Violence in Northern Ireland causes unexpected unity

The Irish call it the Troubles. The capital ‘T’ refers to the period of violent unrest spanning from the 1960s to 1998, which saw the signing of the Belfast Agreement. The agreement established shared political power between the two major warring factions.

“I think the agreement that was set up between the two (factions) and the economic boom that Ireland has seen over the past five, six years up until this global collapse was positive, maintaining the peace,” said Robert Duncan, assistant professor of political science.

The factions in question were Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist political groups. Northern Ireland makes up approximately a sixth of the total area of the island of Ireland.

The rest of the island is the Republic of Ireland, which, unlike Northern Ireland, is not a part of the United Kingdom. Nationalists wished to distance themselves from British influence and rejoin the independent Republic of Ireland, while unionists fought to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Although relations between the two factions are better than they have been in decades, the cultural divide still runs deep. Disagreement carries both religious and ancestral overtones. Republicans are predominantly Roman Catholic, descended from the indigenous people of Ireland, while unionists are largely Protestant and trace their roots to the English, Scottish, Welsh, and French settlers in Ireland.

While the two major nationalist political parties, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party have functioned cooperatively within Northern Ireland politics, radical splinter groups unaffiliated with the parties have sporadically caused trouble in local areas.

“The kinds of things (dissidents) are doing now is what the Provisional IRA, which was led by Martin McGuinness, was doing 15 years ago,” said Kevin Toolis, political commentator and author of a study on the IRA, according to The Washington Post.

The continued British army presence in Northern Ireland has caused resentment among these splinter groups.

To this end, gunmen attacked a British army base in Belfast on March 7, killing two soldiers and wounding four more. Some have expressed fear that the incident could restart the violence of the Troubles.

“(These splinter groups) are traitors to the island of Ireland,” said Martin McGuinness, former commander of the Irish Republican Army and current leader of Sinn Féin, according to The Washington Post. “They have betrayed the political desires, hopes and aspirations of all of the people who live on this island, and they don’t deserve to be supported by anyone.”

McGuinness went on to express his support for the British police force in an unprecedented expression of solidarity with his Protestant counterpart Peter Robinson.

Robinson and McGuinness had planned to travel to the White House to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on March 10, but had to postpone the trip due to the unexpected escalation of violence.

“It breaks my heart,” said Duncan. “There are always going to be a few malcontents who won’t give peace a chance, for whom violence is all they know, and it destroys the hope of the larger population. (But) one of the good things is the almost universal rejection of the violence. Protestants and Catholics are coming together to condemn these few idiots. This is a good sign.