The conflict in Northern Ireland is in many ways a paradox. The region has adequate resources and, although it has been a rather marginal area of the British Isles, is nonetheless quite affluent compared to most of the rest of the world. The people are invariably described as friendly and hospitable and to outsiders they seem to form a homogeneous community. The United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part, is a functioning democracy where it might be argued there is no need for violence in order to bring about political change. What kind of problem can make people with this background engage in a thirty-year violent struggle against their neighbours and produce some of the most effective militant groups of modern times?
Northern Ireland challenges the assumption that conflicts only occur in underdeveloped countries where tribal loyalties are more important than citizenship, where there is a limited democratic tradition and where there are massive problems of poverty and inequality.
There have, of course, been other conflicts in Western Europe since the Second World War including the Basque country and Corsica, but apart from perhaps Cyprus few have been so bitter and none as long lasting.
Although there have been issues, such as discrimination in housing and employment, electoral manipulation and religious histories, which have separated the two sides, the conflict can be stripped down to the core issues of the balance of power, relations between the communities, and questions of governance. It is rooted in the struggle of one part of the community for an independent and unified Ireland and hostility to that struggle from the other part of the community wanting to remain within the United Kingdom.
For the people living in Northern Ireland the situation has proved so intractable because of a vivid awareness of past...