From 1969 to 1998, Northern Ireland was engulfed in a civil conflict known as The Troubles. The country—only a small section of the island of Ireland—was divided between two factions fighting over the Irish border: Protestant British Unionists and Catholic Irish Nationalists, represented by various militias and the Provisional IRA, respectively. Car bombs and military checkpoints were commonplace, while “peace lines” segregated neighborhoods by religion. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement brought the conflict to an end, legitimated by democratic referendums in the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but today that agreement is in trouble. A political row over Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol has erupted, pitting unionists and nationalists against each other once more over questions of the Irish border.
On a cold Sunday afternoon in January, 1972, as Europe entered a third decade of peace, British soldiers opened fire on a civil rights march in Northern Ireland.
60 people were shot, many in the back as they fled the terrible scene.
This was Bloody Sunday—yet another marker of the troubles—a gruesome civil conflict in Northern Ireland, that today could be restarted. Nationalists sought to join the island of Ireland under a single national government, while Unionists fought to remain united with Britain.
By the 1990s, thousands had perished. But in 1998, the warring parties achieved what just a few years earlier seemed impossible—a durable political settlement, ratified by a formidable majority of voters across the island.
Today, though, Northern Ireland’s remarkable peace is imperiled.
Fueled by the fear of losing hard-won commitments, a game of brinkmanship is unfolding in which Irish peace itself has been weaponized for political gain.
This is the story of an exceptionally strange island—a story that has much to teach us about how to find peace and the importance of democracy in sustaining it.
Chapter I: One Strange Colony
To really understand the current crisis in Northern Ireland, we have to go back, all the way to 500 AD.
Alright, just kidding. That’s probably too far back.
When you think of the English in the 17th century, you probably think of British colonialism:
trading empires and far-flung colonies spanning the globe.
You don’t think of colonies within Europe, but that’s exactly what happened to Ireland.
The English invaded the island, waged a brutal war of conquest, and replaced, as best they could, the native Irish Catholic population with thousands of Protestant settlers.
Ireland is different, because it was the only European victim of European settler-colonialism.
Centuries of oppression followed, as famines, genocides, and massacres drew a firm line of division.
On one side were the Protestant settlers and their descendants, who identified with Britain, owned most of the country’s land, and monopolized political power.
Opposite them were the catholic Irish, forced to pay rent on land they once called their own, forever dreaming of, and frequently fighting for, their own nation.
And by the beginning of the twentieth century, the low simmer of Irish resentment boiled over.
In the middle of World War I, Irish republicans rose up in resistance and waged a successful civil war.
But the island’s protestant population, terrified of becoming a powerless minority, demanded the Protestant-majority northern region of the island remain in the UK.
How they planned to maintain that majority in a demographic competition with, well, Irish Catholics, isn’t clear,
but their wish was granted, and the Irish Free State gained independence while ‘Northern Ireland’ remained part of the United Kingdom.
Fast-forward through World War II…
["What is your problem with the Irish?"
"You mean besides not being on our side in World War II?"
"Yeah, besides that—wait, seriously? They were Nazis?"
"Well, they're not Japanese..."
In the years following, England would pursue decolonization all over the world, but Ireland is different.
Almost nowhere else, out of more than 50 countries, would Britain carve off a piece like this to keep for itself.
Chapter II: Difference and Division
After the war, it seemed Europe was finally ready for peace.
Despite the onset of the Cold War, efforts such as the UN, Marshall Plan, and European Coal and Steel Community promised to deter conflict.
But Ireland is different.
For the now-minority catholic population caught north of the border, peace just meant powerlessness, as Protestant unionists denied them political and civil rights, gerrymandered them out of representation and rendered them second-class citizens.
In response, Irish nationalists started agitating against the dominant unionists, beginning a violent cycle of tit-for-tat escalation that, by the late 1960s, inaugurated the troubles.
Unionist forces committed massacres like “Bloody Sunday.” Nationalists, under the banner of the so-called Irish Republican Army, preferred car bombs.
In cities like Belfast, walls sprang up, breaking apart Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Almost 4000 people died in the low-boil civil war. For those who survived, trauma was a persistent memory.
At the same time, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland hardened, as barbed wire fences and watchtowers went up.
More than just an imposing physical presence, the border was a symbol of separation that inhibited unity and community ties, as it cut through towns, streets, and even homes.
The conflict seemed intractable.
Each side wanted something that the other fundamentally wasn’t willing to give up.
But in 1998, almost impossibly, the vicious combatants on both sides put down their arms.
Across the island, the Irish people of both countries voted overwhelmingly for a peace treaty.
Chapter III: A Taste of Unity
This was the Good Friday Agreement, and its genius was simple—everyone got some of what they wanted, but nobody got everything.
Its terms: no hard border on the island, more power in the Northern Irish legislature known as Stormont, and the government would be composed of both nationalists and unionists.
They’d have to learn to share.
Nationalists, who wanted an independent and unified Ireland, instead got a mostly independent government and the effective elimination of the Irish border.
Unionists, who wanted to maintain their political dominance and attachment to Britain, were still safe from being folded into the majority Catholic Irish Republic to the south, but in exchange agreed to share power with the Catholic minority in their own country.
And this genius has worked.
Since the agreement was signed, organized violence in the country has plummeted.
Economic exchange between the two Irelands has almost tripled, from £1.4B to £4.7B, enriching both nations and drawing them together, while the erasure of the border has literally saved lives by improving proximity of emergency medical care to more than 70,000 people living near the
It’s not just that the border no longer has guard towers and check points.
Not just physically, but politically, socially, economically, Ireland is more unified than it was prior to the agreement.
And most importantly, for the past 25 years, the agreement has survived.
Peace in Northern Ireland has persisted. Because Ireland is different.
In fact, between 1980 and 2010, Of the 78 countries worldwide that experienced ethno-religious conflict, only 20 reached power-sharing agreements.
But most of those fell through, some even resulting in genocides as, in the worst case, Rwanda.
Of the nine that created some lasting peace, only four achieved reasonable stability and preserved democratic integrity.
Chapter IV: Weaponizing Peace
[BBC Newscaster: "The British people have spoken, and the answer is, we're out."
ABC Newscaster "Global aftershocks after that vote in Britain."
David Cameron: "The British people have voted to leave the European Union, and their will must be respected."]
When the UK voted to Leave the European Union, Northern Ireland was dragged along, despite a majority of the province voting to remain. No longer could goods travel between the EU and the UK without customs checks at border crossings, and the Republic of Ireland was still in the EU. Now, there was a problem.
There had to be a border between the UK and Ireland somewhere. But a hard border on the island would be a violation of the Good Friday Agreement, a threat to its remarkable peace.
Instead, the UK drew a maritime border in the Irish Sea. But not all are satisfied with this solution.
Unionists see it as an unfair division between themselves and the rest of Britain, and they’ve chosen to hold the country’s legislature hostage until the border is removed.
In the most recent election, for the first time ever, Nationalists won the most votes, forcing the largest Unionist party into the junior position in the shared executive…except, when the Nationalists tried to form a government, Unionists used the Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing procedures to stonewall.
Parliament and Irish nationalists aren’t interested in violating the Good Friday Agreement, but unionists aren’t giving up their bargaining chip.
[Jeffrey Donaldson: We have taken the decision not to support the election of a speaker."]
Northern Ireland may be forced into a winter election, but the results aren’t likely to resolve the gridlock.
Chapter V: The Challenge
Such stubbornness is nothing new to Stormont, and Nationalists too have been guilty of the same. But not since 1998 has this kind of head-butting emerged from disputes over border policy—a subject at the heart of peace in Northern Ireland.
Ireland may be different, but this is normal, because power-sharing is hard.
The numbers themselves tell a story, but it’s only once you peek under the hood of how such agreements are made that it becomes clear why this is so challenging.
Two schools of thought are crucial to understand, and actually very simple: consociationalism and centripetalism. Consociationalism believes in establishing rigid guarantees for the power and participation of every relevant group—as the Good Friday agreement does—while centripetalism tries to form institutions which incentivize voluntary cooperation and compromise between groups.
Consociational agreements tend to suffer from immobilism, as stubborn actors exploit the rigidity of the system to stall government action to demand their way, endangering the agreement. Sound familiar?
Centripetalism, no silver bullet either, often results in a slow degradation of power-sharing, as the majority group exploits the agreement’s flexibility to erode inclusivity and increase its own power.
While both schools have their strengths and weaknesses, one component is always essential to maintaining peace—democracy. Popular approval is what granted the Good Friday Agreement the necessary weight to bring real peace, and lack of democratic accountability and representation is what drove the violence of the troubles in the first place. If Unionists today succeed in their efforts to tear up the 1998 treaty, the lesson learned once before may become obvious once more—that when normal democratic means are unable to resolve or manage political disagreement, things are bound to get ugly.
Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, by Robert C. Foster.
The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, by Diarmid Ferriter.
00:00 — “Bloody Sunday: What happened on Sunday 30 January 1972?,” via BBC
00:41 — “Database of Deaths Associated with Violence in Northern Ireland, 1969-2001,” via Michael McKeown
00:51 — “Good Friday Agreement: What is It?,” via BBC
00:53 — “The 1998 Referendums,” via Northern Ireland Elections
01:57 — Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, by Robert C. Foster (all Chapter I except where specified otherwise)
03:09 — “Catholics Outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the First Time,” via The Guardian
04:11 — The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, by Diarmid Ferriter (all Chapter II except where specified otherwise)
04:56 — “Database of Deaths Associated with Violence in Northern Ireland, 1969-2001,” via Michael McKeown
06:00 — “Good Friday Agreement: What is It?,” via BBC
06:46 — “The cruel peace: killings in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement,” via The Detail
06:51 — “Why the Irish Border Matters,” via The Atlantic Council
07:04 — The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, by Diarmid Ferriter
07:39 — 2013 Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture, via Donald Horowitz
08:23 — “EU Referendum: Northern Ireland votes to Remain,” via BBC
08:28 — “Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?” via BBC
09:14 — “Weaponizing a Peace Agreement | Insight,” via Spectacles
10:18 — 2013 Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture, via Donald Horowitz
“No Border, No Barrier,” via Sinn Fein
“Real archival footage from 1916 Easter Rising, Dublin,” via YouTube