Northern Ireland’s Fragile Peace

by Kate van Liere
Painted building with the text "You are now entering Free Derry." In the background, another building is painted with the image of a soldier in gas mask.
Republican murals in Derry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

This past Easter season witnessed many tragic outbursts of sectarian hatred around the globe, from slaughter of Sri Lankan Christians on Easter Sunday to the Passover shooting at a San Diego synagogue by a Christian white supremacist two days later. In Ireland—where my husband Frans and I spent ten days of our spring break from our semester in York, England—another cruel murder took place three days before Easter. On Maundy Thursday, the young Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee was shot in the head during street violence in the Northern Irish city of Derry. This killing stunned the world, as it raised the specter of a return to the time of “the Troubles” that had erupted fifty years ago and subsided only in the 1990s.

We heard the news of McKee’s death on our car radio while driving through the Republic of Ireland. It shocked us, because the day before we had walked through Derry, and from its picturesque city walls we had seen the neighborhood where she was killed. The once infamous place had looked tranquil and welcoming. In January 1972, in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre, British soldiers had shot 26 unarmed protesters about a mile from where McKee was shot, killing 14.

Memorial plinth with flowers and wreaths.
Bloody Sunday memorial. Photo by Kate van Liere.

But it seemed to us on our short visit that the peace process sealed in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had succeeded in transforming this once violent city into a peaceful and prosperous town. A gleaming “peace bridge” built in 2011 (with over £14 million in European Union funds) now symbolizes the hope for unity by bringing Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods on opposite banks of the Foyle River closer together. The transformed neighborhoods on both banks felt surreally peaceful: on the west bank, the historic city center with its seventeenth-century defensive walls looks like an outdoor museum, and on the east bank, a large British army garrison is being redeveloped into a classy public park with upscale restaurants and the most elegant underground parking lot I have ever seen.

The next day’s news made us realize that we had not seen the whole picture.

Landscape showing bridge and Derry skyline.
Peace Bridge in Derry/Londonderry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

McKee’s killers were renegade Irish republicans associated with the “New IRA,” which rejects the 1998 peace agreement and still sees violence as the only way to reunite northern with southern Ireland and end British rule in the north. The bullets that killed her were meant for the local police, who were searching the Creggan neighborhood that night for weapons. They had been advised that groups like the New IRA might be planning violence to mark the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, the start of Ireland’s armed independence struggle against British rule.

Why the recent resurgence of violence in this region? The prospect of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, poses one of the gravest threats to Irish peace in the last two decades. If the UK leaves the EU with “no deal” this October, which seems increasingly likely, it will be difficult to avoid the return of a “hard border” between the two Irelands, since the Republic of Ireland will remain in the EU while Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, will have to leave. This will undo a key provision of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That historic agreement, in which militants on both sides agreed to lay down their weapons and accept a democratic process for deciding the future political status of Northern Ireland, also opened the border between the two nations for the first time since it was created in 1920.

Since 1998 the national border has become virtually invisible. When we crossed it this April (three times, as it is very crooked), I was surprised not even to see the kind of “welcome” signs that mark state borders in the U.S. Only the change from miles to kilometers betrays a national boundary. Many fear that if Brexit restores a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with checkpoints and border police, this will embolden extremists on both sides and threaten a return to the violence of the 1970s. (Nor surprisingly, 56% of Northern Ireland’s inhabitants voted in the 2016 referendum to remain in Europe, the inverse of the vote in the UK as a whole.)

As in Sri Lanka and San Diego, the partisans of violence in Northern Ireland are a small minority, and there are good reasons to hope that their appeals to sectarian hatred will fail. The fissures here run deep, but violence is not inevitable. And religious fanaticism plays a much smaller role here than in some of the world’s present conflicts. This may seem an obvious point, but in an era when religious hatred seems to be on the rise worldwide, it is worth observing that religious differences per se are less important in Ireland than they once were, and that Christian faith is more a source of hope for reconciliation than a cause of violence in modern Ireland.

Post author Kate van Liere on the ferry to Belfast.
Kate van Liere on the ferry to Belfast. Photo by Frans van Liere.

As a historian of the Reformation era, I have often seen Irish history through the lens of the sixteenth century, as essentially a conflict between Catholics and Protestants. I have even repeated to my students the cliché that Northern Ireland is the last place in Europe where the early modern Wars of Religion are still being waged. But this recent visit to Ireland helped me to understand how inadequate the “Catholic vs. Protestant” paradigm is for understanding the divisions that Ireland has faced in its modern history. Religion does still matter profoundly in Northern Ireland, but mainly as a marker of identity, compounded over the years by problems like colonialism, economic inequality, and militant nationalism. To understanding this, it helps to look back at how some of the cultural and religious divisions within Ireland have evolved since the Reformation.

The city of Derry, officially called Londonderry, which lies close to the border, embodies Ireland’s complex fissures in microcosm. Its two competing names betray its contested history. The medieval town was known as Doire or (in the Anglicized version) Derry, but from 1609 to 1613, during the reign of England’s King James I, Protestant English settlers from London expanded the city and renamed it ‘Londonderry’ after their home base. This was part of the “plantation” process that ushered in the three-centuries-long “Protestant Ascendancy” in Ireland. English kings had claimed sovereignty over Ireland since the twelfth century, but the Reformation, when most of the English population became Protestant while the Irish remained overwhelmingly Catholic, exacerbated the cultural differences between the peoples in Ireland. So did the subsequent immigration by thousands of English, Scottish and Welsh Protestants. By the middle of the seventeenth century, four generations of Tudor and Stuart monarchs and the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had solidified English control by violently suppressing a series of Irish rebellions, driving much of Ireland’s indigenous landowning nobility into exile, and transferring the “forfeited” land of these rebels to a new class of English Protestant settler-landowners.

This process of settlement and expropriation coincided with the first colonization of New England and Virginia, and in some ways resembled it. In the northern province of Ulster, where the most extensive “plantation” took place, the immigrant English, Scots, and Welsh became the new majority, as in the American colonies. In much of the south, the English colonization of Ireland looked more like that of India or Africa in a later era, with a smaller English ruling class exploiting the indigenous population as laborers, but not radically transforming their culture. An excellent historical display on the “plantation” era that we saw in Derry/Londonderry’s town hall brought home the importance of this period to Ireland’s modern history. Early seventeenth-century Londonderry was a thoroughly Anglicized colonial city. Its picturesque walls, which seem so quaintly picturesque to modern visitors, were built to defend its English colonial occupants from the hostile indigenous population outside.

City walls with canon
Derry (Londonderry) city wall. Photo by Kate van Liere.

After the last wave of Catholic resistance was defeated in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne (an event still celebrated today by Protestants in Northern Ireland), Ireland was ruled almost exclusively by the English and Anglo-Irish landowners of the “Protestant Ascendancy.” A series of “penal laws” enacted in the next few decades consolidated the privileges of Anglicans (members of the official Protestant Church of England) by barring Catholics (as well as Presbyterians and other Protestant “nonconformists”) from voting or holding office, including seats in the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

A printed map depicting the city of Derry-Londonderry during the time of the Siege in 1689. The location of Jacobite and Williamite forces are marked, along with the ships that brought relief to the city. The original would have been created using woodblock printing methods.
A printed map depicting the city of Derry-Londonderry during the time of the Siege in 1689. The location of Jacobite and Williamite forces are marked, along with the ships that brought relief to the city. The original would have been created using woodblock printing methods.

Strictly speaking, the Protestant Ascendancy lasted little more than a century. The power of the Anglican Church and its members in Ireland reached its peak around 1800. The Act of Union (1801), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain, abolished the Irish Parliament in Dublin, which had been monopolized by Anglo-Irish Anglicans, and folded its members into the British Parliament at Westminster. Not long afterward, a series of liberal reforms passed by the British Parliament steadily dismantled the legal privileges of Anglicans in Ireland. Between 1770 and 1830 most of the penal laws were gradually abolished, allowing Catholics and Protestant “nonconformists” in all parts of the United Kingdom to vote, hold office, and attend universities. In 1869 the Anglican Church was formally “disestablished” in Ireland, meaning that it could no longer collect tithes and enjoyed no legal advantages over the Catholic Church. The Protestant Anglo-Irish continued to enjoy social and economic privileges well into the twentieth century, however. The most dramatic embodiment of Protestant privilege was that the nearly 1 million victims of the tragic Potato Famine of the 1840s were overwhelmingly poor and Catholic, while most of their landlords were Protestant—a fact that exacerbated Catholic resentment.

But by the 1870s the Protestants’ monopoly on political power was strongly contested. The dramatic legal changes made over the previous century created an opportunity for the Catholic Church to play a much greater role in Irish politics for the first time since the Reformation—a fact that sorely frightened Ireland’s Protestant minority. Presbyterians, who were especially numerous in Ulster, welcomed the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, but deeply feared the potential resurgence of the Catholic Church.

Thus when a new “home rule” movement arose in the 1870s, seeking to restore the Irish Parliament in Dublin and give Ireland a political status more like that of Canada or Australia, the Protestant majority in Ulster staunchly opposed it. Protestant “Unionists” rallied behind the slogan, “Home rule is Rome rule!”, arguing that an emancipated Catholic majority would subject the country to papal absolutism and economic decline.

By the time World War One erupted in 1914, the British Parliament had voted to enact home rule despite the Ulster Protestants’ opposition, but the war delayed its implementation. Meanwhile, wartime Ireland became increasingly polarized between Protestant Unionists, concentrated in the north, and (mostly but not wholly Catholic) republicans, who now demanded not just home rule but complete independence from Great Britain. The republicans formed their own political party, Sinn Fein (Irish for “We Ourselves”), in 1905.

Outdoor mural captioned "Remember with Pride" and "Thoswe we Love Don't Go Away" and "Dedicated to our fallen comrade, military commander Stevie 'Top-Gun' McKeag.'"
Unionist mural in Belfast. Photo by Kate van Liere.

Religious identity did not determine political loyalty for everyone in Ireland; in fact more Irish Catholics than Protestants (although a smaller percentage of the Catholic population) volunteered to serve in the British Army in WWI. But religious nationalism became an important mark of identity for partisans on both sides. Ulster Unionists who continued to oppose home rule swore in 1912 to uphold a “Solemn League and Covenant,” echoing a name used by seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterians during the age of religious wars. They formed an armed militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), to resist home rule by force. Sinn Fein’s republican militants formed their own militia in 1913, first called the Irish Volunteers and soon reorganized as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Most of its members were not especially devout, but when prosecuted by the British authorities they cultivated the image of Catholic martyrdom.

On Easter Sunday of 1916, a small group of republicans launched the famous “Easter Rising” in Dublin, initiating a war of independence against the British authorities. This rising had little initial public support and was effectively squashed by the British authorities, but as World War I wore on, widespread conscription and wartime deprivation increased resentment again the British government, and Sinn Fein gained more followers.

Soon after the war ended, in 1919, Sinn Fein and the IRA turned to guerilla warfare, launching a bitter two-year civil war. In 1920 the British government agreed (for the second time) to grant Ireland home rule, but the resulting quasi-independent Irish Free State did not satisfy hard-line nationalists on either side; republicans still wanted to sever all ties with the British Commonwealth, while Protestant Unionists in Ulster refused to join an Irish state with a Catholic majority.

As a result, the six counties of Ulster that had the highest concentration of Protestant residents refused to join the newly independent Republic of Ireland, and constituted themselves as “Northern Ireland,” continuing to regard themselves as part of the United Kingdom and send MPs to London. (Diehard republicans in the south waged a new civil war against the Irish Free State until 1923; they lost this war, but eventually saw their hopes for an independent republic fulfilled as the new regime moved progressively further away from the UK; it declared itself a republic in 1937, remained officially neutral in WWII, and finally withdrew from the British Commonwealth in 1949.)

Buildings painted with murals that say "Join the IRA" and "Victory to the Republican Prisoners: End Isolation of Republicans, End Forced Strip Searching, End Controlled Movement, End British Internment IRPWA"
Republican murals in Derry/Londonderry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

Neither of the two newly formed regimes was religiously homogenous. A substantial minority of Protestants remained in the new Irish Free State and a much larger Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, which in some regions, like the city of Derry, formed a distinct majority. The southern state did better at accommodating its minority than the northern one. The Protestants who chose to remain in the south accepted the new independent Ireland (Eire) and prospered in it. The first President of the Republic of Ireland (1938-45) was the Protestant Douglas Hyde, deeply respected by Irish people of both faiths. Although Protestants comprise only about 4% of the population of the Republic of Ireland today, they are well integrated into the national culture, as are Protestant institutions like Trinity College, Dublin, and Dublin’s two historic Anglican cathedrals.

In Northern Ireland, however, Protestant and Catholic communities remained essentially segregated, and Catholics suffered social and political discrimination, as many Protestants considered them incapable of loyalty to the British regime. Although the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that established Northern Ireland expressly forbade religious discrimination, the ethos of the new regime was distinctly Protestant. Northern Ireland’s first prime minister declared in 1934 that “we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state,” and his successor publicly urged his countrymen to “employ good Protestant lads and lassies” and “not to employ Roman Catholics, ninety nine percent of whom are disloyal.”[1] In cities like Derry which had a substantial Catholic majority, gerrymandering and discriminatory voting rules succeeded in excluding most Catholics from voting or holding political office.

Quiet street in Ireland with two catholic school boys.
Catholic neighborhood in Derry. Photo by Kate van Liere.

In the late 1960s, while the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. was generating violent opposition, violence erupted in Northern Ireland after Catholic groups protesting against civil rights violations were confronted by Protestant paramilitary groups. These clashes were not over religious differences per se, but over civil rights and social identities that were defined in religious terms. In this new climate of elevated violence, which came to be called “the Troubles,” Protestant paramilitaries attacked Catholic homes and churches, and a new “Provisional IRA” claimed the role of the defender of the Catholic population and committed itself to using violence and terrorism to pursue Irish unification. The British Army was called in, ostensibly to neutralize extremists on both sides, but their presence served to raise tensions as much as to quell the violence. Over 3,500 people died in this violence over the next three decades, including more than 1,000 at the hands of British soldiers or police.

Were “the Troubles” a war of religion? Some Protestant partisans depicted the conflict that way. Firebrand evangelical minister Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist Party in 1971, urged Northern Irish Protestants to wage “the great battle of Biblical Protestantism against popery.”[2] But the majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens did not see themselves as fighting a religious war. They may have mistrusted the neighbors across the confessional divide for social and political reasons, but as the fighting wore on and the casualties racked up, many came to see the need for some kind of reconciliation. As Calvin historian Ronald Wells wrote in The People Behind the Peace, much of the essential work of reconciliation and cross-confessional understanding, beginning with the essential step of forgiveness, was carried out by courageous Christian peacemakers, both Protestant and Catholic. Father Ray Davey, a Presbyterian minister, founded the Corrymeela Community in 1965, before the Troubles began, as a nonsectarian place of refuge and reconciliation, and it continues to serve that purpose today. The Jesuit priest Michael Hurley founded the Columbanus Community in Belfast in 1983 with a similar vision. Both of these men and their colleagues have been criticized by more strictly orthodox Christians. But the painstaking day-to-day work of coming together, listening, forgiving, and understanding that communities like this understood during the Troubles contributed to a growing willingness to compromise that finally paved the way for an agreement to end the Troubles.

In the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland’s political parties and its population, as well as the Irish and British governments, agreed to an impressive number of compromises. All paramilitary groups on both sides agreed to disarm. Ireland acknowledged British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, while the UK acknowledged the possibility that the region could one day choose by democratic majority vote to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Eight major political parties on both sides signed on, with the exception of Paisley’s DUP party, which refused to countenance a future united Ireland. 71% of the Northern Irish electorate approved the agreement in a national referendum. Since the agreement, violence in Northern Ireland has not ended completely, but it has decreased dramatically, with only 158 violent deaths recorded in the two decades after.

Peace Wall in Belfast with graffiti and art.
Peace Wall separating Protestant and Catholic districts in Belfast. Photo by Kate van Liere.

The two-decade-long peace is now in jeopardy. Lyra McKee’s murder was one of many signs that the real possibility of the return to a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will embolden radicals on both sides. Both Catholic and Protestant clergy have been eloquent in expressing the Irish people’s earnest wishes not to return to violence of the “Troubles” era. Father Martin Magill, the Catholic priest who spoke at McKee’s funeral in April (which her Catholic parents chose to hold in Belfast’s Anglican cathedral, as a sign of religious solidarity) received a standing ovation when he chastised politicians for not doing more to realize the Good Friday Agreement fully. This July the Rev. John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher, one of several Church of Ireland (Anglican) parishes that straddle the border, addressed an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressing his fears about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit—i.e., the UK’s leaving the EU in October without an adequate “backstop” to maintain the open border in Ireland.

Open section of the Peace Wall in Belfast.
Peace Wall in Belfast. Photo by Kate van Liere.

Not long after returning to Michigan from my semester in the British Isles, I learned that Calvin students have been closely involved in the ongoing reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. This past January, Ken and Gail Heffner led an interim trip to Belfast with Calvin’s Artist Collaborative. They were hosted by Rev. Steve Stockman, minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, and Father Martin Magill, the Catholic priest of St. John’s parish in Belfast who officiated at McKee’s funeral.  These two men have forged an unlikely friendship in a country divided by religious differences. Several years ago Steve and Martin launched the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast, an arts festival that seeks to promote reconciliation across the Protestant/ Catholic divide in the city. This past year the theme was “Scandalous Forgiveness” and Calvin students worked in collaborative groups to produce original art (painting, photography, musical composition, and a children’s book) that were part of the 2019 festival.

This year’s 4 Corners Festival closed with the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, a prayer written in the aftermath of World War II by an Anglican priest from one of the English cathedrals most severely damaged by German bombs. It seems a fitting prayer not just for Christians in Northern Ireland, but for people of faith around the world seeking relief from violence and hatred in all its forms.

The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,

Father, Forgive.

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,

Father, Forgive.

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,

Father, Forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,

Father, Forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,

Father, Forgive.

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,

Father, Forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,

Father, Forgive.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


[1] Ronald Wells, People Behind the Peace: Community and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (Grand Rapids, 1999), 29-30.

[2] Wells, 32.

One thought on “Northern Ireland’s Fragile Peace

  1. So interesting, especially the closing prayer. As Christians, we should unite under Christ as one. These two men of faith are on the right track. Some who say they are Christian and yet go against the very tenets of Christianity are a big part of the problem, as well as a stumbling block to peace in this region. I’d love to see the good work of the students of Calvin.


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