OLD enmities die hard, and thus it is with hope for the future of the Emerald Isle - and everywhere else that religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial differences result in violence and oppression - that we mark the official end of Great Britain's 38-year military mission in Northern Ireland.
The British army, which once had 27,000 troops in 106 bases and as recently as two years ago had 44 bases, now has fewer than 20 bases and expects to reduce that number to 10 by April. While British troops have not patrolled the streets of Belfast and other historic hot spots for more than two years, the 5,000 remaining troops will now be committed to training for assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
British occupation of Ireland had its roots in the 11th-century Norman invasion, and while the degree of control exercised by England over the Irish waxed and waned until the island was finally incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801, their mutual distrust, dislike, even hatred, grew steadily over the centuries, fed not only by political oppression, but by differences in language, cultural heritage, and religion.
The wounds left by their mutual loathing were only made deeper when, in the 16th and 17th centuries, in response to uprisings by the intractable Irish, the British government settled first Scottish Presbyterians then English Anglicans in Ulster, in the northeastern part of the island.
By the end of the 19th century, Ulster was largely Protestant, industrial, and committed to union with Britain, while the rest of Ireland was Catholic, rural, and growing desirous of independence. When Ireland gained its independence in 1922, Protestant Northern Ireland remained part of Great Britain, setting the stage for lifetimes of violence that have only recently concluded. The scars will take generations to heal.
Ireland's story, regrettably, is not unique, or even unusual. We have only to look to the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi; Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, and Kosovars in the former Yugoslavia, and Sunnis and Shiites in the Arab world to find recent examples of ethnic and religious differences that were suppressed for decades only to experience bloody flare-ups in recent years.
But Northern Ireland's story has taken a new turn in recent years, and while the road to peace between Catholics and Protestants has not been without twists, turns, and the occasional pothole, there is reason to believe that the future of that corner of Eire is much brighter than it has been for centuries.
"There were no victories," said John Moore, a former British soldier paralyzed from the waist down by an Irish Republican Army bomb in 1981. "All it brought was pain, death, and destruction."
That simple statement makes Mr. Moore wiser than generations of Irish Protestants and Catholics. And others, those who hate based on skin tone or forms of worship, would be wise to listen.