Racial Justice and the Irish Experience: Any Lessons?

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge from unsplash.com


Two lessons from Northern Ireland have caught my attention as I have reflected on our progress in advancing racial justice.  Specifically, I have been thinking about how these lessons might apply to our own national conundrum.

My first insight came from listening to a news interview with Fintan O’Toole, a native of Dublin, Ireland who is currently the Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University. The discussion began with a debate about how close the U.S is to a civil war over race. Recent articles (Washington Post and New York Times) and books like The Next Civil War by Stephen Marche share the perspective that we might be closer to a civil war than we think.

O’Toole pointed to the centuries of conflict in Ireland, particularly in Northern Ireland, over union with the United Kingdom and within Ireland; a fight fought both on political terms and faith preference.  

The discussion with Professor O’Toole centered on the difference between armed insurrections, what we call civil disorders or riots, and all-out civil war. He pointed out there have been armed conflicts in our country since the birth of America, among the most dramatic being the elimination of an African-American community in the 1922 Tulsa Massacre.

Similarly, in Ireland, there were armed conflicts between Catholics and Protestants for generations. However, these never became a civil war. In fact, the professor observed, a visitor to Belfast or Northern Ireland today finds relative tranquility and peace between Protestants and Catholics and an economy and quality of life stronger than ever.

The interview ended by posing a question about the lessons learned. What did the leaders and people of these entrenched adversarial factions do to achieve acceptance of the Belfast or Good Friday accord, signed on Good Friday, April 10, 1998? With negotiating help from US advisor George Mitchell, this accord has brought a period of increased peace, reduced conflict and a strengthened economy to Ireland. While the accord has proven not to be a miracle cure, constant attention and cooperation have been keeping it in force.  

My second exposure to these lessons came from watching the Academy Award-nominated movie Belfast. If you haven’t seen it, I would really encourage it.  It is a powerful, passionate and at times shocking story of the life of Protestants and Catholics in one neighborhood in Belfast from the perspective of one boy and his family. In one simple story, the producers do an amazing job of humanizing and making real a very complex and ugly time in Irish history.

After seeing the movie, I came across an interview with Kenneth Branagh, the writer and director of Belfast. He had personally grown up in north Belfast and had firsthand experience with the violence and fear of daily living. As he described the picture of having tanks roll down his street, I was reminded of the young 10-year-old girl from Northern Ireland who stayed with our family for three weeks or so one summer in the early 1980s as part of a faith-based program to bring Protestants and Catholics together.

The words of Kenneth Branagh echoed what our young visitor had told us – the constant presence of armed police, barbed wire fences and tanks and endlessly waking up to the sounds of guns and bombs.

What are the lessons from Belfast and Northern Ireland for us? Branagh summed up the most important ingredient and it is the one we have a hard time recognizing or talking about. Underneath the differences between Protestants and Catholics, there is a deep commitment to love and faith. In the movie Belfast, we experience the love in a family over three generations. Love holds the neighborhood together and contributes to the newly found peace.

Our ways of learning tend to focus on the negative; we work to define and overcome problems. If we look at challenging situations with an eye on the desired outcome and set aside our fears that cloud the possibilities we consider, more of our collective energy might focus on positive actions that lead to solutions.

If we follow the love, what sacrifices and new ways of letting go of old fears were required to achieve the Belfast Agreement in Ireland?  How did love allow people who had been at war for generations to put down their arms and accept, or at least tolerate, one another? Race and the history of slavery, oppression and discrimination in the United States are almost impossible to compare to Ireland or anywhere else for that matter. Nonetheless, for those looking for hope and additional paths forward out of our hate-filled and polarized communities, I suspect there are some clues in the Irish experience.

What are the concrete actions we can take as individuals and as a country to advance the necessary dialogue towards more peace and harmony?


  • Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.


  1. Shirin McArthur

    Thank you so much for this, Tom. I am especially drawn to the idea that we focus on the negative when we view issues and learn…that’s a powerful statement that I really want to reflect upon. Thank you!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Shirin, it does seem that we all have different routing devices that lead us to either an initial positive or negative thought. Media certainly likes to draw our attention to the negative. How to discipline the mind to make a choice about where to focus and what to do with negative thoughts and ideas is an interesting life-time challenge from my experience. Peace, Tom

  2. sally mac

    If we consider what Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela achieved in So. Africa, we may have a better template to ponder. A truth and reconciliation commission that addresses and processes the pain is necessary. Who would be our George Mitchell to negotiate this feat?
    Pope John Paul intervened for the Poles in 1980. Does Pope Francis have the gravitas, given his weak control of his own Vatican City?

    • Tom Adams

      Great questions and suggestions Sally. Thanks for expanding the possibilities of positive models we can begin to take seriously. Tom