Northern Ireland: The War Ended, but the Real Peace Never Really Began.


After a week spent in Ireland, both in the South and North, the nature of the Irish problem suddenly appeared different to what is generally narrated. 

In Northern Ireland the war ended a quarter century ago, but real peace never really blossomed. 

Following the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, dialogue replaced violence as a privileged method to lead to change. Yet reconciliation has yet to occur. 

Despite being familiar with the nature of the Irish problem, like many outside Northern Ireland I’ve only partially and superficially gauged it. 

A week spent criss-crossing the whole island, meeting its inhabitants and leaders shed some light on my own understanding of the problem’s past, present and future. 

The Northern Ireland problem has never been solely about religion (or ethnicity) but has always been political in nature.  Many trace the origins of the conflict to the 17th century ‘Plantation’ of Ulster, when Scottish and English Protestants were settled on lands confiscated from the native, predominantly Catholic proprietors.  For the next 350 years, the two communities nurtured irreconcilable claims to the same land in which they continue to live next to one another in a state of tension punctuated by occasional outbreaks of violence. The worst of the violence was in the north eastern counties of the island. 

Although a power-sharing government has been running the country since 1998, there are dozens of ‘peace walls’ in Northern Ireland (the vast majority of them in Belfast). They separate Catholics (most of whom are nationalists who self-identify as Irish) and Protestants (most of whom are unionists who self-identify as British). Don’t think of these barriers as Berlin Wall ramparts bisecting Belfast. Rather they are small separations scattered through the city and beyond, which an uninformed observer could easily misperceive as noise-reducing barriers.

Their stated purpose is to minimize inter-communal violence between these two communities.  Yet being permeable—not only the gates are open by day but can also be easily circumvented—their real value appears confined to symbolism. Given the contrasting sense of normalcy surrounding the city one can’t be blamed to wonder what—if anything—would occur should one remove those walls. If some were taken down since the Good Friday Agreement, that suggests that it is actually possible to do so.

Yet, one of the possibly unintended consequences from the erection of those physical barriers has been their transmutation into psychological and socio-cultural obstacles.

As the walls continuously keep the memory of the past conflict alive, they also foster—as they do the ubiquitous memorials of the victims—a unique, possibly comforting, sense of a stability, which totally exceptional given the political and social context of the region.

Seen from such a perspective, walls that were originally erected to provide safety to the most exposed citizens in the respective communities have become over time not only what divides but also what unites those communities.  Albeit they appear unaware of it, the inhabitants of the 'gated communities'—by sharing the proximity with the walls—live surprisingly similar lives. More fundamentally they share similar unfavorable socio-economic conditions, in a disturbing continuity with their predecessors. Regardless of their beliefs, both communities are caught in and by the past and typically live in precarious circumstances. 

This hints at the existence of a less apparent, almost invisible, divide within Northern Ireland society. This divide exists between the gated communities, be they Protestant or Catholic, on the one hand, and those living far from the walls—be it geographically or mentally—on the other hand. This dividing line is not religious, ethnic or political in nature but material. 

The socio-economically and culturally well-off seem to have over time been moved further and further away from those areas and the ghosts of the conflict. This has led a privilege proportion of the population to free itself from the vicious cycle of remembrance and resentment. 

After gaining a cursory yet profound exposure to the country I was left with the idea that should a greater number of Northern Ireland citizens living the segregated communities behind the peace walls be lifted out of poverty, the peace process could eventually deliver its declared objective: real peace within society.

This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM Vienna) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.