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Biden will visit Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland next week

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden will visit Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland next week. His trip marks 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a deal that aimed to end conflict in Northern Ireland. A quarter century on, is it holding? We're joined by Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen's University, Belfast. Thank you so much for being with us.

KATY HAYWARD: Thanks for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: I realize this is a very broad question, but is the Good Friday Agreement seen as a success? Is it working?

HAYWARD: Well, most definitely, it's still seen as having transformed society in Northern Ireland. It really is unrecognizable in many ways to the society that we were living with 25 years ago. For a start, of course, a whole generation has grown up without the experience of political violence. There is still, though, some concerns that some of the things that we thought would have been gone by now, such as paramilitary groups, are still in existence. We still have segregation.

SIMON: It sounds like it has moved from that period we call the Troubles to something more like mutual tolerance.

HAYWARD: I teach on this in Queen's University - so teaching young people who've grown up post-agreement. And one of the things I do with them is look at what the agreement actually says. And the things that they pick out are such words as reconciliation that they never really hear, particularly not when we're looking at the political scene and seeing quite how significant differences between unionists and nationalists continue to be, and, indeed, the fact that those differences can mean we don't have day-to-day functioning democracy in the way that most societies, particularly in Europe, can expect as normal.

SIMON: Professor Hayward, I hope this doesn't put you on the spot, but do you have both Catholics and Protestants among your students?

HAYWARD: Oh, yes. So our students are quite mixed. But I think one thing that surprises people from outside of Northern Ireland is the fact that when our students come to university, for many of them, it's the first time that they would have sat in a classroom with people from other backgrounds and other religions because Northern Ireland is still fairly segregated not just in residential terms, but also in education as well. So most children get educated in Catholic and Protestant schools rather than integrated schools.

SIMON: President Clinton was very active in behalf of the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago, and I wonder if the U.S. is still seen as active in the future of Ireland.

HAYWARD: Very much so. People are very conscious of the significance of the input from the United States back in the really difficult days, in the early '90s. And, of course, Senator George Mitchell played such a crucial part in facilitating talks between the political parties leading to the Good Friday Belfast Agreement itself in 1998. And I think the continued attention and care that the U.S. administration has played across the years toward Northern Ireland is recognized as being quite remarkable given the size of the place.

SIMON: President Biden popular in Northern Ireland and the Republic? He does mention his Irish antecedents quite a lot.

HAYWARD: He does. I think the fact that President Biden is very proud of his Irish roots is something that is very much noticed here, and many people appreciate it. And it's safe to say that many people are very much looking forward to his visit, and there'll be a lot of celebration of that fact. Of course, there is a flip side to that. In Northern Ireland, there are many British people as well, and some people feel not so welcoming, slightly concerned that maybe he doesn't appreciate or understand the significance of British identity in Northern Ireland. And maybe he's not quite such a neutral player in that regard.

SIMON: Of course, one of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement is that there could be a referendum in Northern Ireland on their future. Is there much appetite for that, enthusiasm?

HAYWARD: So, yes. So the - one of the most amazing things about the Good Friday Belfast Agreement is that it was saying if it looks likely that there'll be a majority in Northern Ireland who want to see unification between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then the British government minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland should call a so-called border poll. What's been very evident since Brexit has been a rising expectation of Irish unification. And this isn't just amongst nationalists and those who are neither unionist nor nationalist. It's also amongst unionists as well.

And in most recent survey work, we see that people actually think that a united Ireland is more likely to exist in 20 years time than the United Kingdom itself. The question is how people respond to that. And, of course, for unionists, that's the opposite of what they would like to see. And so 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the need for sensitivity and recognition of the parity of unionist and nationalist, British and Irish identities in Northern Ireland remains just as much a challenge and just as important as it was back then.

SIMON: Katy Howard (ph), a professor of political sociology, Queen's University, Belfast. Thanks so much for being with us.

HAYWARD: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.