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Making Peace in Northern Ireland a Reality
May 23, 1998

by Matt Cherry


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 3.


I never thought it unusual that London train stations had no lockers or trashcans. Only when I went abroad did I notice the difference between the United Kingdom and countries that do not design public areas around the threat of terrorist bombs. Like everyone else who grew up in the UK after 1969, I had lived my whole life under the shadow of terrorism. Sometimes the bombs were close enough for me to hear. More often they were just an item on the evening news. The terrorist campaign was constant and without hope of resolution. It was terrible. It was routine.

Since 1969, thousands have been murdered and tens of thousands have been injured and maimed in what the Northern Irish call "The Troubles." Among Northern Ireland's population of just one-and-a-half million, few families were unaffected by the violence.

The conflict in Northern Ireland has its origins in the division between the Protestants, who make up over 50 percent of the population, and the Catholic minority. Politics is split down community lines. The Protestants are predominantly Unionists, pledged to keeping the province of Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom. The Catholics are predominantly Republicans, wanting unification between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Extremists on both sides resort to terrorism.

Today's resounding referendum victory for a new peace agreement in Northern Ireland may finally end three decades of bloodshed and terror. The settlement will introduce a structure for sharing power between Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Republicans, British and Irish. Under the agreement, the people of Northern Ireland will democratically elect a new government for the province. The legislature's constitution will prevent the Protestants from using their majority to discriminate against the Catholics.

The peace settlement also requires changes by the governments of Britain and Ireland. The British government has agreed that Northern Ireland will be free to leave the United Kingdom and unite with the Irish Republic if the majority of the Northern Irish vote for it (which is very unlikely while there is still a Protestant majority). Ireland, in a separate referendum yesterday, voted 94 percent in favor of revising its constitution's claim to Northern Ireland. There will be a North-South Council, giving the two national governments joint responsibility for cross-border concerns, including tourism, transport and environmental issues.

Yet the referendum's success is only the first step in guaranteeing long-term peace in Northern Ireland. Although 71.12 percent voted "yes" to the peace agreement - with a remarkable voter turn-out of 80.98 percent - it is estimated that half the Protestants voted "no." Some paramilitary and political groups will continue to oppose the agreement. Support for these groups may grow if communal tensions are not resolved. There was peace in Northern Ireland from the 1920s to the 1960s. But there was no integration or tolerance between Protestant and Catholic communities, and sectarian grievances ultimately led to renewed violence.

Healing the Divide

Lasting peace will only come if the political compromise approved in yesterday's referendum is followed by a cultural transformation in Northern Irish society. The wall of separation between Protestant and Catholic communities must be broken down.

Religious apartheid starts when a child is born into a Catholic or Protestant maternity ward. Catholic children go to Catholic kindergartens, Catholic state schools, Catholic community centers, and play in Catholic sports teams. Protestant children go to the equivalent Protestant institutions. Children are taught the religion, culture, and history of only their community. They rarely meet people from the other community or learn their point of view.

Neighborhoods are divided between Catholics and Protestants - often with curbsides painted to show allegiance to the Irish or British flags. Cultural life - from political meetings to charity events - takes place in Protestant or Catholic church buildings.

It is the fundamental division between the two religious communities that kept "The Troubles" going so long and makes the peace agreement so fragile. The people at the negotiating table have never experienced an integrated society. It is to the credit of all parties that they moved beyond traditional political positions to reach a peace agreement. But the religious division remains and will continue to fuel sectarian rivalries. The Catholic population is growing and may be the majority within a few decades. If new warfare is not to break out as the balance of power shifts, it is essential that the communal tribalism be overcome.

The next generation must grow up in a more integrated society. The government should integrate all state schools and work to break down the sectarian divisions within the schools. School curricula must foster tolerance and understanding. Secular community centers must be built. Integrated youth programs must be expanded. Equal housing programs and equal employment laws must be strengthened.

The people of Northern Ireland must reach across the barriers between the two communities. They must support integrated organizations, and abandon the most divisive sectarian traditions. Only then will the religious divide lose its stranglehold on politics and society.

The week of the peace agreement also saw the 400th anniversary of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict granted civil rights to French Protestants, thereby ending religious warfare in France for several generations. Yet conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Europe did not completely subside until secularization undermined the power of religious sectarianism. Northern Ireland is the last exception.

If Northern Ireland is to join the mainstream of European society it must heal its divided society. Its government must build secular institutions. Its people must unite around the goal of peace and integration. The people of Great Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland must commit themselves to making sure that the next generation can never think of terrorism as routine.


Matt Cherry is Deputy Editor of Free Inquiry and Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism.


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