Ireland's Uncertain Peace

A man walks past an IRA wall mural in Ardoyne, north Belfast, 2015.  (Cathal McNaughton/Courtesy Reuters)


Northern Ireland stutters and grumbles its way toward a peace which is still uncertain. April's Good Friday Agreement, whose signing in Belfast was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, did no more than sketch out a middle ground on which unionists and nationalists who reject violence might together govern this province of 1.6 million people. But that ground is still narrow. Although it has withstood one severe challenge this summer, it did so by a very Irish kind of luck. Another threat at least as bad is sure to come.

The referendum on the agreement gained the support of 71 percent of the province's voters. Most of the no votes were in the unionist camp, which makes up between 55 and 60 percent of the province. The unionists have many cavils with the agreement and the structure of the assembly it sets up. But most of all they are concerned and often enraged by the vast concessions being made to Sinn F‚in, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. The IRA has waged continuous war on the United Kingdom and on unionists for 30 years; many unionists cannot believe that it has given up and see in its acquiescence to the agreement a sly opening gambit in a war by other means.

The two toughest elements for the unionists to swallow are the release of terrorists, the majority of whom are republicans, and the entry into the provincial government of the two leading members of Sinn F‚in, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. These issues will have to be faced later this year, but already in July, only weeks after the appointment of a new first minister and his deputy, a quite different issue all but swamped the agreement. It is an issue that goes to the heart of the relationship between Protestants and Catholics, who roughly equate with unionists and nationalists. It is the matter of culture and its relationship to power.

At the core of militant unionism is

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