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15 years after Good Friday Agreement, an imperfect peace in Northern Ireland

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Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

(Read caption) A section of the peace wall that divides Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast wraps around houses in Cluan Place, east Belfast, in October. The first barriers were built in 1969, following the outbreak of the Northern Ireland riots known as 'The Troubles.'

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Fifteen years ago today, one of Europe's longest and seemingly most intractable conflicts came to an end. On April 10, 1998, Irish republicans and unionists signed the Good Friday Agreement, a peace accord that put a formal end to the "Troubles," a slow-burn civil war that had been going on in earnest since 1969.
 
Well, in fact, they didn't sign it. Nothing was actually signed on paper by the opposing sides. But they did agree to it, marking the end of the beginning of the Irish peace process.
 
The guns had already fallen silent two years previously, with both the Irish Republican Army and their unionist antagonists declaring a cease-fire within a six-week span. In the years that followed, a new British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, worked to bring reluctant unionists to the table with their hated and feared old enemies.

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And on this date 15 years ago, they succeeded: the Ulster Unionist Party agreed to work with republicans, something that would have been unimaginable just a short time earlier.
 
Life in Northern Ireland has been transformed since that day, no one disputes that. But the conflict has not been replaced with perfect peace. In July 1998, three young Catholic children were killed when the Ulster Volunteer Force, supposedly on ceasefire, firebombed their home. The infamous Omagh bomb, planted by dissident republicans, was to go off on August 15 of the same year, killing 29. And there have been murders carried out by both unionist and republican groups since then, as well as annualized rioting.
 
In some ways, the post-Good Friday state of affairs mirrors that of Northern Ireland prior to 1969, with sporadic episodes of violence punctuating a shaky peace. Still, with Irish republicans represented in government and Catholics no longer discriminated against in jobs, education, and housing, it is difficult to imagine the same sense of grievance that give birth to the conflict being nurtured ever again.
 
The problem, as with so many conflicts today, is that an honest desire to put an end to bloodshed and misery may not so much bring about peace as transform violence into deep-frozen cultural and pseudo-political resentments.
 
In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, there was no single winner or loser. Both sides can legitimately claim to have won, or to have lost. Whichever they claim depends on how they are feeling at any given moment. This year's rioting in Northern Ireland, sparked by a decision to fly the British Union flag over Belfast city hall on state occasions rather than every day, speaks of a unionist community that is brittle and fearful. A community that thinks it has lost. A community that feels abandoned and is itself now nursing a sense of grievance.
 
High-flown talk about plurality and neutrality simply do not reflect reality on the ground, except perhaps in a few well-to-do areas.
 
No one, other than a few extremists on the fringes of unionism and republicanism, wants to see a return to violence in Northern Ireland, and so the architects of the Good Friday Accord can rightfully claim a victory on that front. A permanent peace remains a more remote prize.

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