In 1976, I spent two months in Ireland, including a month in the Republic and a month in Northern Ireland. The purpose of my visit was to study what have been called the Irish Troubles, the civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that lasted from 1969 until the Good Friday Peace Accord of 1998.
I had done a lot of research before arriving in Ireland, and my research there quickly confirmed what other scholars had concluded about the civil war in Northern Ireland. At the root of this conflict was a deep polarization between the Catholic and Protestant communities of the province. It was not simply that they were members of different religious groups. They lived in separate neighborhoods, were members of separate political parties, went to different bars, were active in different social groups, etc.
This polarization had characterized relations between the two religious communities in Ireland for centuries and it periodically resulted in violence as in the Irish Revolution of 1918-1922. When tensions boiled over in 1969, the British government sent in thousands of British soldiers to keep the violence under control.
The presence of the British troops served to contain the violence from reaching the levels we see on the news in Syria and Iraq, but the violence in Northern Ireland was still at a quite high level. In 1976, there were 400 politically-motivated killings in Northern Ireland. That would have been as if there were 80,000 homicides in the U.S. In the last year for which we have homicides statistics, 1975, there were 15,700 homicides in the U.S. in that calendar year.
For the past two decades, I have witnessed polarization in the U.S. come more and more to resemble what I saw in Northern Ireland in 1976. The turning point for America was major changes in our politics in the 1990s. Both of the two political parties became more extreme as the number of moderates in both parties declined. And, perhaps most alarming of all, the rise of cable news, talk radio and the internet in the 1990s meant that Americans no longer got their news from the same sources. Instead, we were now in a situation where you could reinforce each night your prejudices by watching the news coverage of your choice. (Every now and then at the end of a day I watch how both FOX News and MSNBC cover the news of that day. It is hard to believe that they are talking about the same country.)
There is a very real chance that the current polarization in the U.S. will lead to the same sort of violence that took place in Northern Ireland in 1969-1998. If we as a nation are to avoid this fate, there are some lessons that we need to pay attention to as to how the people of that province finally were able to come to a peace accord in 1998. While I was in Northern Ireland, I witnessed something truly inspirational – the Women’s Peace Movement. This movement, led by Protestant Betty Williams and Catholic Mareiad Corrigan, galvanized women all over Northern Ireland to demand an end to the violence.
The Women’s Peace Movement did not bring an immediate end to the troubles, but it helped start the peace process. The sight of women from both religious groups working together encouraged others to reach across the sectarian divide and begin dialogue. This building of bridges was a slow process, but in the 1990s, a ceasefire between the different warring groups was announced and negotiations began on a final settlement, the outlines of which were laid down in the Good Friday accord of 1998.
The example of Northern Ireland shows that it is not going to be easy to end the extreme polarization in the U.S. In the Trump administration, we are seeing the culmination of decades of polarization. The government is paralyzed as the two sides hurl ever more explosive charges at each other. However, if we are going to avoid the violence of Northern Ireland in our own country, we need to begin taking steps, however small, to erode the polarization that now characterizes our politics. In Washington, the leaders of both parties in the Congress need to start drafting legislation that members of both parties can support rather than trying to ram through laws solely with the support of members of their own party. And here at the local level, I would respectfully suggest that the two party organizations in Leavenworth County do things like invite speakers from the other side to talk to their meetings and get togethers. If all of us start to take such steps, I am confident that, as in Northern Ireland, the polarization of our country will gradually erode.
Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.