Opinion

Opinion | Padraig O’Malley

Northern Ireland is still in need of healing

The street art duo Nomad Clan worked on a mural in Belfast on March 1.
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The street art duo Nomad Clan worked on a mural in Belfast on March 1.

Next week is the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the bloodshed in Northern Ireland but has failed to achieve broader reconciliation between the nationalist and unionist political parties.

The power-sharing government established in the accord collapsed on three occasions, and recent talks to end a yearlong stalemate between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party — the main protagonists — concluded in finger-pointing acrimony. Meanwhile, the shadow of Brexit, with the prospect of a hard border between the two parts of Ireland, adds to political uncertainty.

But what really ails Northern Ireland is less political malaise and more of a societal breakdown.

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Northern Ireland is a society in the throes of collective trauma from three decades of sectarian violence. The deleterious impacts of the trauma have undermined social cohesion and precluded the emergence of empathy, a necessary ingredient for developing intercommunal trust and a willingness to forgive. In the absence of empathy, there is little ground for a shared understanding of the past and a commitment to a shared future, both prerequisites for reconciliation.

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Protracted conflicts forge a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to a certain side. Behaviors evolve to manage the exigencies of war that do not easily adapt to post-conflict situations. In Northern Ireland, the uncertainties the peace agreement was supposed to address still remain and are easily exploited.

Northern Ireland has the highest level of suicide in Europe. Astonishingly, more people have died of suicide during 20 years of peace (about 4,500) than were killed during 30 years of conflict (over 3,600). According to research conducted by University of Ulster’s Siobhan O’Neill, the higher suicide rates are related to the conflict. Those in the age cohort with the highest rate of suicide were children and adolescents during the most intense periods of violence in the 1970s.

According to the World Health Organization, Northern Ireland has a higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder than recorded in 30 other conflict regions, including Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq. In addition to the deaths over the course of the conflict, civilian injuries exceeded 100,000, which amounts to approximately one per seven families. One person in five reports having seen a corpse; 40 percent have direct knowledge of a conflict-related incident. Studies also establish intergenerational transmission of trauma. One in every five 18-year-olds suffers from a significant mental health problem.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime found that Northern Ireland reports the highest annual prevalence of prescription opioids (8.4 percent), antidepressants (9.1 percent), and sedatives (9.2 percent) in the world. In Northern Ireland health surveys, between 18 and 20 percent of the adult population consistently report signs of a mental health
problem.

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There is also a general lack of trust, caring, forgiveness, and understanding of the other side, which stands in the way of attempts to deal with the legacy of the past. And without an understanding of the past, the creation of a shared future, the goal of the Good Friday Agreement, will remain elusive.

The two communities — Catholic and Protestant, especially in the working-class areas — that are the bastions of Republican and Loyalist support are sealed in their respective physical and mental
enclaves.

For the unionist community, an impending sense of dread is more acute. It lacks the cultural cushion the Gaelic language provides for nationalists and the richly developed historical narrative anchored in the belief in the inevitability of a united Ireland. Without a similar cultural crutch, it is in free fall.

Unfortunately, there is little chance this situation will change much in the coming decade. There is no “good” Brexit outcome, no compromise that can square circles of political incompatibility. Catholics are about to become an irreversible majority, an existential threat to Protestants, preying on their imagined time frame for a united Ireland.

There will be no return to physical violence, but the violence besotting minds will continue to wreak its own havoc, perpetuating the centuries-old sectarian divide.

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The future is here and it is grim.

Padraig O’Malley is an author and professor of peace and reconciliation at the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston.