has been characterized by emigration during the past three centuries. (13) Today in the United States alone, more than 40 million Americans claim some Irish descent. (14) The vast size of this immigrant population alone provides an impetus for a contemporary examination of its relationship with and attitudes toward Northern Ireland's political violence. Historically, Irish-American influence in Northern Ireland has been dominated by those with nationalist political agendas and a primary focus on constitutional politics. Lobbyists working at grass-roots level and political leaders in Washington, D.C., maintained pressure on Britain's policy in Ireland even before the enactment of partition in 1920. Utilizing a different strategy focused on economic injustice, Irish Americans established the McBride Principles in 1984 to counter Catholic economic disadvantage in Northern Ireland, with particular focus on discrimination in employment. (15) More militant Irish Americans, who support republican agendas, have raised millions of dollars for Irish republican causes, supplied the Irish Republican Army with weaponry, and aided its men on the run or those incarcerated. (16) The 1990s saw a presidential administration involved in the Northern Ireland conflict on an unprecedented scale. (17)

Though there is substantial historical literature on Irish America, surprisingly few social and behavioral studies have been carried out. …