I first met Martin McGuinness in late January 2017 while I was working as a research professor at Queen’s University Belfast. Earlier that month, McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army commander turned peacemaker, had resigned as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. By doing so, he had collapsed the most recent iteration of the power-sharing government established by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the culmination of decades of efforts to find peace in Northern Ireland.
Although he came late to the realization that politics, rather than violence, was the way forward, McGuinness’s contributions to the peace process and to the reestablishment of democratization in Northern Ireland were inarguable. When we met, he was clearly in ill health, well aware he was in the final months of his life. Despite it all, he took a few minutes to chat, ask about the work I was doing and express his appreciation for my interest in the future of a place he had torn apart and then helped rebuild. As we parted, he warmly grabbed my hand and said, to himself more than to me: “I hope it wasn’t all a waste.”
As I found from my research at the time, hope is a fragile and elusive entity in contemporary Northern Ireland — and the recent spate of rioting there suggests that hope is waning. Although talk about its demise has existed from the moment the province was created 100 years ago, doubts over Northern Ireland’s viability as a distinct geographic, economic and political entity have never been greater.
The instability has been accelerated by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. From the moment Brexit was passed, concerns about self-determination and national allegiance again stood front and center in a society deeply divided between those who support Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the U.K. (unionists, most often Protestant) and those believing that the north of Ireland’s true home lies with the Republic of Ireland (nationalists, most often Catholic). Both sides have starkly different views of their national identities, which makes it hard to agree on the nature of sovereignty — and the constitutional future of the province.
Nationalist communities, both north and south, are leveraging the moment to call for a referendum on formal Irish reunification. If the upcoming Scottish elections result in a move for independence from the U.K., the cries for Northern Ireland’s departure from a union that can no longer claim to be united will escalate. Additional momentum for a united Ireland will come from the 2021 Northern Ireland census, which looks likely to reveal a Catholic majority in the province for the first time in its history. For many, the presence of President Biden, the most Irish American president since Kennedy, adds yet more fuel to the fire of Irish unity. For nationalists, the stars are aligning and the path to a united Ireland is paved with strategic patience rather than a reactionary return to violence.
On the other side of the identity divide, however, Brexit is viewed by unionists as a treacherous breach of the Good Friday Agreement that may well spell the end of their British identity. Unfortunately, the failure of unionism’s political parties to diplomatically resolve the issues has left a vacuum into which less diplomatic actors have entered. Loyalists, those endorsing physical violence as the surest route to defend the union with the U.K., have disfigured the landscape of Northern Ireland with widespread anti-peace-agreement graffiti (“The GFA Is Done. Time for War!”) and numerous banners and posters protesting the de facto Irish sea trade border implemented following Brexit and depicting armed gunmen threatening a return to armed violence (“No Border in the Sea or We Continue The Fight”). Young loyalists feel particularly angry and abandoned. They have a sense of standing alone in a struggle to prevent the loss of a British identity that has always been theirs. And, as evidenced by the now daily unrest, they are ready to resort to any means necessary to defend that identity.
The Troubles, the decades-long Catholic uprising against British rule starting in the 1960s, began with Catholic frustration over a government that would not leave. If widespread violence returns, it will be because of Protestant frustration over a government that would not stay.
The response to the current crisis will show whether Northern Ireland is on the edge of a new beginning or a painfully familiar old precipice. The hard work of building a sustainable peace is not what makes headlines, but it is what prevents the worst of headlines from being made. If that hard work in Northern Ireland does not continue, then McGuinness’s hope — that “it wasn’t all a waste” — will implode. That will force many to question what lessons were learned from all the seasons of all the wasted years of violence, destruction and death.
James Waller is the Cohen professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire and the author of “Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing” and “A Troubled Sleep: Risk and Resilience in Contemporary Northern Ireland.”