Twenty-five years ago, Britain and Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement, ending decades of bloodshed known as the Troubles. At the stroke of a pen, Northern Ireland became one of the world’s most ambitious experiments in how to reconcile a deeply divided society.
Even now, remnants of separation between Protestant and Catholic Northern Ireland linger: the barriers between neighborhoods known as peace walls; murals with images of Queen Elizabeth II or Irish republican heroes; the Union Jacks and Irish tricolors that flutter from lampposts.
But more and more, these are relics. As it commemorates a quarter-century of peace, Northern Ireland is searching for its place as part of both the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland, seeking to turn ancient divisions into a formula for future prosperity.
At the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is a commitment to preserve a political balance between unionists, most of them Protestant, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and nationalists, most of them Catholic, who favor unification with the Republic of Ireland.
That is a challenge because for the first time, Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. The prospect that this could lead to a unification of Ireland has alarmed unionists, who seize on holidays and historical anniversaries to assert their religious identity. Nationalists, more confident of their future, celebrate their Irish identity at sporting events.
In the decades since the Troubles subsided, Northern Ireland has become like many Western countries — a secular society in which the younger generation has little time for the sectarian preoccupations of their parents and grandparents.
Whether in pubs or concert halls, young Protestants and Catholics tend to mix easily, united by the quest for fellowship and a good time. For them, the rainbow Pride flag is just as likely to hang from the ceiling as the Irish or British flags.
The barbed wire and border posts that once divided Northern Ireland from Ireland had largely vanished even before the 1998 agreement. But there are still scars, like the euphemistically named peace walls that snake through Belfast. Some, like the one that separates Catholic Springfield Road from Protestant Springmartin Road, are visible for miles.
Another has become a magnet for tourists, who cruise past it in taxis, imagining the violent past as the residents of the Falls Road, Belfast’s Catholic stronghold, and the Shankill Road, its Protestant counterpart, go about their daily lives.
For Northern Ireland’s hard-core unionists, known as loyalists, Brexit was painful, with many despairing that it drove a wedge between them and the rest of the United Kingdom. They yearn for links to the union, celebrating the British monarch in murals or marching in parades that honor Protestant icons like William of Orange.
But those in loyalist enclaves like Belfast’s Sandy Row, economically depressed and politically isolated, increasingly feel left behind. Many residents dwell on the grievances of post-Brexit life and see little hope for a brighter future.
For Catholics, who long felt the boot of British rule in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland, the future seems rosier. Sinn Fein, the major party on the Irish nationalist side, became the largest party in the North’s assembly in elections last year.
It has appealed to voters with an emphasis on kitchen-table concerns like education and health care. For now, these issues matter more to growing Catholic families than a united Ireland.
But reminders of the bloodstained past can be jarring. In East Belfast, not far from the shipyard where the doomed Titanic ocean liner was built, the image of a masked paramilitary gunman glowers from the side of a building.
Victims of violence, and their families, struggle with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s years of conflict. Some still campaign for new investigations into long-ago car bombings or murders, desperate for justice in a society eager to move on.
The strife of the Troubles scared away foreign investors, leaving Northern Ireland with a corroded economy at a time when Ireland was benefiting from membership in the European Union.
But there is a new mood of optimism in the trendy cafes of Belfast and other cities. The unique nature of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade status gives it unfettered access to the United Kingdom as well as to the vast European single market.
From the wave-lashed basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway to the jutting prow of the Titanic museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland is restyling itself as a tourist destination, famous for attractions other than the Troubles.
Artists are turning derelict buildings in Belfast into studios, part of a booming contemporary art scene. In popular culture, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, Derry, has become synonymous with the popular television series “Derry Girls.”
Still, the past never fully releases its grip on Northern Ireland, whether in the politically charged murals or the dueling flags that tell visitors when they have entered a loyalist or a nationalist neighborhood.
The Knockagh Monument attests to this enduring ambiguity. It was built to honor those who died in World War I, and later both world wars. But World War I has come to be identified with loyalists and unionists, even though Protestants and Catholics fell together on its battlefields.