The problem of Northern Ireland has proved to be so intractable because two groups of people with significantly conflicting senses of their own national and cultural identity inhabit the same territory. This has resulted in the perceived illegitimacy of the Northern Ireland state by a large minority of its inhabitants, which underlies the fundamental and continuing instability of that jurisdiction. Any serious proposal for lasting peace and stability in Northern Ireland must take account of these twin concepts of identity and legitimacy.
In Northern Ireland, there are two communities with quite distinct identities. Each of these communities has a set of traditional ideals, with an ultimate aspiration. On the one hand, there is a substantial minority of the population of Northern Ireland who identify themselves as Catholics. The great majority of these are Irish nationalists, since their ultimate aspiration is for a united Ireland, in some form or other, separate and independent.
It is important to emphasize that there is a wide spectrum of commitment to this ideal: from those who don’t really care too much, but who think it would be ‘nice’ to have a united Ireland for sentimental reasons (as long as it doesn’t cost them anything); through those who are prepared to dedicate themselves to the peaceful pursuit of a united Ireland; to those few who are prepared to kill for it, both inflicting and undergoing much suffering.
More specifically, the degree and quality of support within the Catholic community for the IRA is continually shifting, often as a direct response to external factors (such as a decision of the government or a particular action of the security forces). Furthermore, votes for Sinn Féin must not be construed unthinkingly as support for the IRA. Although this is something which unionists, understandably, find difficult to accept, people do vote for Sinn Féin for a variety of reasons: and this point will be particularly important when we come to discuss