Cultural Life and the Road to Peace in Northern Ireland

By Heaney, Liam | Contemporary Review, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Cultural Life and the Road to Peace in Northern Ireland


Heaney, Liam, Contemporary Review


THE 'Good Friday Agreement' was signed in May 1998 and at that point it was heralded as an historic and a momentous event by many commentators. Two veteran politicians, the Unionist David Trimble and the Nationalist John Hume were the chief architects of this accord and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their considerable efforts in advancing the cause of peace. Of course, many others were involved in bringing the Agreement to fruition, not least, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Republic, Bertie Ahern and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In 1998, there were high hopes that Northern Ireland was entering a new era of peace and prosperity.

Many observers would agree that much political progress has been made over the years, since the signing of the Belfast Agreement. Indeed, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, when speaking to an invited audience at the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster in October 2004, claimed that the Northern Ireland peace process is 'an inspiration to the world'. In spite of this high praise, there is a recognition that Northern Ireland is still grappling with many political, educational, economic and social issues. In effect, there remains much work still to be done.

For the interested onlooker, there appeared until the last few weeks very good reasons to believe that the peace process was at a standstill and possibly at the proverbial crossroads. This has come about largely because the two main political parties, do not trust one another. The more moderate parties seem to have lost considerable political ground. This has left the peace process in a state of limbo. Furthermore, the recent civil unrest and the violent protests on the streets, which resulted in much damage to local property and businesses, indicate that Northern Ireland hasn't left the violence of the past behind, as yet. It is clear that such violence undermines the confidence of prospective investors and inevitably deters tourists from visiting the province. However, having said this, it is crucially important that people do not lose hope and that politicians renew their efforts to establish a local government for Northern Ireland.

Nonetheless, considered in a broader context, there is a real sense that Northern Ireland has changed for the better over the years since the Good Friday Agreement. Daily life and living continue, as do the many festivals, shows, pageants and exhibitions, that add much colour and excitement to the life of communities throughout Northern Ireland. Many of these events celebrate the rich, diverse cultures of Northern Irish society and it is this cultural dimension that this article seeks to explore.

Some would say that 'culture' is a difficult concept to define. At one level of interpretation, culture involves shared beliefs, values and customs. It is concerned with behaviours and with emblems that the members of a society use to enable them to cope with their lives and with one another. Within this view of culture, there is a recognition that these beliefs, values, customs, behaviours and emblems are passed from one generation to the next through the process of learning. All of these ideas are quite difficult to get to grips with, but in the context of Northern Ireland, there are a few points that are worthy of note.

Over the years, 'culture' has sometimes been used as a way for one community, or the other, suggesting that they are being discriminated against. Of course, there is much emphasis given to the belief that the culture of each community should be cherished and preserved. But on occasions this is not always put into practice. In other words, sometimes, one community, or the other, considers their own position only and are reluctant to regard the views of the other community. Over the years, politicians from Westminster have learned the importance of giving a balanced response to their comments, in order to avoid being accused of taking one particular side. …

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