The Belfast Agreement of 1998 was grounded in explicit declarations of commitment to reconciliation and the first Northern Ireland Programme for Government made pledges to address community divisions and cultural diversity as a priority. However, the political priority of re-establishing devolved government to Northern Ireland resulted not only in the explicit renegotiation of some of the inter-community safeguards within the Agreement but in the neglect of the inter-community elements of policy. Since 2007, the devolved executive has reached a standstill on education, failed to agree an acceptable policy on community relation, shelved commitments to a Single Equality Bill and a Bill of Rights, and, divided on flags, emblems and on dealing with the past, failed to agree policy on parades and cultural rights, and is on the brink of abolishing the housing executive while agreeing to a single-identity carve up. The largest parties in Northern Ireland have moved rapidly away from reconciliation and produced a government of parallel sectarian interest shared out between authoritarian single identity parties. This chapter explores the ideology and practice of abandoning inter-community reconciliation and considers the proposed alternative approaches to pluralism and their potential consequences.
This chapter explores both the complex and challenging context of historic national antagonism and the degree to which political change has promoted reconciliation. Tragically, the North of Ireland makes visible some of the internal contradictions of the great post-Enlightenment project for freedom in politics which insisted that government requires the consent of the governed. While supporters of independence for Ireland, to be achieved violently if necessary, could claim the support of a majority on the island, they failed to make significant inroads among Protestant voters concentrated largely in the industrialised north-east. But in Ireland there was no international peace treaty to determine new frontiers, only direct confrontation with a British government. The trump card of the peace process has been its ability to render political violence strategically hopeless and to reduce the level of immediate fear.