25 Years after Good Friday Agreement, Cold Peace Prevails in Northern Ireland

Photo for The Washington Post by CJ Clarke
A Falls Road mural pays tribute to Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981 while imprisoned for his role in the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

BELFAST – “Peace walls,” they call them. Separation barriers topped with spikes. They were supposed to come down by now, 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement ended the horrors of three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. But still they stand. As a symbol, embarrassment and necessity.

On Lanark Way, the barrier separates the mostly Catholic Falls Road from the mostly Protestant Shankill Road. A faded mural reads: “The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.” It is both a popular tourist site and a scene of what locals call “recreational rioting.” The rusted gates open every morning and close with a clang at 10:30 p.m. every night, effectively limiting free movement in a modern European capital.

In the communities on each side, people say that Belfast is a far, far better place than it was during the Troubles – when Northern Ireland was the scene of petrol bombings, targeted killings and mass rioting that left 3,600 people dead, 47,000 wounded and many more living with the heavy load of their memories.

But they are also skeptical of the celebratory mood as President Biden, former president Bill Clinton and other luminaries descend on Belfast this week to mark the “tremendous progress” brought by the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement.

There is peace now. But it is a cold peace.

Alan McBride lost his wife and father-in-law in the bombing of Frizzell’s Fish Shop on Shankill Road in October 1993. Today he is co-coordinator of a trauma center that helps heal old and new wounds. Noting that the center is visited by dignitaries from around the world, who inevitably want to know how Northern Ireland made peace, McBride said he and peacemakers “should be investigated for fraud, for what we’re selling.”

There is “little kindness, little neighborly feelings” in Northern Ireland, he said when attending a panel discussion last week on the “Legacy of the Agreement.”

“This society is abnormal,” he said in a later interview. “Live where you want? Be who you want? Marry who you want?”

Not here, he said. Not yet.

To be sure, some of the flash points are gone. As a result of the 1998 agreement, the British military is out, the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force has been replaced and the Irish Republican Army has laid down its arms. But small gangs of “dissident” dead-ender republicans still make trouble. And the old loyalist paramilitary organizations have mostly morphed into drug dealing, extorting the very communities they pretend to protect.

Britain’s MI5 security service last month raised the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland from “substantial” to “severe,” meaning an attack is highly likely, as Biden visits.

Despite the power-sharing provision enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, there is no functioning government today in Northern Ireland: no executive, no assembly. The latest shutdown was triggered by the Democratic Unionist Party, which objected to Brexit trade deals negotiated by British prime ministers. Many say the DUP is also reeling after having lost its status as the largest party in Northern Ireland.

Although the supremacy of religion as a marker of identity has faded here, deep divisions – personal, political – remain between Catholics and Protestants, between nationalists and unionists, between those who want a “United Ireland” someday and those who want to remain “British Forever,” alongside the growing number who really don’t care about orange versus green, but just want to live better lives.

When moving from “mixed” neighborhoods to ones designated as “single identity communities,” residents remain wary, careful in their language and dress. The wrong jersey for the wrong sports team can lead to insults, and spiral into street fighting. How you pronounced the letter H could spell trouble.

The older generation feels all this most acutely. But young adults say they also carry the inheritance. Schools here, still segregated by religion, mostly don’t teach about the Troubles or the Good Friday Agreement – the topics are considered too controversial. But students learn from their families and the internet. They, too, carry a map in their heads of which streets to use, which pubs they will never enter, even today.


Shankill and Falls are parallel streets where many live parallel lives, a mile apart.

Bridie McCabe, 66, was at the Falls Women’s Center last week taking a class on social change. A former health-care worker, McCabe said she spent time in jail decades ago for her role with the Irish Republican Army.

“The fear is still in me,” she said. “It’s not the bombs anymore, but there is still this fear, and the bigotries and sectarianism.”

“We’ve all been traumatized,” she said.

Her classmate Katrina Hamill, 50, an unemployed barber, said children who grew up after the Good Friday Agreement don’t know how fragile this peace is.

“It could all come back,” Hamill said.

Though McCabe and Hamill have friends on the other side of the separation barriers, they say they wouldn’t linger, and they wouldn’t go there to shop.

The scene at the Shankill Women’s Center last week was similar – women taking classes and babies in a day-care room.

Betty Carlisle, 66, is a manager there. She remembers her mother giving her a crucifix to wear when going into a Catholic area. “The conflict took my education from me,” she said. “I was determined I was going to live a different life.”

“It’s way better now,” Carlisle said. But still: “It’s a peace process, and we are still in the process part.”


One sign of progress here – how the peace has been maintained – is the thriving tourism industry. One of the most popular attractions in Belfast is an interactive exhibit about the Titanic. The slipways where the ship was built now host music concerts. For a glimpse of more recent history, red double-decker tour buses trundle down streets that were once perilous no-go zones, pausing to let the tourists snap photographs of the ubiquitous murals.

Some of the paintings celebrate loyalist paramilitaries brandishing automatic rifles, others the beatific face of Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike while imprisoned for his role in the IRA. All the murals are preserved and maintained, alongside homemade memorials to the dead, many adorned with new bouquets of flowers to mark Easter week.

Merchants complain the buses don’t stop to let the tourists buy anything. Some residents say they feel like animals in a zoo as the buses pass by.

“It’s a funny world,” observed Smurf, who lives on Shankill Road and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was a former loyalist paramilitary member who spent time in jail.

He was struck by the oddity of foreigners snapping photos of his old comrades clutching AK-47s on the murals. Smurf was smoking a joint. He said he needs it for his mental health. As he spoke, an alarm buzzed, signaling that he needed to step out to put a few more pounds into the hallway meter to keep his electricity on.

“We didn’t win a thing,” he said. “What’s our peace?”

Catholics are ascendant, he assessed, and Protestants are in decline. Demographics may dictate Ireland’s future.

“We’re at the bottom of the pile,” he said.


Tom Lyttle, 21, works as a barista at a coffee shop on Shankill Road. He has tattoos on his arms. Not of the Protestant loyalist paramilitary group his father and grandfather swore allegiance to, but of his favorite band, a Manchester-based group called “the 1975” (a reference to Jack Kerouac, not British history).

When he was growing up, he was warned where not to go in Belfast. He has a girlfriend now from a Catholic family. The families are all right with that.

Lyttle said he understood how terrible the Troubles were. He has watched documentaries on YouTube.

He remembers a riot two years ago, not far away, when masked men hijacked a bus and lit it on fire, and the young people on both sides were throwing rocks at each other, “as the older people were cheering them on, riling them up.”

He was disgusted seeing that.

“It’s not the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s anymore,” he said.

He said and his mates don’t really have a clue about the Northern Ireland Protocol or the Windsor Framework, the post-Brexit trade deals that have consumed the politicians here for the past four years.

What does he want?

He wants to be a roadie. He wants “to see the world.”

“I want us to move on,” he said.