—Patrick Pearse’s 1915 eulogy for O’Donovan Rossa, and Republican rallying cry
From the back middle seat of a rented Opal station wagon in the summer of 1994, I surveyed the streets of Belfast as a fifteen-year-old on holiday with my family. At the tail end of a weeklong drive circumnavigating the Irish isle, we had already passed through a military checkpoint crossing into Northern Ireland at Derry/Londonderry. Under the gaze of manned military watchtowers, our passports were checked by British Army soldiers in camouflage fatigues, automatic rifles bristling. Once inside Belfast, we traced our route on a creased paper map through streets made infamous by sectarian segregation. The lines now separating the city’s Catholic and Protestant communities had been drawn by panicking residents during the bombing campaigns of Catholic and Protestant paramilitary organizations in the 1960s, sparking one of the largest civilian population movements in postwar Europe and launching a thirty-year period known globally as the Troubles.
If someone had told us, as we trundled through that city in 1994, that the bloody reign of the Troubles was almost up and that a lasting peace would be negotiated within only four years, we would have scoffed. As far as we could tell, sectarianism and its violent impulses were thriving. The segregated working-class neighbourhoods of East Belfast displayed a defiance made colourful by allegiance: flags dominated shop windows, the curbs were colour-blocked, and alley and tenement walls were covered in protest murals. The Falls Road Catholic neighbourhood called on Irish myth, honoured the Irish Republican Army, and demanded the removal of British rule. The Shankill Road Protestant neighbourhood called on European imperial history, honoured British royalty, and threatened retaliation to the IRA. Atop one spidery scaffold, men were painting the end of a tenement building with a two-storey image of four men dressed in jeans, black shirts, and balaclavas brandishing Kalashnikovs and M-16s toward the street, under the Red Hand of Ulster and a banner of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a Protestant paramilitary organization. The image was so striking, I can still see it clearly in my mind. It is also the kind of mural that has become much more scarce—though not yet extinct—in Belfast today.
In 1997, three years after our visit, a ceasefire was agreed between Republican and Unionist paramilitaries, then ignominiously broken by both sides in 1998. But the same year, negotiations between elected politicians and those sectarian leaders whose careers had been raised on a bedrock of strident and mutual opposition produced a proposal for governing Northern Ireland that would require power-sharing between Republican and Unionist parties, and a decommissioning of the paramilitaries’ weapons. When put to a popular referendum, 71 percent of Northern Ireland’s voters approved it, and it was signed on April 10, 1998.
To reflect on this transformation over the last twenty-five years is to bear witness to the power of peacemaking.
April 2023 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the twenty-fifth year since the end of the Troubles, and the twenty-fifth year of Northern Irish governance shared between former enemies. Once a territory segmented by its avoidances, Northern Ireland is now characterized not just by proximity but by daily interaction—even collaboration—between Catholics and Protestants. To reflect on this transformation over the last twenty-five years is to bear witness to the power of peacemaking. And from the vantage point of my own country, the United States, one that seems ever more riven with social and political animosities, understanding peace—what it is, what it offers, and how we make it—feels more urgent than ever.
Choice or Paradox?
When it comes to the invitation to peace, I often feel ambivalent. The contemporary cultural moment associates peace almost entirely with care for self: We’re told to manage our finances, possessions, exercise, and relationships such that stress is minimized and burdens avoided. “Peace,” here, is idolatrous self-love: I want only the rewards of a calm interior state. And then there is the more ennobling if intimidating prospect: peacemaking is worthy, saintly even, but not for me. Excuses abound: I lack the requisite gifts, I am not in the right sector, I wouldn’t know how to begin. Both of these dead-ends are, I think, indicative not just of my own shortcomings but of cultural winds as well.
What, actually, are we to make of the “peace of God” that is promised those who follow him? “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). The apostle Paul here is describing a gift of wholeness, completion, and contentment. A gift that does not depend on our own abilities or capacities, and is available to God’s children in every circumstance. And then there is Jesus, who begins his Sermon on the Mount this way: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Peacemaking, here, is a practice for God’s children to take up. His blessing does not name those who try to achieve their own inner peace, nor those who receive peace from God, but rather those who make peace with and for others. Theologian Justo González calls this “for-otherness,” the everyday habit of the kingdom of heaven, whose end, ultimately, is shalom. Peacemakers are called children of God because, in likeness with God, they are the reconcilers who mend relationships and heal wounds in our world.
If modern-day Western Christians have often coveted the feeling of peace in our lives and therefore sought to achieve it on our own terms rather than receive it through our open-handed reliance on Christ, then it is peculiar to observe that we have also diminished the practice of peacemaking in its biblical, shalom-seeking sense.
If modern-day Western Christians have often coveted the feeling of peace in our lives and therefore sought to achieve it on our own terms rather than receive it through our open-handed reliance on Christ, then it is peculiar to observe that we have also diminished the practice of peacemaking in its biblical, shalom-seeking sense. We may seek inner peace through the guidance of a book or a spiritual retreat, make time for solitude and meditation, but it is hard to see the evidence of that peace in the volleys we send across the bow, whether via Twitter, public school board meetings, or a smorgasbord of bumper-sticker and yard-sign slogans. In the simplest terms, when faced with an enemy, we prefer to shoot first and make peace later. It’s a kind of peacemaking that is more rightly called conquering, and it begets a cycle of violence that requires ever-increasing force.
If the kingdom of heaven is the integrated social, political, economic, and environmental order characterized by shalom, then its opposite, the worldly order of violence, is empire. As Reinhold Niebuhr observed in Christ and Culture, one of our enduring temptations as humans is to confuse “achieving peace” with “establishing dominion.” Empire corrupts the kingdom’s shalom by replacing for-otherness with forcing-otherness; peace in an empire demands blood sacrifice of some but never all. It is no coincidence that the origins of Northern Ireland’s violent conflict hark back to one such empire, and any reflection on peacemaking and transformation in twenty-first-century Northern Ireland must recognize that corrupted root.
Empire, Enmity, and Evangelicals
Ireland is often regarded as the first of England’s colonies. In the sixteenth century, England marked out plantations in the rich Irish soil, where English colonists were encouraged to settle and Irish inhabitants could pay for the privilege to labour. These plantations marked a change in English policy, from the attempted domination and elimination of Irish chieftains to the establishment of a new social hierarchy with the English at the top. From that time on, in Ireland as in other lands under imperial authority, the relationships that grew between ruling classes, settlers, and the population at large bore the taint of exploitation, seasoned with the personal familiarities of neighbours and fraught with more than the usual animosities. Over centuries, the blurred distinctions between statecraft and community craft shattered the mixed Irish-English population into identity fragments that came to appear primeval, and Irish-Catholic and English-Protestant emerged as ethnic rather than religious identities. By the time violence struck, and struck again in reprisal, the cycle had already come to seem inevitable.
The Troubles, which endured for thirty years and claimed more than 3,500 lives, brought to a head the long political and cultural struggle between neighbours in Northern Ireland: Catholics, who tended to identify as Irish, and Protestants, who tended to identify as British. The Irish Catholics who called themselves Republicans (or Nationalists) saw their cause as seeking civil rights for Catholics in a predominantly Protestant state, and paramilitary organizations like the IRA deemed themselves a revolutionary political movement fighting against an empire. The Northern Irish Protestants, however, did not see themselves as benefiting from imperial protection or privilege. Their argument for violence—threatened by the balaclava-clad men holding submachine guns over the street in the 1994 Shankill Road mural—found its legitimacy in the call to defend themselves and their communities. For Northern Irish Protestants of that time, the hostility of the world around them seemed to preclude their participation in peacemaking.
On that family trip in 1994, we listened to the ritual construction of this world in church one Sunday evening. Our curiosity stoked by that mural, we searched out the church founded by the fiery Reverend Ian Paisley, then the most prominent public figure for the Protestant Unionists. His public persona was loud, declarative, and pithy. He was all too happy to proclaim that he would “rather be British than just,” and to flippantly dub his Republican counterparts “bloodthirsty monsters.” Upon arriving in the sanctuary, though, we learned (to some disappointment) that Paisley was just then away in the United States meeting with governmental officials. In the service without him, then, we learned much about the house of God that Paisley built, but not much about his plans for peace or reconciliation. Instead, the Old Testament Scriptures that were chosen—and the foregoing reflections—conveyed an air of embattlement in a community under siege. Absent their charismatic preacher, the church leaders avoided direct reference to any concerns related to sectarian violence, and throughout the service the sanctuary itself reminded me of a bunker, a protected pause in a life of uncertainty and potential threat.
What Unionist and Republican camps offered to their recruits was not merely a group to belong to, or even an affirmation of ethnic identity, but a world that made sense.
The ever-present possibility of violence during the Troubles had profoundly shaped the larger population of Belfast. Leaders like Paisley could leverage not just retaliation for harm already done but also potential victimhood to incite preemptive actions and exclusions. In a city where unpredictable explosions could swallow a bus or a home, where police patrolled in lumbering armoured trucks, where civil rights marchers risked death if they ran afoul of shifting sectarian boundaries, political violence in Belfast during the Troubles became an especially effective instrument of world-making. As recent shows like Derry Girls or novels like the 2019 Orwell Prize winners Milkman and Say Nothing have shown, in the life of a given person in Northern Ireland, a troubling panoply of bomb threats, bus security screenings, armed and rogue paramilitary youths, and unexplained disappearances demanded interpretation. They were too weighty to mean nothing. What Unionist and Republican camps offered to their recruits was not merely a group to belong to, or even an affirmation of ethnic identity, but a world that made sense. In the face of everyday violence, meaning is heady stuff.
During the Troubles, a generation grew to maturity amid conflict, having been socialized to identify with an ethnic side, having learned to be alert in navigating a fractured geography. It was a generation bombarded with messages that the future could only be wrought through the exercise of force in the present.
And so it was hardly inevitable—nor even likely—that in 1998 this generation should become the “agreement generation,” those who voted against the divisions they had inherited. But perhaps the most surprising turn came a few years later in the negotiations to determine the new leadership of Northern Ireland, that first minister and deputy first minister who would serve together and fulfill the agreement’s power-sharing requirement. On May 8, 2007, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were elected first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. A more unlikely pairing could hardly be conceived: Paisley, nicknamed “Dr. No” for his automatic reply to any talk of compromise, who had carried that sentiment right through his campaigning against the Good Friday Agreement, and McGuinness, a charismatic IRA officer turned Republican politician who an awed British spy once observed “held the power of life and death.” But to those in leadership in Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Britain, the choice was essential. As McGuinness himself observed, “Sometimes the people here are best suited to bring conflict to an end, to get an agreement, are the very people that are part of that conflict in the first case.”
The thirty-year period of the Troubles was littered with broken ceasefires and abandoned negotiations. It was not just the fundamental opposition between Unionists and Republicans that led to a fitful peacemaking process, but rather divisions within the respective sides—paramilitaries, political parties, persons of influence—that created constantly counterproductive tugs on a resistance that seemed woefully underprepared for the complexities of conflict negotiation. Ultimately, the coalition of support that coaxed the Good Friday Agreement to popular approval in both Northern Ireland and Ireland was a broad, multi-party, multinational affair, with campaigning from school teachers to global pop stars like U2’s Bono. It was a peacemaking campaign that advanced simultaneously from the bottom and from the top, a movement that caught like wildfire in places where only a few years previous the tinder had seemed depressingly damp and unready to ignite.
What changed? What had reframed the shared experience of a population caught in a conflict zone, and what had inspired them to collectively embrace what González calls the “radical questioning of today,” that they might anticipate and even begin to work together toward “a time unlike today”? Was it a collective sense of mass fatigue, which rose on the tide of three decades of cyclical violence, creating the conditions for consensus? Did the self-preservation instincts of the sectarian leaders lead them to perceive a new route to amplifying their bargaining power, through shared governance? Did the voices of songwriters and artists lead the people to imagine new hopes and dreams?
Likely all of these hypotheses contain grains of truth. But then what of the church? Scripture clearly offers a litany of resources to reimagine enmity, and more powerfully, to reorient ourselves around neighbour-love. But churches have all too often been caught up in their own cultural dynamics of conflict and conquest, subsequently identifying their enemies, and by extension God’s enemies, across the battle lines for the issue of most pressing importance now. [AS3] Is there no other power to inspire and sustain a different approach?
Theological critique, packaged with a program of self-examination and repentance, changed the minds of many erstwhile supporters of the sectarian cause.
Some recent research on the peacemaking process in Northern Ireland suggests an encouraging counter-witness, one in which communities of faith have refused to be limited to picking and choosing from the sides provided, but have rather reset the terms of the disagreement itself. Gladys Ganiel, who has written extensively on evangelicalism in Northern Ireland, has shown that an evangelical Protestant organization named ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland) made significant headway in shaping the Protestant community’s understanding of its own role in fomenting sectarian conflict. Directly challenging the historic and unofficial slogan of Unionism, for God and Ulster, in 1988 ECONI published an open letter in the Belfast Telegraph titled “For God—His Glory Alone.” The letter was so well received that it was later distributed as a booklet series of over ten thousand copies, and it launched a program of critical self-examination and repentance in which more than a third of all Protestant congregations participated. At its peak, ECONI even managed to obtain significant funding from the British government for its programming. Ganiel argues that ECONI’s positive reception among Northern Irish Protestant churches was largely attributable to its insider status as an evangelical organization and the reliance of its message of nonviolence on Christian Scripture and theology. Ganiel found that theological critique, packaged with a program of self-examination and repentance, changed the minds of many erstwhile supporters of the sectarian cause.
Flawed and culpable leaders, repentance in the church, the laying down of weapons and agendas of domination, a collective choice to seek rupture with the past. Those whom Jesus would call children of God, the peacemakers in Northern Ireland, are no innocent heroes. Even twenty-five years after the Good Friday Agreement marked the end of the Troubles, the peace achieved remains shaky. In 2019, journalist Lyra McKee was killed while observing a riot against the police in Derry, shot by stray bullets that had been intended for the police. Her killers were members of a small Republican group opposed to the peace process. The power-sharing executive was suspended first by Sinn Fein in 2017 and more recently in 2022 by the resignation of the Prime Minister, leader of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, with Northern Ireland surpassing the world record for non-governance in peacetime at 590 days of non-cooperation in 2018. Brexit has provided the latest threat to Northern Irish political cooperation, and while a deal offered by the British state in February 2023 has offered reasons for measured hope, as of June 2023, the executive has not yet been restored to function. Brexit has also provided a potent threat to Northern Irish political cooperation, though a deal offered by the British state in February 2023 has suggested reasons for measured hope. The scope of accountability for human rights abuses by members of the British Army during the Troubles is even now the subject of heated debate around a bill proposed in British parliament.
The wounds of empire remain raw. The Troubles may be formally over, but their memories run hot. Meanwhile the allure of peacemaking has begun to cool; there will be no Nobel Peace Prizes awarded for its daily labours. This is Northern Ireland in its second act of peacemaking, seeking the sustaining of reconciliation. It is in some ways a more challenging task than designing the original agreement. And so celebrations like the twenty-fifth anniversary do not simply mark past achievements, but they call the people together to remember the tragedy of the past and to renew their commitment to this new, hard era. Will the Good Friday Agreement wither like some of its predecessors? Only the people of Northern Ireland may answer.
In autumn of 2022, I returned to Belfast. By happy coincidence I now live in Nashville, Tennessee, one of its sister cities, and the institution where I work has a partnership with Queen’s University. On a Saturday afternoon in the holiday season, I went for a wander through Belfast’s streets. There I found the reverberations of twenty-five years of peacemaking an almost palpable sensation. The bleak emptiness of neglected public spaces and sidewalks that I recalled from years past had been written over with the scrawl of colourful shops, teenagers traipsing in happily oblivious packs down the pedestrian mall, tourists pouring through a historic market that smelled of coffee, sausage, lavender, patchouli. Belfast appeared a fresh, cheerfully post-industrial city, eager to remake itself and to believe the branding. Any impulse to diminish the effects of the Good Friday Agreement need only look to the revitalization of Belfast. But any examination of Northern Ireland’s peacemaking movement, sombre or celebratory, must also recognize that this kingdom work has not been fully accomplished but is only ever underway.