Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland amid uneasy peace

A sign leading into Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)

In October 2015, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews — golf’s global ruling authority — announced the 148th Open Championship would be held at Royal Portrush in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. This historic announcement confirmed the oldest and most prestigious tournament in golf would return to Northern Ireland after a 68-year absence. It is the second time the fight for the Claret Jug will be held outside England or Scotland.

Black text that reads why this matters
The return of the Open Championship to Northern Ireland is a sign that the Irish peace process has evolved to a point where officials believe sectarian violence would not interfere.

This edition of the British Open may be the most lucrative event Ireland has hosted. The tournament’s return signals the belief that the strife and military activity which once raged throughout the island has settled to the point where the competition can be held there. Still, despite a 21-year-old agreement that brought the long-standing “Troubles” to a halt, a pall lingers over Belfast as Northern Ireland continues to recover from decades of sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,000 lives.

The conflict known as the Troubles effectively began in 1968, less than 20 years after Englishman Max Faulkner won the 80th British Open at Royal Portrush.

Northern Ireland was created following the island’s partition in 1921. Tensions soon arose between loyalists who wished to remain in the United Kingdom and nationalists who sought independence. Northern Ireland’s majority Protestant population wanted to stay; the Roman Catholic majority in the south desired autonomy. These factions clashed, especially after the formation of the Irish Republican Army, which was organized with the goal of creating a free Ireland. The most prevalent wing of the IRA during the Troubles was the Provisional IRA, established in 1969.

Loyalist forces challenged the Provisional IRA throughout a 30-year conflict that included spontaneous protests, street fights, murder of unarmed civilians, bombings and forced disappearances. The civil strife proceeded unabated until the 1990s, when a peace process began in earnest and culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

This pact — brokered between British and Irish leadership — built upon a 1994 ceasefire and was approved by a majority of voters on the island across two separate referendums in May 1998. Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, and a key stipulation in the agreement dictated loyalists and nationalists share power in a newly-minted government known as the Northern Ireland Assembly.

An uneasy peace has existed over the past 20 years. Several years passed before a true power-sharing agreement was reached. In the meantime, a new branch of the IRA, known as the “Real IRA,” was formed and subsequently outlawed by the Republic of Ireland, though it remains active. The organization planned a bombing to coincide with Prince Charles’s visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2015, and most recently it claimed responsibility for a bomb found under a police vehicle outside an east Belfast golf club in June 2019.

Against this backdrop, the R&A will host the Open Championship beginning July 18. Francesco Molinari will attempt to defend his crown, but the Italian isn’t among the top five betting favorites

The location of this British Open  — for now, at least — is set to overshadow whatever happens on the course. Terror and unrest is no longer widespread throughout the island, reflective of the progress that started with the Good Friday Agreement. Though antipathy likely will always be a defining feature of intra-Irish relations — and political murals are still seen across Northern Ireland — it can be argued that the return of the Open Championship represents a significant step in the healing process.

The 148th Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland after a nearly 70 year absence when play tees off this week. Part of the reason the event was not played in Northern Ireland was the decades of sectarian violence called "The Troubles." (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
British Army troops disassemble a barricade in Belfast during the summer of 1969. The Troubles in Northern Ireland began with rioting in the previous year, as United Kingdom loyalists and Irish nationalists clashed along political and religious lines. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection) (Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)
Protesters flee Derry, Northern Ireland amid tear gas explosions on Jan. 30, 1972. This date is now known as “Bloody Sunday,” which saw British Army troops murder 14 unarmed civilians and injure 14 more. (Photo by PL Gould/Images/Getty Images)
Riots in Belfast were commonplace during the Troubles. The riot pictured here took place in 1972. (Photo by Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Free Derry was a nationalist stronghold within the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. It existed between 1969 and 1972, when British troops stormed and occupied the area. (Photo by Christine Spengler/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
A British soldier provides cover as fellow troops examine a burning building. The nationalist Irish Republican Army often set fire to buildings and ambushed British troops upon their arrival. (Photo by Steven Clevenger/Corbis via Getty Images)
British Army troops patrol the streets as buildings burn during the Battle of the Bogside in Derry, Northern Ireland on Aug. 15, 1969. The conflict began on Aug. 12 and ended on Aug. 15 as British troops came to the defense of loyalists in the Bogside neighborhood. It was one of the first major incidents of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (Part of the Independent Newspapers
Ireland/NLI Collection) (Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)
Police officers in Northern Ireland stand guard in front of a giant mural. (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
A wall which separated Catholic and Protestant citizens during the Troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
From right to left: British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Senator George Mitchell and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern pose following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. The agreement ended the Troubles and was confirmed by two referendums in May 1998. It was sold to Irish nationalists as a boon to civil rights, the introduction of a devolved government and a peaceful route to reunification. (Photo by Dan Chung/AFP/Getty Images)
Max Faulkner, the winner of the 80th Open Championship. Faulkner won the 1951 British Open, the last one held in Northern Ireland until 2019. (Photo by Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
A sign reading “Portrush welcomes The Open” on a road leading into Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Claret Jug is presented to the winner of The Open Championship, the oldest major tournament in golf. Francesco Molinari is the current holder and will try to defend his title at Royal Portrush in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The competition will run from July 18 through July 21 and will be held in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. (Photo by Charles
McQuillan/R&A/R&A via Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to a par putt on the 16th green during the final round of the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Club on July 22, 2018 in Carnoustie, Scotland. McIlroy won the Open Championship in 2014 and tied for second in 2018. Fans will be out in force for McIlroy. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Italian golfer Francesco Molinari pictured with the Claret Jug Open trophy during Media Day at The Wisley on July 2, 2019 in Wisley, Surrey. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Jeremy Beren is a senior sports journalism major at Arizona State University

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