Power Sharing, Peace and Indifference in Northern Ireland
How do we ensure that each citizen participates in the process of rebuilding a society in the aftermath of mass violence?
For a society in transition, there is a crucial time period that comes after a prolonged period of mass violence. Citizens begin to feel a well-deserved sense of relief, stability and safety for themselves and their families. But there is the danger during such times that some citizens will no longer feel compelled to participate in the process of change. This indifference can have disastrous consequences as less voices are heard to counter the few who often represent extreme points of view.
In May 2007, newspaper headlines in cities around the world proclaimed that finally peace had come to Northern Ireland. After decades of conflict, former enemies would now be running the government together.In May 2007, newspaper headlines in cities around the world proclaimed that finally peace had come to Northern Ireland. After decades of conflict, former enemies would now be running the government together. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, became the First Minister and Martin McGuiness, of Sinn Fein (representing mainly Catholic Republicans) was appointed Deputy Minister. There had been a five-year period without local rule in Northern Ireland. This was because the parties had been unable to work together, so direct rule from London had been put in place during that time. (For more details on the power sharing agreement, see the resources listed at the end of this reading.)
Karen Murphy, Facing History and Ourselves' director of international programs, traveled to Northern Ireland soon after the new leadership took effect. In conversations she had with the Northern Irish, Murphy discovered a wide range of reactions to the new power-sharing arrangement.
I heard many things, from people expressing relief and surprise, to confusion, anxiety and indifference. Some people believe that ultimately the power sharing will not work and that power will revert to London again. One man told me, "We won't fight like we did years ago, but we will say ‘see, we can't rule ourselves.'" He also expressed fear that the foreign press and many Northern Irish citizens were now "finished" with Northern Ireland's troubles. Many people I spoke with agreed and recalled hearing reporters say, "you won't see us again" after the agreement was reached in May.
One professor I spoke with noted that many basic issues that have fed the conflict have still not been resolved. And to make matters worse, he told me, the middle class has largely become indifferent and apathetic. A woman I met agreed. She told me her church even offered a special session recently on the middle class, reflecting on the role it played in the conflict and the role that it wants to play now.1
A transition of this magnitude is an intensely fragile time in any society. Consider, for example, the Weimar period in Germany (1919 to 1933). Emerging from a crushing defeat in World War I, Germany for the first time put in place a democracy. The Weimar era represented both an opening up of many institutions and a profound disease. Many citizens could not tolerate the insecurity and instability created by this new democracy, while others became indifferent to what was happening.
One danger of indifference is that extremists gain power while the "middle" passively looks the other way. For the past few years, as signs of violence in Northern Ireland have waned, individuals and parties who represent the extremes have gained power. With a largely indifferent middle class, what does the future hold for Northern Ireland?
Connections for the Classroom...
- Power sharing clearly represents an opportunity and local rule means that the Northern Irish will run their own country. But what does it take for former enemies to share power? What needs to be put in place to facilitate this process? How do you help people who have removed themselves from the conflict to see their role and to begin to participate? And what roles and responsibilities might teachers-and education in general-play in this challenge?
- This is arguably the time that the press most needs to cover Northern Ireland. If they leave when the peace agreement is signed and when power-sharing begins, then how do we monitor the transition process? What is the role of the press in societies in transition? What are possible benefits and challenges of an actively involved press for a society in transition? If the press "loses interest" or focus in a society that is stabilizing, what ideas do you have for how we might change that dynamic so that all of the countries in transition that we are exploring are more in the news, not less?
- What does indifference mean to you? Identify a controversial issue in your school, community, or the world at large. Are some individuals or groups indifferent to this issue? What are the consequences of indifference?
For more information on the power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland...
A Teacher's Resource: The Giver by Lois Lowry. Facing History and Ourselves has created an educator's guide to Lois Lowry's powerful, futuristic novel. This work of fiction examines the possible consequences when citizens become indifferent; when they do not participate in civil discourse around a shared history.