Flashbacks March 2007

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland

Atlantic writings from 1916 through the 1980s offer perspective on just how momentous a development this is.
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After years of strife, the Protestant and Catholic parties of Northern Ireland have reached an agreement to rule jointly beginning May 8. Given the longstanding and violent animosity between these two groups, the new resolution is an historic event. A look back at Atlantic writings from 1916 through the 1980s offers perspective on just how momentous a development this is.

In April, 1916, in the midst of World War I, Irish revolutionaries attacked the British army in Dublin, declaring an Irish Republic free from British rule. In December of that year, Henry W. Massingham wrote "Ireland, 1916—And Beyond." In it, he addressed the political reasons for the revolt—and its possible ramifications. "Had time marched a little slower," he suggested, "had Anglo-Irish reconciliation gone a little further, all might have been well... But there were violently hostile elements." With these elements in mind, Massingham proposed a plan for Ireland's political future:

Absolute independence is a dream. But independence on the scale or after the likeness of Canada, or New Zealand, in which thousands of Irishmen have a share, is no dream, but a possible, and even a near, reality. Only in this way do we attain a solution of the mixed problem of nationality and empire....

Writing in September of 1970, Brian Moore, in his article "Bloody Ulster: An Irishman's Lament," described the North bleakly as he examined the potential efficacy of a burgeoning civil-rights movement in this "backward fief of a conservative oligarchy." Moore, a Catholic disillusioned by the strife on the streets of Belfast, drew this conclusion:

Our Ulster government is incapable of change: we are incapable of founding another. We must now become wards of the English state. England must, at last, accept its responsibility toward us, which is to rule us, directly, totally, as part of that "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" which our passports proclaim us to be. Forever and ever. Amen.

In January of 1972, thirteen civil-rights protesters were shot and killed by British paratroopers in the Northern Irish city of Derry. In articles appearing in May of that year, Denis Donoghue ("The View from Dublin") and Mary Manning ("A Visit To Belfast,") both examined the context of this event, ever after known as "Bloody Sunday," and the perilous political period that followed.

Writing from different perspectives, both authors portrayed the situation in Ulster as a desperate one. Donoghue described the Northern Irish government as "a grossly unrepresentative institution, the result of intransigence and electoral corruption." He also offered little hope for peace among Catholics and Protestants:

The hostility between the murderers is tribal warfare, the result of aboriginal enmities so deeply rooted now that they have become instinctual. If the situation in Northern Ireland is incorrigible, the main reason is that the passions engaged on both sides are primitive forces, operating far below the level of intelligence and debate.

Manning, in Northern Ireland as a theater critic, gave a haunting depiction of Belfast as "a dying city, a broken city, a city almost without hope." She described a community tormented by riots, nightly car-bombings, and undisguised sectarian hatred.

All I could think of as I sat on the train ... was the shortest verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept." And I didn't know then that thirteen people were to die in Derry that day.

More than ten years later, in May, 1986, Padraig O'Malley wrote "Ulster: The Marching Season." O'Malley wondered how durable the historic Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 would be in light of the upcoming marching season—the period in early July in which Unionists display their loyalty to the British crown with parades that sometimes turn violent. The Agreement was a landmark: it officially recognized the right of the Irish government to participate in the political affairs of Northern Ireland while also ensuring that the region would remain a part of Great Britain as long as the majority of its citizens voted to keep it that way. Its ultimate success, however, would be judged "on the extent to which ... it promotes peace and stability ... and helps to reconcile the Protestant and Catholic communities." O'Malley suggested that its ability to do so would likely be challenged by extremists on both sides:

It is a pathetic irony of the conflict: Protestants vowing to make Northern Ireland ungovernable in order to maintain the union with Great Britain, the IRA vowing to make Northern Ireland ungovernable in order to break the union with Great Britain.

This irony has helped cripple the North's political institutions in the past. It remains to be seen whether the new power-sharing agreement can overcome this troubled legacy, or if democracy will once again fall victim to sectarian hatred.

—Timothy Lavin

Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.
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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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