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Book Review: Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace

25 Oct 2021
Reviewed by Malcolm Campbell

Feargal Cochrane’s new book, Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace, offers an insightful account of the long struggle to achieve peace in this contested territory. It foreshadows the significant challenges for Northern Ireland posed by Brexit.

The Irish historian D. G. Boyce once described Northern Ireland as a place where, in the words of an old proverb, “the past is always changing but the present stays the same.” While history has provided a battleground on which present-day actors struggle over the meaning of the past, Northern Ireland’s present has stood motionless, calcified by the irreconcilable conflict between its Unionist majority and Roman Catholic minority. However, Feargal Cochrane’s new edition of Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace challenges such a view by charting the long and arduous journey from the creation of Northern Ireland through to the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, and cautiously probing its aftermath.

After centuries of bitter communal conflict, Northern Ireland, a territory comprising six of Ireland’s historical twenty-six counties, was partitioned off from the rest of the island in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. Subsequent decades saw the entrenchment of Protestant Unionist authority across the region. In politics, policing, and employment, Unionist power predominated. Cochrane shows how the advent of the British welfare state after the Second World War produced a new generation of predominantly Roman Catholic Irish nationalists who campaigned skilfully for civil rights, including fair access to housing, education, and welfare. Attempts to deprivilege the Unionist majority, however, encountered an intransigent government that proved unwilling and ill-equipped to share power with the Catholic minority.

This underlying inequality and the powerless political position of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland proved important factors in fuelling the outbreak of the Troubles, the period of community conflict and paramilitary violence commencing at the end of the 1960s. The British Army, initially welcomed by many Catholic nationalists when it was deployed to Northern Ireland, soon became seen as a hostile occupying force. This proved especially true following the January 1972 Bloody Sunday shooting of Catholics in Derry, who took to the streets in protest against internment without trial. A child of the Troubles, Cochrane writes of the dreadful conflict with measure and insight, his personal reminiscences adding colour and occasional humour to these traumatic years.  His account pulls few punches in its candid assessment of the violence and its consequences.

Through the 1980s, the republican Sinn Féin movement enjoyed increasing political success in parallel with the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) ongoing campaign of violence against British occupation. For several reasons, by the early 1990s the British government and Sinn Féin were ready to commence a dialogue about Northern Ireland’s future. A key objective for both parties was the introduction of power sharing between the majority and minority populations. Cochrane skilfully demonstrates how the changing external political landscape, including Bill Clinton’s election as US President in 1992 and the election of the Blair Labour government in 1994, helped to facilitate this transition. The new political leaders had good rapport with the Irish, effective communication skills, and optimism about the possibility of a political settlement to end the stalemate.

Cochrane’s Northern Ireland offers a highly readable and insightful account of the slow road to settlement, from the first tentative attempts at engagement to the Good Friday agreement, and of the key players, their motivations, and the negotiations’ sticking points. He writes with the intuition of a local and the benefit of wider perspectives to explain the compromises each party could afford,  what was not-negotiable, and why. His account shows the high political cost paid by some who participated in the days of negotiations at Stormont and the less courageous stance of those who refused to join, preferring to criticise the process from the side lines. Eventually, the American chairman of the negotiations, former US Senator George Mitchell, set a firm deadline of 9 April 1998 to reach a deal. Although that day passed, progress proved substantial. On 10 April, when the parties found themselves in a building where food and cigarettes had run out, even the hard men of the Troubles found a common cause.

Could power sharing in Northern Ireland work? Cochrane details the challenges posed by those who wished to subvert the agreement. On 15 August 1998, republican dissenters, “The Real IRA,” exploded a bomb in the town centre of Omagh, County Tyrone, killing 29 people and injuring 200. Although peace held, Cochrane argues very effectively that a top-down process creating institutional power sharing is insufficient to transform the future of Northern Ireland. He makes this point with reference to the 2001 dispute at the Holy Cross school in North Belfast. This territorial clash attracted international attention as Roman Catholic primary school girls daily ran the gauntlet of hostile Protestant parents spitting and throwing urine, and on one occasion, an Ulster Defence Association pipe bomb. Community-based mediation involving local clergymen, community leaders, and paramilitaries proved essential to defuse this crisis.

This new 2021 edition of Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace is of particular interest because it extends coverage to include the 23 June 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and the impact of the current pandemic. The majority of the population of Northern Ireland, like the population of Scotland, voted to remain in the European Union. While the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party favoured withdrawal, the Ulster Unionist Party showed greater support for continuing the European connection. Catholic support was centred more around Remain.

In the years between the Brexit vote and the UK’s withdrawal, the Irish border question was among the issues most in the spotlight. Neither the Irish government, the EU, nor the Irish Catholic population in Northern Ireland will countenance the restoration of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The result, Cochrane points out, was the British government’s agreement to a measure Boris Johnson had previously said should never be contemplated: the Northern Ireland Protocol’s imposition of border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Suggestions that this compromise may now be reneged upon provide no clue as to how the sensitive Ireland-Northern Ireland border question will be resolved.

The consequence, Cochrane shows, is that Northern Ireland continues to face extraordinary challenges. Unionists, he argues, confront an “existential crisis … over their position within the Union.” Demography adds another dimension to the political and economic uncertainty, with the prospect that the Roman Catholic population of Northern Ireland will, before too long, exceed the Protestant population.

Events the months since the publication of Feargal Cochrane’s book reinforce this conclusion. Northern Ireland’s centenary year has been marred by riots in parts of Derry and Belfast, exposing deep tensions within Loyalist ranks. This disorder on the streets has been matched by chaos in the political sphere. The largest Unionist Party, the DUP, recently installed its third leader of the year, as the party becomes increasingly torn apart by the question of the Northern Ireland Protocol and its positioning on a range of social issues. Increasingly, one wonders not only if the tenuous peace will endure, but for how long, and whether Northern Ireland itself will survive.

This is a review of Feargal Cochrane, Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace (New edition: Yale University Press, 2021). Paperback ISBN 9780300205527.

Malcolm Campbell is Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.