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Two decades after peace pact, reconciliation still lags in Northern Ireland

Nearly 20 years ago this week, the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to almost three decades of violence between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland, known as the ‘Troubles,’ that killed 3,500 people. But for many, it has been an uneasy peace. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay explores what the peace agreement achieved and what remains unsolved in the region.

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  • KIRA KAY:

    Once a month, a civics class in Northern Ireland breaks new ground. Visiting students are bussed across town from St. Mary's and St. Cecilia's, which are Catholic schools. The host school, Lisneal, has a predominantly Protestant student body.

  • FIRST GIRL:

    "What's this?"

  • SECOND GIRL:

    "Oh, that's Irish, isn't it?"

  • KIRA KAY:

    This two-hour session uses religious, cultural and political symbols to challenge these students from different backgrounds to find common interests.

  • TEACHER:

    "Rugby is a brilliant one for the both because Ireland have one team, you know Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland, everybody supports Ireland. So good, well done."

  • KIRA KAY:

    The schools are in the city officially known as Londonderry, but called just "Derry" by Catholics. Northern Ireland's conflict, known as the troubles, exploded here 50 years ago as Catholic civil rights protests spiralled into violence across the region and the British army responded with force. The conflict ultimately became a struggle over keeping Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom or unifying it with Ireland. Society was split between Protestant, pro-United Kingdom loyalists and paramilitaries on the one hand and Catholic pro-Irish nationalists and their armed groups on the other. This included the provisional Irish Republican Army, or IRA. Between 1969 and 1998, more than 3500 people were killed. Today Londonderry's stark murals memorialize that history and the Foyle River still divides the city's Catholics from Protestants.

  • MARTINE MULHERN:

    Initially at the start, we had people, we had parents who were worried.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Martine Mulhern, Principal of Catholic St. Cecilia's, says ninety percent of Northern Ireland's students study exclusively with members of their own community.

  • MARTINE MULHERN:

    It is possible to grow up on the West Bank of the city, and not meet a Protestant, or not have a Protestant in the street. And if they have been growing up in a house where people have spoken about Protestants or other faiths in a particular way, then they may have developed a perception of that community. That is where the shared education program comes into its own.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Michael Allen, Principal of Protestant Lisneal, admits he didn't always support shared education.

  • MICHAEL ALLEN:

    There is a fear that culture, particularly within Unionist and Protestant culture that it's being diminished over a period of time. But I could see how the children worked with one another, how they interacted. That to me showed that they had no fear, so really we shouldn't have any fear of it either.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Originally supported by an American Foundation, this program is now being administered by the government, which plans to replicate it in more than half of Northern Ireland's schools by 2021. These 7th graders are embracing the program and their new classmates.

  • HANNAH:

    They have sisters, they have brothers, they have pets. They have the same life as us basically.

  • SIENNA:

    Difference is good. You don't need to be like not be their friend because they are that different religion as long as you two get along.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Programs like this are only possible because of the peace agreement that ended Northern Ireland's conflict, signed 20 years ago this week. Society had become weary of violence, and a ceasefire allowed negotiators to come to the table.

  • LORD JOHN ALDERDICE:

    At a leadership level there was an appreciation that neither side could be defeated and neither side could win.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Lord John Alderdice represented a non-sectarian party at the peace talks. Included in the discussion was Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party associated with the IRA. The United Kingdom considered the IRA a terrorist organization.

  • LORD JOHN ALDERDICE:

    It was against the widespread international view that you don't negotiate with terrorists. And there was a huge sense here for many people that the IRA on the one hand and loyalist paramilitaries on the other hand, many people had suffered, and died, and had injuries, and families destroyed and so on by these very people and their colleagues. And so it was a huge step for all of us.

  • KIRA KAY:

    The peace agreement maintained Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, but brought Sinn Fein into government with its former enemies, the Protestant loyalists. It was a power-sharing arrangement that was once unimaginable. And for 20 years that peace has held. The downtown of Northern Ireland's Capital Belfast was once cordoned off by security fences and army checkpoints but now hosts bustling streets and cafes, and a growing tourist industry. A popular museum about the Titanic, built in Belfast, opened in 2012. But true reconciliation lags, says Lord Alderdice.

  • LORD JOHN ALDERDICE:

    Even 20 years later, when we've done all these different things, institutional change, constitutional change, administration of justice, new policing, social and economic development, all of these kinds of things you still have a problem of attitudes not having changed.

  • KIRA KAY:

    This is most evident in the patchwork quilt of Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods that alternate every few blocks in Belfast, sometimes dramatically separated by so-called "Peace" Walls. Most were built during the troubles but some have gone up even since the peace agreement. It is unlikely the government will meet its goal of removing them by 2023. Community activist Alan Waite says Belfast's divisions combine most starkly with other social ills in the city's public housing complexes on both sides of these walls.

  • ALAN WAITE:

    The issues young people face in this area is issues like you know unemployment, drugs, alcohol, in fact where we stand now is one of the most underachieving areas in all of the country.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Several of these neighborhoods are still controlled by local paramilitaries, some the very same groups created during the troubles. They no longer fight each other but victimize their own communities with so-called punishment attacks on young residents they accuse of crimes like dealing drugs. These attacks have surged in recent years.

  • ALAN WAITE:

    They're taking the power into their own hands and in a roundabout way they're trying to take over the role of the police within their own communities by laying down their law, which is not the way forward.

  • KIRA KAY:

    The government is upgrading some public housing and they are turning a handful of these sites into efforts at integration too. Five mixed community developments are open and another five are underway.

  • TIM O’MALLEY:

    Ninety percent of social housing is single identity and indeed housing in general is around seventy percent either one community or the other.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Tim O'Malley says the 2015 start up of this community, called Felden, was a challenge for his public housing management company.

  • TIM O’MALLEY:

    People were suspicious about what this new concept was about. They thought there was going to be something that imposed something, as opposed to something that supported people who wanted to live in a shared neighborhood.

  • KIRA KAY:

    These developments aim to have no more than seventy percent of either Catholics or Protestants. Nicola O'Neill came to Felden from a staunchly Catholic area divided by peace walls.

  • NICOLA O’NEILL:

    Coming from the area I came from, I wanted a better future for my children cause I want them to know that everybody's the same, that nobody's different, regardless religion, color. Now I couldn't see me living anywhere else.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Felden's management company has put in the effort to harmonize the communities it oversees, offering employment and education programs and bringing residents together over shared projects like a community garden.

  • TIM O’ MALLEY:

    Felden alone is 97 homes, you know, a few hundred people. It's not the solution, but it shows people that it's possible, and I think that's the biggest story that we can share.

  • KIRA KAY:

    But shared housing hasn't worked as smoothly everywhere. Catholic families fled this complex last fall following threats from a local Protestant paramilitary that didn't want a shared site on its streets. Police came at midnight to alert this resident that the paramilitary had issued an ultimatum.

  • WOMAN:

    They knocked the door and they said 'I'm sorry have you anywhere to go? You are being threatened because you have to leave the area. And I says why, what did we do? And he says it's all down to your religion.

  • KIRA KAY:

    The police told you it was because of your religion?

  • WOMAN:

    Religion.

  • KIRA KAY:

    They were that clear.

  • WOMAN:

    Yeah. That's, that's the way it was put. If we didn't leave there they were, there was other people that were going to do it themselves.

  • MAIRTIN O’MUILLEOIR:

    If you're asking me is this a normal city, that's not normal.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Sinn Fein politician Mairtin O'Muilleoir helped resettle threatened residents.

  • MAIRTIN O’MUILLEOIR:

    This was a feature of our past that people were ordered out of their homes because of their religion and it was deeply depressing and distressing for me to see it happening again in 2017.

  • KIRA KAY:

    As much as many people are ready to move on, some still grapple with the legacy of past violence. Many crimes by state forces as well as paramilitaries on both sides remain unsolved or unprosecuted. In February, thousands of marchers took to the streets to demand resolution, including Catholic Sinn Fein politician Emma Rogan, whose father was killed by a Protestant paramilitary.

  • EMMA ROGAN:

    Some of these families are waiting over 46 years for an inquest. People need to know what has happened to their loved ones and the circumstances surrounding their deaths. I think it's easier for the British government to deny and delay truth for families than it is to open the can of worms if they were to deal with the legacy of the conflict here.

  • KIRA KAY:

    And there are Protestants who feel just as aggrieved.

  • TOUR GUIDE:

    OK Folks, it's one of the most bombed roads in Northern Ireland.

  • KIRA KAY:

    In rural Northern Ireland, this group organizes bus tours to the sites of attacks against mainly protestant victims who they say were ethnically cleansed by the IRA. Victims advocate Kenny Donaldson says having former IRA members in government is keeping more people from seeing justice.

  • KENNY DONALDSON:

    If that's one of your partners in Northern Ireland who are going to establish so-called power sharing in this country, they're not going to dig very deeply into those individuals are they, to actually hold them accountable for what they've done in the past. It's almost as if justice is the price to keep this place from spiraling into terror once again.

  • KIRA KAY:

    Twenty years of peace hasn't been enough to unite communities, but that doesn't mean there's no trust to be found. The bustling R-City coffee shop says it provides a place to socialize free from cultural identity, and it sits in a most unlikely location, right on a notoriously volatile crossroads between Catholic and Protestant Belfast. It has one door on the Catholic side, another on the Protestant side. It was started by Protestant community worker Alan Waite, in partnership with Catholic colleague Thomas Turley.

  • ALAN WAITE:

    We could never have dreamt or imagined a unique location like this, where you can enter from both sides of the community. Our clientele are general, normal, run-of-the-mill people. Our staff are 50-50%. Half Protestant, half Catholic. The coffee's brilliant, the food is brilliant. But it's not about that. It's about here. It's about sitting in this room as both sides of a community who aren't meant to come and sit together. It's a shining light, I believe, in one of the most darkest places in the country.

Photos courtesy of the Museum of Free Derry.

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