Will peace last in Northern Ireland?
The Irish have not been fighting. To the pleasure of the British and most Irish, the 30 years of Northern Ireland terrorism has seemingly come to an end. With a few recent exceptions, there has been peace in the North. The question remains, will it last? Today, the prospects do not look so good. The lessons of history and the events of the last few weeks do not plant the seeds of hope.
The conflict in the North has often been portrayed as that of a religious war. However, the most recent events of terrorism, the last 30 years, exist in the wake of a great international move toward Christian unity. In the modern world, the Protestant-Catholic divide that so characterizes the conflict is an enigma. To the average socially conscious believer, Christians should not terrorize anyone, least of all each other. Nonetheless, the roots of sectarian conflict run deep within the so-called "British Isles."
While the Reformation is often the story of the assertion of conscience against the corruption of a medieval church, in England the story was quite different. In his quest for a male heir, Henry VIII broke ties with the Bishop of Rome and made himself head of the English Church. After the death of his young, sickly son, Henry's daughter Mary ascended to the throne. Upon deciding to restore Catholicism, Mary issued edicts condemning all Protestants to be burned at the stake. The purge of Bloody Mary gives births to the Protestant martyrs, and the roots of anti-Catholicism are placed deep in English society. When her half-sister, Elizabeth, became heir to the throne, there was little public outcry to her non-Catholic faith.
But within this time Ireland remained unchanged. Its Catholic nature led British monarchs to encourage migration from Great Britain to Ireland in the early 1600s. Land was granted to the Scottish, who, while not Anglican, were still more likely to be faithful to the crown than a Catholic in Ireland.
The second wave of settlement in Ireland, launched by New English settlers in the mid-1600s, established the ironically named Church of Ireland as the de jure, but not de facto, official church. When Catholic ex-king James II failed in an attempt to reclaim the throne with a revolt from the Emerald Isle, the Penal Era began. Catholics were banned from education, their weddings and burials were forbidden and they were excluded from official public life.
In England and Ireland, the Protestant-Catholic struggle has been one over authority and power. In the two countries, fighting did not break out because one group believed in predestination (the Presbyterians), the other in the supreme authority of the King (the Anglicans) and the other in the ecclesiastical authority of the Pope (the Catholics). Repression occurred in England in order to form a unified country of one faith under one monarch. In Ireland, revolt occurred because political and economic rights were denied to the native people. The differentiation between the native people and the colonizers, the poor and the rich, the weak and the empowered was crystallized in one easy distinction, that between a Catholic and any Protestant.
In the ensuing years, peaceful constitutional movements for Irish autonomy largely failed. It was only after the Fenian uprising that the so-called Church of Ireland was no longer dubbed the official church and that honest land reform occurred. Native Irish, mostly Catholics, learned from history that the powers in London would only listen to violence. It was only after large sectarian violence and terrorism during the First World War that the people of Ireland were given any home rule. But so as not to put the Protestant-dominated North under control of the greater Catholic population, the Partition Act of 1920 gave Ireland two parliaments: one in the South, which eventually became the Republic, and one in Northern Ireland, still a part of the United Kingdom.
It is this sectarian history that these countries inherit today. Northern Ireland Protestants largely favor allegiance to British rule, while Catholics tend to find more allegiance to the southern Republic. For 30 years, these divisions led to terrorist acts. The Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Force (along with other fringe groups) had been battling it out, waging senseless violence upon the civilian Catholic and Protestant populations.
Today, there is peace in Northern Ireland, one that hinges on the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Under the agreement, made between all parties in the North, the Irish Republic in the south and the British government, counsels would be set up between Northern Ireland and the Republic to deal with issues pertaining to the island as a whole, the Republic would strike from its constitution any political claims made on the North and Northern Ireland would be given its own executive made from a power-sharing agreement of the Catholic parties and Protestant parties. These institutions were conditional on the basis that Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups disarm by May 2000.
In December, these reforms were instituted. Today, they are suspended. David Trimble, the head of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, promised to resign by Feb. 12 if IRA disarming had not started. With reports showing no IRA move to give up weapons, the British government thought it better to suspend the new Northern Ireland institutions than to see a possible political upheaval with Trimble's resignation.
International history shows that democratic stability is based on political institutions' ability to take root and strengthen within society. History also shows periods of failed constitutional movements in Ireland followed by outbursts of violence. The British government must quickly move to reinstate the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement or face the possibility of renewed violence in the North.
The British government can answer prayers — those of the Catholic and Protestant majorities who voted for the agreement. Peace may look historically impossible, but history is the story of that which seems impossible becoming reality. England and Ireland have come too far to risk failing now.
Liam Brennan is a junior government and theology major currently studying in London.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, February 25, 2000