Frank Wright believed that the defining factor in the emergence of modern ethnicity is ‘a crisis of assimilation’ resulting in persistent and potentially violent antagonism between an emergent staatsvolk and its unassimilated competitors. As ‘the internal other’ represents a real danger, national self-assertion becomes the dominant mode of democratic political experience. Northern Ireland is a paradigmatic ethnic frontier but an unusual one. Partition and devolution allowed it to be abandoned until 1969. The desire for containment after 1972 forced both Britain and Ireland into a new search for transcendent authority. The pre-eminent pattern of politics since then is of increased British–Irish cooperation in the search for a viable order. Does the Agreement represent truce or a transformation? The article considers the enormous challenges to alternatives to containment and concludes that the current political arrangements have not ultimately addressed this question. Wright controversially offers the crucifixion of Christ as the emergence into history of the story of history as told from human suffering and against the rationale of violent victory – against Heraclitus. Embarrassing or not, Wright's importance is to understand that this dilemma lies at the heart of peace-building in Northern Ireland and increasingly highlights the limits of politics.