But then, he says, extremist parties that had initially resisted or delayed participating in the agreement began stirring up discontent at perceived concessions made by moderates to the other side, on contentious issues such as the Irish language and the routing of traditional parades. Both Durkan and Nesbitt allege that their opponents then used that negative energy to win votes—and power and patronage—for themselves. A proportional-representation electoral system that was designed to erode old sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland failed at the task, and voters gravitated toward parties on opposite ends of the spectrum, such as Sinn Féin and the DUP, to ensure that their community had greater collective power.
“The DUP said to unionists, ‘Vote for us … or you’ll split the unionist vote,’” Nesbitt told me. “And Sinn Féin would say to nationalists, ‘Vote for us and you might not get the DUP.’” (The DUP and Sinn Féin would contest Durkan and Nesbitt’s telling, arguing that they are merely representing the concerns of their electoral bases.)
Over time, what had largely been a split contest between the SDLP and Sinn Féin on the Catholic, nationalist side, and the UUP and DUP on the Protestant, unionist side, devolved into a two-way battle between Sinn Féin and the DUP. The former now holds seven seats in the British House of Commons—though, as it refuses to acknowledge British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, it does not take its seats; the latter has 10 seats and has backed May’s minority government in London, though often voting with the hard Brexit faction in her divided Conservative Party. The SDLP and the UUP, Durkan’s and Nesbitt’s parties, are depleted forces, with no seats in Westminster and about a quarter of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly combined, down from nearly half in 1998.
An understandable frustration exists among Northern Ireland’s moderate unionists and nationalists at seeing their hard-won institutions taken over, and ultimately paralyzed, by hard-liners who questioned or opposed their creation.
The result, however, has been that by 2017, Northern Ireland politics were again so polarized on sectarian lines that the cross-community cooperation at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement could no longer function. The immediate causes of the collapse in power-sharing were unionist opposition to legal status for the indigenous Irish language and the refusal of the then–first minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, to resign over a fuel-subsidy scandal. The DUP–Sinn Féin coalition, always a cold marriage of convenience, broke down after 10 years of cohabitation.
On a day-to-day basis, there has been surprisingly little disquiet or unrest in Northern Ireland. Residents still go about their business, and the civil service continues to function. People in Northern Ireland have always known and accepted that they are deeply divided, and seem to have learned to cope with it.