Lessons from Northern Ireland for Americans who see political opponents as the enemy

Lessons from Northern Ireland for Americans who see political opponents as the enemy
© Kevin Ferris

There are dozens of peace walls in Northern Ireland, 21 miles of steel, concrete and brick that snake through Belfast and other cities. And should Brexit talks go awry, more walls may come, along the border separating Ireland's north and south.

“Peace walls” sounds like a monument to a distant, long-forgotten conflict. A place to mourn the dead and pray for a brighter future.

In part, the barriers are just that. Even tourist attractions. Visitors arrive by black taxi, hop out, aim their phones and click. At the walls’ politically charged graffiti and murals. At the quotes and signatures of Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonSantorum: Dems have a chance in 2020 if they pick someone ‘unexpected’ Trump should heed a 1974 warning penned by Bush Clinton among VIPS attending pre-wedding celebrations for daughter of India’s richest man MORE and the Dalai Lama. Taxi drivers carry pens so passengers can inscribe their own name or message.

But these imposing barriers serve another purpose, one worth noting for Americans who increasingly fear and loath those with whom they disagree.

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These walls signal the distrust that still permeates once warring enclaves. They offer security. They keep the peace.

Two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, the peace walls divide mostly Catholic Nationalists from their mostly Protestant Unionist neighbors. Communities that, for 30 years, in the times known as the Troubles, lived in fear. They haven’t forgotten the rocks and bottles, guns and car bombs. Or the more than 3,500 men, women and children killed and the 50,000 more wounded. Among those victims were police, paramilitaries and British soldiers. A majority – some 2,000 – were civilians consumed by the battles on their streets.

The people themselves first started erecting informal barricades, a no-go line for their neighbors just across the road. When British troops arrived, they added barbed wire. Gradually, the temporary gave way to the seemingly permanent – becoming so vital for safety, so part of the culture, that more went up after that historic Good Friday.

Some walls are simple steel gray fences, as much as 20 feet tall, with gates that are shut and locked by night and on weekends. Others seem like so much urban landscaping, brick walls accented with trees and shrubbery. There is even an extra layer of security on homes facing a barrier -- steel caging that keeps petrol bombs hurled over the peace wall from crashing through windows.

Imagine, amid the deaths and savagery of the Troubles, how deep the hatreds, the fury, the desires for revenge. All the more remarkable that U.S. envoy George Mitchell could gather Catholic and Protestant leaders together. Could, miraculously, broker a peace among them. Some had long stoked anger and suspicions. They saw blood on each other’s hands. And yet they shook those hands, spurred to action by those who lived along the walls. Who wanted to raise their children on streets free of armored cars and soldiers.

Imagine the courage required of those in positions of responsibility to … behave responsibly. To shift gears from demonizing to cooperating. To check the urge to lash out, or defend only one’s own, or take an eye for an eye.

To speak, and to act, as if lives were at stake.

Many Americans, in the heat of today’s political moment, have chosen a different path. They are angry, self-righteous, seeing only evil and enemies before them – things to destroy or cast apart. Very similar passions and poisons to those that once consumed Northern Ireland.

So far, America’s growing walls are not made of concrete or steel but the ignorance and herd mentality pervading social media, the arrogance and bias of media – and of leaders behaving irresponsibly. The mortar: Suspect THEIR motives. Dismiss THEIR views. Never give the benefit of the doubt. Never think you could be wrong.

Even America’s virtual walls are enough to breed animosities that last a lifetime, that make separation both necessity and comfort. And when horrific acts of violence occur here – whether related to politics or not -- they play into ideologues’ hands, blanketing all on the other side with a presumption of guilt. See? THEY are truly evil. Another brick in the wall.

Against such clear and compelling evidence of ill intent, who could argue against barriers? Who could feel safe if the walls were gone?

Maybe the Irish. Tentatively, more than a half century after the Troubles began, there is talk of removing Northern Ireland’s peace walls. The plan – hope? wish? – is by 2023.

Americans have no such plans.

Kevin Ferris is vice president of communications for Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, an educational nonprofit that encourages civil civic engagement through a greater understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.