Northern Ireland struggles to heal its deep sectarian fracture

July 30, 2013

(A member of a cross-community group takes part in a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, at a “Peace Line” in west Belfast, Northern Ireland November 9, 2009. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited Northern Ireland before the G8 summit in June, he hailed its extraordinary progress in the 15 years since a peace agreement to end three decades of what locals call “The Troubles”.

On the other side of Belfast the next day, a petrol bomb thrown over a fence dividing Protestant from Catholic communities exploded next to a four-year-old girl playing in the street – just one example of sporadic violence still haunting the British province.

The region of 1.8 million people is striving to heal a sectarian divide that mapped onto a deadly political rift between “loyalists” supporting the union with Britain and “nationalists” seeking unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

With more than 3,500 people killed during 30 years of paramilitary violence, deep-rooted enmity between the communities still leads to outbreaks of unrest – the latest around Protestant street parades that take place every July.

“It’s like an earthquake zone,” said Naomi Long, a lawmaker in the London parliament and deputy leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party. “You have these divided communities and they rub along against each other, and suddenly something erupts.”

In Belfast, symbols of the divide are inescapable, from the British flags flying from loyalist houses and the “peace walls” that separate Protestant from Catholic areas, to the hundreds of murals on the homes of both communities, some depicting balaclava-clad gunmen. (see a slideshow here)

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