Taking a Lesson on Unity From Northern Ireland

After more than a century, the possibility of Irish reunification seems quite real these days. While the timeframe and the actual probability remain very much unclear, there’s no question that Northern Ireland is tentatively exploring joining the Republic of Ireland.

If you’re younger than 40, this may sound unremarkable. Indeed, more remarkable to you might be that the 1.9 million residents of the island’s six northeastern counties were divided from the 5 million ethnically similar residents of the other 26 counties in the first place. A land of roughly the same size and population as Indiana—and one even more ethnically homogenous than Mike Pence’s home state—seems to modern eyes an unlikely place to have ever been partitioned. With religion generally in decline across the West for years now, younger Americans would understandably wonder how divisions between sects of Christians could really merit such a schism.

America, where political violence has been on the rise and public discourse is dominated by a seething anger, would seem a far likelier candidate for such a rift. Issues of race, ethnicity, and culture dominate even prosaic conversations like stopgap budget bills. Leading members of rival sects trade hateful insults. Intellectuals excuse violent acts by their cohorts as really being the fault of the other side. Factions increasingly disagree on even basic information. Without a homologized ethnicity like Ireland’s, America would seem to be much more suited to being split in at least two.

For those of us old enough to remember any of the bombings, mayhem, and brutality in the decades before 1998’s peace accords, though, the division of Ireland seems tragically logical. From the time the border went up in 1921 to nearly the turn of this century, what was euphemized as “The Troubles” was proof that even amid modernity and progress, the human capacity for savage cruelty could not be banished.

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