To take a break from writing about the horrors in Ukraine, I went on a traditional music and culture tour of Ireland, led by the noted Irish musician, and former Philly resident, Mick Moloney.
Yet as I left on my trip, fears of new violence in Northern Ireland were reemerging. The impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union was threatening to undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of bloodshed.
However, many conversations with social activists, musicians, and ordinary folks in onetime Northern Ireland hot spots such as Armagh, Belfast, and Derry convinced me that the peace remains solid and can remain so — provided politicians in Belfast and London stop playing games.
I still remember the British watchtowers and checkpoints that marked the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland prior to the peace accord. The Good Friday Agreement required that the border stay open, so these days, you can’t tell when you are crossing, except for the change in highway numbers.
So long as the Republic and Northern Ireland were both in the European Union, there was no need for any customs barrier between them. But when the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, quit the EU, this created a need for a restored customs check. The conundrum was how to do so without restoring a hard border between the North and the Republic.
So in 2019, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reluctantly agreed to a special protocol that moved the customs checks to Northern Irish ports. The system isn’t perfect — Northern Irish Protestants complain it separates them from England — but the EU is willing to make adjustments. However, Johnson is now threatening to unilaterally scrap much of the protocol that he previously okayed.
“There were no such problems when we were all part of the European Union” was the complaint I heard from a group of young Irish professionals in Kennedy’s Pub in central Dublin. We had just arrived from Sweney’s, a tiny former pharmacy memorialized in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where they had been conducting a weekly reading of parts of the novel. “The Protestants shouldn’t have voted for Brexit,” they also insisted.
While in Dublin, I asked Thomas Byrne, the Irish minister of state for European Affairs, whether violence could flare again in the North from Protestants disgruntled over the protocol. “It depends on both governments, Ireland and the UK, working together,” he said. “The relationship is not as close as it should be.”
Byrne added that the refusal of the largest Protestant Party, the DUP, to take part in the Northern Ireland parliament until the border protocol was overhauled “feeds the uncertainty.” Without the DUP, this recalcitrance means that a Belfast government cannot be formed.
Sectarian splits remain, but no return to The Troubles
Yet none of the activists or performers we met — whether Protestant or Catholic — could imagine the situation returning to the levels of violence seen during The Troubles, the 30 years of fighting between British troops and Irish nationalists, and between Catholic and Protestant militants, that ended in 1998.
In Armagh, a town whose very name was once synonymous with The Troubles, we watched the Armagh Rhymers perform in a church garden. The world-traveled troupe uses an age-old folk tradition of masks, mummery theater, and music to bring Catholic and Protestant schools together at performances, given that most Northern Ireland schools still remain separated by sect. (One of the Rhymers, visiting American Caroline Joy Tatum, is doing her Ph.D. dissertation on Irish mumming, inspired by her Philly granddad who played banjo in the Ferko String Band.)
In Derry (which Protestants call Londonderry) — the town where the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre by British elite troops sparked The Troubles — relatives of the victims struggled for years to get the Brits to admit the victims were unarmed. Yet today, the city’s main focus is on reviving commerce and tourism inside the historic walled city. Most Protestant businesspeople were driven out by IRA attacks.
One symbol of changing times is Catholic attitudes toward the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a fraternal Protestant order. This group holds an annual parade to celebrate the end of the 1689 siege of Derry, then a Protestant stronghold, by the deposed Catholic King James II. This march was long viewed by Catholic nationalists as symbolic of British subjugation.
These days, most Catholics shrug off the Apprentice Boys’ parade atop the city wall.
Meanwhile, at the Siege Museum, Apprentice Boys spokesperson Stuart Moore told me: “Our biggest visitors are Catholic kids from Republic schools. This is on their curriculum. We have to get kids integrated at a younger age.”
Indeed, sectarian separation is still a big problem. Along the famous Falls Road that runs through the Catholic West Belfast, murals still pay tribute to the IRA, while gates and walls still separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
However, change is happening. Gerard Fusco, a Belfast Catholic who joined the IRA after Bloody Sunday and spent six years in a British prison, now works with Catholic youth to keep them from dying of drugs. “I don’t want to see another IRA,” he said. “I’m all about choices for young people. Bullets travel through time.”
David Scott, the outreach manager for the Grand Orange Order, considers himself British and worries about what would happen to Protestants if Ireland were reunified. But in the near term, he may not have to worry.
That’s because, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, the refrain I heard from Protestants and Catholics alike was similar: Unification is too complicated for it to happen any time soon.
Questions about unity remain
Although the Catholic nationalist party, Sinn Fein, won the most seats (a plurality) in recent elections in the North, many Northern Catholics are as worried as Protestants about the cost of integration. They all want to keep their free health insurance from the British National Health Service.
Others raise questions about where the capital would be — Dublin or Belfast — and what would happen to the Northern Ireland parliament. My drinking partners in Kennedy’s pub in Dublin asked whether the Republic would have to foot the bill to equalize the North’s poorer economy with the south. Apprentice Boys spokesperson Moore wondered what language would be taught in integrated schools and what narrative of history.
Yet no one I met wanted to return to the bad old days. Minister Byrne said the Republic is “trying to build stronger and stronger links in infrastructure, tourism, manufacturing, and dialogue” with the North. Tradespeople, workers, and hospital patients freely cross the border.
Like the statue of two men whose outstretched hands are nearly touching that stands by the River Foyle in Derry, things are moving in the right direction. Protestant and Catholic hands aren’t fully clasped yet. But if the politicians in Belfast and London stop playing games with the protocol, the process can proceed.