Belfast, Northern Ireland at night. TS Drown via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). / null
Washington D.C., Apr 11, 2023 / 14:15 pm (CNA).
President Joe Biden is traveling to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which established a deal to end a violent 30-year conflict between Catholic Irish republicans and Protestant Ulster loyalists.
Biden, who is an Irish-American Catholic, will first travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 11–12. He will then visit Dublin and two other counties in the Republic of Ireland on April 12–13.
The period of violence, commonly known as “The Troubles,” stemmed from a feud over the legal status of Northern Ireland and the treatment of Catholics in the region. Ulster loyalists, who were led by various paramilitaries, sought to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and the Irish nationalists, who were led primarily by Irish Republican Army paramilitaries, sought to unite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as one nation.
When British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited California last month, he formally invited Biden to visit the region to commemorate the agreement that ended the violence. The prime minister told the president that he “know[s] it’s something very special and personal to you and we’d love to have you over.”
John White, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, told CNA that Biden’s visit is significant because he is “a president with very deep Irish roots [who is] very proud of his Irish heritage.”
“I think this journey for Biden is a very personal one,” White said.
Former President Bill Clinton, who played a role in the negotiations during his presidency, will also visit Northern Ireland later this month. Clinton will attend an event hosted by the Queen’s University in Belfast to commemorate the anniversary on April 17–19.
The roots of the conflict
Although The Troubles refers to a 30-year period of violence that began in the late 1960s and ended on April 10, 1998, the roots of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants go back centuries.
The entirety of Ireland was controlled by the English and later the British Empire beginning in the 12th century. When King Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England in 1534, the vast majority of Ireland stayed Catholic. Yet, throughout the 1600s and the 1700s, the British imposed harsh anti-Catholic penal laws in Ireland, which included registration of Catholic clergy, a ban on Catholic-Protestant marriages, and an exclusion of Catholics from public office and certain occupations, among other laws.
Despite most of these rules being repealed in the late 1700s, there remained a hostility between Irish Catholics and English Protestants. In 1919, the Irish people began a war for independence, which ultimately ended with a 1921 deal that granted independence to most of Ireland, but not all of it.
The deal allowed the United Kingdom to maintain control of a northeastern section of Ireland, which comprises more than 15% of the landmass of the island. The formal separation of Ireland created two countries: the independent Republic of Ireland and the country of Northern Ireland, which maintained union with the British crown. Even though the two sides came to a deal, many Irish nationalists still desired a united Ireland, which culminated in more violence less than 50 years later.
“This conflict, of course, had gone on since the early 20th century and the rebellion,” White said of the historical roots of The Troubles.
White added that many Irish nationalists used the slogan “26 plus six equals one,” which meant that the 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland and the six counties in Northern Ireland “should lead to one nation.”
During the 1960s, Catholics in British-controlled Northern Ireland generally had the same legal rights as their Protestant counterparts did on paper; however, many Catholics argued that they faced various forms of discrimination.
Some of the allegations were related to workplace discrimination, in which Catholics claimed they couldn’t get hired in major industries that were mostly controlled by Protestants. It also included allegations of de facto segregation maintained through housing policies and political gerrymandering that prevented Catholics from having adequate representation in the government.
White said there were “very limited opportunities for these Catholics.”
These conditions led to large protests in the streets and acts of civil disobedience from some Catholics living in Northern Ireland. In 1969, the tensions grew more extreme as some of the protests turned into violent riots, and the United Kingdom sent troops to quell the protests. The government eventually set up “peace walls,” which were meant to separate Catholics and Protestants to prevent fighting between the two groups.
“The religious identity was very prominent” in this conflict, White said. He noted that there was “almost a literal kind of segregation” and “walls that were built between these communities.”
Although the conflict did not receive much international attention at first, this changed in the early 1970s. On Jan. 30, 1972, British soldiers shot and killed 13 unarmed Catholic protesters and injured at least 15 others during a protest in an action that is remembered by Catholics as “Bloody Sunday.” In response, the Irish Republican Army paramilitaries launched a series of car bomb attacks that were sometimes aimed at British soldiers and sometimes aimed at British civilians. In 1979, the Provisional IRA assassinated Louis Mountbatten, who was a member of the royal family and the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
“It became an international … point of focus,” White said. “That fire was going for decade after decade after decade and then would flare up and simmer down again and never fully exit.”
As the fighting continued for about 30 years, more than 3,500 people were killed, about half of whom were civilians. Nearly 50,000 people were injured.
The Good Friday Agreement
When the violence carried into the 1990s, White said “both sides were kind of exhausted” and looked for a solution. He said the “willingness of Britain to negotiate with the IRA” and the “willingness of the IRA to lay down their arms and come to the table” helped bring about an end to the conflict and brought about the Good Friday Agreement, in which both sides were able to receive some of what they wanted. The initial deal was signed on April 10, 1998, and some additional provisions were signed on April 10, 1999.
The agreement maintained Northern Ireland’s union with the United Kingdom but allowed it to exercise self-government. It ensured government power would be more evenly shared and allowed the populace to choose either Irish citizenship, British citizenship, or both. The deal also included provisions to crack down on discriminatory practices against Catholics, ensure more social cohesion, and reform the policing system. Additionally, it encouraged more cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly approved the agreement via a referendum.
The current status
Although the violence has ended, the future legal status of Northern Ireland became uncertain after Great Britain narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum. Despite the overall vote approving an exit from the EU, nearly 56% of voters in Northern Ireland wanted to stay.
White said Northern Ireland “wants very much to remain part of [the EU economy].”
With the Republic of Ireland remaining in the EU and Northern Ireland leaving the EU with the rest of Britain, the cooperation between the two countries became more complex. To date, both sides have worked to ensure the two governments continue to cooperate, but the future ramifications remain uncertain.