NORTHERN IRELAND: 'Peace Never Just Happens'

July 23, 2011

Northern Ireland has finally moved to shared leadership and peace. But why did it take so long? Student readings summarize the struggle and how peace was finally achieved. Suggestions for discussion, writing, and further inquiry follow.

Northern Ireland has finally moved to shared leadership and peace. But why did it take so long? The story of Northern Ireland offers students a chance to consider this question, and to develop some understanding of major conflict resolution principles in international disputes. The first student reading below summarizes the persistent struggle in Northern Ireland; the second considers how peace was finally achieved. The readings are followed by suggestions for discussion, writing and further inquiry.


Student Reading 1:

Ending force and hatred

"Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart."
—W.B. Yeats, "Easter, 1916"

"Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred."
—Leopold Bloom speaking in James Joyce's Ulysses

Millions of people around the world are living and dying through years and years of "force, hatred, history." Among the warring groups: Palestinians and Israelis; Russians and Chechens; Tamils and Sri Lankans; Sunnis and Shias in Iraq; black Africans and Arabs in devastated Darfur, Sudan; people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until recently Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland were also in a state of constant strife.

But on May 8, 2007, two men who had been enemies for decades were sworn in as leaders of a new power-sharing Northern Ireland government: The Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the Democratic Unionists, Northern Ireland's leading Protestant party; and Martin McGuinness, leader of the mainly Roman Catholic Sinn Fein ("we ourselves") Party.

The Protestants did not give up their longstanding desire for union with the United Kingdom. Nor did Sinn Fein adherents give up their desire for a union between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But both sides did give up their weapons and pledged to work peacefully for their aims through democratic processes.

The history of violence between Britain and Ireland can be traced to King Henry II's invasion of Ireland in the 12th century, the conquest of Ulster by British soldiers and, in the 13th century, Britain's forcible colonization of Ireland.The following very brief chronology summarizes a few of the major events in this 900-year history of conflict between Irish Protestants and Roman Catholics, particularly in the six Ulster counties that make up Northern Ireland.

14th and 15th centuries: The British colonization of Ireland gradually stopped, then reversed. British settlers were limited to a small area around Dublin.

16th century: Under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, Britain resumed its colonization of Ireland, confiscating lands and sparking several rebellions.

17th century: The British colonized Donegal in the north. Oliver Cromwell conquered all of Ireland. By the end of the century, Ulster, in particular, was heavily settled with Scottish Presbyterians. This set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of Ireland, which was predominately Roman Catholic. Catholics in Northern Ireland fought back against what they considered to be a seizing of their homeland. A very bloody century.

1916: Irish rebels seized the post office building in Dublin but were forced out by British soldiers. Fifteen of the rebels were executed.

1922: After an Irish guerrilla campaign, Britain agreed to establish the Irish Free State in the southern portion of Ireland. Roman Catholics in the north were furious, since the division left them with a British-linked Protestant majority that dominated the government.

1949: The south gained full independence as the Republic of Ireland we know today. Within a short time, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the military arm of Sinn Fein, attacked police stations, resuming the violence that would wrack Northern Ireland off and on for more than the next half century.

1968: Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, charging that the Protestant-led government discriminated against them, launched a movement for equal rights.

1969: Britain sent troops into Northern Ireland as sectarian fighting known as the "Troubles" began between Protestants and Catholics.

Protestant leader Rev. Ian Paisley denounced Roman Catholicism as "superstition" and called Pope John II "the Antichrist." He helped to establish and became the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Its motto: "Service ever. Surrender never." He declared in an interview with the BBC, "All I can say is that I'll not be changing. I will go to the grave with the convictions I have." Paisley was suspended for a time from the House of Commons as well as jailed for promoting a riot.

Meanwhile, Catholic Martin McGuinness took up arms against the British occupation and in time became commander of the Irish Republican Army. He declared, "I am a member of the Derry Brigade of Oglaigh na Eireann [IRA] and am very, very proud of it." In 1974 he was jailed for terrorism. He denounced as "disgraceful" IRA leaders who wanted to work for a ceasefire.

1972: On "Bloody Sunday" in January 1972 British troops shot dead 13 Catholic protesters after they violated a prohibition against marching in Londonderry. On "Bloody Friday" in July of the same year, 22 bombs ripped through Belfast, the capital.

Car bombings, shootings, murders, kidnappings and grenade explosions as well as bitter hatred between Protestants and Catholics marked life for years in Northern Ireland. Thirty-seven hundred people were killed, some in bomb attacks in England.

Change came very, very slowly. To a possible 1985 accord with the IRA, Paisley said "Never. Never. Never." But on April 10, 1998, the two sides accepted a "Good Friday" agreement that gave Catholics a share of the Northern Ireland government and the Republic of Ireland a voice in its affairs. Both sides agreed to give up all weapons. But the IRA refused do so until the new government was assembled. Ulster Unionists insisted upon disarmament first.

Reversing himself, McGuinness played the major role in a 1994 IRA ceasefire. But by 2000 the violence had resumed and continued off and on until the 2007 settlement.

2007: A new coalition government is formed. Rev. Ian Paisley said, "Today we salute the innocent dead members of both religions, Protestant and Roman Catholic, strong in their differing political beliefs male and female, children and adults, all innocent victims of the terrible conflict. I believe that Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule."

McGuinness said, "We know that this will not be easy and the road we are embarking upon will have many twists and turns." He wished Paisley "all the best" and declared himself confident that they could work together.

Many people were responsible for the historic Northern Ireland agreement, including Ireland's Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. Ahern himself said Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, who persisted for 10 years to achieve a permanent settlement, had been the key force behind the agreement. (,, and

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What "too long a sacrifice" might have made "a stone of the heart" in Northern Ireland's people? (Yeats) What effects do you think force and hatred, not life, have for men and women? (Joyce)

3. How would you explain the changes of heart in Paisley and McGuinness?


Student Reading 2:

"Enduring peace is worth the wait"

Below are excerpts from an article by Richard Haass and George Mitchell about the recent settlement in Northern Ireland (from the International Herald Tribune, 5/7/07, Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and United States envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process. George Mitchell is a former U.S. Senate majority leader who led the Northern Ireland negotiations from 1996-1998 that produced the "Good Friday" agreement. Their article states what they view as the chief principles that can lead from violence to politics and peace.

"Those who would shoot or bomb their way to power must be prevented from doing so if they are ever to turn from violence to politics. At the same time, making sure that violence will not succeed is not enough. They must also come to believe that a true political path exists, one that will allow them to realize enough of their agenda to persuade their followers to turn away from violence.

Negotiations are essential. Peace never just happens; it is made, issue by issue, point by point.

In the case of Northern Ireland, it was right to make a cease fire a prerequisite. Killing and talking do not go hand in hand. But is was also right not to require that parties give up their arms or join the police force before the talks began.

Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken. Parties should be allowed to hold onto their dreams. No one demanded of Northern Ireland's Catholics that they let go their hope for a united Ireland. No one required of local Protestants that they let go of their insistence that they remain a part of the United Kingdom.

They still have those goals, but they have agreed to pursue them exclusively through peaceful and democratic means. That is what matters.

Finally, diplomacy cannot be unrealistically rushed. The Northern Ireland negotiations succeeded nine years after the Good Friday Accord was signed-and the Good Friday Accord itself only came about after years of intense negotiations and decades of violent "troubles."

Leaders take time to accept that they must give up armed struggles and to sign on to compromise. It also takes time for supporters to follow. The good news is that enduring peace is worth the wait."


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Consider each of the key principles that Haass and Mitchell view as leading from violence to politics and peace. How does each apply to the Northern Ireland agreement? How would you apply them to one of the conflicts noted in the first paragraph of the first reading?


For writing

Write a paper in which you reflect upon a significant conflict in your life that was resolved peacefully. Describe it, then name and discuss the key principles you think produced agreement.

For inquiry

Students, individually or in small groups, might select any one of the following for investigation. They should begin by making a preliminary study of the subject and preparing a clearly worded question to guide their inquiry.

1. A key moment in the British-Irish conflict-e.g., Henry II's invasion of Ireland, the 17th century wave of British Protestants who immigrated to Ireland, any of the Irish rebellions (for example, Easter 1916), the formation of Sinn Fein and the IRA or the Democratic Unionist Party

2. A key historic figure in the conflict-e.g., Robert Emmet, Charles Stewart Parnell, Gerry Adams

3. Some element of Northern Ireland's "Troubles," beginning about 1969

4. Key ingredients in any of the conflicts named in the opening paragraph of the first reading

5. How a past civil conflict was settled-e.g., within Yugoslavia after its breakup, between the Algerians and French, within Cambodia

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: