History says, ‘Don't hope
On this side of the grave.’
But then, once in a lifetime,
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
(from The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney)
The conflict in Northern Ireland is in many ways a paradox. The region has adequate resources and, although it has been a rather marginal area of the British Isles, is nonetheless quite affluent compared to most of the rest of the world. The people are invariably described as friendly and hospitable and to outsiders they seem to form a homogeneous community. The United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part, is a functioning democracy where it might be argued there is no need for violence in order to bring about political change. What kind of problem can make people with this background engage in a thirty-year violent struggle against their neighbours and produce some of the most effective militant groups of modern times?
Northern Ireland challenges the assumption that conflicts only occur in underdeveloped countries where tribal loyalties are more important than citizenship, where there is a limited democratic tradition and where there are massive problems of poverty and inequality. There have, of course, been other conflicts in Western Europe since the Second World War including the Basque country and Corsica, but apart from perhaps Cyprus few have been so bitter and none as long-lasting.
Although there have been issues, such as discrimination in housing and employment, electoral manipulation and religious histories, which have separated the two sides, the conflict can be stripped down to the core issues of the balance of power, relations between the communities, and questions of governance. It is rooted in the struggle of one part of the community for an independent and unified Ireland and hostility to that struggle from the other part of the community wanting to remain within the United Kingdom.
For the people living in Northern Ireland the situation has proved so intractable because of a vivid awareness of past attitudes and behaviour and the fear that these will be replicated in the future. Their concerns about the past and the future in turn govern and limit their present conduct and reconfirm the belief that opponents have learnt nothing from the past: they have not and will not change. It is important to appreciate these perceptions and relationships in order to understand the processes, mechanisms and proposals which were needed to allow the parties to negotiate the Belfast Agreement in April 1998 and to understand the continuing hesitation and opposition to completing this process.
The conflict is complex because of the number of actors involved, both inside and outside Northern Ireland. The states most directly affected are the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Ireland began to come under English influence and control from the twelfth century when Anglo–Norman knights were invited to assist Irish chieftains in a local conflict. Hadrian IV, the only English Pope, then issued the papal bull Lauda Abiliter in 1155–56 allowing Henry II to conquer Ireland. Eventually the country became an integrated part of the United Kingdom. Since then there has always been some level of resistance to English and later British involvement in Ireland. In the early years of the twentieth century the demands for independence became overwhelming following the Easter rising of 1916. In 1921, after a nationalist revolt, the major part of the island became a separate state under the terms of the Anglo–Irish Treaty of 1921. This confirmed the partition of Ireland into the largely Catholic Irish Free State and Northern Ireland where the majority Protestant community wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. Until recently, colonial history continued to influence the attitudes of the English and the Irish towards each other (with the Scots and Welsh less involved) and to dominate relationships between the two governments. At the extremes of these intercultural relations the English displayed an underlying sense of superiority towards the Irish, who in turn struggled to overcome a sense of inferiority and impotence at their inability to prevent the partition of the island.