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Ireland's troubles: Northern Ireland's historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement has planted the seeds of peace between Catholics and Protestants, but a recent wave of street violence threatens to roll back the clock. (International).

One morning last July, 19-year-old Ciaran Cummings was standing by the road in Antrim, Northern Ireland, waiting for his daily ride to work, when he became a statistic. Two Protestant men pulled up on a motorcycle and shot him dead, because Ciaran was Roman Catholic.

Catholics and Protestants, enemies for centuries in Northern Ireland, have battled sporadically for years. The most recent round of fighting has been going on since 1969. Since then, nearly 3,700 people have been killed in the violence known as "the Troubles."

Ciaran (pronounced KEER-an) was the first victim of the Troubles in 2001. Until his murder last summer, things had been looking up. In 1998, Catholics and Protestants signed a historic peace plan known as the Good Friday Agreement, for the day in April when it was signed, and it seemed to be bearing fruit.

Its centerpiece is the fledgling government set up in the capital, Belfast, to rule Northern Ireland, with Protestants and Catholics sharing power. Politicians brought up on a lifetime of mutual hatred are making history by sitting down together and debating everyday issues like school curriculums and road construction.


"Things look more secure than they have in the past," says Sydney Elliott, a professor of politics at Queen's University in Belfast. He believes the days of major violence--like the bombings that terrorized much of Northern Ireland and England for years--will stay in the past.

Paradoxically, while Northern Ireland's new government is making progress, police say that the street violence and rioting in Belfast in the last six months are the worst in 20 years. Experts say it's because Protestants, who make up a majority of the population, haven't seen any concrete improvement in their lives since signing the Good Friday Agreement four years ago. "People are saying, 'Oh, what are the politicians doing? These politicians are only useful for shouting at one another,'" Elliott says. "The progress they've made in areas like health and education is not what's visible."

Since last summer, some people unhappy with the political changes have pushed small-scale violence to new heights in Belfast's rough residential neighborhoods. After Ciaran's murder, a rash of arson attacks on churches and Irish sports clubs erupted in parts of the Northern Irish countryside. At the same time, Protestants and Catholics began battling each other anew on the streets of Belfast. In September, residents of a Protestant neighborhood in the city screamed curses and hurled stones at young Catholic girls walking to elementary school while television news crews beamed the shocking scene around the world. Last month, two Protestant gunmen killed a Catholic mailman on the outskirts of northern Belfast.


When Ireland became independent of Britain in 1922, the British retained control over Northern Ireland, where Protestant sympathizers were the majority. In general, most Protestants want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. They are called unionists, or loyalists, for their loyalty to British rule. Most Catholics want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland. They are called nationalists, or republicans.

The reality of their differences, however, is both more complicated and more subtle than their religions. Instead, religion has evolved into a label defining the two communities as enemies.

Their antagonism hinges on issues that have been passed down for generations, ever since the British first opened Northern Ireland to Protestant settlers in the 17th century (see time line at right). For much of the next 200 years, the native Catholics were denied basic rights, such as the ability to own property. As late as the 1970s, Catholics lacked equal votes in local elections and equal consideration for jobs. As Catholics fought that discrimination, Protestants grew frightened of losing their traditional power. An us-versus-them mentality evolved and hardened.

The modern Irish Republican Army emerged in the 1970s as a violent Catholic response to what republicans saw as Britain's military occupation. The IRA assassinated police officers and British officials; bombed office buildings, hotels, and pubs across Northern Ireland and England; and sometimes even exercised its trademark brutality on Catholic communities in order to maintain control. Protestant paramilitary groups responded in kind against Catholics, although never with the same force as the IRA.


Amid this violent atmosphere, many Irish were shocked last October when the IRA began to finally make good on a three-year-old promise by destroying some of its massive arsenal of guns and plastic explosives. In a secret location with international observers as witnesses, the weapons were either cut into pieces or covered with cement.

That first act of disarmament started to fulfill the requirements of the 1998 peace agreement. But the IRA broke countless deadlines before it finally got around to destroying some weapons, and it still has large stockpiles. Many people are angry that its political wing, Sinn Fein (pronounced SHIN FAYN), is allowed to participate in the Belfast! government before disarmament is finished,

As a result, some people on both sides have lost faith in politics. Diehard unionists even want a return to "direct rule"--governance by the British, based in London. But now that the peace has largely held together for four years, community groups and business leaders don't want to give up its benefits. There is a new sense of accessibility and accountability among politicians these days, as those responsible for everything from trade policy to taxes to zoning laws are now based in Belfast, rather than London. "We're so near now to getting it right," says Tim Quin, head of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. "There's too much to lose if they throw this assembly and this government to the side."

The people who killed Ciaran--members of an illegal Protestant paramilitary group called the Red Hand Defenders--have not seen those benefits of peace. Instead, poor Protestant communities feel threatened. They see their Catholic neighbors enjoying new rights, and moving into traditionally Protestant areas--since there are now almost as many Catholics as Protestants in Northern Ireland. "A lot of people are totally disillusioned with the whole political situation," says Stuart McCartney, a Protestant community leader for one North Belfast neighborhood.

That disillusionment has prompted many in Northern Ireland to turn toward violence at a very young age. Many teenagers from poor areas on both sides of the conflict join paramilitary organizations that resemble American gangs. In the 1970s, Catholic youths joined the IRA to fight for their rights. Today, Protestant teens who feel alienated by the political changes taking place in Northern Ireland join groups like the Red Hand Defenders. "A lot of paramilitary people would be peer leaders to these kids," says Fred Cobain, a Protestant representative in the Belfast assembly.

The results have been deadly. Last November, 16-year-old Glen Hugh Branagh died while attending a riot organized by Protestant paramilitaries in North Belfast when a pipe bomb blew up in his hand.

In North Belfast, Catholic neighborhoods adorned with green, orange, and white Irish flags and IRA murals abut Protestant ones where the curbs are painted with the red, white, and blue of the British Union Jack. Here, rioting has become nearly a recreational activity. After dark, men and boys congregate on street comers, and the spots where Catholic and Protestant areas meet become battlegrounds. Crowds hurl beer bottles, chunks of brick, and even homemade explosives at each other through the dark. The local police and the British Army try to keep the crowds apart, but usually end up in the crossfire.

Some fear this kind of thuggish street violence threatens to derail the Good Friday Agreement, which has finally begun to bring normal life to much of Northern Ireland. Advocates of the peace process say the Belfast government needs to act fast to convince all of its citizens that peace is the right way forward. Elected officials in the towering Stormont parliament building on the outskirts of Belfast must make real progress on issues like education, jobs, and health care--issues that affect people's lives directly.

"The next 12 months are vital," Professor Elliott says. That may be just enough time to restore hope and to begin to build bridges between two communities that have known fear and hatred for so long.


The Northern Ireland conflict goes back centuries. Here are some key events.


England confiscates land in the north of Ireland and distributes it to British colonists. Most are Protestant, while the native Irish are Catholic.


Act of Union declares Britain and Ireland one country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.


A rebel uprising attempts to force the British out of Ireland, but fails. The rebels later become 1916 known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Years of bloodshed and guerrilla warfare follow.


The island is divided, with the predominantly Catholic South becoming the free state of Ireland. Northern Ireland, where Protestants have become the majority, remains united with Britain.


Catholic civil rights protests begin. The British Army responds by jailing protesters without trial.


British troops shoot dead 14 Catholic protesters at a Londonderry march on January 30, which becomes known as Bloody Sunday. The newly rejuvenated IRA demands freedom from Britain and representation for Catholics in Northern Ireland. Protestants fear that Catholics in the government would force a break with Britain and turn them into a minority in a united Ireland.


Peace initiatives fail, and 80 people die in IRA and Protestant bombings and attacks.


Dozens die in bombings, including a British Parliament member, as the IRA begins attacks in England.


President Bill Clinton visits Ireland, and urges Catholics and Protestants to work toward peace.


Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell negotiates with the factions, who sign the Good Friday Agreement in April.


In December, Britain turns over power to a new Northern Ireland government, with Protestants and Catholics sharing power.


After a series of standoffs, the IRA finally begins to destroy its stockpile of weapons in October.

FOCUS: A Wave of Violence Mars Efforts to Bring Peace to Northern Ireland


To help students understand the roots of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland and why it is so difficult to bring a permanent peace to the province.

Discussion Questions:

* In what ways does the conflict in Northern Ireland extend beyond the two sides' religious differences?

* How might government, religious, or community-service organizations work to persuade young people not to join paramilitary groups?

* The article says one of the benefits of peace is that the province's government is now in Belfast, rather than London. Why do you think this is a benefit?


Map Study: Look at the comparative sizes of Britain and Ireland and their proximity to each other. What role did geography play in relations between Britain and Ireland?

Critical Thinking: How many students have heard of the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland? Do news stories imply that the conflict is a religious war?

Note the last few lines of the main article on page 19. What does the writer mean when he says that religion has evolved into a "label" that helps people identify their enemies? Help students understand the power of labeling others by bringing the experience into their own worlds. Do Americans ever label people of other religions or races as somehow suspect? (Note the current debate over profiling of Arab-Americans.)

How does this labeling relate to the sense of identity passed from generation to generation? Tell students that over the centuries each side weaved stereotypes about the other--Catholics were lazy and untidy; Protestants dour, bigoted, humorless--that helped strengthen the antipathy.

Given this history, can Northern Ireland find peace? Professor Sydney Elliott says the new government must act quickly to convince people of the benefits of peace. Ask students to write TV ads for broadcast in Northern Ireland. The message: Why peace will benefit all in Northern Ireland.

Web Watch: See Project Children, an organization that brings Northern Irish Catholic and Protestant children together in the United States, at

BRIAN LAVERY covers Ireland for The New York Times. He is based in Dublin.
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Author:Lavery, Brian
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUUN
Date:Feb 11, 2002
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