Peace Walls and a Potential Hard Border: The Continued Struggle for Reconciliation after Northern Ireland’s The Troubles
When you have a conflict, that means that there are truths that have to be addressed on each side of the conflict. And when you have a conflict, then it’s an educational process to try to resolve the conflict. And to resolve that, you have to get people on both sides of the conflict involved so that they can dialogue.
— Dolores Huerta
A small state located above the Republic of Ireland and part of the nearby United Kingdom (UK), Northern Ireland is famous for its violent intrastate conflict during a thirty-year period of political violence known as The Troubles. Internal state conflict, such as the genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda in the 1990s, often arises due to clashes over group territory, resources, and opposing identities. However, The Troubles was unique in that it was the final culmination of deeply-rooted ethnoreligious sectarian tension between Catholic Irish nationalists who wanted unification with the Republic of Ireland, and Loyalist Protestant unionists who favored the continuation of British rule. Nonetheless, despite the passage of the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement that formally ended the tumultuous conflict in 1998, continued social stratification, political upheaval, and overall uncertainty about the outcome of Brexit further decrease the possibility of successfully reconciling the two warring communities. As long as tension between British and Irish identities remains unresolved, Northern Ireland (NI) will continue to face potentially long-term sectarian strife.
Historical Overview of The Troubles
The seeds of The Troubles are rooted in the early 1600s with the British-supported migration of Protestant “planters” to six counties in the Ulster region of Ireland, then controlled all by Britain, thus allowing for the composition of a mostly Protestant community in NI today. In that same century, England dealt with growing sectarian politics between warring Protestant and Catholic groups who desired to establish control over the throne. This political and religious tension bled into Irish politics, as Protestant migration continued to disrupt the primarily Catholic majority that was already established on the island. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty officially divided Ireland into north and south and established the southern Republic as a self-governing entity while the north remained part of the UK. To better comprehend what propelled NI into social and political turmoil, the following events must be understood: the Battle of the Boyne and the impact of William of Orange on present-day Irish society, as well as the horrific events of Bloody Sunday.
The Battle of the Boyne was the culmination of extreme tension between the Catholic and Protestant communities, as well as a continuation of the grapple for power and control over the English throne. A struggle between Protestant William of Orange and deposed Catholic King James II, the battle restored Protestant power in England with the victory of William of Orange. Furthermore, the battle was and currently still is seen as a source of cultural and political pride for Protestants in the present-day, who consider it as validation and evidence of their superiority over Catholics.
The social implications of the victory of William of Orange manifest most popularly in the almost sacred annual celebratory march on July 12, otherwise known as Orangemen’s Day, which has major symbolic significance for Protestants who live in Northern Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne’s most tangible effects are seen by its yearly commemorations that are carried out by The Orange Order, a fraternal-like organization that marches to honor William’s valiant efforts to dispose of King James II and to acknowledge him as the sole individual who secured Protestant ascendancy in the country. However, these marches are quite controversial. The route that the Protestants marchers take often comes close to Catholic neighborhoods, sparking further sectarian violence for those who see this public display of victory as a way in which Protestants can blatantly rub in their historical dominance. The marchers also carry with them an assortment of flags and banners, many of which display the Union Jack (the national flag of the UK), as the UK is often seen as the founding state of The Orange Order. This creates more tension between the two communities as the Union Jack is a glaringly obvious symbol of separation, which is in direct opposition to the unified Ireland that Catholics desire. The night before on July 11, or the “Eleventh Night”, is also characterized by violence in the form of immense bonfires set ablaze in Protestant communities that intentionally burn Catholic and other non-unionist symbols. These bonfires are historically known to get out of hand, with some houses and other buildings burning down amidst chants of “No surrender!”
These societal divides continued to deepen as a result of the events that transpired on January 30, 1972, a day that is more famously known as “Bloody Sunday”. Said to be one of the darkest days of The Troubles, Bloody Sunday started out as a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) march against internment that mirrored the efforts to combat discrimination and prejudice by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. While some marchers stopped at the now iconic ‘Free Derry Corner’, others continued until they reached army barricades and were stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), NI’s police force at the time. Violence, then an everyday occurrence, soon erupted between the RUC and members of the crowd; the British Army ultimately killed 13 civilians and wounded 14 others. Bloody Sunday was critical in shaping the course of the conflict and fueling the efforts made by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), the core paramilitary group that aimed to end British rule and reunify Ireland. As a result of the massacre of unarmed protesters that day and the subsequent cover-up by the state, the conflict became increasingly militarized from thereon out, leading to increased IRA recruitment.
Due to the complex nature of The Troubles, it is important to discern which groups and parties belonged to which side of the conflict. Of the Republican paramilitaries involved in the hostility, the most infamous was the IRA, which was responsible for many of the violent attacks that characterized The Troubles. On the Loyalist Protestant side, there was the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the predominantly Ulster paramilitary group, and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), another large vigilante group. Furthermore, British security forces were involved in the form of the law enforcement-based RUC, as well as numerous activists, politicians, and political parties such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the primary unionist political party in NI, and the opposing Sinn Féin, the left-wing Irish party that is still active in both NI and the Republic of Ireland.
Ongoing Divisive Issues
Efforts to put an end to the unrelenting conflict seemingly concluded with the formal passage of the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement that was signed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish politician Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Belfast, NI in 1998. The terms of the peace agreement included, but were not limited to, the decommissioning of paramilitary groups, the establishment of a power-sharing government split between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the demilitarization of the hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and the release of political prisoners on the condition that they won’t re-engage with their former organizations. However, while the conditions of the treaty were attractive in principle, deep divisions are still evident within Northern Irish society, acting as roadblocks in the peace and reconciliation process.
While the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement attempted to quell all domestic issues, full implementation of the peace treaty has been challenging as various forms of social stratification remain unresolved due to enduring societal norms and attitudes. While Orangemen’s Day and the Eleventh Night bonfires are merely annual demonstrations of Protestant pride, the persistence of segregation and sectarianism is still visible in the structural layout of many communities in NI, most notably in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry where the infamous ‘Peace Walls’ continue to physically divide Protestant and Catholic communities from one another. These walls, which separate the two communities at contentious intersections in the hopes of minimizing violent interactions, serve as blank canvases for political statements and are decorated in a variety of colorful murals detailing the thirty years of conflict. Common images include messages of revenge and oppression, as well as famous figures such as Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA and the UK Parliament who died while on a hunger strike in prison and was ultimately seen as a martyr for the Irish Republican cause. However, while these walls are meant to act as peaceful dividers, their mere existence perpetuates an “us versus them” mentality that makes it difficult to reconcile the two communities with one another. Some murals in Derry, where Bloody Sunday occurred, even go as far as to compare the IRA to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In addition to the use of imagery to further the divide between Protestants and Catholics, inequality in unemployment, housing, and education persists. Historically, Irish Catholics have experienced higher unemployment rates and less housing availability than their Protestant counterparts. The disparity was evident in 1992 towards the tail end of The Troubles, as the Protestant unemployment rate was 9% in comparison to 18% for Catholics. While those rates have decreased, dropping to 5% and 7% for each respective group in 2016, this economic inactivity still heavily impacts the Catholic community to a greater degree. In fact, one study conducted by R. L. Miller and R. D. Osborne, drawing upon a government survey that monitored over 3,500 unemployed males during 1976-1977 at the height of the conflict, found that Catholics were “more likely to have been unemployed in the previous three years, for that unemployment to have last longer, to experience a longer period before securing a job, [and] to receive from Employment Offices fewer job submissions… [which] could not be accounted for by variations in education, skill level, geographical mobility or general motivation”. Despite the government’s attempts to level out the playing field, Catholics, namely ex-terrorists, have faced far more social barriers than Protestants in terms of their inability to get public sector jobs, insurance, or even travel to other countries. This pervasive inequality acts as a breeding ground of sorts for paramilitary activity, who view the lack of government intervention as siding with the Protestant community. Furthermore, research conducted by scholars at Ulster University shows that welfare dependency rose, suicide rates doubled, and men’s life expectancy fell in the areas most affected by The Troubles. Ironically these areas, such as Derry/Londonderry in NI, are primarily Catholic.
Pervasive social norms and stigmas have also obstructed the peace process, especially in regards to education. Schooling in Northern Ireland is heavily segregated, and its persistence often fuels the debate that the education system in the state is acting as more of a perpetuator of division than one of peace. With a population of only about 1.8 million, analysis of the fragmented school structure shows that 93% of children in primary school (ages 4-11), and post-primary school (ages 11-18), attend segregated schools that are either majority Catholic or majority Protestant. This blatant academic separation demonstrates the passing of sectarian views through the generations, as many adults who were involved or impacted by the events of The Troubles have chosen to further the divide and hinder the peace process by having their children attend segregated schools. This ultimately limits the opportunity that children and adolescents have to interact with and form their own perceptions of “the other side”.
A core component of the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement was the establishment of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, commonly known as Stormont, between the mainly Protestant DUP and the Catholic-leaning Sinn Féin. The dynamics of this relationship essentially meant that the two groups both had a say in the political sphere within NI. However, recent events have made it difficult for any progress to be made at all, ultimately leading to the collapse of the regional governing body in NI. In January 2017, Sinn Féin’s leader, Martin McGuinness, resigned as deputy First Minister. The party then let the deadline for the nomination of a replacement pass, which goes against the conditions of the peace agreement, thereby forcing an early election, an action that the DUP saw as Sinn Féin “putting its partisan interests ahead of the public good”. Adding to the divide is the fact that Sinn Féin’s president Gerry Adams stood down in late 2017; this, combined with the death of McGuinness, has left the government in a tricky situation, enough to where the assembly stopped meeting, an overhaul of the region’s health system was postponed, and any and all long-term decision-making processes were ended. The lack of a functioning government has forced the state to run off of the work of civil servants with very limited funds and resources.
Efforts to reinstate a functioning government were attempted in January 2018 with the election of Karen Bradley as Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State. Bradley ultimately got the two political parties to talk and draft a deal that satisfied both sides, however, at the last minute the deal fell through. While the precise reasons are unknown, circulating rumors claim that the deal included the foundations for an Irish Language Act, which would give the Irish language the same power and prestige as English. This is an act that the DUP is in complete opposition to, as it means equalizing the two communities in a way that elevated Irish culture and diminished British identity. As a result, there continues to be no active government in the region to this day.
Moreover, Northern Ireland’s persistent challenges are not limited to domestic causes, but they also stem from international disputes, including the uncertainty surrounding “Brexit”, or the UK’s potential departure from the European Union (EU), and the possible political and economic ramifications associated with that decision. Brexit, a contentious issue that continues to plague European citizens, could destroy the little peace that has been achieved in Northern Ireland, as it brings into question the status of the country as a member of the UK. The political ramifications of Brexit are often discussed in relation to the “Irish backstop”, another way to refer to a guarantee that a “hard” Irish border will not be reinstated between the north and south if the UK splits from the EU. During The Troubles, the hard border that existed was known to be especially sensitive to violence, as the soldiers who patrolled it were seen as easy targets and enforcers of British occupation. Complete demilitarization of the border was a key condition of the 1998 peace agreement, but full or even partial reconciliation seems further and further out of reach as the uncertainty of Brexit, paired with the lack of a functioning government, threatens to reestablish the border, leading to immense social and economic consequences.
However, the border is currently viewed as a “tripwire” of sorts, where any slight miscalculation or aggressive action on behalf of either side threatens to open old wounds and reignite the bloody conflict. One of the most recent incidents occurred in January 2019 when a car bomb exploded outside of a courthouse on an empty street in Derry, NI. This violence was seen again in April 2019 when Lyra McKee, a reporter who specialized in The Troubles, was shot and killed during riots in Derry/Londonderry. These types of acts were all too common during the conflict, and demonstrate that violence still persists even to this day and could very easily occur on or near the border if it is recreated.
In terms of its economic impact, Brexit could do a large amount of damage to the British and Irish economies. In an interview in February 2019, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney stated that there are around 40,000 Irish companies that trade with Britain, amounting to almost a 75-billion euro trade relationship. The reestablishment of a hard border could have detrimental effects on that trade relationship, making it more difficult for the two countries to give and receive goods. Furthermore, the European Single Market that was created in 1993 allows for the easy passage of goods between members of the EU, while the EU Customs Union is a club of countries where customs (or tariffs) have been removed from goods. If the UK leaves the EU, then they leave the single market and the customs union. Thus, they run the risk of having NI and the Republic follow two different rules; as a result, all goods would need to be verified when moving between the two countries, requiring border checkpoints, which many see as a potential source of future violence. To mitigate these potential impacts, the EU and the UK created the “Irish backstop” deal as a sort of last resort policy so that there will be no hard border again, allowing for the easy movement of citizens within the island of Ireland.
Building off of the fragile peace that exists requires a three-pronged approach that addresses the social, political, and economic issues that continue to persist in Northern Ireland. This comprehensive approach entails the gradual removal of the ‘Peace walls’ that exist primarily in Belfast, increasing the number of integrated schools across Northern Ireland, reestablishing a functioning government in Stormont with the help of the UK, and preventing the return of a hard border by monitoring the developments regarding Brexit.
The gradual destruction of the walls that divide Protestant and Catholic communities in many cities across Northern Ireland is the first step towards reconciliation. While many view the walls as dividers that actually aid in the peace process because they limit group interaction and therefore minimize violence, the mere existence of the walls promotes segregation. Many of the walls are located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, especially in Belfast, and this has caused a lot of disagreement that goes back to the issue of Catholic rates of unemployment and housing shortages in comparison to Protestants. However, demolishing the walls would be the practical first step, but the reality of the situation is much more complex. While the violence may have decreased substantially since the signing of the peace agreement, the walls represent more of a psychological than a physical barrier that provides a sense of stability and protection from the other side. Nonetheless, while not much progress has been made since the goal of tearing down all 48 of Northern Ireland’s peace walls by 2023 was declared, local artists have used the walls as blank canvases to display peaceful images rather than the harsh, sectarian pieces that adorn some sections of the walls. Until more walls come down, artists should be encouraged to spread and promote peace through the use of imagery; for example, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has formed the Re-Imaging Communities project that gives local community members grant money to create new art pieces that help tackle sectarianism. These “post-para” murals commemorate general “cultural treasures”, such as C.S. Lewis, who was born in East Belfast and is famous for his novel The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or George Best, the boy who popularized soccer in the 1960s.
British and Irish cultural differences have also had effects on the education sector; to bridge this division, there should be a focus in Northern Ireland to create more integrated schools that host both Catholic and Protestant students in a comfortable and inclusive setting. At present, there are around 62 grant-aided integrated schools throughout NI, and results from a 2013 public opinion survey revealed that 66% of parents wish to increase the number of integrated places in Belfast from 4% to 33%, and 83% believe that integrated education is a vital part in moving forward in the peace process. New-Bridge Integrated College, an integrated school in Loughbrickland, Northern Ireland, focuses on this narrative of peacebuilding through social cohesion by stressing respect and tolerance for everyone, no matter their background. While these schools face challenges of addressing student questions of culture and identity, the needs of young people for reconciliation and inclusivity in NI should take precedence over parents’ desires for continued segregation. The overall goal should be to combat these negative social norms and attitudes that encourage divisiveness rather than unification.
With over two years since it last had a government, it is pertinent that Northern Ireland returns to having a functioning political system; one of the ways in which this could happen is if Westminster, the UK government that resides in London, steps in and controls NI from afar. While the UK is not quite keen on this idea, continuing without any government only further damages the country and puts a halt on the peace process. Currently, few decisions have been made and little action is being taken to address any issues that plague NI as a direct result of the limited resources and lack of working ministers. Reestablishing a functioning government would essentially help mitigate some of the economic and social issues that citizens face, as well as provide Northern Ireland with more of a voice in the Brexit debate. Ever since Stormont collapsed, concerns over health care in specific have grown, with the Department of Health finding increased wait lists up to 52 days for an initial consultation, staff shortages, and stalled hospital reform to be major sources of concern for individuals who need assistance as soon as possible. With the aid of Westminster, both the DUP and Sinn Féin representatives at Stormont could work together to at least satisfy the basic needs of their citizens and later use Westminster as a sort of third-party mediator to help facilitate dialogue and overcome their differences.
Lastly, in terms of solutions for the politically-fuelled border debate, all efforts should be taken to prevent the re-implementation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The border was the site for lots of conflict, and to add patrolmen and physical infrastructure such as cameras, sensors, and drones to monitor movement between the two states is to create easy targets for sectarian violence. The results of a shocking survey, however, found that approximately 60% of the business community in NI were in support of a soft Brexit, including both nationalists and unionists. A soft Brexit means that the UK stays either within the European Single Market by becoming a member of the European Economic Area, the EU Customs Union, or both. The impact of a soft Brexit would, given the limited options, not be a terrible choice, as it would satisfy the interests of all sides by avoiding the reestablishment of a hard border. Nonetheless, as the various governments continue to issue statements regarding the progress of Brexit, and therefore the Irish involvement in that process, the hard border continues to be brought up. To make one single recommendation that would prevent the re-establishment of a hard border is difficult given the complexities of the issue among the parties involved.
The entirety of The Troubles was characterized by sectarian violence, clashes between the police and citizens, and general disagreements over culture and identity that led to the death of some 3,600 people, all of which are common markers of intrastate conflict or a civil war. While the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement formally ended the conflict, it failed to provide any practical recommendations or solutions on how to maintain peace while reconciling the past. Northern Ireland is still fraught with social, political, and economic issues today, making it difficult to work on the peace process whilst also addressing old wounds. The paramilitary violence of The Troubles may have stopped for the time being, but the underlying sectarian and nationalistic views that ignited the conflict continue to persist.