“The Troubles” of Northern Ireland — a dispute between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists — roiled violently for three decades until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
April 10, 2023, marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of this historic accord, which closed the conflict with a stalemate between paramilitary groups of both sides, who agreed to disarm. There has been some occasional violence since then, with blame placed on splinter paramilitaries.
Still, the Good Friday Agreement is largely seen as a success. The days when Libyan and Colombian gunrunners happily armed the paramilitaries seem to be a quarter-century in the past — because they are.
“Nationalist Catholics living in Portadown are a lot less fearful for their physical safety,” said James Cullen, a lawyer in Queens, who is from Portadown in County Armagh, Northern Ireland.
But it took the deaths of 3,500 people on both sides before the agreement was reached.
Cullen’s Catholic family watched it all go down while operating a pub in Portadown. The Troubles were underway by his sixth birthday in 1969, and his neighborhood was not spared.
The Troubles were an inflammation of long-simmering resentments between nationalist Catholics and unionist Protestants. However, bloody skirmishes between Catholics and Protestants date back hundreds of years.
Take, for example, the Irish Rebellion of 1641, when Catholics, complaining of discrimination and land confiscations, took up arms against the Kingdom of England and Irish Protestant royalists.
History shows that Portadown was the scene of a massacre of English Protestant settlers at the hands of Catholic rebels. The English, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, ultimately defeated the rebellion.
Protestant landowners consolidated their holdings in Northern Ireland. In 1921, the United Kingdom divided Ireland into two self-governing polities — one for the North and one for the South.
Two years later, the people in the south, predominantly Catholic, achieved a sovereign nation with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
But Northern Ireland remained part of the UK. Subsequently, nationalist Catholics living there found themselves in a very pronounced minority.
Cullen said during his youth, Portadown was 80% Protestant and 20% Catholic. “It’s about 75-25 now,” he said.
Civil Rights, Not Theology
Fred Cocozzelli, a political science professor at St. John’s University, said tensions between denominations in Northern Ireland during the 1960s did not fester over theology.
Instead, he explained, Catholics felt discriminated against by the Protestant government on issues related to housing, employment, and other civil liberties.
“It was rough living conditions for folks in Northern Ireland,” Cocozzelli said. Catholics were, in many ways, excluded. And Catholics were beginning to speak out for greater rights.
“In the United States, we had a civil rights movement that was focused on the rights of African Americans in the South. Some of that language was brought to the United Kingdom, which had its own sort of issues with minorities from what had been the colonies.
“So all this is happening. And in Northern Ireland, it was seen as a civil rights movement for Catholics.”
But this pro-Catholic challenge of the status quo was not met with open arms, Cocozzelli said.
While some protestors resolved to maintain peaceful civil disobedience, others chose violence. The Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups took up the cause with riots, shootouts, and bombings.
Protestant loyalists countered with their own groups.
Great Resentment of the British
The British Army rolled into the cities and towns of Northern Ireland to help the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) keep the peace. “There (was) great resentment of the British Army being on the street,” Cullen said.
He described Portadown as “a citadel of loyalism” and “one of the most loyalist-unionist cities in the whole of Northern Ireland.”
He said members of the loyalist “Orange Order” would march with banners into Catholic neighborhoods to celebrate their cultural origins, but Catholics interpreted it as rowdy intimidation.
Cullen received a Catholic education from the Christian Brothers. He recalled how his school bus frequently got pelted with rocks thrown by loyalist thugs. He and his classmates brought their own rocks onto the bus and flung them in return — that is, until a British soldier came aboard to investigate.
“He would say, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Cullen said. “But no one would say a word. We were just kids. The oldest on the bus would have been 13, and I was just 11 or 12. But no one would even acknowledge his presence.
Cullen left home at 18, studied law in London, and then came to the U.S. He now practices law from an office in Forest Hills. But he visited home often and paid close attention to the peace process leading to the Good Friday Agreement.
Cocozzelli, who specializes in conflict resolution, said American politicians had long favored a peaceful resolution to the Troubles. First, many of them had Irish ancestors, as did their constituents. But they had more reasons.
Weapons used in the conflict, such as the Soviet-designed AK-47, were sourced from other parts of the world, like Africa and South America, where gunrunners ruthlessly competed for the business, leading to more chaos and violence in those places, Cocozzelli said.
In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland, which set the stage for the acceptance of a special envoy from the U.S. to help facilitate the peace talks. That job came to U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, who was very effective, Cocozzelli said.
There was urgency because violence continued despite ceasefires.
“About a year before the Good Friday Agreement,” Cullen recalled, “there was a young guy called Robert Hamill. And he was walking on the street literally a few steps from where I grew up — literally 100 yards from my doorstep.”
A gang of Protestant loyalists pounced in full view of RUC police officers in a parked Land Rover.
“They kicked him into a coma, and he subsequently died,” Cullen said. “But the officers did nothing to stop the attack.”
Ultimately, he said, people on both sides became tired of the violence.
“I think there was a war-weariness,” Cullen explained. “Because there’s very few people that didn’t know someone, or who was close within one or two degrees of separation, that either was jailed or killed or had some type of tragedy related to the Troubles.
“My father had a close call, and one of my good friends in school — his two brothers were jailed for IRA activities. My cousin’s boyfriend was killed in Belfast.”
Grateful for the Peace
People on both sides of the conflict admit to lingering animosities. Also, Britain’s exit from the European Union has raised questions about Northern Ireland’s borders; some worry that could raise questions for the peace agreement.
Still, Cullen said, he is grateful for the peace. Gone are the days when
nationalist Catholic teenagers would risk the wrath of loyalist Protestant peers if they were spotted outside their neighborhoods wearing jerseys and t-shirts with the logo of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
The GAA is the Dublin-based athletic association with teams competing in various sports, including Gaelic football and hurling. But the GAA is unabashedly aligned with Irish nationalism — an Ireland independent of the United Kingdom. The Protestant loyalists of Northern Ireland oppose that.
Nowadays, that logo-wearing is freely done, Cullen said.
“Growing up there, if you wore anything with the Celtic Soccer Club emblem or GAA, it would be madness,” he said. “You would just be asking to be attacked.
“But now, it boggles the mind to see those shirts in the center of Portadown.”