Civil society in Northern Ireland in the quest for peace

Avaz Hasanov

Studying the conflict in Northern Ireland, and meeting the different sides and people involved in it, confirms that the occurrence of conflict is not restricted to underdeveloped countries or societies with underdeveloped social relations. It has usually been assumed that conflict occurs in countries where there are problems of a social nature and where there is serious antagonism between ethnic groups. In Northern Ireland, even after the devastation of the Second World War, the standard of living was not poor.

In terms of educational attainment, it ranked among the highest in Europe. Thus, the tendency towards conflict found in Northern Irish society comes as a surprise. Over time, conflicts in Europe have been resolved and none of them has served to exacerbate the discord between neighbouring communities and religious groups in the way that it did in Northern Ireland.

It is perhaps interesting to look at who exactly were the principal actors in helping to resolve the conflict. First, a major role in achieving peace was played by the state institutions, such as the British government and the Northern Ireland Office in Stormont (the parliament of Northern Ireland) along with the Northern Ireland Assembly.[1] Second, political parties and movements such as the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Féin played a significant part in shaping the political system and increasing the level of involvement by the population in resolving the conflict.[2] Third, terrorist and paramilitary organisations – such as the IRA, the INLA, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), the UVF and the UDA – are also parties in the conflict and at various times the course of political processes was dependent on their influence on relations between the two communities.[3]

The role of paramilitary groups and political parties in achieving peace

The tensions in relations between the people of Northern Ireland were heightened in the period after Ireland gained independence. However, it was the sectarian rather than party political differences that played a role in the emergence of these tensions. Sometimes, political parties are unable to act beyond the scope of the uncompromising position of the groups they represent and, fearing loss of support in their community, they pitch their position in accordance with communal interests.

Since the 1960s modernisation processes have taken place in Northern Ireland that have influenced the course of the bipartite negotiations, as well as relations between the two communities. As a result of the emergence of new political views and generations, the previously united Protestant community split into several political parties. In the Catholic community, parties were established that would ‘acknowledge the constitutional status of Northern Ireland only in accordance with the law’.

The appearance in 1913 of the nationalist military organisation the Irish Volunteers (the precursor to the IRA) led to continual uprisings and protests. When a new uprising flared up in Ireland in 1916, the rebels declared an Irish Republic. The uprising was suppressed but in 1919 an Irish Republic was again declared, leading to the War of Independence. A ceasefire was eventually called in July 1921, and in December of the same year an agreement was reached by means of which the Irish Free State was established in 26 counties of the island of Ireland, with six counties remaining part of Britain. The partition of Ireland was not supported by the IRA, whose actions led to a split in Irish society.[4]

During the Troubles, many paramilitary organisations put heavy pressure on their communities. The Combined Loyalist Military Command, leading a campaign of terror against the nationalists, intimidated members of the community, alleging that they were sheltering members of the republican movement and combatants. However, understanding the importance of cooperation between different groups, the organisation agreed to a ceasefire.

The largest loyalist paramilitary organisation was the UDA. Its political views were represented by the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP). Within the UDA, there was a more militant wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), which joined the ceasefire declared by the loyalists.

For the first time, the UDA, a combat group of Northern Ireland Protestants, officially laid down its arms. Classified by EU Member States and the US as a terrorist organisation, the UDA was involved in an estimated 400 murders.When the UDA was dismantling its military structures, it issued a statement: “The Ulster Defence Association believes that the war is over and we are now in a new democratic dispensation that will lead to permanent political stability.”The second largest loyalist paramilitary group, the UVF, had also previously declared that it was giving up the armed struggle.

The decision by paramilitary groups to declare a ceasefire was influenced by the 1985 agreement reached at Hillsborough Castle (Northern Ireland) between Britain and the Irish Republic.[5] The Agreement gave the Irish Republic an advisory role in resolving the issues of Northern Ireland. A second round in the ongoing talks was concluded with the signing of the Downing Street Declaration[6] between Britain and Ireland on 14 December 1993, reinforcing the principles of the renunciation of violence and making provisions for the establishment of a parliament and government in Northern Ireland. However, the implementation of the Agreement was stalled due to a mortar attack on Heathrow Airport by the IRA.[7]

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle on 15 November 1985 – by Margaret Thatcher on the British side and Garret FitzGerald on the Irish side – it was resolved that the reunification of Ireland should take place if a majority of the population of Northern Ireland agreed. This Agreement facilitated the emergence of new political views and new young leaders who preferred to use constitutional methods to pursue independent policy.[8]

However, not all political leaders were immediately prepared to surrender their positions in order to attain peace in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin achieved recognition of its position in the conflict, while maintaining its links with paramilitary groups. Towards the end of the 1980s, as a symbol of protest against the campaign of violence mounted by the republican movement, constitutional nationalist leaders refused to support any contact with them. However, the initiation of peace talks by John Hume, leader of the SDLP, played a major role in the ceasefire. His decision to enter into direct talks with the IRA in the mid-1980s, following the bombing during the Protestant Remembrance Day march in Enniskillen on 8 November 1987, laid the foundations for the beginning of the peace process.

Despite the fact that the nationalists had the support of the population, their armed struggle lost its significance after Sinn Féin polled 10% of the vote at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Sinn Féin had to come out of political isolation. An important contribution to this process was also made by former US President Bill Clinton, who was the first American president to visit Northern Ireland. During his election campaign, in order to win the votes of the Irish community, he had promised to get involved in resolving the Northern Ireland conflict. Under pressure from the Irish community in the US, Clinton granted an American visa to Sinn Féin party president Gerry Adams, who visited the US in January 1994.[9] While he was there, Gerry Adams indicated that the IRA was prepared to renounce violence. Later that year, on 31 August 1994, the IRA declared an indefinite ceasefire. Following the announcement of the IRA ceasefire, a broadcasting ban that had been placed on the appearance of republicans and loyalists with paramilitary links was lifted. In October 1994 a loyalist paramilitary ceasefire was also announced.

Following the ceasefire, a large-scale campaign was undertaken to persuade armed groups to lay down their arms and the political parties that supported them to join the talks process. A major stumbling block was the issue of decommissioning of arms by paramilitary groups before any talks could begin. Despite the fact that Sinn Féin had contacts with senior government officials and ministers, the attempt to begin talks still failed. All hopes were vested in a statement by the US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, George Mitchell.[10] Mitchell was aware that the talks process was in difficulty and advised that the decommissioning by the paramilitary organisations be carried out in parallel with the involvement of political parties in the talks process.

Each political party that expressed the desire to join the negotiating process had first to agree to the resolution of the conflict through negotiation and peaceful means and all military groups had to give up their arms and renounce the use of force.

Sinn Féin objected to the proposals by Mitchell and asserted that the report prepared by him would strike a blow to the negotiating process. In February 1996 the IRA carried out a bomb attack in which two people died. The public, which had waited so long for the negotiating process to start, saw this step as unacceptable and representatives of the organisation STOP-96 began a campaign against Sinn Féin, organising protests in different parts of the country. In May 1996 elections to the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue were held with the following results: UUP, 24.17%; SDLP, 21.37%; DUP, 18.8%; Sinn Féin, 15.47%; Alliance Party, 6.54%; UK Unionist Party (UKUP), 3.69%; PUP, 3.47%; and UDP, 2.22%.[11] After its success at the elections, Sinn Féin strengthened its position among Catholic voters. The party had received a mandate that allowed the republican movement to be represented in the peace negotiations.

In 1997 elections took place in Britain and Ireland. In the elections in Northern Ireland in May, Sinn Féin increased its share of the vote to 16%, becoming the third largest party in the region and winning two seats. Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were elected as MPs to the British Parliament. In the June elections in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin also gained one seat in the Irish Parliament. Having gained support from nationalist voters, Sinn Féin began to work to enhance its popularity; at the same time, it undertook a major drive to take advantage of the Irish lobby in America as a source of funds.[12]

A statement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that normalising relations with Northern Ireland and increasing efforts to resolve the conflict was going to be one of the main priorities of his government provided an important boost to the negotiating process. As a first step, Blair signed a document ordering an independent inquiry into the deaths of 14 people who were shot by British soldiers in January 1972 in the event known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. After this, having visited Northern Ireland, he declared that the union of Britain and Northern Ireland was not and would not be detrimental to the security of the latter. Following Blair’s announcement, the political parties had the task of campaigning within their communities to facilitate cooperation between them, in accordance with what had been agreed. However, it was not possible to secure the participation of the nationalists without Sinn Féin, which had been prevented from joining the negotiating process. In July 1997 the IRA declared a renewal of its original ceasefire. The following month the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam accepted the IRA ceasefire as genuine and invited Sinn Féin to the multi-party talks at Stormont.

Over two decades considerable progress was made in achieving a peaceful settlement of the conflict: the Northern Ireland Assembly resumed its functions, and today both nationalist and unionist parties are involved in its work. There are not many political events that have instilled hope of a better life in the people of Northern Ireland, but the first elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, set up as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement, were hugely significant. The elections took place on 25 June 1998. Using the single transferable vote system and with a voter turnout of 69.88%, 108 Assembly members were elected. The seats were allocated as follows: UUP (under the leadership of David Trimble), 28 seats; SDLP (John Hume), 24 seats; DUP (Ian Paisley), 20 seats; Sinn Féin (Gerry Adams), 18 seats; Alliance Party (John Alderdice), six seats; UKUP (Robert McCartney), five seats; and others, seven seats.[13]

Civil society peace initiatives

Representatives of civil society, together with those in the religious community and political parties, played a fundamental role in resolving the Northern Ireland conflict and engaging communities in the peace process. The actions of civil society – helping to ease tensions and prevent violence, to re-establish relationships that previously existed and to initiate new ones – enabled them to maintain influence within the communities. Although the people sometimes supported their initiatives, the political parties and the Church to which they belonged rejected them. Nevertheless, there were certain outstanding individuals whose membership of one religious community or the other was not an issue for the people, who understood the significance of the projects they were initiating.

One civil society initiative that stands out is the Community for Peace People initiative. In Belfast, in 1976 three children were killed when they were hit by a car driven by an IRA fugitive; the car went out of control after the driver had been shot dead by British soldiers. The incident sparked major protests in Northern Ireland and led to confrontations between the police and members of the public. Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, seeking to put an end to these confrontations, organised a petition for peace after the incident, seizing the initiative to find a way out of the conflict. They founded an organisation called the Community for Peace People, which urged people to refrain from violence and aimed to promote peace between the Protestant and Catholic communities. They set up a number of centres where people could join the initiative and also established a rapid response system to incidents of violence in Northern Ireland. In addition, they proposed a ‘friendly towns’ initiative for areas inhabited by mixed communities. As a result of their efforts, Williams and Corrigan were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 and went on to share their experiences with other conflict regions. Both Williams and Corrigan are active members of the organisation Peace Jam,[14] which was set up by Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and continue their peacebuilding activity through this organisation.

Another active organisation, the Corrymeela Community, which works in the area of inter-community relations, urged Christian centres to promote reconciliation between communities and the renunciation of armed conflict during the Troubles. Since the organisation’s work brought together mainly pacifists, its initiatives were sharply criticised by nationalist groups. Its headquarters were in an area of Belfast where Catholic and Protestant communities lived in close proximity. People living in neighbouring estates, especially young people and older people, members of mixed families and former combatants, were able to use the Corrymeela premises. This helped people to believe in the possibility of working together, to become accustomed to such exchanges and to stop being apprehensive about contacts between the communities.[15] One of Corrymeela’s more challenging projects was to organise camps for young people from neighbouring areas at which they learnt about developing inter-community relations. It is also noteworthy that the activities of this organisation have always focused on establishing dialogue with the political parties and on encouraging them to enhance the peacebuilding potential of civil society.

It is well known that in any conflict – as problems intensify and incidents of violence increase – the media tends to use this information to engage in myth creation while reporting such incidents to society. Thus, during the Northern Ireland conflict, the media’s daily news bulletins and coverage of both armed and unarmed clashes intensified aggressive attitudes in different parts of Northern Ireland. However, after the 1980s people began to tire of reports about the conflict, especially relating to violence on the streets. People needed a space where they could listen to each other’s problems and try to find solutions to them. The most popular places for such exchanges were those provided by civil society. However, it was difficult to predict when the conflict would flare up again and militant forces would resort to violence. Members of civil society who had begun peacebuilding activities did not know what to do during these periods of uncertainty. There was a significant need for analysis by academics and experts, who could put forward alternative perspectives aimed at reducing tensions between the communities and resolving armed conflict on the basis of rhetoric and debate. In this respect, the contributions of the Centre for the Study of Conflict at the University of Ulster in Derry,[16] which worked mainly with the academic community, were of particular significance. The centre put together and published valuable materials analysing the history and nature of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Particular mention should be made of the role of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland in its support for peace initiatives. This organisation, founded by local activists, did not set out with the aim of talking about the peace process, for fear that its activities might be associated with particular political institutions. Its main aim is to create an environment for the exchange of opinions between Catholic and Protestant communities. As is true for all conflicts, at the stage of armed confrontations and mutual accusations, any peacebuilding initiatives occur outside the sphere of press attention because the activities of civil society are not covered by the media.[17] The projects funded by this organisation are by and large aimed at establishing political dialogue and encouraging active participation in political processes in Northern Ireland by representatives of the parties, municipal bodies and civil society. It should be noted that this organisation has also been involved in the South Caucasus. In addition, it is implementing a YouthBank programme in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, working with the Eurasia Foundation as its local partner organisation.

An examination of the role of organisations that have been active in the period since the conflict reveals that they are all doing what they can to study and share their experiences of the past, regardless of whether these experiences are positive or negative. One such organisation is Healing Through Remembering. Originally set up by people who had lost relatives as a result of armed attacks and paramilitary violence, the organisation has become popular through its establishment of a collection of artefacts reminding people of the conflict. It has also developed a museum in which to display these objects. People from the Catholic and Protestant communities who contribute items that remind them of the conflict write down the memories they associate with the objects and also take part in the process of cataloguing and exhibiting them in different cities and countries. The organisation also has a storytelling project, which brings together people who have suffered due to the conflict and participated in its resolution. The project has played a major role in helping people to deal with the legacy of the past and in establishing new perspectives.[18]

It should be noted that there have been hundreds of community organisations and movements implementing peacebuilding initiatives in Northern Ireland that have already fulfilled their purpose. Their contributions to seeking ways to resolve the conflict are indisputable. One example is the organisation Witness for Peace,[19] set up by clergyman Joe Parker, who lost his youngest son in a bomb attack in Belfast in 1972. In a short period he collected over 8,000 signatures in a petition for peace. In addition, the organisation arranged for the placing of crosses on the graves of people killed during the conflict and for a plaque to be erected in the centre of Belfast listing the names of all those who had been killed. Even though Parker soon left for Canada and the Church did not approve of his activities, his work engendered sympathy among the people, enhanced by the fact that he treated all graves in the same way, irrespective of whether they were Catholic or Protestant graves.

During the 1980s representatives of the Catholic and Protestant Churches took part together in the funerals of innocent people killed during the armed hostilities, demonstrating that the Church made no distinction regarding the political or religious affiliations of the deceased. Sometimes, the leaders and representatives of political parties tried to take advantage of this mediatory role played by church leaders. Representatives of religious groups found common ground more easily with the armed groups and political parties in their communities, and were able to convey their messages to politicians and government representatives.

Another civil society group that made an important contribution was Initiative ’92, which held ‘citizens’ inquiries’. The group set up a commission, which operated between 1992 and 1993 and comprised authoritative figures from Britain and Ireland. This commission put forward for discussion possible proposals for resolving the conflict and alternative options for coexistence in the future.

Sometimes, civil society representatives sought broad public support in order to influence political processes. They put forward candidates for election and sought to take part in the negotiating process. For example, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition took part in the 1996 elections and secured 1% of the vote. In addition, dozens of civil society representatives took part in the Civic Forum for Northern Ireland, which aimed to enhance political dialogue in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. The Forum sought to strengthen links between civil society and the political parties, and quickly became the basis for effective partnership between them.

Another group worth mentioning is the Falls Community Council (FCC), which has been operating for over 35 years and which has experienced significant suffering and persecution. Largely supported by loyalists and generally working in loyalist communities, the organisation has nevertheless managed to engage representatives of the communities in the peace process, independent of the results of the political conflict-resolution process.[20] Its initiatives include collecting and archiving people’s stories through audio and video footage. The organisation also protects the rights of women and minority groups, making sure that their voices are heard in the community, despite the influence of the Church in more conservative areas. The FCC’s main objective is to develop confidence in economic cooperation and to tackle socio-economic issues, as well as encouraging society to recognise that the barriers that divided people have lost their meaning.[21]

The particular role played by the EU should also be mentioned – especially its support for the development and greater sustainability of civil society initiatives. Projects supported by the EU have helped in the development of positive relations and to enhance the efforts of civil society.

Conclusions and recommendations

The analysis and debate around the Northern Ireland conflict provides an interesting example for conflicts elsewhere that have yet to be resolved. It is worth examining some of the achievements of Northern Ireland in resolving the conflict and highlighting some significant conclusions.

  • A key role in resolving the Northern Ireland conflict was played by representatives from the Catholic and Protestant Churches who lived in close proximity to one another. It enabled relationships to be restored and a deepening of the conflict to be prevented. Given that religious differences are a fundamental element of life in Northern Ireland, they can have a major influence on social groups. This sort of cooperation could improve relations in other conflicts.
  • The tendency among the people of Northern Ireland towards integration helped the people living there to resolve the conflict between them in a relatively short time, while expanding the potential of this integration. A strong tendency towards integration in European institutions meant that the processes of resolving the conflict and democratisation took place in parallel in Northern Ireland.
  • The commitment of political institutions and their ability to use their potential in elections strengthened them and led to a transition in the conflict from armed hostilities and clashes on the streets to talks in which representatives of political parties and civil society were actively involved. Where political parties are not engaged in this process, they will not feel any responsibility and will continue to make accusations against the governments who are trying to find a solution to the conflict. In the Northern Ireland conflict, the political parties and society were transformed into participants of this process.
  • At various stages in the conflict, paramilitary groups declared ceasefires and a rejection of armed struggle, making it possible for talks to be initiated with them. Paramilitary groups that were not part of this process were boycotted by the public.
  • The participation in elections by the majority of leading forces seeking representation in the Northern Ireland Forum gave them greater legitimacy within society and allowed them to develop the skills necessary for engaging in a more stable political struggle.
  • After the British government decided to initiate talks, public trust was enhanced by its decision to launch inquiries into cases of criminal or terrorist acts perpetrated by the sides in the conflict.
  • The coherence and sustainability of the steps taken by the British and Irish governments to achieve peace led to greater mutual trust in Northern Ireland, which, in turn, enabled decisions to be made more quickly.
  • Civil society initiatives to restore relations at both political and third-sector level led to the emergence of many new ideas and approaches, which were bolstered by US interest in the Northern Ireland conflict.
  • The opportunity for members of the diaspora to return home and share their experiences had a major influence on improving relations between people in the larger towns and cities of Northern Ireland, especially Belfast.
  • The establishment of study programmes on conflict analysis and debate by academic institutions quickly became a focus of attention. Universities and research centres also sought ways to end the conflict through their research and analysis.



[1] C. McCartney (ed.) (1999). Op. cit.

[2] ‘Partii Severnoy Irlandii’ [‘The parties of Northern Ireland’], BBC News, 14 March 2001, available in Russian at

[3] C. McCartney (ed.) (1999). Op. cit.

[4] ‘Istoriya Irlandskoy respublikanskoy armii’ [‘The history of the Irish Republican Army’],, available in Russian at

[5] Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985 between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the UK, available at

[6] Joint Declaration of 15 December 1993 (Downing Street Declaration), Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ireland, available at–joint-declaration-1993.pdf

[7] ‘Istoriya Irlandskoy respublikanskoy armii’ [‘The history of the Irish Republican Army’], Op. cit.

[8] A. Branitskiy and P. Chupriko (2008). ‘Osnovnye factory mirnogo protsessa v Severnoy Irlandii na sovremennom etape’ [‘Fundamental factors in the peace process today in Northern Ireland’], Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod (in Russian).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] C. McCartney (ed.) (1999). Op. cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C. McCartney (ed.) (1999). Op. cit.

[14] Learn About PeaceJam:

[15] History of Corrymeela:

[16] Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster:

[17] History of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland:

[18] Healing Through Remembering:

[19] See R. Fairmichael (1987).The Peace People Experience, p. 6, available

[20] Falls Community Council:

[21] See R. Fairmichael (1987). Op. cit.


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