Although ‘friendship’ was not on offer, March 26th 2007 witnessed a historical moment when leaders of the two main parties representing rival factions of society in Northern Ireland sat down at the same table. Who would ever have imagined Ian Paisley, a hawkish protestant cleric heading the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who has always refused dialogue with radical Irish republicans, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), discussing earnestly, face-to-face, the future of Northern Ireland’s self-governance.
The peoples of Northern Ireland have long borne a heavy weight of history. Home to divided communities that have been sharing the territory for centuries, but never lived in harmony, the province experienced decades of brutal violence commonly known as ‘the Troubles.’ On one side of the divide are the unionists: mostly Protestant descendants of British settlers, who supported the imperial military presence. They identify strongly with Great Britain and aim to maintain the Union, which they consider the principal guarantee of their rights and freedoms. Since the partition of Ireland in 1920, the unionists represent the dominant faction of Northern Irish society, both demographically (in the 1920s, the unionists accounted for 65% of the population, presently 55%) and political and economic influence. On the other side are the nationalists: descendants of native Irishmen, mostly of the Catholic confession. In nationalist public opinion, the partition of Ireland was an undemocratic way for Great Britain to maintain its influence over part of the Island. The nationalist’s goal is the elimination of discrimination between the communities, equal power-sharing in provincial legislative and executive bodies and, in the long run, reunification with the rest of Ireland.
The violent past of the province spawned radical streams in both communities. On the nationalist side the republican movement emerged, struggling for nothing less than the ‘cleansing’ the island of the British, using all means available to them, including extreme violence. Alternatively, the loyalist wing of unionism (loyal to the British queen) deployed force to prevent and punish republican activities. However, despite deeply entrenched grudges and distrust between both communities of Northern Ireland, recent developments give signs of hope for reconciliation and better relations between the two communities.