It’s leadership void, not social ills, that besets Northern Ireland the most

I question Padraig O’Malley’s bleak assessment of life in Northern Ireland 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, in particular his assertion that “societal breakdown,” as opposed to political failings, best explains the absence of reconciliation between the unionist and nationalist communities (“Northern Ireland is still in need of healing,” Opinion, April 5).

One could solve every problem cited by O’Malley to support his societal breakdown premise — high suicide rates, excessive mental health and opioids challenges, even trauma histories — and still be left with the primary impediment to progress and real societal change: the absence of political courage and leadership, particularly on the part of the ruling unionists.

The repeated collapse of the North’s power-sharing government since 1998 can be tied directly to intransigence or scandal by unionist leaders. Ignoring their duly negotiated commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, these politicians have virtually guaranteed continued division and deadlock. Some of the leaders, seemingly stuck in time warps, begrudge even the notion of nationalist equality.


In spite of this political vacuum, the situation still is not as grim as O’Malley suggests. People on the ground are seeking change. I had the opportunity to visit Belfast a few years ago on a college-sponsored trip and met many individuals and groups from both communities working diligently to address their problems and break down barriers long thought untouchable. Unionists with whom we talked were motivated to make the Good Friday Agreement and their new society actually work. They didn’t bemoan, as O’Malley does, their lack of “cultural cushions” or cite the prevalence of societal ills as a crutch. Free of the violence, they simply wanted to make life better for themselves, their families and children.

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That their political leaders continue to stand in the way of achieving that humble goal is a true disgrace.

Jay McManus