The twentieth century saw some of the worst political violence in Northern Ireland, between 1969 and 1999, where almost some 3,500 people lost their lives. The root of the conflict in Ireland stemmed from the political division of the country in 1921. Often referred to as “the Troubles”, Ireland was divided into two: Northern Ireland with its six counties (which remained in the United Kingdom) and the republic of Ireland. The struggle has largely been fought over national, cultural and religious divisions, between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics. The Protestants in Northern Ireland primarily see themselves as British and have time and time again stated their support and allegiance to the United Kingdom (unionists). While most Catholics in Northern Ireland identify themselves as Irish, and have harboured dreams of a reunion with the republic of Ireland (nationalists).
For decades, the British and Irish governments have actively worked on bringing peace to the region, in particular a political settlement that would hold true and stay strong. After tireless years of work, the British and Irish governments, together with Northern Ireland’s political parties signed a peace agreement on April 10th 1998. Known as the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), its provisions in a nutshell specified that Northern Ireland would continue to be a part of the United Kingdom, for as long as the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished it. If and only when a majority of people residing in the six counties vote for a reunification with Ireland (as a whole) would Northern Ireland cease to exist.
The transfer of power from London to Belfast, in a power-sharing self-rule assembly, set up in Stormont Castle (Belfast) has been troubled, as the two major political parties, the unionist and nationalist, come to grips with the process. Since 1999 the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended several times over its short history, due to a loss of trust and confidence from both sides of the political divide. But as a work in progress, over the past twenty years, many still praise its desire and good will to succeed.
Interestingly, as Northern Ireland’s demographic continues to shift, some argue that a united Ireland might be a lot closer than we ever thought possible. From a Unionist perspective this might seem like the beginning of the end, especially since the Unionist parties lost their outright majority at Stormont in Assembly elections in 2017. However, in the end, the future of Northern Ireland will always remain in the hands of its voters. And so as long as a confidence to keep moving forward exists, anything is possible, especially if a majority of people see their foreseeable future as part of Ireland, and not the United Kingdom.
Photo credit: The header image of the Northumberland Street mural is used under the Creative Commons Atrribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. The image of Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness answering journalists’ question during a press conference in London, 26 February 1998, is licensed and used under Getty Images embedding service.