The Troubles in Northern Ireland represented 30 years of complex intercommunal, paramilitary and state violence that claimed the lives of thousands and saw entire generations born or raised into conflict. Yet many struggle to understand how and why such a conflict could occur so recently in such a small corner of Western Europe. This 101 series will give a broad overview of the origins and history of the Troubles, the conflicting ethno-national identities that fuelled them, and an analysis of the peace process that brought the violence to an end and what that means for Northern Ireland today.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland 101 is divided into seven different chapters:
The Troubles 101: Northern Ireland After Good Friday - An End to the Troubles?
As shown in the previous chapter, the signing and ratification of the Good Friday Agreement signified the formal end to thirty long years of conflict. To this day, there has never been a return to the levels of bloodshed of the Troubles. Nevertheless, the Good Friday Agreement still left several issues unanswered. Two of the most pressing concerns were the opposition of the Loyalist community to the Agreement, and the continuing existence of paramilitary weapons stashes until the decommissioning process could be completed. Beyond this, it remained uncertain how and if the Nationalist and Unionist political parties would work together in Northern Ireland’s new political system of enforced power-sharing. Furthermore, after decades of inter-communal violence and animosity, it was unclear how peacefully Republican and Loyalist communities could coexist with one another, short of armed conflict. Meanwhile, the spectre of armed dissident paramilitarism from minor groups opposed to the Peace Process remained. It was clear that, whilst the Good Friday Agreement acted as an armistice, the hard work of achieving peace would be ongoing. Finally, amidst enthusiasm and hope for the future, the question of how Northern Ireland would come to terms with the unresolved trauma and memories of the past had been largely overlooked by the Good Friday Agreement and wider Peace Process.
This article will analyse Northern Ireland in the post-Good Friday Agreement period, to explore how it has functioned as a post-conflict society and whether it has truly moved beyond conflict and into peace. The first section will investigate the continued Loyalist intransigence in the years following the Good Friday Agreement, the polarisation of Northern Irish electoral politics at the expense of the moderate UUP and SDLP, and the difficulty of persuading the reluctant paramilitary groups to disband their weaponry. The next section will investigate continued communal division and the threat of dissident paramilitarism. The article will then show how there has been little consensus on how to address the issues of memory, trauma, and justice in a post-conflict society. Finally, the article will outline more recent political developments in Northern Ireland, in particular the impact of the Brexit process, and the emergence of Sinn Féin as Northern Ireland’s largest political party.
Barriers to Peace: Polarisation, and the Problem of Decommissioning
As noted in the last chapter, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) had laid the foundations for a consociational state apparatus, consisting of an elected Assembly and a power-sharing Executive that formalised the Unionist and Nationalist political divide, in the hopes this would force a new politics of cross-communal compromise (Reynolds, 2000). Nevertheless, whilst the GFA had received an overwhelming endorsement by the Nationalist community, the Unionist community was heavily divided, with only 57% voting in favour (Reynolds, 2000). Meanwhile, the main Republican and Loyalist paramilitary organisations had agreed to a separate but concurrent process of decommissioning their weaponry, albeit with no formal timeframe for this process to be achieved (MacGinty, 1999). These issues would come to dominate the early years of post-Troubles Northern Ireland, with the suspension of the Stormont Assembly repeatedly throwing the continuing viability of the GFA into doubt.
No sooner had the Agreement come into effect in 1998, than the hard work of trying to arrange a power-sharing deal between the main Unionist and Nationalist parties began. The UUP and SDLP were initially the two largest parties of the Assembly and, as the main representatives of their respective communities, they constituted the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Power Sharing Executive, charged with the task of forming a cross-party cabinet of ministers (Farry, 2006). Nevertheless, the UUP, mirroring the split in the wider Unionist community, was heavily divided between those in favour of the GFA, and those opposed. Meanwhile, the Loyalist DUP remained staunchly against the GFA (Farry, 2006). The main Unionist sticking point was the opposition to forming a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Féin whilst the PIRA maintained its weaponry and hence the possibility for a return to violence (Walsh, 2013). Whilst the GFA had come with the understanding by most of the main political powerbrokers that paramilitary decommissioning would be complete by the year 2000, there was no formal deadline and the paramilitaries instead argued that decommissioning would begin in 2000 with no established date for completion (Reynolds, 2000). Members of the Sinn Féin, despite their commitment to the GFA, were reluctant to fully renounce the PIRA military wing until they were sure the GFA would function in guaranteeing their party a prominent place at the political table (Walsh, 2013). Meanwhile, the Loyalist paramilitaries were unwilling to give up their weaponry until they were sure the PIRA had decommissioned their arms first (Farry, 2006).
This deadlock was initially broken when the UUP’s David Trimble agreed to sit with Sinn Féin if they in turn agreed to start PIRA decommissioning in the year 2000, much to the fury of the DUP and many elements of the UUP towards such compromise (Farry, 2006). Despite this, and much to Unionist chagrin, the PIRA’s first act of decommissioning did not occur until October 2001, over a year after the agreed timeframe. The US declaration of the War on Terror in the aftermath of 11th September attacks had created a sense within Sinn Féin that it would become increasingly difficult to justify the continued threat of paramilitarism (Sens, 2006). Unionist anger was only heightened by the release of PIRA prisoners as part of the GFA, as well as the reformation of the old Unionist-dominated RUC into the more actively cross-community Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which was seen as a further blow to Unionist security (Burke, 2020). These already fraught tensions came to a head when, in 2002, an alleged PIRA ’spy-ring’ within the Stormont Assembly was uncovered, leading to the immediate withdrawal of the UUP and DUP and the suspension of the Assembly, with direct rule re-established (Sens, 2006). By this stage, with the PIRA still armed and allegedly active even after four years of the GFA and its associated Unionist concessions, Unionist support for the Agreement had plummeted down to around one-third of the community (Farry, 2006). Meanwhile, the continued intransigence of the Unionist parties to agree to power-share with Sinn Féin, again contrary to the spirit of the GFA, had seen Nationalist support for Sinn Féin increase.
The result in the 2003 Assembly elections, held despite Stormont’s suspension in 2002, signified electoral polarisation and realignment. The hard-line Sinn Féin and DUP replaced the moderate UUP and SDLP as the biggest parties representing their respective communities (Sens, 2006). For thirty years, British and Irish strategy for peace had revolved around trying to build up support for moderate political parties at the expense of hard-line politics (Farry, 2006). Yet, within just a few years, the representatives of hard-line politics had suddenly sprung to the forefront and come to dominate the electoral scene, something they had never managed to achieve throughout thirty years of violence. Ultimately, the GFA sacrificed the idea of reconciliation in favour of achieving peace through the institutionalisation of division (Farry, 2006). As shown in the previous chapter, Unionists and Nationalists were embedded into the constitutional makeup, with political parties required to register as “Nationalist“, “Unionist“, or “Other“, with the Leader and Deputy Leader required to be a Nationalist and a Unionist, at the expense of attempts to provide for a common political identity (Horowitz, 2002).
In turn, there existed the sense that Unionist and Nationalist political interests were intrinsically at odds: concession for one community meant gains for the other, hence constituting a zero-sum game which allowed the DUP and Sinn Féin to argue their respective communities were being sold-out by weak moderate leadership (Farry, 2006). Furthermore, with the GFA having succeeded in dramatically reducing the bloodshed and extreme political rhetoric, the hard-line DUP and Sinn Féin were given an air of greater respectability amongst voters outside of their traditional support bases, such as the middle classes who had previously shunned them (Farry, 2006). The loss of support to the UUP and SDLP in turn convinced these moderate parties of the need to pander to their hard-line counterparts to avoid losing more voters, which further polarised the political scene and boosted the legitimacy of both Sinn Féin and the DUP (Farry, 2006). The result was the realignment of Unionist and Nationalist politics away from the moderate centre and towards the wings. This dynamic, in turn, made the issue of trying to form a new power-sharing executive to end the suspension of Stormont an even more difficult prospect (Lanz et al., 2019). Just four years after the GFA, and already the Agreement was in danger of collapse.
As the political deadlock dragged on, the difficulties of decommissioning persisted, with the danger of GFA failure having the adverse effect of reinforcing PIRA’s perceived necessity to maintain a supply of weaponry (Sens, 2006). Although inter-communal armed violence had dramatically declined since Good Friday, the main paramilitary organisations were all still active within their own working-class communities. Paramilitary-fuelled organised crime, ’community policing’ including the murder of suspected criminals, informers, and drug dealers, internal paramilitary feuding, and armed social control and intimidation were all still rife in certain Loyalist and Republican communities — all of which further threw into doubt the commitment to peace and decommissioning (Farry, 2006). This was illustrated by accusations that the PIRA committed the largest bank robbery in British and Irish history in December 2004, with the PIRA further accused of smuggling weapons shipments from Florida, and of training FARC guerrillas in Colombia (Farry, 2006). Indeed, by some estimates, organised crime made up as much as 10% of Northern Ireland’s GDP (Farry, 2006). Nevertheless, with the uncompromising DUP now the dominant Unionist party, it was clear there could never be any form of the power-sharing arrangement until the PIRA had decommissioned its weaponry and committed fully to peace.
Sinn Féin for its part continued to officially maintain its fictional stance that it was not a sister organisation of the PIRA, with no influence over the decommissioning process (MacGinty, 1999). Nevertheless, it was true that hard-line elements of the PIRA were at odds with the Sinn Féin leadership on the issue of decommissioning, with Sinn Féin aware of the need to tread carefully to prevent a PIRA fracture that could cause the formation of yet another splinter group opposed to the Peace Process (Walsh, 2013). However, as the UK government continued to normalise its own security operations with troops steadily withdrawn, fortifications removed and the PSNI taking a peacetime policing role, and with the success of the Peace Process hanging in the balance, the PIRA under the watch of the IICD’s Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) was persuaded to give up its last declared weapons stash on 26th September 2005 (Sens, 2006). With PIRA decommissioning complete, one of the most intractable issues of the Peace Process since the 1994 ceasefire had been resolved (Walsh, 2013). Nevertheless, Loyalist paramilitaries and other Republican organisations remained reluctant to disarm, with accusations that they were continuing to use their weaponry for organised crime (Walsh, 2013). However, by 2009 the Loyalist UVF and Red Hand Commando officially decommissioned their weaponry, with the Loyalist UDA and Republican INLA and OIRA following suit in 2010, with the IICD formally dissolving that year (Walsh, 2013). All of Northern Ireland’s largest paramilitary organisations from the Troubles had officially been disarmed.
Power-Sharing: Securing Peace for the Future
Following the 2005 decommissioning of the PIRA’s weaponry, a significant hurdle to Unionist reluctance to sit with Sinn Féin had been removed. The British and Irish governments immediately seized the opportunity by publicly encouraging Sinn Féin and the DUP back to the negotiating table, to try and facilitate a power-sharing arrangement and the restoration of the Northern Irish Assembly (Walsh, 2013). A series of multi-party talks planned for October 2006 was identified as the last opportunity to reach an arrangement that would save the institutional settlement of the Good Friday Agreement (Ferry, 2006). Nevertheless, despite the PIRA ceasing to exist as an armed fighting force, many hurdles remained. The DUP had been staunch in its opposition to all forms of compromise or negotiation with Sinn Féin throughout the Troubles and had also consistently opposed the implementation of the GFA. Indeed, many DUP supporters were content with direct Westminster rule, leaving the DUP under less pressure to reach a power-sharing deal (Ferry, 2006). As such, to sell to their hard-line supporters the idea of a power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Féin as part of the GFA, the DUP would first require additional concessions. Another key Unionist sticking point had been Sinn Féin’s refusal to endorse the establishment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, alongside the devolution of judicial powers that would allow the PSNI to launch prosecutions (St. Andrews, 2006). Like decommissioning, policing reform was a concurrent process to the GFA, with no set deadline or specific measures signed into the Agreement.
For many Republicans, and Nationalists more generally, policing had been an active arm of Unionist repression of their communities, and indeed police violence had greatly contributed to the start of the Troubles in the first place. With the old Protestant-dominated RUC containing just 8.3% Catholic recruits in 1999, only 43% of Catholics expressed satisfaction with the RUC, compared to 81% of Protestants (Burke, 2020). The PSNI, with its 50/50 Catholic/Protestant affirmative-action recruitment policy had hoped to reverse this and turn PSNI into a cross-community force (Hearty, 2017). Nevertheless, the old Republican mistrust of policing remained, with the PIRA and other Republican groups still actively policing Republican communities in place of the PSNI and meting out corporal justice, including beatings, knee capping’s and murders (Burke, 2020). Furthermore, throughout the Troubles and into the post-Good Friday Agreement, Catholics attempting to join the police force could face community intimidation, ostracisation, and even violence and murder (Burke, 2020). Indeed, in 1999, 70% of Catholics cited intimidation and fear from their own communities as the main reason for Catholics not joining the police (Burke, 2020). Nevertheless, Sinn Féin’s position of continuing to oppose the PSNI was clearly untenable if it hoped to reach a power-sharing arrangement (St. Andrews, 2006).
The result in 2006 was the signing of the St. Andrews Agreement, which finally laid the path to a power-sharing arrangement between Sinn Féin and the DUP, with the former agreeing to join the Northern Ireland Policing Board in return (St. Andrews, 2006). In 2007 the DUP’s notoriously uncompromising loyalist leader Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin’s ex-PIRA militant commander Martin McGuiness, sat down together as Leader and Deputy Leader of Northern Ireland (Lanz et al., 2019). The GFA had thus been resuscitated with these old sworn enemies of the Troubles agreeing to work together. Northern Ireland had finally turned a significant corner, and for the first time in many decades had entered a period of relative political stability, with Britain’s military operation officially ending that year. From 2007 to 2017 Northern Ireland saw continuous power-sharing governments, with no Stormont suspensions, that seemed to confirm that Northern Ireland had now entered a period of political peace-making (Lanz et al., 2019). Furthermore, by 2010, the PSNI had achieved 30% of Catholic recruits and gained broad trust from most of the Nationalist community, representing a significant achievement (Burke, 2020). Nevertheless, the unresolved questions of Loyalist parades, political symbolism, identity issues, dissident paramilitarism, and justice, would continue as recurrent roadblocks for DUP and Sinn Féin power-sharing arrangements (Lanz et al., 2019).
Communal Division, Continuing Violence and Dissident Paramilitarism
As shown, the Good Friday Agreement provided an important political outlet for Northern Ireland’s divisions. Nevertheless, the GFA had very little to address the enduring and deep fault lines between Northern Ireland’s respective communities. Flags, banners, and murals, including those glorifying paramilitary organisations, continue to mark out many segregated Unionist and Nationalist communities (Farry, 2006). Furthermore, only 7% of Northern Irish school children attend non-segregated schools, with the remainder still educated in Protestant or Catholic institutions (Burke, 2020). Consequently, most Unionists and Nationalists continued to live separate lives within separate communities. However, progress has been made in integrating workplaces due to top-down regulation, with substantial public support for more integrated schools and shared social housing, thus showing some desire to break out of these segregated confines (Farry, 2006). Nevertheless, sporadic outbreaks of intercommunal rioting have continued to be a feature of Northern Ireland, especially in the poorest communities (Ross, 2012). In Belfast alone, 116 “Peace Walls” dividing neighbouring Loyalist and Republican communities to prevent inter-communal violence remained as of 2020 (Burke, 2020). The July Twelfth Orange Order marches have continued as the main annual flashpoint for inter-communal violence. However, other issues such as the 2012 Belfast City Council decision to fly the Union Jack only on certain days of the year, have also seen significant outbreaks of violence (Burke, 2020). These communal divisions have in turn fed into the aforementioned political polarisation, as Sinn Féin and the DUP benefited at the expense of more moderate alternatives seeking more cross-community engagement (Burke, 2020).
The most extreme manifestation of this division continues to be the stubborn existence of dissident paramilitarism within certain deprived Republican and Loyalist communities. Republican dissident groups, including the New IRA, the Continuity IRA, and the Real IRA, have all emerged at various times as active opponents of the Peace Process (Ross, 2012). Within these segments of the Republican community, the physical force tradition and its associated culture and glorification of political violence have been a consistent feature ever since the Irish War of Independence (Ross, 2012). As a result, for a minority, for as long as there continues to be British rule in Ireland then violence remains justified, with dissidents considering themselves simply the next generation in a long line fighting for The Cause — with little concern for whether this is supported by the wider community (Bowman-Grieve, 2010).
Likewise, within some Loyalist areas, paramilitary organisations continue to be glorified as community defenders, with the threat of Republican dissident groups being seen to justify the continued existence of Loyalist paramilitarism (Ross, 2012). Both groups have acted to encourage and inflame communal rioting, sometimes to provide cover for shooting at police, while isolated instances of bomb and gun attacks on police and military have also occurred (Ross, 2012). Simultaneously, continued mistrust of authority in Loyalist and especially Republican communities has led to dissidents, such as Republican Action Against Drugs, continuing to fulfil the violent community policing role of their predecessors (Ross, 2012). Finally, within both communities, organised crime continues under paramilitary banners. As a result of dissident paramilitary-related activity, 158 people have been killed since the Good Friday Agreement as of 2018, including 6 members of the security forces, with most of the killings resulting from paramilitaries targeting members of their own communities, or else in internal feuds (Nolan, 2018). Although signifying the continued threat of dissident paramilitarism and the high death toll for a society supposedly at peace, such a level of violence is nevertheless far below the pre-GFA years.
Despite this persistent violent fringe, progress does seem to have been made in countering traditional segregated markers of identity. From 1989 until 2017, the number of people identifying with the British (44%) and Ulster (7%) identities, as the traditional markers of Unionism, had fallen to 35% and 2% respectively (Devine & Robinson, 2019). The number identifying as Irish, as the traditional marker of Nationalism, did increase from 20% to 26% (Devine & Robinson, 2019). Nevertheless, the number identifying as Northern Irish also increased from 20% to around 29%, with this figure broadly equal across both Catholic and Protestant communities (Garry & McNicholl, 2015). The Northern Irish identity, although possibly retaining different meanings to different communities, does show some hope for a cross-community non-sectarian identity — with 37% of those who attended mixed schools identifying as such (Garry & McNicholl, 2015).
Ghosts of the Past: Memory, Justice, and Reconciliation
The Troubles killed 3,500 people and left another 50,000 more physically scarred, and countless others mentally scarred (Sutton, 2017). With many thousands of these crimes unsolved, the victims and the bereaved have been denied justice and the peace of knowing what happened to their loved ones, or why (Burke, 2020). Furthermore, the combatants themselves have been left psychologically scarred, with their youthful years stolen by violence or imprisonment, leaving them struggling to readapt into post-conflict society (Kirk, 2016). The lack of a definitive outcome to the war has left many disillusioned and wondering if any of it was worth it. This has also fuelled strongly counteracting and parallel narratives of the conflict between the opposing communities, with all sides experiencing trauma and loss, whilst simultaneously a murky culture of communal silence exists protecting the perpetrators of violence (Burke, 2020). Such issues usually affect all post-civil conflict societies (Kirk, 2016). Yet, contrary to some other peace processes, the Good Friday Agreement left almost no coordinated approach to addressing the ghosts of this violent past. Ultimately, peace processes tend to follow one of two modes, or a mixture of both, for dealing with these complexities (Farry, 2006): a justice approach attempts to track down and prosecute perpetrators of violence, to bring a sense of justice to the families and communities of the victims (Burke, 2020); on the other side, the truth approach, such as that of Apartheid South Africa, can see perpetrators given amnesty from prosecution, if they agree to publicly admit their crimes (Burke, 2020). This can not only give closure to family members unsure of how their loved ones died, but also provide wider catharsis to communities and combatants in acknowledging and recording honestly historical instances of violence, and the shared sense of guilt or victimhood that they entail (Burke, 2020).
The GFA and subsequent Peace Process adopted neither of these strategies, instead choosing a pick and mix approach. Paramilitary prisoners were given amnesty for crimes they had been convicted of before the GFA, as a key condition for winning the support of paramilitary organisations for peace (Kirk, 2016). However, those who had not been convicted for past crimes could still face prosecution (Burke, 2020). The danger of prosecution reinforced a culture of silence among perpetrators and their communities, depriving the families of victims of a sense of justice or closure while also leaving perpetrators unable to move on from their past guilts (Kirk, 2016). Such condition could lead to absurd instances of innuendo or blatant public lies that undermine the idea of truth and reconciliation. For instance, the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams is widely acknowledged to have been a leading member of the PIRA throughout the 1970s, yet was never convicted (Burke, 2020). As PIRA membership constitutes a crime, Gerry Adams as the leading figurehead of Republicanism continues to this day to publicly deny all prior links to the PIRA (Burke, 2020).
Meanwhile, the PSNI has a unit dedicated to investigating the tens of thousands of unsolved crimes of the Troubles, leading to some ex-combatants still being prosecuted, but with most perpetrators remaining free (Burke, 2020). Various paramilitary groups including the PIRA and UDA have publicly apologised or admitted regret for killings and other crimes, whilst being simultaneously unwilling to help with investigations (Burke, 2020). Furthermore, the issue of how and if to prosecute ex-security service members, and in particular the armed forces, has been a highly contentious political issue within the United Kingdom, with some people believing it unfair to charge soldiers decades after events (Burke, 2020). The soldiers responsible for Bloody Sunday, for example, were originally cleared of wrongdoing by a highly controversial government report in 1974, before a subsequent inquiry found the soldiers guilty in 2010. The issue of whether or not to charge the soldiers has become a politicised issue and considered by some an example of double standards whilst ex-paramilitaries remained free.
At a collective level, the line between perpetrators and victims is blurred. Of those who died, around 52% were civilians, 32% were members of the security forces, 11% were from Republican paramilitaries and 5% were from Loyalist paramilitaries (Sutton, 2017). Of those who were killed, 60% of deaths were perpetrated by Republican paramilitaries, 30% by Loyalist paramilitaries, and 10% by Security Forces (Sutton, 2017). Of the civilians who died, 60% were Catholic, 30% Protestant and 10% were from outside of Northern Ireland (Sutton, 2017). Consequently, the competing communal narratives have been maintained, with neither fully admitting their own guilt nor fully acknowledging the suffering of the other (Farry, 2006). Historical instances of violence are used to reinforce these respective communal identities and narratives in opposition to the other, including selective demands for justice, rather than as a recollection of shared inter-communal trauma (Farry, 2006). Commemorations and anniversaries of deaths remain communal rallying points, but also flashpoints for inter-communal violence or resentment. As time has gone on, many of the perpetrators of crimes from many decades past, and the family members seeking justice for their loved ones, have since died taking their knowledge of these events with them. Meanwhile, some perpetrators are in prison whilst others remain free. The longer that passes since the Troubles, the more the prospect diminishes of reaching a unified approach to truth, justice and reconciliation (Farry, 2006). This has left attempts to forge a shared sense of cross-communal identity or destiny even more difficult (Farry, 2006).
Brexit Uncertainty and the Future
Just as Northern Ireland finally appeared to have entered a sustained period of stability, the UK’s shock decision to leave the European Union in June 2016 once again threw Northern Ireland’s future into doubt. As noted in previous chapters, two core pillars of the Peace Process had been the East-West dimension in terms of greater British and Irish relations, and the North-South dimension in terms of greater integration between Northern Ireland and the Republic (Mars et al., 2018). The European Union, with its Single Market and Customs Union, has been central to this process. Of particular importance is the ability to pass seamlessly between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, not only as an economic measure but as an important concession to Nationalists who can freely cross the invisible border as if there was no partition at all (Mars et al., 2018).
Consequently, Brexit has fundamental implications for Northern Ireland and its foundations for peace. Despite this, as a marginal region of the UK, containing a population of just 1.8 million with minimal impact on the wider referendum result, the decision was in many ways thrust upon Northern Ireland — with the issue receiving remarkably little attention in the wider Brexit referendum campaign, or among the prominent voices pushing for Brexit (Moltmann, 2017). Yet, the implications of the choice to leave have arguably been greater in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK, with the dynamics of Brexit still playing out. Economically, Northern Ireland benefitted more from EU subsidies than any other part of the UK (Mars et al., 2018). Yet, equally as important has been the uncertainty thrust upon how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.
Whilst the wider UK voted almost 52% in favour of leaving the European Union, Northern Ireland voted almost 56% in favour of remaining (Moltmann, 2017). Yet, even within a such percentage, Northern Ireland’s communal divide remains as strong as ever. 85% of the Nationalist community voted to remain, whilst a majority of the Unionist community voted to leave — with the DUP leading a prominent leave campaign (Moltmann, 2017). Stormont was suspended in 2017 for the first time in 10 years. The British government’s decision to commit to a policy of leaving both the Single Market and Customs Union means a border infrastructure for the processing of imports and exports to the EU has to be established (Mars et al., 2018). Placing such a border along the Republic of Ireland would obviously inflame the Nationalist community (Moltmann, 2017). Instead, Boris Johnson’s British government signed a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU in October 2019, establishing a de facto customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, with a view toward future regulatory realignment that would avoid the need for customs checks (Hayward, 2021).
This threat of a British-Northern Irish border ominously led to extensive rioting in 2021 led by Loyalists but including intercommunal clashes — to remind the world that peace in Northern Ireland remains fragile. The British government’s subsequent attempts to renege on this Agreement means Northern Ireland’s future remains as uncertain as it was in 2016 (Hayward, 2021). The result has been a significant realignment in Northern Irish politics. The 2022 Assembly election saw Sinn Féin, once synonymous with violent armed Republicanism, emerge for the first time as Northern Ireland's largest party (BBC, 2022). Meanwhile, the DUP was relegated to the second largest party and experienced a large drop in Unionist support, with Brexit beginning to look like a severe DUP own goal (BBC, 2022). Many Loyalists turned instead to the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice promising a return to uncompromising politics. Nevertheless, the most significant gains in the 2022 election have been for the Alliance Party — thrust into the position of Northern Ireland’s third biggest party — with an alternative vision of politics free from the traditional communal divides. The future of Northern Ireland remains in the balance.
Conclusion: Peaceful Conflict and Hope
As shown, the Good Friday Agreement has successfully brought about lasting peace, with the level of violence of the Troubles appearing a thing of the past. Nevertheless, this past continues to loom large in the present. Although ending large-scale violence, the GFA institutionalised and formalised the Unionist and Nationalist divisions that defined the Troubles to give them a peaceful political outlet. This has allowed the conflict to morph instead into a polarised political scene. Furthermore, the trauma and memory of the Troubles continue to be a battlefield of the present, with conflicting narratives serving to reinforce the communal divide. Nevertheless, certain stability was emerging that was rudely interrupted by Brexit. Northern Ireland’s future constitutional status has once again been thrown into the balance, with potentially severe consequences. Regardless, hope for an alternative future outside of the traditional divide remains, with an increasing number lending their support to the cross-communal Alliance Party, with a Northern Irish identity emerging at odds with the traditional fault lines.
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Cover Photo: Bridge, A. (2021). "War and Peace" mural in Belfast, Ireland [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://faithandleadership.com/peacemaking-and-reconciliation-divided-spaces
Figure 1: Unknown. (2022). A protester pictured during a riot at the Lanark Way peace wall in West Belfast [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/it-wont-happen-by-2023-target-but-work-continues-to-remove-peace-walls-41440961.html
Figure 2: Bridge, A. (2021). "War and Peace" mural in Belfast, Ireland [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://faithandleadership.com/peacemaking-and-reconciliation-divided-spaces
Figure 3: PA Media. (2021). The Northern Ireland Assembly is to be recalled early from its Easter break on Thursday to discuss the violence in some loyalist areas [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-56649459
Figure 4: Morrison, P. (2022). Election posters hang from lamp posts in the mainly Loyalist Newtownards road area of East Belfast, Northern Ireland, Monday, May 2, 2022, ahead of May 5, 2022, local elections [Photograph]. Associated Press, Retrieved from: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/sinn-fein-eyes-historic-win-in-northern-ireland-election/?artslide=5
Figure 5: McNaughton, C. (2001). A man reads a local newspaper on Oct. 24, 2001, in Andersontown in West Belfast, Northern Ireland [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/24/paramilitaries-are-surging-again-in-northern-ireland/
Figure 6: Gonzalez, A. (2008). A new BBC documentary claims to link Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to bombings that occurred during the Troubles [Photograph]. Photocall Ireland. Retrieved from: https://extra.ie/2019/09/07/news/irish-news/new-documentary-connects-ian-paisley-and-martin-mcguinness-with-bombings
Figure 7: Extramural Activity. (2021). Flags and bunting are strung from house to house across Cluan Place while leftover pallets and furniture sit at the entrance [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://extramuralactivity.com/2021/07/23/the-12th-in-cluan-place/
Figure 8: Morrison, P. (2011). Masked members of the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) splinter group parade during a 1916 Easter Rising commemoration at Cregan Cemetery in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Monday, April 25, 2011 [Photograph]. Associated Press. Retrieved from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/northern-ireland-man-charged-with-commanding-ira-faction-1.1858728.
Figure 9: McGurk, J. (2014). Helen McKendry holding a picture of murdered mum Jean McConville [Photograph]. Sunday Life. Retrieved from: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sunday-life/news/gerry-adams-youre-next-jean-mcconvilles-daughter-tells-sinn-fein-president-hell-follow-ira-veteran-ivor-bell-to-dock-30118353.html
Figure 10: McQuillan, C. (2021). Many feared that Brexit would rekindle former divisions on the island of Ireland [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/new-brexit-drama-looms-over-northern-ireland-protocol/a-58626667
Figure 11: Cairnduff, J. (2021). A man walks past a hijacked bus burning on The Shankill Road as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 7, 2021 [Photograph]. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/13/from-brexit-to-covid-rules-why-violent-riots-have-broken-out-in-northern-ireland.html