Disclaimer: These are just my thoughts. I make no assumption that I could ever fully understand the sectritaian divide still in existence in Northern Ireland, having not been a part of it myself!
A Mucho Simplified Down Low of the History
Most of you guys have probably heard of the IRA and you may know that there is some protestant-catholic stuff going on right? That was basically what I knew when I arrived on this tiny island. Little did I know how complicated the conflict really was. So here’s the bare bones of it.
Remember that whole colonization turned independence from the British thing we did, well we aren’t the only ones. In the 16th century Britain started to come on over and start what they call Plantations, which is basically forming colonies. Fast forward a century and things start to get pretty crappy for the indigenous population. I’m talking institutionalized ethnic-based discrimination that lasted for hundreds of years. Ringing any familiar bells? The plantation idea is similar to the British colonizing New England in America, and the oppression of the Irish population has many similarities to the systematic discrimination of African-Americans in the States.
After an uprising that sparked the fire in 1916 Ireland wins independence in 1922, but not the entire island. The northeast corner of the island was carved out for the Unionists (those citizens who wanted to remain under British rule). Nationalists (those who want a complete Republic of Ireland) weren’t too happy about that. So at this point we’ve got Catholics/Protestants and Nationalist/Unionists with an Irish/British on top.
The tensions exploded into violence in Northern Ireland in the late 60s and 70s when the historically Irish Catholic population demanded equal rights. Paramilitary groups arose on both sides and a civil-war-like conflict broke out. Most of the victims, as with any war, were innocent civilians. Following a ceasefire, an agreement was met in 1998 (The Good Friday Agreement) which established a number of things including a duel government and duel citizenship for citizens of N. Ireland.
My impression of Northern Ireland today is primarily that people are tired and done with the fighting. 99% of the population puts peace above the divisions among themselves. Barring an unforeseen catastrophic event, I believe the storm has finally passed.
Belfast Peace Wall Tour
The peace wall divides part of the working class area of Belfast, it closes every night at 7pm and doesn’t open until 7am. One side is a protestant British community, the other an Irish-Catholic community. I don’t really like the name “Peace Wall” when it so clearly signifies division in the community. Our group got to hear from both a Republican and a Unionist on their “respective” sides of the wall.
Every war has two sides right, and we definitely heard different accounts. The Republican man (who by the way was not affiliated with any religion) focused a lot on the past discrimination by the British, the infamous Bloody Sunday, and other violent acts committed. He said that most members of the community appreciated the peace wall because of the mistrust between the communities.
On the other side, the Unionist man focused on the present and future much more. He said he wished the peace wall would come down because he didn’t think the communities could really heal and intertwine until it did. In my humble opinion, I think he’s definitely right about this one. Physical environments effect behavior, and I think it will be a beautiful thing when the wall is finally gone.
I thought it was really interesting to see which facts the Nationalist crowd gave versus the facts from the Unionist crowd. Both presentations were true, and yet they are so different. I think there is more than one valuable lesson that we world should take from the experience of Northern Ireland, but one of them is that no story has one side. No major conflict is totally black and white.