Northern Ireland: A Post-conflict Society 25 Years On

by Russell Coates

On April 10, 1998, 25 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish governments and political leaders, both unionist and nationalist. For the most part, this historic peace agreement based on compromise and cooperation brought an end to 30 years of conflict – a period known as the Troubles.

I was a young child at the time, part of a generation that grew up firmly expecting things to get better as we moved further away from the Troubles. Indeed, the way of life changed significantly in the post-conflict era that followed, as the bombs, shootings, riots, and military checkpoints gave way to a still tense, but far more “normal” civil society. 

Northern Ireland endured a long and nasty conflict

For 30 years, a small minority of people involved in various paramilitary groups had fought brutal bombing campaigns in the name of their rival political causes. Without going into the historical roots of the tensions in Ireland, the Troubles can be summarised as involving different groups fighting variously for a united Ireland by any means possible or maintaining Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom at all costs, with the British military and local police force also involved in the conflict.

The Troubles have often been oversimplified as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants due to a broad overlap between political and religious affinity, but the conflict was far more political than religious in nature.

Although often passionate about one cause or the other, most people wished to go about their lives undisturbed by violence. But it was hard to ignore the horrors that were unfolding on a daily basis and the militarised environment. The conflict saw over 3,500 dead and around 50,000 wounded, which is far from insignificant for a region of less than two million people. For many years, people lived in a state of tension and fear. 

The border areas, including where I was born, were particularly badly affected during this time. Many border roads were sealed off or destroyed, with communities on either side largely cut off except by taking huge detours. Naturally, trade was greatly disrupted. Indeed, during the Troubles, the entire province suffered economically.

However, the peace process brought change and hope. Paramilitaries put down their weapons, roads reopened, military watchtowers disappeared, trade increased, and attitudes softened somewhat.

1998 to 2016: slow progress

The period from 1998 to 2016 saw gradual economic and social progress that can best be appreciated in hindsight. Although it was slower progress than many of us hoped for, it still seemed as though things would keep improving towards an increasingly secure peace and a more prosperous society, liberated from the horrors of the past.

More than just a peace agreement, what political leaders signed up to in 1998 had lofty ambitions of enabling a more pluralistic society, where different political and cultural perspectives could be equally respected, at least in theory. In reality, many prominent voices in politics have continued to promote divisive and inflammatory narratives.

Nonetheless, in a relatively short space of time, the border became porous and almost invisible, nearly to the point of irrelevance for people of my generation. Instead of worrying about long delays and checkpoints, the main issue became making sure to carry enough change of each currency in our wallets. All of Ireland, north and south, became increasingly integrated – physically, economically, and socially.

Businesses were able to operate far more seamlessly throughout the region, spanning both jurisdictions. Trade and collaboration opened up new opportunities. Tourists, who often previously avoided the north out of fear, could now visit the whole island. For many people, tribalistic national, religious, and political identities softened and became more nuanced.

Yet, for someone who grew up in mixed and moderate circles in matters of religion and politics, any change in societal attitudes still seemed far too slow for my liking. This was especially apparent to me when returning as a young adult in 2014 after living abroad. It was only after experiencing other cultures that I fully realised how abnormal and tragic it is to have a society still largely divided along the lines of a conflict. My sentiment is shared by many here who have spent time overseas. 

The sluggish social change was certainly not helped by the dysfunctional political system in Northern Ireland. Far too often, divisive and polarising rhetoric is used to rally support while points of contention boil over into the collapse of political institutions. 

Still, the expectation that things would continue to improve remained.

Facing new challenges

Then, in 2016, an unexpected challenge emerged. A majority across the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. In Northern Ireland, a majority voted to remain, but even had this been unanimous, it would not have made a difference, given the gulf in population sizes.

Regardless of your thoughts on Brexit, it is undeniable that the way in which negotiations unfolded in the subsequent years generated immense anxiety across all of Ireland, most especially in the border regions. Either way, the status quo would be shaken up, and trade would be impeded in one way or another, across the island of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

As it transpired, the type of Brexit chosen by the British government meant that some checks at Northern Irish ports would have to be implemented. 

This option, the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed between the UK and the EU, was chosen as a lesser evil to avoid imposing a hard border along hundreds of roads throughout the border region and to allow free circulation across Ireland to continue unhindered.

Nonetheless, the very fact of some checks being required on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has led to anger in unionist circles over fears that it undermines Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom. Tensions flared on occasion as hardline groups threaten a return to violence unless the Northern Ireland Protocol is scrapped. 

Meeting these demands would have been completely impractical, however, as the only plausible alternative is the even more unwelcome and unworkable idea of reinstating a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In late February 2023, some modifications to the Northern Ireland Protocol were agreed in principle by the British Government and the European Union in the form of the Windsor Framework. This will alleviate some of the additional checks, and is a welcome step in that it addresses many grievances. However, it remains to be seen whether the political institutions will recover towards some semblance of normality.

Regardless of the outcome, the increasingly tense political climate in recent years will have lasting effects on progress as a post-conflict society and many more hurdles are likely to appear that will take time to overcome.

But the peace is not that fragile. Thankfully, regardless of people’s political or religious affiliation, there is a near-unanimous consensus against a return to how things were during the Troubles. 

25 years of relative peace and slow progress have changed the way of life for people in Northern Ireland. Generations have grown up with a different perspective. While some people still cling to bitterly sectarian views, almost nobody would be willing to kill and wreak havoc for their cause at this point.

In the past, it was always a small but prominent minority of people who engaged in violence, but today, that minority is much smaller still. People on both sides of the border and from different political factions have enjoyed the new freedoms that peace has offered.

Whether as part of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, the greatest challenges will be to ensure that individuals with different perspectives and identities can thrive here, that trade can continue as seamlessly as possible, and that all parties involved can cooperate to work in the interests of stability and prosperity.

Ultimately, trade, cooperation, and prosperity are the greatest shields against the potential for conflict.

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