The Irish author Fintan O’Toole has drawn attention to a sad fact of British politics brought to light by Brexit. Not only do the British—meaning mostly the English—public not care about Ireland, but they hardly concern themselves with Northern Ireland, including the population there who consider themselves British. Brexit was conceived and propagated as if Ireland and its people did not exist. Now we see, more clearly than before the 2016 referendum, that Britain’s EU membership formed the foundation for the peace and stability that have prevailed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord that settled the lengthiest civil strife in Ireland’s history.

While Britain was in the EU, questions of identity that had been murderously divisive faded into the background. Protestant unionists could live fully within a British world, Catholic nationalists within an Irish one. (Regardless of heritage, the Northern Irish can receive passports from both the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland.) But now that Britain is out of the EU, there has to be a border between it and the rest of Europe, including the Irish Republic. From the beginning of negotiations on Brexit, talk of a land barrier in Ireland has been anathema, with many fearing it would provoke a new round of violence.

The solution has been to keep Northern Ireland in the EU common market and to erect a customs barrier between it and Britain in the Irish Sea. That arrangement is enshrined in the Northern Ireland protocol worked out between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, then the Irish Republic’s Taoiseach, in October 2019. As of this writing, it’s become difficult to find some cherished British products on the shelves of Northern Irish stores; Marks & Spencer, facing 120,000 pages of customs forms a week, has announced that it will be delisting holiday items like beef and bone-marrow pie. Hobby gardeners can’t find favorite seed varieties and prices have doubled on beloved rose plants.

With good reason unionists fear that Britain has abandoned them. In County Tyrone, a mural featuring a masked gunman appeared: “Our forefathers fought for our freedom and rights; no border in the sea or we continue the fight.” Even moderates agree it’s an absurdity to be divided from one’s own country by a customs barrier. In a riot in April—probably provoked by loyalist paramilitaries—youths set a double-decker bus on fire at one of the interfaces to Catholic Belfast. It was the first such incident in a quarter-century.

What the future holds is a mystery. The Good Friday Agreement calls for a referendum on Irish unity (known as a “border poll”) whenever the (British) secretary of state for Northern Ireland believes there is a majority in the north and south favoring a united Ireland. This need only be a simple majority—50 percent plus one. But what if most unionists oppose unity with Ireland and lose the vote? Thanks to Brexit, we would then be back to one of Europe’s most vexing nationality problems: suddenly, against their will, Northern Irish Protestants would be citizens of a country they consider foreign.

Two recent books on Northern Ireland, Liam Kennedy’s Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? and James Waller’s A Troubled Sleep, remind us how we got here and help us see what might come next. Kennedy and Waller are both leading authorities on the subject, and their books combine rigor with absorbing, elegant prose and a sense of moral purpose that is rare in academic writing.


Waller, a social psychologist, has been asking for decades why some divided societies produce violence while others don’t. Soon after the Good Friday Agreement, he began visiting Northern Ireland with school classes and recently spent a semester as a visiting professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, interviewing witnesses from both sides. Before delving into his research, Waller shares an insight from the psychologist Henri Tajfel, who pondered the ramifications of social identification while a captive of Nazi Germany (Tajfel survived because he was categorized as a French POW rather than as a Polish Jew). While studying at the Sorbonne after the war, Tajfel discovered almost no pretext was needed to split one group of people into mutually suspicious halves. As an experiment, he arbitrarily divided his students in two, and before long they began preferring members of their own group—as well as discriminating against those on the outside.

For people outside Ireland, the divisions in the Irish North likewise seem arbitrary and trivial. Unionist and nationalist communities not only speak the same language but do so with the same accent. Both are overwhelmingly non-observant Christians, indistinguishable by race and sharing a deep, common history—a history they understand very differently. Waller surveys the salient contours of this difference. According to nationalists, the Irish were victims of centuries of British aggression, including theft of land, expulsion of native elites, and the transplanting to Ulster of Protestants loyal to the colonial regime; Northern Ireland consists of six counties carved from Ulster in 1921 in order to assure Protestant domination (the remaining twenty-six counties became the Irish Free State). Into the late 1960s, the regime in Belfast gerrymandered and discriminated to make sure Catholics remained second-class citizens. According to unionists, their forebears civilized Ulster by fostering liberty and opposing papist obscurantism. The most visible expressions of this “culture” are yearly parades featuring men in bowler hats, deafening drums, banners of William of Orange, and bonfires that sometimes feature the burning of the pope in effigy.

The Troubles proceeded as a chain effect. In the late 1960s nationalists organized a civil-rights movement to demand equality, but the Protestant response, often aided by the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary), was so violent—burning out Catholics from enclaves in Derry and Belfast—that London sent soldiers to keep the peace. Yet after being sent to ransack Catholic homes for weapons, the troops favored Protestants more and more openly. Then, in the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972, British paratroopers shot to death fourteen Catholics protesting peacefully in the streets of Derry.

This is one of Waller’s “inflection points”—moments at which violence either escalated or went in a new direction. Outraged by the impunity with which British forces used violence against Catholics, volunteers streamed into the clandestine IRA, providing soldiers for its campaigns against “British interests” (like British-owned department stores) and British officials, including off-duty policemen and soldiers. A more transformative inflection was the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. Ten IRA inmates starved to death in a vain protest to secure status as political prisoners, including the poet Bobby Sands, who had been arrested after an attack on the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry. The spectacle of men dying for their convictions made Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political arm, so popular that it began winning elections, thus gaining an incentive to pursue its goals by peaceful means. By the 1990s Sinn Féin leaders also had to acknowledge that campaigns of terror could not solve the problem of Irish partition.


Riots in Belfast circa July 1971 (Ray Bellisario/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

That terror is Liam Kennedy’s core concern. The question posed by the title of his book—“Who was responsible for the Troubles?”—is intentionally provocative. Some nationalists would no doubt consider it scandalous. How could one side carry the blame for thirty years of killings when IRA and loyalist paramilitaries routinely avenged each other’s acts? At some point it seemed impossible to say just who was responsible; the death spiral became self-perpetuating. Catholics had mobilized for equality, but Protestants claimed this mobilization was itself aggressive. By the early 1970s the volunteers streaming into paramilitaries on both sides believed they were protecting their communities. 

Kennedy has been listening to the rival justifications since arriving at Queen’s to teach economic history in 1977. He asks readers to get outside their echo chambers and consider what party may have been primarily responsible for perpetuating the conflict. Violence, he argues, does not happen by “inertia.” The people who blew up crowded pubs or gunned down magistrates at breakfast with their children were not automatons. They thought what they were doing was not only necessary but right.

Kennedy gets to a “prime” culprit by a process of elimination. The police and army were indeed often partisan, but their basic job was containing violence, and if not for the introduction of British troops in 1969, the region might have descended into a full-blown civil war. In any case, these “crown forces” did not drive the violence. “Had there been permanent paramilitary ceasefires at any point from say 1972 onwards,” writes Kennedy, “the British army would have been recalled to barracks.” 

What of the denial to Catholics of basic rights from the moment Northern Ireland was founded? Kennedy argues that systemic injustices were being dealt with via reformist policies pursued by British officials from the late 1960s: “Many of the key reforms in housing, local government and voting had been conceded by the time the Provisional IRA went on the offensive.” What of Protestants as agents of violence? According to Kennedy, the unionist side was primarily responsive.

By “Provisional IRA,” Kennedy means the main IRA faction that remained after a split in 1969 (the other faction is called “Official”). After decades of dormancy, the Officials had arisen once more in the late 1960s, setting bombs and killing British soldiers. But in May 1972, after their volunteers murdered Ranger William Best, a nineteen-year-old Catholic on leave in Derry from his unit in Germany, the Officials declared a unilateral cease-fire, worried that the violence would spiral out of control. For Kennedy this proves that continued armed struggle for “Irish rights” was unnecessary: had other republican groups emulated the Official IRA in its radical rethinking of armed struggle, loyalist violence toward the nationalist community would have fizzled out.

Yet rather than retreat, the Provisional IRA (also PIRA or “Provos”) scaled up its campaign of bombings and assassinations. Kennedy thus assigns primary responsibility for the Troubles to a tight-knit Provos leadership group that pressed forward with targeted terrorism into the 1990s, killing more people than all other sources of violence combined. 


Critics will ask whether the search for culprits can stop at the PIRA leadership. After all, they did not create themselves, but grew out of generations of official contempt and hypocrisy capped by human-rights abuses during the early 1970s. Anyone who watches documentaries on the Troubles—Arthur MacCaig’s The Patriot Game, for example, or the BBC’s eight-part series Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History—will conclude that arrogant officials from Britain, abetted by security forces displaying a colonial mindset, made the emergence of a radical faction in the IRA inevitable. Photojournalists recorded police kicking down doors, violating the elderly, roughing up and arbitrarily arresting young men, and clubbing everyone in sight when entering Catholic areas. After being dragged, sometimes by their hair, into paddy wagons, the arrested were held without trial and subject to abuses condemned as torture by the European Court of Human Rights in 1976.

Kennedy writes that the British learned a lesson from Bloody Sunday: it “was not repeated.” Yes, technically Bloody Sunday was an event of one day, but the images of that event never disappeared from journals and televisions, becoming a perennial call to arms for young men and women—despite desperate efforts of peacemaking clergy and socialist politicians on the nationalist side.

Thus, if Kennedy is right that the violence was propelled by a monstrous coterie of ideological extremists, that monster’s life was made possible by officials located in London, men with impeccable manners and an unquestioned belief in their right to govern supposed inferiors. They took for granted that, for example, the massive internment of Catholics without trial from 1971 to 1975, a “painful decision” arrived at after “due consideration,” would quench the resistance. The effect was the opposite: an unquenchable rage.

By 1972 the Provos seemed to many Catholics the only force speaking a language adequate to their desperation, a fact well documented in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which tells the story of Dolours Price, an idealistic civil-rights activist from a republican family who was radicalized by direct witness to the persecution of Catholics. After swearing an oath of loyalty to the PIRA, she helped plant car bombs in London in March 1973, wounding some two hundred people. She and her accomplices were apprehended while attempting to board a flight back to Ireland. Decades later it emerged that Price had also belonged to a unit that kidnapped, shot, and buried Jean McConville, a West Belfast Catholic mother of ten who was suspected of treason. McConville’s remains were not located until 2003 in a bog south of the border.

Yet as easy as it is to understand the rage that drove young men and women to the Provos, in retrospect we see that no goal justified their bombings, targeted assassinations, and maimings. Kennedy takes special aim at a central myth promoted by Price and her comrades: that they were protecting Catholics. Only three Catholics had died at loyalist hands between 1966 and 1969, while in the succeeding decades hundreds lost their lives. The Provos proved “hopeless” against their purported enemies: “Less than 2 percent of IRA killings,” Kennedy tells us, “or 28 to be precise were of loyalist paramilitaries.” Moreover, the IRA itself killed Catholics, including its own people. And contrary to the powerful images of Derry in January 1972, only a small minority of the Catholics who died were killed by security forces.

In fact, the Provos’ goals did not lie in immediate self-defense. According to their doctrines, Catholics suffering persecution by the police or unequal treatment were surface problems: peace, justice, and popular welfare were unattainable as long as Ireland remained divided. Thus, the Provos’ operations aimed to drive “British imperialism” from the island. An early leader, London-born John Stephenson (later called Seán Mac Stíofáin), wrote in his memoir, “we believe that only by force of arms can Ireland achieve her complete freedom.” As in any war there would be casualties on both sides, justified by the cause; what the Provos did was exploit mass rage for their own program of national unity. Protestants would either accept united Ireland or get out.

Kennedy and Waller agree that Irish unity is only a matter of time, but the momentum in its favor has little to do with the IRA and its “armed struggle.”

Kennedy and Waller agree that Irish unity is only a matter of time, but the momentum in its favor has little to do with the IRA and its “armed struggle.” The 2021 census revealed that for the first time Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland, and British authorities may be bound in the foreseeable future to require a border poll. Signs of change are already in the air, including the fact that Northern Ireland now exists in an effective customs union with the south. In the nineteenth century a customs union in Germany preceded German unity.

Still, it’s hard to dispute that the Good Friday Agreement was in part made possible by IRA terrorism. The major role in bringing the various sides together belongs to Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP)—in the 1990s the major nationalist party, committed to peace and a moderate Left politics—yet Tony Blair admitted to SDLP politician Seamus Mallon that what really worried him was the IRA and its political wing Sinn Féin: “They have the guns, Seamus.” And they did not fully surrender those weapons until 2005.

Yet the agreement has left Northern Ireland poorly prepared for unity. Much like the Dayton Treaty that ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995, it assumes the existence of ethnic communities and thereby perpetuates them. Because the Dayton peacemakers guaranteed power-sharing, office-seekers in Bosnia have had to declare themselves Croat, Muslim, or Serb. The result has been to reward the ethnic mindset, causing even moderate Serb leaders to highlight their nationalist profile and become more sectarian. Similarly, the 1998 Belfast agreement requires elected officials to declare allegiance: nationalist, unionist, or “other.” Since that time power-sharing in Belfast has meant joint governing by the leading unionist party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, and because both of those parties are proudly sectarian, they do little to bring the two communities together.

The most striking failure is in education. If one wanted to unite people of diverse backgrounds, the obvious way would be to mix the young in schools, producing countless friendships across ethnic lines, “mixed” marriages, and a constituency opposed to binary distinctions. In theory, the task is an easy one. Schools are state-funded, and more than 70 percent of parents desire integration. Yet some 93 percent of students continue to attend either Catholic or Protestant schools; most do not meet people from the other community until they are in college. Beyond rhetorical gestures, the political class does little to promote integration. One unionist politician told Waller: “We like the rigorous segregation of neighborhoods and communities because it gives us an easy and solid voting bloc.”

The segregation seems especially strange in Belfast, a small city where the population comes into constant contact at the center—in its shops, museums, and restaurants—then goes home to predominantly unionist or nationalist neighborhoods. The government owns public housing and might promote integration, yet its officials make sure that Protestant “estates” remain Protestant, Catholic ones Catholic. It does not help that paramilitaries remain active just beneath the surface. A few years ago, Catholic families were moved quietly into Protestant East Belfast, but soon they met threats of violence and were relocated to safer quarters. Though disarmed, paramilitaries remain eager to exploit fear, often trading in drugs and prostitution, similar to the mafias of the Balkans who grew out of the front-line forces responsible for ethnic cleansing. Brexit has given a new life to men who live by intimidation. For now, this is most visible on the unionist side—witness the rioting earlier this year. 

Unfortunately, some on the nationalist side are deaf to the challenges of assuaging anxieties. After Brexit, and in light of the growing Catholic demographic weight, Sinn Féin politicians seem gleeful at the apparently unstoppable momentum toward Irish unity. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has called on the British government to set the date for the unity referendum. In her view, “Change is underway, it cannot be resisted but it must be managed.”

Such overconfidence could prove a set-back for unification, alienating not only unionists in the north, but also people in the Republic regardless of heritage. According to polls, a substantial majority (two-thirds) of southerners would support united Ireland, but only 54 percent are willing to pay higher taxes to fund it. Some estimates place the cost of unity as high as 30 billion euros a year. Perhaps with these facts in mind, mainstream politicians speak in measured tones, with the current Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, saying he prefers an evolutionary approach, building north-south trust through projects of mutual interest. His government is not pushing for a border poll.

Commentators in the Republic also pay attention to the nationalist-unionist dynamic north of the partition. Southerners will support unity, Fintan O’Toole writes, only if it seems not to leave them with a mess. “They will not vote for a form of unity that merely creates an angry and alienated Protestant minority within a bitterly contested new state.” But the south is also no longer the place that that minority once feared; it is highly educated, almost post-national in sentiment, and secular. The Irish Catholic Church, which once took its political relevance for granted, has been much reduced by scandal and attrition. Only 2.1 percent of respondents in the Republic felt there would be no recognition of unionist identity in a united Ireland. 


What if the border poll happens and 52 percent of the Northern Irish are in favor, but 80 percent of Protestants among them remain opposed? Europe’s history gives little guidance. The sense in France, Spain, Italy, or Poland has long been that the nation existed from time immemorial; there have been quarrels over the centuries about France’s boundaries, but when the French Assembly spoke of the French nation in 1789, they had something real in mind: it was the people that had been subjects of the French crown. That nation needed the vote, but it did not need to be created through referendum. In the Italy of the 1860s, despite cavernous regional disparities, support for the new nation state was overwhelming along the peninsula. Likewise, Poland at the dawn of independence in 1918 was regionally complex, but few doubted that a Polish nation existed and should govern itself after the collapse of the powers that had occupied it for more than a century.  

The Irish case mixes such standard expectations for national unity with unusual complexity and doubt. On one hand, the Republic’s constitution speaks of the “will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland.” The assumption here is that the population of the island is one nation. On the other hand, we know that some 800,000 people in Northern Island still consider themselves part of the British nation.

The most comparable European case may be at the other end of the map: Bosnia. Like Ireland, it’s been a distinct political entity for centuries. As in Ireland, its people speak one language and, if one accepts ideas about race popular in the United States, Bosnians are racially indistinguishable from one another. As in Northern Ireland, the population is divided by religion, and, until about thirty years ago, no clear lines could be drawn: Muslims, Croats, and Serbs lived interspersed. Then, in 1992, a rash political decision disrupted this arrangement. That was the year the Bosnian parliament, dominated by Muslim and Croat representatives, set a referendum on independence. In order to pass, the referendum needed only a simple majority—50 percent plus one. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor, but there was a problem: Serbs had refused to take part. In March 1992 the Bosnian parliament declared independence from Yugoslavia and within weeks Serb paramilitaries were laying siege to Sarajevo. Three years of civil war followed, capped by the creation of a dysfunctional statelet called Bosnia at Dayton.

As different as it is from Northern Ireland, Bosnia gives a sense of the futility of trying to establish national unity against a substantial minority. Shortly before he died in January 2020, Seamus Mallon appended to his memoir, A Shared Home Place, urgent concerns about the border poll. Was it not absurd, he asked, to pursue unity in a way that ensures disunity? In a legal sense it may be correct to insist that a simple majority decide the poll, but in moral terms such an outcome would court disaster for the “peace and harmony of the island.” Leo Varadkar has agreed, saying in 2017 that “bouncing Ulster Protestants into a unitary Irish state against their will would be as grievous a wrong as was abandoning a large Catholic minority in the North on partition. It could lead to alienation and even a return to violence.”

Far from telling the truth, Sinn Féin has not even been willing to say that IRA killings were evil acts.

Mallon insisted that a border poll must enjoy consent in both communities, and that meant making unity more palatable to opponents—perhaps through detailed talks on the constitution of a new Ireland. Will it retain devolved institutions for Northern Ireland? Will it be a unitary or a confederated state? If the latter, there might be significant provisions for local self-rule. Yet what concerns Liam Kennedy is not so much the future as the past. Likening the Troubles to Europe’s Thirty Years War, he calls for an open dialogue about responsibility. “Without such truth-telling and much else besides,” he argues, “it is difficult to see how relationships of trust between north and south, and within Northern Ireland itself, can be made to bear much political weight.” Though not comparable to the hecatomb of the seventeenth century, the casualties in Northern Ireland were nevertheless immense. If related to a population the size of Britain, the 3,636 killed and 42,216 injured in the Troubles would translate into 130,000 killed and 1.5 million injured—three times the casualties of the Blitz.

Far from telling the truth, Sinn Féin has not even been willing to say that IRA killings were evil acts. The party’s current leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has said “the politics of condemnation is a rabbit hole that I will not go down because it becomes a tit for tat, ‘you said, I said,’ and it becomes a tennis match between very, very hurt and very, very damaged people and communities.”

For Kennedy, the idea of parallelism—“we and they” equally culpable—fails in several ways. First, Britain’s government has issued apologies, for example for the Bloody Sunday Massacre. It has also spent hundreds of millions of pounds investigating killings. (Its security forces were responsible for 10 percent of Troubles-related deaths). Furthermore, Sinn Féin is the only political party that served as a paramilitary’s political wing. Finally, republican paramilitaries accounted for the lion’s share of the deaths during the Troubles (59 percent), including a substantial minority of the 1,200 Catholics who died.

Each of the many atrocities they perpetrated seems to reflect a new low in heartlessness. What could be worse, one wonders, than orphaning ten children and leaving them with no sign of their mother’s fate? But then one reads of Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic who worked as a cook for the British army in Derry. In October 1990 an IRA unit burst into Gillespie’s house, took his wife and children hostage, chained him to the seat of a truck with explosives and forced him to drive to a British army base. When it reached the gate, IRA officers detonated the truck, killing Gillespie and five British soldiers. The killing was not limited to Northern Ireland. On the morning of June 7, 1996, an IRA unit sprayed fifteen rounds from automatic weapons in the direction of Garda (Irish policeman) Jerry McCabe. They failed to seize money from the post-office van he was guarding in County Limerick, but succeeded in killing McCabe, who left behind a wife and five children.

Earlier this year the reporter Fran Curry wanted to know whether Sinn Féin’s representative (TD) for Tipperary, Martin Browne, would condemn the men who shot McCabe. “I would not go as far as saying condemn,” Browne said, “that is a hard word to put out there.” Then he added: “We all have, eh...we all have our own opinions of what happened, at that time.” Pushed by Curry, he struggled to clarify: “Well, sure, I told you my opinion that it was a sanction, or an action that wasn’t supported by the Provisional movement at the time, and they made that clear, and they made their apologies and that, down through the years, for that.” In response to Curry, Jackie Cahill, a Tipperary politician from the mainstream party Fianna Fail, had this to say:

I fail to understand why anyone would even have to pause to think about whether the killing of a detective on duty couldn’t but be condemned. How any public representative wouldn’t condemn this out of sight is beyond my comprehension. But the thing that really got me was the implication that if it had been “sanctioned” by the “movement,” it would have been okay. It beggars belief.

Belief was precisely the issue: IRA members swore loyalty to a movement that tolerated no thinking outside its doctrines. Killing McCabe was necessary because it served the “war” to oust Britain from Ireland. Even in our day that ideology is difficult to surrender, and not only because it gives purpose and meaning. As anyone who has argued with an IRA supporter will know: its teachings seemed to answer all questions, quieting pangs of conscience. The situation was not much different for veterans of fascist paramilitaries on the continent after World War II. If anything was wrong with the struggle for the rights of “their” nations, it was only that they did not win.

Sinn Féin politicians not only fail to condemn terrorists; in some cases they still celebrate them. Sinn Féin MP Matt Carthy said of Séamus McElwaine, a once-prolific IRA killer, “Séamus and all of those who fought for Irish freedom continue to inspire us.” Sinn Féin’s newspaper, An Phoblacht, even published a full inventory of such “heroes” in April of this year. In August, Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, expressed reverence for Thomas McElwee, a man “unbowed and unbroken” who had starved to death for Irish freedom forty years earlier; she failed to note that an incendiary device planted by McElwee’s unit had burned to death Yvonne Dunlop, a twenty-seven-year-old mother of three.


A Loyalist sign in Dungannon, County Tyrone, about the Irish Sea border, February 15, 2021 (PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

But it’s not only Sinn Féin that has work to do, if the two sides are to move closer to each other. Nationalists will ask what they would get in return for following Mallon’s advice and reneging on their right to an all-Irish vote on unity. In a sense, Mallon is asking them to be more British than Margaret Thatcher: the Good Friday Agreement stipulation that a majority vote in Northern Ireland be respected dates to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which Thatcher forged with Irish leader Garrett Fitzgerald. It was vehemently opposed by Ian Paisley, and should have led to serious reconsideration in DUP ranks about how much the British establishment could be trusted. Just four years earlier Thatcher had said that Northern Ireland is “as British as Finchley” (her own constituency). 

Here’s an idea for an olive branch from the unionist side: an enlightened leader might embrace Kennedy’s style of moral politics and concede that Irish unity would make amends for the outrageous 1921 partition, concocted to create a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people,” and justified by no democratic mandate. The anti-Catholic discrimination in the generations that followed was so intense that even the rumor that a Catholic was employed at a major enterprise, like a ship-building factory, would cause the work crew to strike until the “offense” had been removed.

Such an expectation is fantasy, however. If unionist politicians utter the words “Irish unity,” it’s only to make clear that they oppose it. Their party line is simple and unwavering: Northern Ireland is British to the end of time. Arlene Foster, who was DUP leader into the spring of this year, has said that she anticipates no border poll in her lifetime, and she has just turned fifty. Yet such stubbornness is self-destructive. Foster loyally supported Brexit, and in return her ally Boris Johnson negotiated the protocol that puts up a barrier between Northern Ireland and Britain—after loudly promising never to let the DUP down. Logically, the graffiti in East Belfast should be anti-British. In fact, only 4 percent of the population in Northern Ireland expresses trust in the British government.

Waller keys us in on why unionism is marching lockstep into oblivion: fear extending from leadership to base. Psychologists speak of a “higher level of perceived cultural threat” among Protestants. Their communities, Waller writes, have a “collective and self-protective zero-sum response to changes in contemporary Northern Ireland that have challenged the dominant status they have enjoyed in the past.” The fear is especially stark among workers, who once enjoyed the rare certainty that no matter how poor their own position, it was better than that of Catholics. Waller finds that immigrants feel more at home in Northern Ireland’s Catholic communities than in Protestant ones; according to the police, “most of the major race incidents that we have seen have occurred generally in loyalist areas.” Fears mix, in more candid statements, with guilt. One former loyalist political prisoner confided in Waller: “When the boot is on the other foot, they will do to us what we did to them.”

Such private sentiments are drowned out in the drum beating of annual marches, with banners celebrating British Protestant victories over Catholic forces many centuries ago. But precisely these parades, with the men in bowler hats, trigger naked derision in Britain proper. One British observer reports that most British people outside Northern Ireland find the unionists “embarrassing, provocative, and risible, and think they appear to be living in a past century.” Another said that the marcher in an Orange Order parade seemed to him to be from “another planet.”

Nevertheless, the Orange Order feels it is the last repository of true British sentiment, with a duty to “remember” a glorious past—for example, the Ulstermen who died at the Somme in 1916 for Britain. That sacrifice of thousands generates raw emotions even now. According to the historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, the Orange Order is now mostly a social organization, adding vigor to communal life, organizing self-help, and of course spending lots of time preparing the annual parades. 

History suggests that if left alone, cultural expressions like this eventually shed their aggressiveness. The Republic’s constitution speaks of the will to unite Ireland’s people “in all the diversity of their identities and traditions,” and as a liberal democracy, it upholds the cultural rights of Protestants—a practice unionists might appreciate if they glance across the border to the Ulster counties not included in Northern Ireland. Donegal, for instance, has a relatively sizable Protestant minority and an Orange Order, with lodges and yearly parades featuring William and other heroes. But the parades are not accompanied by chauvinist symbols. No one burns the pope in effigy. Catholics often watch and join in the fun. And why not? These parades do not reflect a fear of decline, but focus on the cultural life of the community.

But history also urges caution. We don’t understand how or why some ethnic identities—the Bavarians in Germany or the Gorales of southern Poland—become “subethnic,” fading in cultural and emotional significance, perhaps celebrated on a particular day and excluding no one. In New York City, everyone is Irish on March 17. But there are other cases—such as the Serbs in 1980s Bosnia, or Germans in 1930s Bohemia—in which an ethnic group, led by desperadoes, lashes out violently against discrimination and economic decline.

It is still too soon to say with certainty how it will go with the unionists in Northern Ireland. At a minimum, interested states should employ all conceivable instruments to allay their fears: ample opportunities for education and employment, significant self-rule, cultural rights. There has to be an unbureaucratic way to ensure that the men and women of Ulster can enjoy their favorite British goods. The unionists have been poorly served by their political class, but no one in Northern Ireland deserves to suffer from Brexit. The population there did not vote to leave Europe, and any simmering anti-European or anti-British sentiment will only serve the disciples of misinformation and violence.

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

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Published in the December 2021 issue: View Contents
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