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Are "the troubles" over? Hopes are high that an agreement between Catholic and Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland will bring years of hostility and violence to an end.

For the last three decades, Northern Ireland has been torn apart by sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. But a landmark agreement reached in March may finally end the conflict.

Under the terms of the deal, Britain will hand back responsibility for running many of Northern Ireland's internal affairs to a local administration composed of Protestants and Catholics. Northern Ireland will, how ever, remain a province of the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future.

"The word historic has to be used," says Brian Feeney, a historian at St, Mary's University College in Belfast.

It is hoped that the new power-sharing government will end a 30-year cycle of sectarian violence known as "the troubles." More than 3,700 people, including many civilians, have been killed by bombings, shootings, and other acts of violence carried out by paramilitary groups on both sides.

The agreement was welcome news in the U.S., where more than 34 million Americans have Irish ancestry.

"Peace and prosperity are the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland," says Christopher Cahill of Pace University's Institute for American Irish Studies in New York, "and the American-Irish role in promoting that idea has been significant."

500 YEARS OF TENSIONS

Tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland date from the early 16th century, when Catholic Ireland was brought under the rule of Protestant England during the reign Of King Henry VIII. In the early 17th century, British policy encouraged working-class Protestants (mostly from Scotland) to settle in the north of Ireland, creating a Protestant majority there that exists to this day.

When Ireland won its independence from Great Britain in 1921, the treaty called for the six Protestant-majority counties of the north to remain part of the United Kingdom (see timeline). Most of Northern Ireland's minority Catholic population is suspicious of the Protestant majority and would like to be part of the Republic of Ireland--which is why they're called republicans. Most of the Protestants, however, are determined to remain a part of the U.K., which is why they're known as unionists. (The British government's policy is that the people of Northern Ireland should ultimately decide whether they remain part of the U.K. or unite with Ireland.)

This is the fundamental conflict that underlies "the troubles," the cycle of violence that erupted in the late 1960s.

CIVILIANS TARGETED

The best known of the paramilitary groups is the provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.), which began as a group that fought for Irish independence from Britain. The I.R.A. carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. starting in the 1960s, including bombing the Houses of Parliament in London in 1974 and assassinating Lord Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth II's uncle, in 1979.

Protestant paramilitary groups were behind shootings and bombings in Belfast, bombings in Dublin and elsewhere in the Republic of Ireland, and many assassinations.

For most of the last three decades, the threat of violence for civilians was very real--not only in Northern Ireland, but also in the Irish Republic and across Britain. Pubs, shops, and subway stations were frequently targeted, creating a widespread atmosphere of fear.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton intensified efforts to push both sides to the negotiating table. In 1998, the Clinton administration envoy, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, brokered what is known as the Good Friday agreement. It created a 108-member Assembly and 14-member executive council composed of both Catholics and Protestants. It also called for the disarmament of the I.R.A. and other paramilitary groups, and consultation with the Republic of Ireland on issues of common concern.

While the Good Friday accord created a framework for peace, hammering out the details and implementing all the provisions has been a long, slow process, culminating in the power-sharing agreement in March. Northern Ireland's new local government is scheduled to assume power on May 8.

Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the power-sharing agreement.

"This won't stop republicans being any less republican or nationalist, or making unionists less fiercely unionist," Blair said in March. "But what it does mean is that people will come together, respecting each other's point of view, and share power, [and] make sure politics is only expressed by peaceful and democratic means."

By Eamon Quinn in Belfast

NORTHERN IRELAND

TIMELINE

1921

THE IRISH REPUBLIC

Anglo-Irish Treaty establishes the Irish state, The six counties of Northern Ireland, which are largely Protestant, remain part of the United Kingdom.

1966

"'THE TROUBLES" BEGIN

Years of tensions erupt into rioting, and in the violence that follows, two Catholics and a Protestant are killed by a unionist group. This begins the cycle of sectarian violence.

1969

VIOLENCE ESCALATES

Militant I.R.A. members who favor violence to pursue their goal of Irish unification break away from the original I.R.A. Protestant paramilitary groups also begin organizing.

Jan. 30, 1972

"BLOODY SUNDAY"

British troops sent to quell rioting at a Catholic civil, rights march in Derry kill 14 marchers. More Catholics then join the I.R.A. and the British deploy more troops to contain the violence.

July 21, 1972

"BLOODY FRIDAY"

Within 65 minutes, the I.R.A. detonates more than 20 bombs in bus and train stations and other civilian targets in Belfast. Eleven people are killed and 130 injured.

1985

ANGLO-IRISH AGREEMENT

Confirms that Northern Ireland will remain part of the U.K. as Long as that is the will of the majority. For the first time, the Irish Republic is given a rote in Northern Ireland's affairs.

1998

GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT

Brokered by U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the accords call for Catholics and Protestants to share local power. The deal is overwhelmingly approved by voters in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

May 2007

POWER-SHARING

Joint administration of Northern Ireland's local government by Protestants and Catholics is set to begin on May 8.

BACKGROUNDS

Three decades of violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland may be coming to an end with the March agreement on sharing power in the province. But division remains on one critical issue: whether Northern Ireland should join the Irish Republic or continue as part of the United Kingdom.

CRITICAL THINKING 1

* Students may wonder how religious differences can fuel such bitterness. Discuss how religion and politics are intertwined in Northern Ireland's long debate over unification with the Republic of Ireland or remaining part of the U.K.

* Can students imagine religious divisions like Northern Ireland's in the U.S.? [What would the U.S. be like if there was still pervasive bigotry against Catholics, Jews, and other religious groups, as there was during much of U.S. history?]

CRITICAL THINKING 2

* Ask students to identify another religious-political conflict in the news (Shiite-Sunni violence in Iraq]. Discuss how religious differences can evolve into violence. (Like the Catholic-Protestant conflict, religious differences in Iraq involve long-term grievances over discrimination and political power.)

DISCUSSION QUESTION

* Given that the ultimate goals of both sides are so different, do you think the new power-sharing agreement will allow people to "come together, respecting each other's point of view," as Prime Minister Tony Blair suggests?

WRITING PROMPT

* Write a brief "report" to students in Northern Ireland explaining why religious differences in your community do or do not affect your life.

FAST FACT

* The first religiously integrated school opened in 1981 in Belfast. Today, there are 61 such schools, but more than 90 percent of students attend religiously segregated schools.

WEB WATCH

www.bbc.co.uk /northernireland/learning /history/index.shtml Key events in Northern Ireland history, starting in 1690.

1. The agreement signed in Belfast in March requires Britain to

a mediate any disputes between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority.

b keep troops stationed in Northern Ireland.

c hand back responsibility for running many of Northern Ireland's internal, affairs to a local government composed of Catholics and Protestants.

d set a date for withdrawing British troops from Northern Ireland.

2. Explain what the term "the troubles" means in the context of Northern Ireland. --

3. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants

a have increased and decreased, depending on who was in office in London.

b decreased following the independence of the Republic of Ireland in 1921.

c can be traced to the 16th century, when England gained control, of Ireland.

d are rooted in their differing religious beliefs.

4. The main dispute between Catholics and Protestants is whether the province should

a become part of a united Ireland.

b become an independent nation.

c continue funding religious education

d continue religious segregation in most schools.

5. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement creating a power-sharing body similar to today's

a was rejected by most people in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

b created a framework for peace, but working out the details has been hard.

c expired in 2004.

d allowed Britain and Ireland jointly to administer Northern Ireland's internal affairs.

IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS

1. Why do you think religious differences have historically prayed such a key role in conflicts around the world?

2. Although most Catholic and Protestant children in Northern Ireland attend separate schools, since 1981 there has been a movement toward integrated education. Explain why you believe--or do not believe--that religiously integrated schools will help bring peace to Northern Ireland.

ANSWER KEY

1. [c] hand back responsibility for handling many of Northern Ireland's internal affairs to a local government composed of Catholics and Protestants.

2. Thirty years of Catholic-Protestant conflict and violence. [Similar wording is acceptable.]

3. [c] can be traced to the 16th century, when England gained control of Ireland.

4. [a] become part of a united Ireland.

5. [b] created a framework for peace, but working out the details has been hard.
STATEMENTS TO READ CORRECT RESPONSE

ARE "THE TROUBLES" OVER?

1. Northern Ireland is part of What is the United Kingdom?
 this country.
2. Two-word term for the March agreement. What is power sharing?
3. Minority religious group that favors Who are Catholics?
 unification with the Republic of
 Ireland.
4. Century Ireland came under English What is the 16th century?
 rule.
5. Current British Prime Minister. Who is Tony Blair?


Eamon Quinn reports from Ireland for The New York Times. Additional reporting by Patricia Smith.
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Quinn, Eamon
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 7, 2007
Words:1709
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