Why Belfast Matters: Lessons from a Peace Process

The centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic has brought attention to Belfast, where 14,000 workers constructed the luxury cruise ship. The capital of Northern Ireland has opened a $150 million multi-media tourist center, “Titanic Belfast,” remembering the 1,514 victims of the disaster and paying tribute to Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage. There are 120 events planned around the city commemorating the centenary, including festivals, auto races, golf tournaments and gala balls.

A different type of event is also being honored farther south, in Dublin: the on-going success of the Northern Ireland peace process, which concluded with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The government of Ireland is hosting an international conference to examine how the agreement is holding up and how it has changed the lives of the citizens of Northern Ireland. At a time when peace is elusive in many parts of the world, the attainment and implementation of a lasting settlement is cause for celebration.

The Good Friday Agreement was the beginning of the end of a conflict that had been going on for nearly 1000 years, when Henry II of England first tried to incorporate Ireland into the United Kingdom. The Tudor Dynasty took up the challenge and finally defeated the last Irish communities to oppose English rule, the clans of the northern province of Ulster, in 1609.

One hundred years ago, after massive uprisings, the British Parliament passed a Home Rule Bill giving Ireland some political autonomy. Opposition to this by Ulster unionists led the British government to include a provision allowing the northern counties to opt out. The quarrel was suspended with the outbreak of the First World War, but militant republicans in Dublin seized the moment to launch the 1916 Easter rebellion. In the wake of this – and the harsh treatment of the rebels by the British authorities – Sinn Fein emerged as a political force.

Those who wanted full independence continued to fight until, in 1921, the Irish and British governments signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that created the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland chose to stay within the United Kingdom. Twenty-six counties became Ireland; six counties in Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

This did not end the conflict in the north. By the 1970s, some 240 people were killed each year in sectarian violence. In the mid-1980s, the governments of Britain and Ireland agreed to cooperate more closely on security and the UK tried to open a dialogue between opposing forces in Northern Ireland, the Unionists and the Nationalists. In 1998, negotiations led to an agreement on April 10, Good Friday, which transferred power from London to Belfast, establishing a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive Committee in which all parties would share power.

There were obstacles to implementing the agreement, but in May, 2007 the two most polarized parties agreed to a power-sharing deal that has withstood a series of political and economic challenges to date. Why did this post-colonial dispute come to a resolution when so many others remain unresolved year after year?
In part, both sides realized that violence would not solve the issue. The Irish Republican Army engaged in guerrilla warfare with community support that conventional force could not decisively end. At the same end, British forces were becoming more adept at counter-terrorism. Meanwhile, a quiet army of people and organizations were working for peace – politicians, NGOs, business groups, community activists.

Once the local parties to the dispute came to an agreement, external forces came forward to support it. The external guarantors of both sides, England and Ireland, came to an understanding about Northern Ireland. The European Union and the United States offered funding and other help to make the peace plan work. Structural and legal changes regarding employment, housing and education reinforced the agreement.

There are still many challenges. The 2012 Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report concluded that political institutions are secure, the level of violence is down, and a new, confident, neutral culture has emerged. At the same time, paramilitary forces remain a threat, youth employment is potentially destabilizing, and there are indicators that society remains divided. The number of walls dividing Catholic and Protestant communities has increased from 22 at the time of the Agreement to 48 today. 90 percent of social housing in Northern Ireland is still segregated, as are 93 percent of the schools.

Peace activists are still working to bring the sides together through training, cultural events and grassroots cooperation to prevent a flare-up of intercommunal hostilities. The relationship between Ireland and England is stronger, as symbolized by the visit of Queen Elizabeth last year, and international support is on-going.

The Northern Ireland power struggle was a self-perpetuating dynamic, spiraling endlessly toward violence at the cost of thousands of lives. The situation in Belfast shows that, even though an intractable situation can be ‘solved,’ it continues to require work from all parties to keep the accord intact. The courage and persistence of those who broke that spiral and created a lasting commitment to peace are those whose titanic achievement most deserves celebration in this centennial year.

Dr. Judith Baroody is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government

  • http://twitter.com/GuerinSophie Sophie Guerin

    This is a great post and certainly very true.  With divides this deep, the peace process is never completely “over.”  It requires maintenance, cooperation and comprehensive support.  Despite the challenges that Northern Ireland faces, it seems that it has some of this key infrastructure in place to ensure that peace continues to flourish in the region.

  • http://twitter.com/GuerinSophie Sophie Guerin

    This is a great post and certainly very true.  With divides this deep, the peace process is never completely “over.”  It requires maintenance, cooperation and comprehensive support.  Despite the challenges that Northern Ireland faces, it seems that it has some of this key infrastructure in place to ensure that peace continues to flourish in the region.

  • Lbkrueger

    As always- you present the facts and provide another dynamic to the process

  • Lbkrueger

    As always- you present the facts and provide another dynamic to the process