Northern Ireland today is operating as a nonfunctioning state without local government leadership. It is being administered and financed by British politicians from London on a part-time basis since the North’s political leaders have been unable to agree on how to govern themselves.
The bigotry and bitterness that exist amongst its 1.8 million people go back centuries to the time when the British government began the resettlement of Presbyterian Protestants from Scotland to Catholic Ireland.
Then, when Ireland received independence in 1922, Britain decided to accommodate the descendants of the transplants, who were by then in complete control of the northernmost part of the island, by carving out a section for them that is today’s Northern Ireland. Rarely has a government decision caused so much heartache and killing as this one.
The “carve out” selected six counties of the nine counties of the Northern Ireland province of Ulster (the other three were too Catholic). The situation today is quite depressing. No one is winning, huge walls separate working-class Catholics and Protestants, except for government employees and the upper classes that the ordinary people never socialize with. This sort of sectarian isolation is rarely seen between Catholics and Protestants in the world today.
The new 1922 province was almost 70 percent Protestant, but with the Catholic birthrate ever rising, the Catholics are projected to be in the majority in 2021. This turn of the numbers has hardened attitudes and injected real fear in Protestant circles as to what will happen to their separate status on the island.
The Boston Globe recently published columns by two well-known experts on Northern Ireland who expressed real worry about the future.
Padraig O’Malley, an author and professor of peace and reconciliation studies at UMass Boston who has spent much time in Northern Ireland talking with its leaders, offered a pessimistic view of Northern Ireland’s situation in his April 5 column.
Kevin Cullen, a columnist for the Globe who is a talented and experienced observer of life in Northern Ireland, especially what goes on at street level, wrote a front page article on April 8 that discussed current attitudes and the frustrations of many.
The famous Good Friday agreement had its 20th anniversary last month in Belfast. It was designed to stop the violence and bring people together. The violence has largely stopped, but many of those who came to the celebration of the agreement saw trouble if the two sides do not come together. Former President Bill Clinton spoke of a “return to hell” if leaders don’t cooperate.
After the agreement was finalized in May 1998, the people of both the North and South were asked to vote to ratify the agreement. As expected, more than 90 percent of the people in the Republic of Ireland voted “yes.” What was especially gratifying for those who worked on the agreement was the vote of Northern citizens. Over 71 percent, or 676,966, of them voted to ratify the agreement. This was a great victory for good sense. It was hoped this would be the last of the troubles. But today, the walls separating people are still standing. Neighborhoods are still segregated, and, worst of all, government leaders can’t seem to agree on anything.
The Unionist side refuses to agree on the renewal of the Assembly that was set up to give everyone a voice in government. They are holding their breaths in anticipation of the Brexit-driven prospect of a hard and tight border with the South, reaffirming their separation from Ireland. Make no mistake, if there are benefits to Brexit, they are many in Britain and few in Ireland.
Sinn Fein appears to be holding fast, making no real agreements while apparently waiting for the next election when they may expect to do well.
It is impossible to predict what will happen. There does not appear to be any good alternatives with the sides displaying such obstinacy.
But we must hope.