Emerald Trials: Northern Ireland's Struggle for Peace. (World in Review)

By Konnikova, Maria | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Emerald Trials: Northern Ireland's Struggle for Peace. (World in Review)


Konnikova, Maria, Harvard International Review


A politically and socially violent landscape has long been an undeniable presence in Northern Ireland. For the younger generation, it has been a fact of life since birth. The start of "the Troubles" in Ireland can be dated back to 1968, although the current volatile political situation is underscored by centuries of conflict and the repeated failure of peaceful attempts at a solution. Hopes for peace remain dim, even after the promising Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The bombing in the town of Omagh that summer and continued violence, the problem of disarmament, and the ascent of splinter parties all point to the failure of the agreement to resolve the ideological divides. Considering the depth of this bloody, prolonged fighting and its widespread repercussions, the prospects for a lasting, peaceful resolution to the Northern Ireland conflict appear slim.

Seeds of Unrest

The groundwork for the Troubles was laid at the beginning of the 20th century. Two critical events crystallized all of the elements in the conflict. The first of these was the Easter Rising of 1916, a protest in Dublin against British rule in Ireland. Although the uprising failed, the brutality of the British crackdown had an unforeseen effect: it created a wave of sympathy for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), previously frowned upon as an extremist, violent organization with a weak constituency. Suddenly, the use of violence seemed not only justified but also essential if the objectives of the Catholic Irish were to be attained.

In 1921, the partition of Ireland established the formal division of Northern Ireland (the six counties in Ulster province) from the rest of Ireland, which was afforded special dominion status as the Irish Free State. The control over Northern Ireland moved formally to London, while a subordinate government was created in Belfast. This arrangement exacerbated unrest and discontent among the Catholic minority in the North, which was faced with increasing (and legalized) economic and social discrimination. The aggressive IRA campaign for a unified Ireland now had a receptive audience and a fertile basis for justification. With the Catholic campaign against discrimination, the Troubles had begun.

The More Things Change...

Looking at the post-Good Friday political scene in Northern Ireland, it soon becomes apparent that the demands made by all sides involved seem irreconcilable. A study conducted by the University of Ulster showed that in a sample of 1,800 under-25 youths, 88 percent said they would never enter an area controlled by a group of the other religion. Furthermore, 58 percent said they would not use any of the other group's facilities (such as shops and restaurants). The younger generation of Northern Ireland is commonly thought to be more open to change, so the fact that even its members are still extremely militant does not bode well for peace.

It is possible that the failure of peace is due not to any fault of the specific provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, but to the inadequacy of any agreement. Currently, the array of major and minor political parties in Northern Ireland represent the entire spectrum of political opinions, from those who still support unconditional union with Britain to those who continue the fight for united Irish independence. And though the larger moderate parties appear willing to compromise on the key issues of unity and independence, there remain numerous smaller radical groups that are not ready to give up any such claims. Neither side can be said to be more at fault than the other. Instead, the resolute refusal of groups to compromise on major claims has made peace difficult to enforce. The Good Friday Agreement was the product of moderate forces, but extremist parties currently render it useless.

The main party of the pro-British Protestants, representing approximately 60 percent of the population, is the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). …

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