Lessons from Northern Ireland

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Ian and Martin

Ian and Martin, BFF? [dps / Flickr]

On May 8th, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness — two men who were once the bitterest of enemies — entered into a power-sharing agreement as leader and deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s executive government. Paisley is head of the Democratic Unionists, Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant political party, and McGuinness is former head of the IRA. These two men sitting across a table from each other would have been almost unthinkable twenty-five years ago.

After so many years of violence, what went right in Northern Ireland? And are there relevant lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process for other conflicts around the world: in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine?

Boston Globe columnist James Carroll tries to tease out the factors that allowed peace to come to the region; British MP Peter Hain argues that the successful peace process should offer hope and inspiration to other sectarian conflicts; and General Petraeus soothes those impatient with Iraq by pointing out that time was critical to the successful resolution in Northern Ireland.

Then again, perhaps this is all wishful thinking, because situations in other parts of the world may be too different for Northern Ireland’s example to be useful in a practical way. Is it possible to extract specific strategies from the region, or only broad ideas, such as that it’s a good idea to negotiate with your enemies? And as one blogger points out, if General Petraeus compares Iraq to a conflict that has by some accounts gone on for 800 years, is that really such a good thing?

So far, we’ve talked to Irish blogger Mick Fealty and Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. Who would you like to hear from, and how do you think Northern Ireland might work as a model for other world conflicts?

Mick Fealty

Founding editor, Slugger O’Toole

Malachi O’Doherty

Journalist and broadcaster

Author, The Telling Year: Belfast 1972

Noah Feldman

Author, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy and What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building

Cecilia Goetz Professor of Law, New York University

Extra Credit Reading

Tom Mitchell, Irish Lessons, The Conversation, Mar 28, 2007: “Does the [Northern Ireland] agreement mean that Kadima or even the Likud is likely to reach a peace agreement with Hamas? For several reasons, I fear that the answer is ‘no’.”

Malachi O’Doherty, Lessons from Northern Ireland, Comment is Free, May 8, 2007: “…what are the lessons to be learnt from the coming together of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness? The first, surely, is that even the most outrageous political ideologue may be willing to compromise principle for power.”

Still Burning, The Peace Wall, Flickr: “In the heart of Belfast stands a wall, 25 feet high. It consists of iron, brick, and steel sheets, and it is called the Belfast Peace Wall. It was built to keep Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods seperated – extra high so no stones or petrol bombs could be thrown over it. It is also a stop on every single tourist tour of Belfast, and most people scribble messages of hope and peace on his hideous wall. I have attempted to document these messages.”

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  • rc21

    I talked to a friend who is from N.Ireland not long ago. His response to why the violence has finally ended was pretty simple. It’s the economy. Once the economy picked up and people were able to find work, they simply didn’t have the free time to go around bombing and shooting each other. All the thugs found jobs and started making money.

    Maybe people have deeper,sexier answers and we can get into the whole psycology of the ”Troubles” but I think my friend is right. The answer really just may be that simple.

  • alib


    1. It took nearly 40 years of muddle, over 3,000 dead. Sunningdale for slow learners was not worth it.

    2. Devious London won. Both sides in the Six Counties lost. The resulting political solution is built on lies and is innately sectarian. It is uniquely tailored to a bigoted and increasingly divided population. Political extremism triumphed over moderation but Stormont is perhaps more robust for that.

    3. Don’t assume will not work elsewhere. It is foolish to mistake Basra for Belfast.

    Mick is a fine chap and Van Crevald is sharp as a tack but here are some other possible voices.

    From the Orange side, Newton Emerson a sample: http://www.nuzhound.com/articles/irish_news/arts2007/mar31_covering_corners__NEmerson.php

    The DUP promised us “a battle a day” and battle commenced over the seating arrangements for Monday’s bipolar photo-call. Sinn Féin wanted Gerry and Ian on the same side of the table. The DUP wanted them on opposite sides of the table. So they compromised by sitting opposite each other on the same sides of one corner of the table. This completely distracted the DUP from Sinn Féin’s decision to seat Dublin Dail candidate Mary Lou McDonald on the other side of Gerry Adams, thereby turning the whole thing into a southern Sinn Féin election broadcast. How’s that for a fair deal?


    The battle of the seating arrangements also included a skirmish over the number and placing of television cameras, which was eventually whittled down to one in a fixed position. As it zoomed in on Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald it left Martin McGuinness out of the frame, which shows how seriously Sinn Féin takes the post of deputy first minister.

    As it zoomed away from Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson was clearly seen moving his hand across his throat in the “cut!” gesture, which shows how keen the DUP was to have this moment preserved for posterity.

    Still wearing the deepest of greens, Republican dissident Anthony McIntyre:


    Sinn Fein has thus far been able to mask its retreat from a united Ireland with the forward momentum of electoral success. Crucial to this process was the possibility of the northern nationalist party becoming a government partner in both parts of the country from where it could sit and appear to be busy knitting North and South together. Now it seems that if any all-Ireland party is to become embedded in the Dublin government it shall be the Greens. The future for Sinn Fein shall take the form of serving under Paisley in Britain’s northern administration. Not the heady stuff of revolution.

  • enhabit

    please explain to me what is wrong with a united ireland.

  • hurley

    Perhaps apropos rc21’s point, 10-15 years ago there was an article in Harper’s attributing the persistance of the Troubles to the money to be made from them by the usual bloodthirsty lowlife. I’d give you the reference if I could. Worth looking up.

    Guests: Tom Paulin a fine Northern Irish poet and fierce opponent of received wisdom on this aspect of the so-called Irish Problem. Never any mistaking where he stands. Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Lib-Dems, perhaps even more eloquent — with the added advantage of being able to kill you with his own hands, SAS style — is being bruited about as a possible Northern Ireland Secretary in Gordon Brown’s phantasmal cabinet (I won’t believe Tony gone until the door safely locked behind him). Both fine, informed talkers, comfortable around a mike.

  • rahbuhbuh

    try talking to John de Chastelain or his camp. Ex Canadian General whose been in charge of disarming Norther Ireland and probably has decent insight into talking down individual militia groups on any side of an argument. I vaguely remember some AP article where he compared Ireland’s peace tactics (tactics might be a bad word) to Gaza or Iraq?

  • My gut is to agree that economic factors have more to do with creating peace than anything else. I remember reading that in the Middle East, while there is a lot of oil money, it is concentrated within a relatively few families and that there are highly educated people unable to get work. They come home from college abroad to great disappointment. This is a lethal combination: educated and disheartened. Add to that a population of uneducated and disheartened and you have a recipe for ongoing violence.

    Allowing the city of Baghdad to be destroyed, along with cultural centers such as museums is symbolic of our lack of vision for peace. I’m sure that it is clear to the people who live there that we are there for or own interests and those interests are money.

    Ireland re-invented itself economically in the past decade with it’s embrace of the high-tech industry and tax incentives for businesses to establish offices there. US companies such as Seagate, have established manufacturing plants in Ireland in response to these incentives. The leaders of the opposing sides are opportunistic. They must have realized at some point that the insecurity of violence couldn’t compete with the security of earning a decent living through peaceful, self-satisfying means. I think this is the model we need to extract from the Irish situation and apply to other places.

    I will add that I am loathe to see the leader of a violent movement legitimized. When he doesn’t get his way will he instigate violence again? How do you trust such a person? And, why would you want his model of leadership to be rewarded?

  • Samgr

    rc21 and Allison: If it’s all about the economy, does that mean that Northern Ireland doesn’t have much to offer in terms of lessons for other conflicts, as the most important factor on the ground is pretty fundamentally different? Allison, how would we follow the model that you mention- tax breaks for companies that build offices in Baghdad? In Gaza?

  • I think one of the issues in Iraq, is that the US can’t really be the one to fix things. I don’t know what kind of hand we had in Ireland, but our cultures are more alike and we would have been better able to understand the sensitivities required to avoid pushing hot buttons. We clearly aren’t able to do that in the Middle East.

    Furthermore, we have the problem of a region that has nations which were imposed as such by outside powers. And one of those is Israel – I don’t have an issue with the existence of israel, per se, I am only speaking to the fact that it was imposed upon the region. The whole arena is so different from Ireland that it’s hard to make any lessons transferrable.

    That said, Israel doesn’t seem to be a factor in Iraq right now – except, perhaps, for a mistrust of the US because of our alliance with Israel. But if we focus simply on Iraq and it’s internal strifes, perhaps there are some applicable lessons. (If we ignore the fact that historically these groups of people did not consider themselves one nation.)

    I’m not sure what industry – besides oil – would be most suitable for Iraq. And I’m not sure how the Irish decided to focus on high-tech. Also, I’m not sure if Ireland was ever as frighteningly violent or had it’s basic civilization so wholly destroyed.

    So, I guess, it would require a serious investment in rebuilding along with incentives for businesses. The incentives should include some level of local hiring requirement.

    I know that there is supposedly a reconstruction effort in Iraq, but all reports are that the process is very corrupt and that not much of the money is resulting in actual development. Perhaps, with the strong factions in Baghdad, it would require simultaneous projects in different sections of town that are dear to each faction. You employ the neighborhood for the rebuilding, occupying all the fighting parties.

    In terms of figuring out what industry: we could begin by looking at how Ireland chose high-tech manufacturing. They focused on a piece of a rising industry. The intellectual work stayed in the US – or whatever country – and they took on the piece where workers could easily be trained without a high level education. Maybe Iraq could become the land of alternative energy manufacturing…. What other industry could be split up like that?

  • My apologies for hurrying through this, not finishing and not editing properly, but time is short, and I want to get the ideas out there, and hopefully polish the language after the show airs….

    The bottom line is that historic forces dictated the true end to the Troubles that we are witnessing today. As Ireland modernized its nominally Catholic society, with a well educated, English speaking population, ideally suited to compete in a global, high tech marketplace, its economy has boomed, and standard of living soared. For the Ulster Unionists, the prospect of becoming incorporated into this largely secular, prosperous, Irish society, seems less threatening today, than it would have even a generation ago. Granted, they would lose the privileges that had accrued to them under British rule, that stemmed from a gerrymandered political system, that virtually guaranteed a Unionist domination of political power in the province. But what the heck: they have decided that they can give up reserved jobs, and the benefits of British Citizenship, when, the distant prospect of future Irish citizenship, with associated EU membership, would not mean an economic sacrifice, and most likely prove to be a boon.

    Reflections on the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland

    The genesis of this conflict has fascinated me for years. Historically, the 9 northern most Irish counties, which make up the entire province of Ulster, had been the most rebellious, and the most difficult for the English Crown to conquer. Ireland was originally incorporated into the English crown lands at the time of the Norman conquest. Historically, it was Ulster which was the most rebellious, and the most difficult to conquer. The last great Irish revolt against the English, led by Hugh O’Neil, originated in Ulster ( I believe in the late 16th century), and when it was suppressed, the North was “planted” by the British Crown with mostly Scottish Presbyterian settlers, in an attempt to dilute the Irish, Catholic character of the province. These settlers and their descendants up until the present time, have viewed themselves as British, with an allegiance to the British Crown, in contradistinction to the original inhabitants of the province, who were, and are now for the most part Catholics, and see themselves as Irish.

    It should be stressed, however, that there is not now, nor has there ever really been an easy distinction between the religious makeup of the North and the South. It is somewhat ironic, that the seat of the Protestant Church on the Island, is in Dublin, and the seat of the Catholic church of Ireland is in the North, I believe in Derry. The first President of post independence Ireland, Douglass Hyde was a Protestant, as was the leading proponent of Irish independence in the 19th century, Charles Stewart Parnell. Oscar Wilde summed up the absurdity of these religious distinctions, when he quipped, ” I have no religion: I am an Irish Protestant”

    One of the many ironies of the history of Northern Ireland, is that the man who cross examined Wilde during his libel suit, was Sir Edward Carson, his former classmate at Trinity College, Dublin, a Protestant and leading opponent of Irish home rule, who would eventually become the first Prime Minister of a self governing Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom .The process of how this came about, is described briefly below.

    When the Irish national movement achieved an Irish Free State in 1922, the six counties of Ulster which had a Protestant majority, opted out of the arrangement, and insisted to remain a part of the United Kingdom.. The new government of Ireland, headed by the journalist Arthur Griffiths, decided to accept this as a temporary solution, because the treaty further stipulated a boundary commission, headed by a neutral chairman, was stipulated as part of this agreement, which was to adjust the borders of the 6 counties, so that those areas with Catholic majorities on the southern border, would be incorporated into the Irish Free State. The Irish cabinet had assumed that the redrawn borders would make the 6 counties a non viable independent unit, and that they would therefore have to opt to be reconnected to Ireland. This, however, was not to be. Following the establishment of the Free State, the Boundary Commission recommended only minor alterations to the established borders, and the six counties of Northern Ireland have remained a part of the United Kingdom to this day.

    The conclusion of the treaty setting up an Irish Free state within the English Empire was the precipitating factor of the Irish Civil War. The pro Treaty group led by Arthur Griffiths, Michael Collins ( who negotiated its terms in London), and William Cosgrave, was opposed by those, lead by Eamonn De Valera who favored the establishment of a republic, completely independent of Britain, were appalled by the division of the island, and further by the requirement to take an oath to the British Crown, as a condition to be able to serve in the Irish Parliament. The pro Treaty group eventually prevailed in the Civil War, and formed the government of Ireland. De Valera and his anti treaty party eventually joined the government, after reluctantly agreeing swear their allegiance, explaining, that they were taking the oath, in order to be abolish it. This, they eventually did accomplish, as well as an Irish Republic, minus the six Counties of Northern Ireland, independent of Britain, in 1949.

    The status of the six of the nine counties of Ulster as a province of the United Kingdom, continues to be a sore point in the relations between Britain and Ireland. The Unionists of Ulster( those, mostly Protestants, who favor a continued Union with great Britain ) have traditionally been reluctant to give up this status, as British citizenship has historically conferred the privileges of participating in an economy which was more robust, and therefore conferred a better standard of living than that in the Republic. However, in recent years, the South, with its well educated, English speaking population, has thrived in the computer age economy, and with is entry into the European Union, and even gain parity with its larger, more powerful neighbor across the Irish sea. The Unionists of the North no longer need fear any diminution of economic prosperity, should their province fall under Irish sovereignty. The same could not be said of the political privileges that had been conferred on their community, as the political boundaries of the province had been gerrymandered in order to guarantee a Unionist majority in a majority of constituencies. In the “first past the post” electoral system that is used in the United Kingdom, in which the party with a plurality of the votes in a given district wins the seat in that district outright, a Unionist parliamentary majority was thereby guaranteed in the northern districts. However, as the natural rate of growth of the Catholic/Nationalist community causes it to increase, and as the Protestant/Unionist population continues to decrease, demographic trends dictate that within a generation or two, there will indeed be a Unionist majority within Northern Ireland. Further, as the modern, high tech driven economy of the Republic of Ireland continues to grow, it may in the foreseeable future very probably become larger on a per capita basis than that of Britain. In this scenario, the possession of Irish citizenship, with the associated benefits of EU membership that it entails, may actually make this result more desirable for the unionist community, than retaining British citizenship. The former logic of the unionists, which who becoming swallowed by an impoverished, papist majority in the south, has slowly been stood on its head by the growing secularism and economic prosperity of the South.

    It may be useful to compare the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland, to those of two other former British colonies that developed in the 20th Century: namely, Israel/Palestine and South Africa . In all 3 cases, there was a struggle for sovereignty and political power between an indigenous population ( Africans, Irish, and Arab) against a group which had migrated to the land during colonial rule either by Britain, or those that Britain had succeeded as the sovereign power. As the colonial power, Britain strove to divide and rule in order to be to govern a population far larger than its own colonial settlements and administration. Divisions were therefore promoted first amongst the original inhabitants, and then between them and the colonists. This strategy of course allowed Britain, a country of perhaps 20 million to rule the Indian subcontinent’s 200 million or so inhabitants. Britain Granted self rule to South Africa within the Commonwealth shortly after the Boer War of 1899-1902, but the newly constituted Government dominated by English South Africans, and Anglicized Afrikaners perpetuated the former British divide and rule policy in order to be able to rule over a native population that out numbered them 10 to 1. This arrangement suppressed not only the political aspirations of the largely invisible Africans, but also a poor Afrikaner under class, who bitterly resented not only the Africans, but also the more affluent whites. When Afrikaner nationalism finally gained unchallenged political power in the 1948 elections, they put into law an even more draconian divide and rule philosophy which they called, and has become infamously know to history as Apartheid.

    The Afrikaner dominated governments of South Africa continued to revise, apologize for, and defiantly cling for dear life to this discredited ideology for 40 years, until they finally realized, much as did Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, that the Apartheid system was dying a slowly accelerating death, undermined mostly by its own internal contradictions. Majority rule has come to south Africa, which, in spite of many severe social and economic problems inherited from the Apartheid days , remains the economic colossus of Africa.

    The modern history of Palestine continues to be a work in progress. Israel is thriving, with a modern economy and society. It’s corollary of Afrikaner Nationalism is most closely paralleled by the settler movement, championed now largely by religious Jews imbued by what they perceive as a biblical mandate to settle the land….

    In the Middle East, should the Palestinians ever realize that they have more to gain in the long run, coexisting with the Israelis, in an albeit truncated Palestine, as opposed to perpetuating the armed conflict with no clear end in sight, they will have finally begun the process of building their own country, tragically delayed for the last 60 years. The irony is, that had Israel been destroyed in 1948, the Mandatory lands would have been divided between the neighboring Arab states, and the idea of Palestinian nationalism would most likely have died then and there, before ever being born. Israel continues to represent the Palestiains best hope for a state of their own.

  • herbert browne

    (rc21) “His response to why the violence has finally ended was pretty simple. It’s the economy. Once the economy picked up and people were able to find work, they simply didn’t have the free time to go around bombing..”-

    Well, the “Marching Season” is nearly upon us, again… so let’s see if “the economy” can keep people out of the streets (& their sashes left at home in their closets)… ^..^

  • I surprisingly have little to say about this, so much of these episodes are born in emotion for me. My family history is almost 100 percent Irish (and 100 percent Catholic), so I have a hard hard time separating fact from emotion in this theme. Weird for a 30 year old who has spent most of my life in Puget Sound, Washington.

    Anyway, I had an instructor in college who told a story about how peace began in N. Ireland. Not so sure how true it was, but it illustrated his point about communication well: pols from both sides came together during those early days in the 1990s, and instead of getting down to business, they told stories about growing up in N. Ireland. Where they played, who their friends were, what their neighborhoods were like. At that point, they could approach each other as friends, or at least people with common pasts, rather than political enemies.

    Another thing: I’ve been reading a lot about soccer lately, and I didn’t realize that the Derry (in Northern Ireland) entry into top flight Irish football plays in the Republic of Ireland league, not the Northern Ireland League:

    In 1971, security concerns related to unrest in Northern Ireland meant matches could not be played at the Brandywell. The team played “home” fixtures 30 miles away in Coleraine. Security forces withdrew their objections to the use of the Brandywell the following year, but in the face of insistence from the Irish League that the unsustainable arrangement continue, the club withdrew from the league. After 13 years in junior football, they joined the League of Ireland’s new First Division for 1985–86. Derry won the First Division title and achieved promotion to the Premier Division in 1987, and have remained there since. The club went on to win a domestic treble in 1988–89 and the Premier Division again in 1996–97.

    Continuing my theory that all human problems can be solved if only we played sports the right way, maybe a united Ireland will be preceded by a united Irish Football League? Makes me want to cry just thinking about it.

  • Also: yeah Noah Feldman!

  • nother

    The question is, what are the writers from these areas telling us? Emmett, I like your sentiment about the personal. We need writers to remind us that this is personal.

    “On the Roundabout” is a short story by Bernard MacLaverty who was part of the original Belfast Group of the 1960s. MacLaverty writes about a hospital in Northern Ireland “where the violence has become so commonplace that there is no place for the detail of individual narratives. The troubles have become a one word phrase that elides individuals and the specificity of personal experience.” “The moral significance of telling these individual stories is asserted. To merely say “this happened” is fundamentally important and becomes itself a response to the violence.”

    “When asked about what things were like living through the troubles the poet Ciaran Carson replied: “I’ve lived in Belfast all my life and I still couldn’t tell you a fraction of what’s going on. All I can do is tell you stories.” To continue to tell stories, whether in the form of prose or poetry, remains a fundamental part of attempts within Northern Ireland to shake the hand of history.”


  • So it would seem that two things led to the cessation of violence: getting personal (wherein you see the other as a person) and creating sustainable work opportunities (wherein life doesn’t feel so miserable that you need to blame someone and have an outlet for your anger.)

    The part about telling stories, making everyone more human, reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation processes in other countries. Specifically, South Africa. It goes a long way for people to be heard by those who have offended them, to be recognized for their human experience and to be seen as equally sentient.

    Maybe there needs to be a massive storytelling project in Iraq?

  • It’s the EU. Once the Republic of Ireland found it self part of a multinational group, and saw its benefits, they realized there’s more to live then being Irish and Catholic. Hopefully I can get away with saying that, because I’m an Irish Catholic. Once the North and the South were part of the same larger Union, everything because less significant.

    Ireland should be a lesson to other “hot spots” of religious violence. Prosperity can have strange effects on people, I wish the Israeli’s would try that in Palestine. Give them all computer jobs and flat screen TV’s and they’ll forget what they were fight about.

  • Potter

    Right- there is no EU for Israel/Palestine- though why not? If Turkey can be considered…. Also I believe Simon Perez was proposing some such group for the Middle East. Turkey was as well.

    Regarding emotional baggage:

    There has to be a willingness to let go of it, not to collect more. The suggestion is to change mindsets through economic opportunity and personal encounters. No new idea. The slow process bringing people together in Northern Ireland is exemplary. At the moment in Israel and Palestine it’s against the tide.

    As well, Israel is no UK. And the Palestinians are not northern Ireland. In the Israeli-Palestinian situation, this stage anyway, many have settled further into resignation and hopelessness, there is lack of leadership. Rays of hope come and go and some of us fall for it. Yesterday Abbas banned guns and explosives without a license in the West Bank, yet again. Today I read that settlers were ordered by the Civil Administration to replant olive trees that they stole.

    A substantial number of Israeli’s are either immigrants that have sought refuge (from Arab countries or Russia, the Soviet Union) and have either fundamentalist religious views or are hard line and uncompromising.

    Unfortunately in Israel and Palestine “solutions” of the moment have broken down or lead further away from real solutions. In what would be Palestine there are divisions and little control.

    As far as economic activity goes Israel seems to do well as Palestinians sink further, and move backwards. Giving everyone a computer job and flat screen TV is easier said than done if indeed that is the key to a healthy society. There are psychological factors ( on both sides).

    For too many on both sides the other side is less than human, barbaric. Israelis still cling to victim status as Palestinians claim theirs. Palestinians have devolved into a tribalism, hidden from Israel’s daily view (by walls and checkpoints -hundreds of them) and attention except for the rocket fire and kidnappings, suicide bombing attempts, world shame and pressure (boycotts, reports and rulings of international bodies)

    I get the sense that messages such as those heard on ROS for instance, El-Yousseff and Keret, Barenboim on Said and their Israel- Arab orchestra, can’t be heard where they should be heard. As people got used to “the troubles” (putting a name on it in order to try to go around it or live with it) so too in Israel it’s “the situation” – the despair hopelessness the hatred all wrapped up in a word/title. It becomes a habit… you wake up with it, you go to sleep with it. You feel the losses… someone you know or know of, each a small degree of separation away.

    “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies,/the heart’s grown brutal on the fare,” ….William B. Yeats

  • hcurran

    I’m not sure I agree with Stridedude’s comment on the history of NI. Was Ireland really incorporated into England in the 12th century or did some petty kings (ie tribal chiefs) profess temporary fealty to the crown? In the 12th century there was no central government controlling the whole of Ireland and loyalties to clans fluctuated continuously. This too was the case with the O’Neills, the O’Donnells and the O’Dochertys of Ulster.

    Also, NI in the 17th century was settled by lowland scots, many of them border clans who were culturally and biologically intertwined with Vikings, Norman French and English as well as Scots. These were the same people who settled the Appalachians in America. They were used to living with on-going border warfare.

    Note: the seat of the Catholic Church is, and has been for over a 1000 years, in Armagh.

    Being Irish and Catholic traditionally included speaking the Gaeilge Irish language. You state that “there is not, nor has there ever been, an easy distinction in the religious makeup between the north and the south.” The north is 60% protestant and has controlled the political life of NI for the past 80 years. There is no distinction between the 40% Catholic who think of themselves as Irish but there has been a huge distinction when the rest of the NI population has historically considered themselves British loyalists first and foremost. That seems to be changing for a variety of reasons but blurring history so easily, as you do, only continues to confuse distinctions and differences.

    I was born and raised in West Donegal and although our family immigrated, I can assure you that distinctions between protestant and catholic had as much to do with cultural and language differences as it did with religious affiliation.