For decades, bombs and gunfire battered Belfast in a cycle of violence, known as the Troubles, that often seemed intractable — fueled by profound sectarian divisions and disputes over national identity that had no easy answer.
But when President Biden visited the city in Northern Ireland this week, 25 years after the landmark peace deal called the Good Friday Agreement was struck, he hailed it as “an incredible testament to the power and the possibilities of peace.”
Northern Ireland’s success in largely keeping the peace was never a certainty: In fact, experts say, a major lesson of the deal is that achieving and sustaining peace is extremely difficult even when the circumstances support it.
For generations, Northern Ireland was fractured by a deep divide between the mostly Catholic nationalists, who want unity with the Republic of Ireland, and the mostly Protestant unionists, who want the territory to remain part of the United Kingdom.
By the time leaders were able to hammer out a deal, experts said, Northern Ireland had a series of major economic, political and social advantages that helped it secure a lasting peace. And yet there were still many moments in which it seemed like that wouldn’t be enough.
The factors in favor of peace
In some ways, the Troubles sound like a familiar story: violence that began in a sectarian divide became political, and followed a pattern of provocation, backlash, crackdown and escalation that is the hallmark of nearly every long-running uprising or insurgency.
What to Know About ‘the Troubles’
A history of violence. “The Troubles” is a term used to describe a decades-long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, a region that was carved out as a Protestant-majority enclave under British sovereignty when the Republic of Ireland became self-governing in the 1920s. The conflict pitted those who wanted unity with Ireland — mostly Catholic, and known as nationalists and republicans — against those who wanted the territory to remain part of the United Kingdom — mostly Protestant, and known as unionists and loyalists.
But in other important respects, the conflict in Northern Ireland was highly unusual.
“The single biggest reason that peace has succeeded in Northern Ireland, where it’s failed elsewhere, is probably the same reason that made a violent civil conflict in Northern Ireland so unlikely in the first place: that it’s in a relatively rich, industrialized, advanced democracy,” said Bonnie Weir, the co-director of the Program on Peace and Development at Yale University.
Every persistent conflict is complicated by the circumstances of the countries and parties involved, but other prominent cases of the era show what can happen when institutions falter, economies struggle or violence festers. In Colombia, armed groups flourished in the vacuum left by weak state institutions, and many peace talks could not end decades of civil war because only some armed groups were part of them. A sweeping peace deal was made in 2016, but the heart of the agreement — a plan to transform the long-neglected countryside — is perilously stalled.
Guatemala’s peace accords of the 1990s did manage to end its civil war, but with weak institutions and widespread corruption, crime has flourished and violence is still driving people to flee the country. In Lebanon, where a peace deal ended civil war in the early 1990s, decades of political corruption and poor governance have contributed to economic crises and the continued strength of Hezbollah, which has repeatedly clashed with Israel.
In Northern Ireland, though, strong institutions were an especially important factor in the agreement’s success, said Jonathan S. Blake, a political scientist at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles and the author of a book on the country’s sectarian politics.
Northern Ireland did have significant problems in institutions like the mostly Protestant police, which many Catholics viewed with deep distrust. But the relatively strong national institutions meant that there was enough expertise, money and political will to make much-needed reforms, such as establishing a new police force and giving more political control to the local parliament.
Broader regional shifts, like the Irish economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, also made it easier for the peace agreement to succeed. That trend not only created new economic opportunities, but also helped to lower the stakes for those on the loyalist side by making closer ties with the Republic of Ireland more attractive.
“It was now this dynamic place that was part of Europe,” Dr. Blake said.
The European Union, which included both Ireland and Britain during the talks, also brought in new sources of aid and trade. And it created a sense that the United Kingdom and Ireland were part of a broader shared political identity and political system.
“There was this idea that you could be British or Irish, but either way you were European,” Dr. Blake said.
And while a shift of political power — called devolution — to Northern Ireland was part of the peace process, it happened alongside a broader set of constitutional changes in the United Kingdom that also devolved power to local parliaments in Scotland and Wales.
“Devolution was seen as a way to ensure a greater voice for the nations and in the constitutional political makeup of the United Kingdom,” said Jennifer Thomson, a political scientist at the University of Bath in England. “So zooming out, we need to kind of see the Good Friday agreement in terms of those macro level changes happening across the country.”
A work-in-progress deal
Even with Northern Ireland’s advantages, there were many moments when it seemed as if peace was out of reach, or as if it might not survive.
“I think in most people’s minds, you have the Good Friday Agreement and then you have 25 years of peace,” Dr. Thomson said. “But in reality, you have the Good Friday Agreement, and you have many, many successive other peace negotiations and peace agreements.”
For instance, although the peace agreement set up power-sharing in Northern Ireland’s local assembly, London soon reasserted control after a period of turmoil. It was only after further talks and an additional deal, the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement that the local government was restored (but political deadlock has remained a problem).
More recently, Britain’s exit from the European Union put renewed pressure on the deal, raising a host of concerns about Northern Ireland’s land border with the Republic of Ireland and its integration with the rest of Britain.
And the hope that peace would heal some of the divides in society has so far not become a reality: Prosperity has not materialized everywhere, and many aspects of life in Northern Ireland remain profoundly segregated. According to official figures, only 7 percent of schools are officially integrated, rather than being either Catholic or Protestant. So-called “peace walls” still split neighborhoods along sectarian lines.
And in many places, paramilitary groups still hold significant power. Kit Rickard and Kristin Bakke, political scientists at University College London, have found that paramilitary groups continue to use violence, including shooting victims in their knees, to retaliate against young men accused of crimes and to maintain control over neighborhoods.
And in many of those areas, the researchers found, there was strong public support for that kind of extrajudicial enforcement, because paramilitary groups were seen as more trustworthy and quicker to act than the police or courts.
That is a common feature of post-conflict countries, and can often be a barrier to peace, said Karin Dyrstad, a political scientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
If people become accustomed to turning to armed groups to resolve disputes, it can be difficult to convince them to rely on the state instead, she said.
Some paramilitary groups also turned to organized crime — another common feature of post-conflict societies. Armed groups’ clandestine networks, experience with violence and access to weapons can easily be repurposed for criminal enterprises, Dr. Weir said.
That Northern Ireland has continued to struggle with those problems, despite its comparative advantages of wealth, geography, and institutions, shows how steep the obstacles to peace are.
“People still talk about the peace process in Northern Ireland, and they don’t mean the 1980s,” Dr. Thomson said. “They mean something that’s still happening to this day.”