Rite & Reason: Belfast Agreement offers only route to unity of Irish people

Unlike Pearse or Carson it recognises real challenge is to find way for unionists and nationalists to live together

At the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Belfast Agreement it would be good to deepen our commitment to it by viewing the fateful 1912-1922 decade from the perspective of the Agreement.

The traditional nationalist view took the 1916 Rising, War of Independence, Treaty, partition, and Civil War as the main events: essentially an Irish-British struggle, with unionist opposition and Protestant-Catholic clashes as secondary. That was the Decade of Centenaries’ perspective: as if nothing had happened since 1968 to suggest a fresh look.

An Agreement perspective would view the Catholic-nationalist v Protestant-unionist struggle as primary, and Irish-British struggle as secondary. It would recognise the passage of the 1912 Home Rule bill as the most important event for two reasons: first, the principle of Irish self-government had been granted; second, unionists saw it as a terrifying existential threat.

Hence, the nationalists’ issue was no longer with Britain but the unionists. Nationalists had long been in denial about Irish unionist opposition; now it had to be faced. It was going to be hard for John Redmond, Joe Devlin and the Irish Parliamentary Party to lead the nationalist community to accepting that the unionists could be neither soft-talked nor coerced.


Making it harder was the opposition to the Irish Parliamentary Party, of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, and Gaelic nationalists like Pearse. They dismissed the problem as unreal and condemned talk of compromise as treason.

Serious talks between nationalists and unionists took place in July 1914. But the process was derailed by the catastrophe of first World War, leading to a chain of violent events (the 1916 Rising and the 1919-1921 War of Independence) that ended all hope of a nationalist-unionist settlement. The Rising and the 1919-1921 war were the shrieks of frustration and rage at the unionist obstacle, going into denial about it and scapegoating the British.

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April marks 25 years since the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement was reached, ending the Troubles and establishing a new political arrangement on the island of Ireland.But today the institutions that were set up back in 1998 are in crisis.Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole talks to Hugh Linehan about the significance of the Agreement:The events that led up to the deal and the role of John HumeThe impact of the Agreement on the evolution of Sinn FéinHow Brexit trampled on the ideas underpinning the AgreementThe future of the powersharing institutions and how Northern Ireland has moved on

By 1919, the new nationalist leaders, insofar as they thought of Ulster at all, saw coercion as the solution. A door had closed: not for more than half-a-century (at Sunningdale in 1973) did unionist and nationalist leaders sit down again to serious talks.

Once the 1912 Home Rule legislation had passed, a War of Independence was pointless. At the end of that war, the Treaty granted dominion status to the south: something that was already being pushed in 1918 by the Irish Parliamentary Party, and in January 1919 suggested by Lord Haldane, unofficial emissary of the British government, to Sinn Féin.

That war had destructive effects in Northern Ireland. Just as the IRA’s 1970-1998 war against the British in practice amounted to a war against the unionists so its northern war in 1919-1922 could not but be in practice directed against unionists.

The effect of the Rising and the 1919-1921 war was a breach between unionists and nationalists which was beyond healing for the foreseeable future.

When the Treaty was debated in the Dáil in December 1921, partition and the unionist-nationalist conflict were hardly mentioned. Yet from a historical (or Belfast Agreement) point of view, it turned out to be the only substantial issue. All the other issues – the oath, the ports, etc – disappeared within a few years.

When Northern Ireland erupted in 1969, southern nationalists held to the traditional view that unionist opposition wasn’t real, that the British were the problem, and that their withdrawing would easily lead to a united Ireland and peace. By 1975 all Dáil parties were uneasily aware that Britain would happily withdraw from Northern Ireland.

They were now reluctantly conceding that unionists were real, and they feared the consequences of unilateral British withdrawal. Southerners (at least some of them) were slowly realising that the real issue since 1912, which had never gone away, was to find a way for nationalists and unionists to live together.

The 1998 agreement’s perspective is based on a few fundamental values: democratic means only and no political violence, acknowledgement of the suffering inflicted on each community, and recognition of the right to identify as Irish, British, Irish-British or other.

Those were not the values of Pearse or Carson, Craig or de Valera in 1912-1922.

Affirming and living the Belfast Agreement’s values is the only way to develop unity of the Irish people and avert any return to violence. A community’s historical heritage is of value only if interpreted in the light of the needs of the living.

The agreement’s values respond to nationalist and unionist need: for recognition of the victims and the exclusion of past wars, and for heroes that inspire, unite, and point the way to a historical identity that is life-giving.

Fr Séamus Murphy, SJ, is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago