On June 27, 2012, Queen Elizabeth II of England briefly met with Martin McGuiness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland while touring Belfast as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebration. McGuiness shook the Queen’s hand and wished her well.

In most cases such an event—a symbolic meeting between the head of the Royal Family and a democratically elected public servant—would not be particularly noteworthy. However, this was not most cases, as McGuiness was not just any public servant.

Before making the turn to politics, McGuiness was a leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), the terrorist organization responsible for more than 1,800 deaths and thousands of bombings in the United Kingdom (UK) between 1969 and 1998. The IRA’s violence was not only brutal and systematic, but from Elizabeth’s perspective it must also have been personal. In 1979, the organization killed the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten.

The meeting between the two and attendant photo op was thus a carefully stage-managed bit of political theater. It was also an appropriate representation of a peace process that, 17 years after its inception, remains stubbornly incomplete.

On the positive side, the Belfast Agreement (commonly referred to as the Good Friday agreement as it was first presented to the public on Good Friday, April 10, 1998) has produced a functioning government, one that effectively represents both of Northern Ireland’s political communities: Unionists (almost exclusively Protestant, who favor the ongoing inclusion of Northern Ireland in the UK), and nationalists (almost exclusively Catholic, favoring a closer relationship to, and in many cases integration into, the Republic of Ireland).

This power-sharing government has now persisted through multiple elections, changes of personnel and leadership, and a number of political scandals. Optimists point to this durability and suggest that the Belfast Agreement has been successful enough that it should be considered a model to other conflict-ridden societies.

At the same time, Northern Ireland remains one of the most divided societies in Europe. Catholics live in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly Catholic, Protestants in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly Protestant. Children from both communities are educated separately.

The geography of Belfast in particular remains partitioned rather than shared and the numerous “peace walls”—physical barriers separating the communities during the worst of the political violence—have not been torn down but have, in fact, increased in number in the years since the Good Friday agreement was signed.

According a survey conducted in 2004, 84% of respondents indicated that they would not enter an area dominated by the other political community at night; 48% said that they would not enter such an area during the day, and a smaller percentage even indicated that they would forgo health care for themselves or younger members of their families rather than make use of health facilities in an area dominated by the other community.

The sectarian political violence has decreased dramatically but it has not disappeared—the resumption of terrorism is possible, albeit very unlikely.

In the years immediately after Good Friday, paramilitaries from both the Nationalist (usually referred to as “Republican”) and Unionist (“Loyalist”) communities continued to use violence to enforce their will among their own people rather than submitting to the rule of law.

Among Republicans this took the form of punishment beatings, knee-cappings, and even executions of nationalists deemed to have violated Republican codes of conduct. Loyalist paramilitaries, historically more poorly organized and disciplined, soon fell into gangsterism and turf wars.

How can one reconcile these two seemingly contradictory realities—a parliament that shares power representing a people that share very little? A medical metaphor might be appropriate: we need to draw a distinction between symptoms and causes.

From this perspective the Good Friday agreement was meant to alleviate the symptoms of the disease—widespread political violence—by integrating political elites into a common governing framework. The agreement has succeeded admirably in halting the violence, but curing the cause of the symptoms—a long history of sectarian mistrust—is a much more challenging proposition.

The agreement was meant to end a sectarian conflict and did so, at least at the political level, but did so by building sectarianism into the structure of the new government.

For example, members of the Northern Ireland Assembly created by the Agreement were required to register a designation of identity—nationalist, Unionist, or other—and these sectarian identities play a significant role in such crucial issues as election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

The hope at the time was that stable political institutions, even if they were sectarian in nature, would allow for the return to normalcy that would be a necessary precondition for any deeper reconciliation.

The question today is whether treating the symptoms of the sectarian conflict has allowed the process of true healing to begin, or if it has simply masked a deeper disorder, a divided and suspicious political culture in which true reform is not possible.

British, not English: The Deep Roots of Conflict

The Unionists who exist today as a distinct community with a recognizable political agenda are a product of the history of British settlement on the island of Ireland.

This colonial policy of migration, extant since the late 1200s, intensified in the late 1500s in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. As the English monarch Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England (or Anglican Church), most of the residents of Ireland chose to remain Catholic.

This division made choice of religion a de facto political position in Ireland, a situation that largely holds even today. Since England’s political foes, first Spain and later France, were Catholic monarchies, the Catholic Irish were viewed as potential traitors. The crown therefore sought to subjugate and control them, making the relationship between English and Irish inherently adversarial.

Through the 17th century English monarchs confiscated property from rebellious Catholics and created a set of laws that cemented the ascendancy of the Protestant minority in Ireland over the Catholic majority. Rules for land ownership were skewed in favor of Protestants and Catholics were denied the rights to vote and bear arms. The Test Act of 1704 required holders of public office to take communion in the Church of Ireland, the Irish extension of the Anglican Church, not the Catholic Church.

The result by the late 1700s was bitter hostility between a minority that controlled Ireland politically and economically and a majority that saw them as an illegitimate, alien presence.

As the Unionist community in Ireland put down roots and grew over the centuries, it developed its own collective identity differentiating it not only from Irish Catholics, but from the English government upon which it was utterly dependent. For example, most Unionists were the descendants of Scottish Presbyterians, not Anglicans, and thus acts such as the Test Act discriminated against them as well as against Catholics.

In the 20th century, the British government gave the Unionists further grounds for concern, first by supporting a Home Rule bill to establish a parliament in Dublin for the Irish people within the framework of the UK, then by creating an Irish state on the island in the aftermath of the struggle for Irish independence.

By this time, Unionists had created their own sense of British identity rooted in both their connection to England and their roots as “Scotch-Irish,” a unique combination of Scottish, English and Irish attributes.

“Ourselves Alone”

Irish nationalism emerged in the 19th century and was shaped by both positive and negative factors.

From the negative side, Irish nationalists defined themselves by what they were against—they were neither English nor British, and so their sense of collective political identity emerged in opposition to the Protestant ascendancy. From this perspective, British and Irish were two mutually exclusive categories.

As far as what they stood for, Irish nationalists defined themselves in terms of ideas unleashed first by the American Revolution and then more powerfully by the French Revolution. From both revolutions Irish nationalists were inspired by ideas of country and patriotism, and Irish nationalism came to be characterized by an appreciation of Gaelic history, culture, and language.

Politically, the Irish were inspired by the republican, anti-monarchical ideals of both revolutions. Since the Irish saw themselves as rebelling against a monarchy, they were naturally attracted to an alternative political system. Monarchy, after all, had offered them nothing but an inferior political, social, and economic condition, so Irish nationalism came to be characterized by a categorical rejection of the very idea of monarchy in favor of some form of republic.

For a great many Irish nationalists, the ideas of Ireland and a republic became all but synonymous—to be Irish was to be a republican and to be a republican was to be dedicated to the idea of an independent, united Ireland.

In 1905, Irish nationalists formed the political party Sinn Fein to put these ideas into practice. The name is Irish, and roughly translated means “Ourselves Alone.” Both the name and the choice of language were symbolic.

The nationalism of Sinn Fein meant an Irish Republic free of all forms of British influence—political, cultural, linguistic, and economic. Sinn Fein therefore rejected moderate British solutions, such as the Home Rule bill that was intended to give the Irish autonomy in local matters while still keeping Ireland in the United Kingdom.

Protestant Unionists, comprising approximately 25 per cent of the population, were understandably skeptical as to where they would fit in such an Irish republic.

Having secured a narrow majority among Irish parties standing for the 1918 UK parliamentary elections, Sinn Fein leaders took the results as a mandate to lead a struggle for an independent Ireland and in early 1919 declared an all-Irish parliament in Dublin. For the next two years Irish nationalists and the British government fought a low-level war characterized by ambush and assassination.

In late 1921, the British presented a compromise that was accepted by moderate nationalists. Ireland was divided into a 26-county free state that remained in the British Commonwealth while six counties in the northeast, with their Protestant majority population, remained within the United Kingdom.

Sinn Fein and the nationalist paramilitary organization, the IRA, rejected the compromise. They wanted instead all of Ireland united under one independent, republican government. But in 1923, they were defeated and marginalized by the government of the new Irish Free State after a year of traumatic civil war. In 1926, members of Sinn Fein, led by Eamon de Valera, split from the party and joined the Irish Free State as Fianna Fail (“Soldiers of Destiny”).

This new party kept Irish nationalism as its defining characteristic, but chose to work with the Irish Free State, despite its limitations, to pursue the goal of an Irish Republic. Throughout the 20th century Fianna Fail was the most important party in the Irish parliament and de Valera held the position of Prime Minister for 21 years.

Sinn Fein and the IRA continued to reject the 1921 treaty (and with it either the Irish Free State or Northern Ireland) and worked for decades at the edges of Irish politics for an Ireland free of British control.

After World War II, the Irish Free State secured total independence from the UK and became the Republic of Ireland.

Uncompromising Republicans from the IRA and Sinn Fein thus found themselves in a position analogous to that of Unionists in the north—they did not trust the British, they rejected the superiority of Protestants in the newly formed government of Northern Ireland, and they were wary of the Irish Republic and its leaders’ willingness to compromise for the sake of political expedience.

“A Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State”

The compromise that ended the war for Irish independence necessitated that in Northern Ireland two mutually exclusive ethnic groups be accommodated within the same political framework, as the six counties of Northern Ireland contained not only Protestants, but a sizable Catholic minority (roughly one-third of the population).

The new government of Northern Ireland tackled this problem in exactly the same way that it had tackled relations with Catholics in the past: discriminatory legislation that served to ensconce the Protestant majority in the region. To this end, the new government changed voting from proportional representation to a simple majority system and then redrew voting districts, first for Northern Ireland’s 73 local councils and then for the Northern Ireland parliament.

These measures were intended to disenfranchise the Catholic minority, even in areas where Catholics actually held a majority. And they were remarkably effective, awarding a virtual monopoly on political power to the Unionists. As a result, the Catholic opposition largely gave up, and Unionist candidates often ran for office unopposed.

Unionist leaders were forthright about what they were doing and why. James Craig (right), the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, told his parliament, “All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state.”

For decades the UK government turned a blind eye to the situation in Northern Ireland. As long as Unionist members of Parliament reliably supported whatever party was in power in London, the governing party in turn allowed the Unionists to deny British rights to the roughly 500,000 Catholics in the six counties.

By the turbulent 1960s, this situation was becoming increasingly untenable. Northern Ireland stood out more and more as undemocratic, unfair, and anachronistic. When Catholics organized a civil rights protest movement modeled loosely on that of the United States in the late 1960s, they inadvertently precipitated a crisis.