The Lesson of Northern Ireland

When I was a graduate student in the early seventies in Scotland, my wife and I wanted to visit Ireland.  The distance between Glasgow, Scotland, and Dublin, Ireland is roughly the same mileage as between Johnson County and Chicago, so it wasn’t the length of the trip that prevented our visit.  And even though we lived on a tight budget, the cost of the trip wasn’t the issue.    

The obstacle that stood in the way of a visit to Ireland was the violence at the time, particularly in Northern Ireland, but extending to the Republic of Ireland and even England.

I’m not sure the words “bucket list” existed in the early seventies, but Ireland was on my wish- list at the time and remains so to this day.  Violence no longer prevents our visit; Covid variants do.  

What fascinates me is the journey Northern Ireland made from bombs to ballots, from violence on a nearly daily basis to fighting played out in a political debate.  When my wife and I lived in Scotland, the evening news frequently focused on scenes of destruction in Belfast and other cities and towns of Northern Ireland.  The violence between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), militant Protestants, and the British Army occupying the country was a nightmare that never seemed to end.     

But that nightmare did end.  The words “Sinn Fein” have moved from describing a wing of the IRA that condoned violence to being the leading political power in the country.  There is still widespread tension and fierce debate between the different communities in Northern Ireland, but the weapons have changed. 

Northern Ireland reminds us that peace and democracy are not synonyms.  Deep divisions and acrimony can exist in a democracy; in fact, they often flourish in a democracy.  But the battles are now fought with words, not bombs and assassinations. 

Unfortunately, the road from violence to democracy is not a one-way street.  The citizens of Northern Ireland know that if they are not vigilant, their country can return to its stormy past.  

A similar descent from democracy into violence is possible in our own country.  The January 6 insurrection was an early warning that some in our nation are happy to move in that direction.  The recent violence in response to the FBI’s actions at Mar-a-Lago followed by threats from members of the far right that they won’t respect unfavorable future election results is further evidence that some in our country have already entered a post-democracy mindset. 

We are a sports-happy culture, with Saturday being the high-holy day of watching sports on TV.  But how long would any of us continue watching our favorite sporting contests if the losers refused to admit defeat; if, despite the score, they claimed to have won?  We’d soon get tired of the wrangling and turn off the TV.

The beauty of democracies is not just that one party wins.  The beauty is how the loser behaves.  By conceding gracefully, losers even more than winners demonstrate their commitment to democracy.  Northern Ireland knows this.  Do we?