In Northern Ireland, Getting Past the Troubles

A decade after Protestants and Catholics agreed on a peace treaty, both sides are adjusting to a hopeful new reality

In a once strife-torn Belfast neighborhood (where murals today dramatize a message of hope), reconciliation is taking hold. Even so, says Father Aidan Troy, formerly of a Belfast parish, progress must be nurtured day by day: "Peace is a delicate plant." (Andrew McConnell / WPN)
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The crime that still haunts Don Browne took place on a cold, damp evening in February 1985 outside a housing development in a working-class neighborhood of Derry, Northern Ireland. That night, Browne says, he handed over a cache of weapons to fellow members of a Catholic paramilitary unit. The gunmen whom he had supplied pulled up to a row house where Douglas McElhinney, 42, a former officer in the Ulster Defense Regiment—the Northern Ireland branch of the British Army—was visiting a friend. As McElhinney was about to drive away, a member of the hit squad killed him with a sawed-off shotgun.

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For his role in the murder, Browne, now 49, was sentenced to life. At the time a member of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a breakaway faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), he was sent to Long Kesh Prison outside Belfast. He spent more than 13 years behind bars. Then, in September 1998, he was released under a settlement signed by Britain and the Republic of Ireland: the Good Friday, or Belfast, Agreement, which had been endorsed by Sinn Féin—the IRA's political wing—and most other Catholic and Protestant parties in Northern Ireland. At first, Browne had difficulties adjusting to the outside world. He was terrified to cross streets because he couldn't judge the speed of cars. He had also lost social skills. "If I asked a woman out for a cup of coffee, was I being a pervert?" he recalls wondering.

Two things helped ease his way into postwar society. Browne had studied meditation with a dozen "rough-and-tough provos [provisional IRA members]" in Long Kesh, and after his release, he began teaching yoga classes in Derry. An initiative called the Sustainable Peace Network proved even more beneficial. Today, Browne brings together former combatants from both sides—and sometimes their victims' families—to share experiences and describe the difficulties of adjusting to life in a quiescent Northern Ireland. "In the early days, some combatants—both republicans and Loyalists—were threatened to not take part [in the reconciliation efforts]," Browne tells me over coffee in his yoga studio outside Derry's 400-year-old city walls. But the threats have subsided. "To hear what your [former] enemies experienced is life-changing," he says.

The Troubles, as Northern Ireland's sectarian strife came to be known, erupted nearly 40 years ago, when Catholic Irish nationalists, favoring unification with the Irish Republic to the south, began a violent campaign against Britain and the Loyalist Protestant paramilitaries who supported continued British rule. Over some 30 years, more than 3,500 people were killed—soldiers, suspected informers, militia members and civilians caught in bombings and crossfire—and thousands more were injured, some maimed for life. Residents of Belfast and Derry were sealed off in a patchwork of segregated neighborhoods divided by barbed wire and patrolled by masked guerrillas. As a 17-year-old Catholic teenager fresh from the countryside in 1972, Aidan Short and a friend wandered unwittingly onto a Protestant-controlled road in Belfast. The two were seized by Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunmen, a Loyalist paramilitary group. Accused of being members of the IRA, the teens were shot at point-blank range, leaving Short paralyzed and his friend—shot through the face—still traumatized 35 years later. "A small mistake could ruin your life," Short told me.

Ten years ago, the Good Friday Agreement officially put an end to the Troubles. The deal, brokered by President Bill Clinton, Senator George Mitchell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Republic of Ireland Taoiseach (equivalent to prime minister) Bertie Ahern, represented a historic compromise. It created a semiautonomous government body comprising both Catholics and Protestants, and called for disarmament of paramilitary groups, release of jailed combatants and reorganization of the police force (at the time, 93 percent Protestant). The agreement also stipulated that Northern Ireland would remain part of Britain until a majority of its citizens voted otherwise. Another breakthrough occurred in May 2007: Martin McGuinness, a leader of Sinn Féin (headed by Gerry Adams) and former commander of the IRA in Derry, formed a coalition government with Ian Paisley, a firebrand Protestant minister and chairman of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party until June 2008. (The DUP had refused to sign the 1998 agreement.) "I still meet people who say they [had] to pinch themselves at the sight of us together," McGuinness told me during an interview at Stormont Castle, a Gothic-styled landmark that serves as the seat of government.

Not everyone welcomes the peace. Shunning the tenth-anniversary celebrations last April, Jim Allister, a former DUP leader, declared that the Good Friday Agreement "rewarded 30 years of terrorism in Northern Ireland by undermining both justice and democracy." Surprisingly, the construction of so-called peace walls—barriers of steel, concrete and barbed wire erected between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods—has continued since the agreement. Most of the walls, which range from a few hundred yards to three miles in length, stretch across working-class neighborhoods of Belfast, where Protestants and Catholics live hard by one another and sectarian animosities haven't died down. Some IRA splinter groups are still planting explosives and, rarely, executing enemies.

During the Troubles, IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries functioned as neighborhood security forces, often keeping the two sides at bay. Now those internal controls have disappeared, and communities have requested that the municipal council construct barriers to protect residents. At a business conference in Belfast last May, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg commended the progress made so far. But he said that the peace walls would have to be dismantled before U.S. companies step up investment. Paisley responded that only local communities could decide when the time is right. The peace process "is not like going into a darkened room and turning on a light switch," says McGuinness. The IRA, the armed wing of McGuinness' own Sinn Féin, waited seven years before handing over its weapons. "It's going to take time."

Even in its embryonic stages, though, the Northern Ireland agreement is increasingly regarded as a model of conflict resolution. Politicians from Israel and Palestine to Sri Lanka and Iraq have studied the accord as a way to move a recalcitrant, even calcified, peace process forward. McGuinness recently traveled to Helsinki to mediate between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites. And Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's opposition leader, praised Northern Ireland's "new beginnings" when he visited Belfast last spring to address a gathering of liberal parties from around the world.


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