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After 25 years, Northern Ireland’s youth want more than just peace

By Morwenna Coniam, Ellen Milligan, Bloomberg News
Published: April 9, 2023, 10:30am
6 Photos
A woman passes Free Derry corner in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Monday, April 3, 2023. It has been 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement largely ended a conflict in Northern Ireland that left 3,600 people dead.
A woman passes Free Derry corner in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Monday, April 3, 2023. It has been 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement largely ended a conflict in Northern Ireland that left 3,600 people dead. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison) Photo Gallery

Bethany Moore was 7 years old when she asked her parents to explain what a barricade was. By her age, they would have long since known about how Catholics and Protestants made barriers to keep each other — and the British army — out of their streets during three decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.” Her mother explained that she had often gone through the barricades on her way to school.

Moore, now 24, belongs to the generation born since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the conflict in the region. Despite growing up in a Catholic household in Derry, a flashpoint city also known as Londonderry, she didn’t learn much about its harrowing past until she was older.

The past and its legacies are “often peppered throughout our conversations” in Derry, she said, but her family is “very much focused on the present and future.”

That is what was hoped for when, 25 years ago this month, leaders from across the nationalist-unionist divide plus the British and Irish governments — with a strong push from the U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton — made a deal to end the fighting.

Northern Ireland and its Good Friday Agreement are often held up globally as a model for peace and reconciliation efforts. It hinged around a political reality in which neither the typically Protestant unionists loyal to London, nor the mostly Catholic nationalists who identify as Irish, held absolute power in the region’s assembly.

Since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, though, that solution has looked more fragile and vulnerable to events beyond Northern Ireland’s control. As President Joe Biden, British and Irish leaders prepare to mark the anniversary of the treaty, its success is not in doubt. But it is starting to look in need of a revamp to deal with new realities in a fast changing society.

In Derry, a northwest city home to Moore and 110,000 other people, peace created space for a vibrant center to develop in which theaters, museums, and local businesses are flourishing. The popularity of the TV show “Derry Girls,” set in the years running up to the deal, is very much part of the area’s post-Troubles revival.

Yet even now peace can’t be taken for granted, especially without prosperity, said Moore. The UK recently raised its terrorism threat assessment for Northern Ireland, and murals immortalizing both sides in the fighting are a reminder that while many of the physical barricades have been removed, ideological divisions remain. Across the region, most children attend schools based on their religion – despite integrated education being one of the main principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

Against that backdrop, power-sharing has frequently proved unworkable. For about nine years or almost 40% of its life, the devolved Stormont assembly has not been able to operate fully. “The political process has been fairly moribund,” said Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s former prime minister who signed the peace deal on April 10 1998. That breeds disillusionment, especially among Moore’s so-called peace generation.

“It should be a starting point to building a better society, not an end point,” Moore said.

Peace Dividend

The peace deal triggered dramatic change in Northern Ireland. Just under an hour from Belfast on the train to Dublin, the border city of Newry is unrecognizable. Heavily militarized during the conflict, it is now home to one of the region’s busiest retail hubs drawing thousands of shoppers every day. Those coming from the Republic of Ireland cross a check-free border that is only distinguishable by road markings and a switch in speed limits.

“It was the hardest of hard borders at that time,” Conor Patterson, 58, said as he drove along the border road, where checkpoints and watchtowers in the past had made it a target of fatal ambushes by paramilitary groups including the Irish Republican Army. The chief executive of the Newry and Mourne Co-operative and Enterprise Agency has played a prominent role in the regeneration.

“If you went somewhere in Surrey or Sussex would Newry look remarkable? Not really,” he said, referring to two areas of southern England. “Newry is only remarkable in the context of what preceded the transformation.”

Unemployment has fallen to about 2% from above 16% in 1996 in Newry, according to Patterson. The city is boosted by its place in the supply chain for goods with the port at Warrenpoint operating daily freight shipping to northwest England and charter shipments direct to and from the EU. Around half of all trade flowing through the port has its origin or destination across the border in Ireland, which has been complicated by Brexit.

It is a similar story elsewhere. Decades of bombings and shootings had starved Northern Ireland of investment that was unlocked after 1998, spurring a professional and financial services sector that has transformed the skyline of Belfast city center. The so-called peace dividend also helped halt a decades-long trend of net migration from the region.

Yet the Good Friday Agreement’s other major goal of greater community integration has proved much more difficult to achieve. In many cases it’s fallen to local centers to try to fill in the gaps and do so in a way that bridges divides and counters inherited prejudices.

“It was actually the first time I’d ever met a Protestant,” Rachel Madden said about joining PeacePlayers, a program that brings young people together to play basketball — a sport not associated with either community — in the late 2000s. Madden grew up in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast, often the focus of violence during The Troubles, when the area was segregated between the two communities.

“It was scary for a lot of parents to move past the actual conflict and just give their children a chance to see the different points of view,” Madden said of initially joining PeacePlayers. The 23-year-old now delivers the PeacePlayers program in schools where they work on stereotypes and identity to try and break down barriers: “There is prejudice still there, but they are a lot more open to it than what I saw when I was younger.”

Standing Still

Children in many areas still grow up with little contact with those of other faiths.

There are 70 integrated schools in Northern Ireland educating about 27,000 pupils, out of a total of just under 350,000, mostly at primary level. That’s up from 11,910 pupils at 43 integrated schools in 1998, but it still represents only 8% of the system, according to the non-profit Integrated Education Fund.

Change is slow, at least in part because school designations are led by parents and communities rather than the government. Geography is a major factor — children in Catholic or Protestant areas typically go to their local school. Teacher training also remains segregated. The Integrated Education Act, which forces the government to produce specific targets, only entered law last year.

“It makes it more difficult to bring people together when you separate them at the age of four,” said Paul Caskey, the IEF’s head of campaigns.

There is another significant gap in the education system. The Good Friday Agreement and the decades that led up to it are not necessarily taught in detail in schools, meaning the younger generation is reliant on what their parents or communities have told them.

“It almost felt like, who are these people?” Lisa Curry, 26, said of hearing her parents’ experiences for the first time. “The incidents that were happening were someone being blown up or someone being shot. That is not a normal sentence to say.”

Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, calls it “worrying” that according to the latest Northern Ireland Life & Times survey in late 2021, a third of 18 to 34-year-olds have no opinion on whether the treaty remains a good way to govern the region.

Although a generation has grown up largely free from the trauma suffered by their parents, those raised in communities deeply scarred by conflict are still impacted by it. In urban areas, which saw the worst of the violence, some so-called peace walls still stand, marking physical barriers between communities. In parts of Belfast, gates are locked from mid-evening until early morning.

“There’s generational trauma being passed down,” said Nikki McTaggart, who manages mental health projects for young people at the YMCA in Lisburn, a city southwest of Belfast. Alcohol and drug abuse as well as depression and emotional absence are common among some parents, she said, which affects their children’s mental health and leaves them struggling to cope when the younger generation become parents themselves.

Broken Politics

The Good Friday Agreement restored self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of power-sharing. But because the system effectively requires the biggest political party from both sides to make decisions, it is easily paralyzed by partisan concerns. For some in the post-1998 generation, who want to focus on issues such as inequality and mental health rather than old divisions around identity, it means the deal is holding them back.

“It’s still cementing the national binary,” Josh Emsley, 23, said in Belfast. “Yes, 100% there are benefits, but I think you can be quite critical and see how it slows everything down.”

The UK’s Brexit vote laid bare just how much Northern Ireland’s politics has remained rooted in the past. The majority of people in the region voted to stay in the EU. The decision to leave has hung over Northern Ireland ever since, threatening to undermine the free movement of people and goods to and from the Republic, an EU member, and potentially unravel the Good Friday Agreement itself.

Ultimately, Northern Ireland was granted unique post-Brexit status, effectively keeping one foot in the EU’s customs union and the other in the UK’s internal market. Supporters of the agreement — especially after recent tweaks — predict the region will benefit economically.

Yet, the solution has provoked anger among some unionists, who feel it undermines the region’s position in the UK. For over a year there has been no functioning executive after the Democratic Unionist Party — the only major party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 — refused to take its place in the power-sharing government.

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That is a frustration for voters and businesses who want to see stability and local issues resolved. By 2020 productivity was 40% lower than in the Republic, while the region’s health service is struggling after the pandemic. Key budget issues are effectively on hold.

The current suspension is far from an anomaly. There was no functioning administration for almost three years until early 2020 after Sinn Fein’s former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness quit the executive over a series of issues including a renewables scandal involving the Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster. Both sides have variously used the Good Friday Agreement and its provisions as a political football.

“I don’t think that my generation has had a long-term example of a functioning government,” said Curry, who grew up in a Protestant household in rural County Fermanagh, which borders the Republic. “So it can be difficult to know what to aspire to if you’ve never seen it before.”

The impasse at Stormont comes amid a significant political shift in Northern Ireland. In elections last May, the cross-community Alliance Party doubled its seats at the Stormont Assembly to 17 to become the third-biggest party.

In the Life & Times survey, 51% of 25 to 34-year-olds identify as neither unionist or nationalist. For 18 to 24-year-olds that number drops to 35%, though it is still the biggest group.

“When younger people in particular look at their priorities and what they would like to see in terms of public service provision and civic life,’’ Hayward at Queen’s University said, “they don’t see that reflected in the political system at all.”

Treaty Reboot?

The success of the Alliance Party has led some to ask what happens if second-place ever comes within its reach. Under the current power-sharing system established by the Good Friday Agreement and amendments in 2006, priority is given to parties which designate as either unionist or nationalist. That puts a ceiling on Alliance’s realistic prospects.

“It’s not enough just to have the absence of violence,” said Sorcha Eastwood, 37, who was elected to represent the constituency of Lagan Valley, southwest of Belfast, for Alliance in May. “We need to have established long-term governance structures. That means my vote counts for just as much as a unionist or a nationalist.”

But the nationalist-unionist divide, and the broader question of all-Ireland reunification that underpins it, has not gone away. That bolsters the argument against tweaking the Good Friday Agreement, even as elements of it start to look outdated. Tony Blair, who signed the treaty as British prime minister, told the UK Parliament in March that while there is a case for reviewing the way a single party holds a veto, any change that didn’t get cross-community support was likely to fail.

In the May assembly elections, Sinn Fein – once seen as the political wing of the IRA – was returned as the biggest party in Northern Ireland for the first time. It is also the most popular party in the Republic, adding weight to its call for a referendum on a united Ireland. Yet the prospect of reuniting the island of Ireland for the first time since 1921 remains some way off.

An Ipsos poll from December showed most people in Northern Ireland would vote against reunification, while even the likelihood of a border poll appears low. Any decision to call one lies with the UK government, who would do it only if it was likely to have majority support.

In the community center where she works for a women’s sector organization in Derry, Moore said most people are just trying to get through the day, juggling cost-of-living concerns like feeding their children and heating their homes. It’s because such concerns are not being addressed that there will be greater pressure for change.

Her peace generation increasingly identifies in ways that make 1998 discussions look anachronistic. Think socialist or feminist rather than nationalist or unionist, she said.

“It’s great to be able to be retrospective and look back and go ‘look at what we did’, but there’s not enough looking forward,” she said ahead of the events to mark the Good Friday Agreement anniversary. “Peacebuilding needs to be something that moves.”