From bombs to ballots: political institutions and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland

Mikayel Zolyan

How might an exploration of the conflict in Northern Ireland contribute to the search for a resolution to other conflicts? Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This observation can also be applied to ethno-political conflicts – each of which is unique. Moreover, it is important to remember that, by virtue of the differing historical contexts, there are fundamental differences between conflicts in the post-Soviet states and those in Western Europe.

The many differences between the Northern Ireland conflict and conflicts in post-Soviet states mean that any attempt to transfer specific models of political conflict resolution from one context to another would be largely pointless. Efforts to draw structural analogies in relation to the configuration of the conflict and the positions taken by the sides involved (along the lines of ‘the principle of self-determination is more important to one side while the other side places greater importance on the principle of territorial integrity’) do not translate in practice. Thus, we can immediately set aside any ideas of taking and applying specific formulae from the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. Nevertheless, an exploration of the Northern Ireland conflict, regardless of the structural differences (or perhaps owing to them), allows the identification of a number of principles that must lie at the heart of a peace process if it is to have any chance of success.

Democracy in action: political institutions as a means of conflict transformation

In a room at Stormont Parliament Buildings, on the outskirts of Belfast, a meeting is taking place between researchers from the South Caucasus and members of Northern Ireland’s legislative body, known as the Legislative Assembly. From their very first words, it is immediately clear which communities and even which parties they represent. One of them, a man of medium height with a dark complexion, dark hair and an intent gaze, begins to speak about colonialism and occupation: “Around 800 years ago the British conquerors landed in Ireland and that’s when our troubles began.” There is a play on words in this phrase – he uses the word ‘troubles’, which came to be used to denote the conflict in Northern Ireland and so his words can be taken to mean that the conflict has lasted for 800 years. Another Assembly member, a big, fair-haired man with blue eyes and a round face, responds with a slightly ironic smile: “There now, you’ve managed to encapsulate 800 years of history in one sentence.”

Then the first speaker, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Sinn Féin, recounts that he was a combatant and spent 18 years in a British prison. His colleague, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has a no less turbulent past: he was a volunteer in the British army and his wife served in the police force in Ulster and was wounded in a clash with republicans. Yet, now they are sitting together in a room at the Northern Ireland Assembly, drinking tea and eating scones and jam. One of the group, clearly not for the first time, utters a statement about the colonial policy of the British regime, and another, also evidently not for the first time, pokes fun at the Irish Republic, which, in his opinion, fought so long for independence from London only to surrender it to Brussels. They appear to hold directly opposing political positions. Moreover, it is entirely possible that these men, who 20 years ago might have been at war with each other, continue deep down to see each other as enemies. However, it is impossible to imagine that these respectable middle-aged men, dressed in expensive suits, once hid in alleyways with machine guns and lay in wait for the enemy.

What is happening in this room at Stormont serves as a metaphor for what has been occurring in Northern Irish politics over the last decade. The conflict has not gone anywhere: the community remains divided and many people on both sides continue to see each other as enemies; each side has its own narrative of the past, which is incompatible with the viewpoint of the other side. The ideas about how the Northern Ireland problem should therefore be resolved are almost equally incompatible. As one of the meeting participants says, the majority of Catholics continue to believe that at some point the North will be united with the South, while, for the majority of Protestants, this prospect continues to be seen as something akin to the end of the world. However, in contrast to the situation 20 or 30 years ago, the state no longer sees enemies in those who identify themselves with Ireland and they, for their part, no longer see the state machine and those who serve it in that way either.

It should be noted that the system of government in Northern Ireland is fairly cumbersome and can hardly be seen as an ideal model of effective government. However, it has been clearly effective in the most important respect: explosions and exchanges of gunfire are extremely rare in Northern Ireland today. While it would be totally premature to describe the problem of political violence in the region as having been resolved, the level of political violence in Northern Ireland today cannot be compared to the situation before the Good Friday Agreement (or ‘Belfast Agreement’, as it is also known). Of course, there are still occasional violent incidents and these sometimes extend to acts of terrorism, perpetrated by organisations that have not recognised the peace agreement (so-called ‘dissidents’). Periodically, there are also outbreaks of mass disorder, as was the case in the spring of 2013. However, on the whole, the level of violence in Northern Ireland is not that different from any other region in Europe.

The legislative body in Northern Ireland today, the Legislative Assembly, still meets at Stormont, the seat of the legislative body from the 1920s. However, the Stormont of today is very different from the regime that existed for decades from the creation of Northern Ireland until the introduction of direct rule from London in 1972 (legislative bodies are customarily known by the names of their seats, as in ‘Westminster’ for the British parliament). Stormont today, with its complex system of power sharing between Catholics and Protestants, is the result of decades of conflict and the peace process, which lasted almost as long.

Many people in Northern Ireland today are not happy with the way the democratic institutions are working. The system of government is seen as unwieldy and cumbersome, and the ruling parties are criticised for monopolising power in Northern Ireland, marginalising other smaller parties from both communities. Many people are unhappy about the fact that the new political system has allowed former combatants, including people who have served prison sentences for murder and other serious crimes, the opportunity to become respectable politicians. Finally, some people criticise the system of government in Northern Ireland for the fact that it replicates and preserves the division of society along sectarian lines. This dissatisfaction is understandable. However, even if one recognises that these institutions are not sufficiently effective in the administration of government, one cannot fail to recognise that they are quite effective as a means of transforming the conflict. So how was the transition from political violence to democratic party politics possible in the Northern Ireland conflict?

Who’s who: the principal actors in the conflict and their positions

It is well known that the population in Northern Ireland is divided into communities not only along religious lines but also in terms of political positions. The majority identify themselves as Protestants and are mainly in favour of preserving the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. This position is usually known as ‘unionism’ and its supporters as ‘unionists’ (as in union with the UK) or loyalists (as in loyal to the crown). The majority of Protestant unionists traditionally voted for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). During the course of the conflict, there emerged a number of other unionist political organisations that differed from one another chiefly in terms of their degree of radicalism. One of them, the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley, eventually overtook the UUP in terms of popularity and is currently the main political force representing the unionist community.

Apart from the political parties, there are also other more or less formal structures that unite Protestants. Of these, a distinctive position is occupied by the Orange Order. The influence of the Order is founded on its age-old traditions and on the fact that it brought together representatives of very different Protestant organisations, from political parties to paramilitary groups. Finally, a specific role was played in the conflict by the loyalist paramilitary organisations, among the most well known being the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

While most Protestants adhere to unionist political ideology, the majority of those who consider themselves Catholics are ‘nationalists’ – that is, supporters of the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.[1] Among Catholics, there is a split between supporters of legal (‘constitutional’) methods of political struggle and supporters of armed struggle. The main Catholic party, which confined itself to the legal route, was the Nationalist Party, which existed virtually from the outset of Northern Ireland’s existence up until the 1960s, but which had minimal influence on the administration. In the late 1960s its place was taken by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which was active in the civil rights movement.

As the conflict escalated, the paramilitary groups became increasingly influential. Of these, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) soon became the most powerful. In the early 1970s, this group split into two wings: the Official IRA, which ceased military operations, and the Provisional IRA, which continued to fight using terrorist methods. The Provisional IRA gradually became one of the main actors in the conflict, while the influence of the Official IRA faded. Generally, when the IRA is mentioned in descriptions of events from the mid-1970s onwards, this actually refers to the Provisional IRA. Subsequently, as the paramilitary organisations made the transition to using political methods, the party of Sinn Féin, which was linked to the IRA, became more influential. Among Sinn Féin’s leaders, the most well known are Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.[2]

Most of the political parties were strongly linked to a particular community. The only exception was the liberal Alliance Party, which brought together Catholics and Protestants who sought to break out of the framework of communal politics. The British parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – played a comparatively limited role in Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland do not vote for ‘left’ or ‘right’, but for ‘green’ (i.e. supporters of a united Ireland) or ‘orange’ (i.e. the unionists). Generally speaking, the ‘green’ parties position themselves on the left of the political spectrum, while the ‘orange’ parties identify more with the right wing. However, the parties’ positions on socio-economic issues were never seen by voters as being as important as their position on the status of Northern Ireland.

In addition to the local actors, one of the sides in the conflict was the UK government itself. In spite of the obvious correlation between the positions of London and the loyalists, the British government sought to remain neutral. London officially asserted that it would accord Northern Ireland the right to self-determination and was prepared to accept the result of a democratic declaration of will by the population of the region. The sympathies of London also changed, depending on which party was in power at Westminster. The Conservatives were considered to be more inclined to support the unionists, while Labour sought to be neutral and even, to some extent, sympathised with moderate nationalists, although this model did not by any means always apply. The attempts by London to maintain a balance between the two communities was not unequivocally seen as such in Northern Ireland itself. Many nationalists continued to see the British government as the enemy and viewed these attempts as deceit and hypocrisy, while many unionists saw London’s efforts to maintain a balance as cowardice or betrayal.

As far as the Irish government is concerned, it cannot really be described as one of the sides in the conflict. It is true that throughout most of the 20th century Dublin did not hesitate to describe the partition of Ireland as a historic injustice that should be righted sooner or later, and this view was even enshrined in the Constitution of the Irish Republic. However, no concrete steps towards union were ever taken and everyone knew that Ireland was not going to enter into an armed conflict. Ireland’s assistance to the Catholics of the North was largely limited to moral support and humanitarian aid. While paramilitary organisations were active in the Republic of Ireland, this was not officially endorsed by Dublin. On the contrary, Dublin, although it supported the peaceful, ‘constitutional’ nationalists of Northern Ireland, such as the SDLP, unequivocally condemned the terrorist methods of groups like the IRA. Nevertheless, the Irish government was certainly one of the most important actors in the Northern Ireland peace process and without its contribution the resolution of the conflict would have been impossible.

Perhaps one of the main differences between the conflict in Northern Ireland and many other conflicts is the absence in Northern Ireland of the same complex web of geopolitical interests of global and regional powers, which are often seen almost as an integral part of ethno-political conflict. Its geographical location in Western Europe meant that the people of Northern Ireland were spared the prospect of becoming hostages in the geopolitical standoffs between the major powers, both during the Cold War and subsequently. Of the world’s superpowers, only the United States took an active interest in the situation in Northern Ireland, due to two factors: namely, the good relations between the US and the UK; and the presence of an Irish diaspora of many millions of people in the US. In addition, these two factors, which to some extent counterbalanced each other, helped the US to maintain neutrality in the conflict and made it an ideal mediator. The participation of an American mediator, George Mitchell, and the visit to Northern Ireland by the then US President Bill Clinton in 1995 contributed to the fact that the peace process in Northern Ireland eventually led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

How it all began: history and identity in a divided society

A song by the well-known Irish band The Cranberries contains the line “It’s the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen. In your head, in your head they’re still fighting.” These lyrics will not have meant much to the teenagers around the world who were listening to the song in the early 1990s (including the author of this paper).However, for those listening to The Cranberries in Ireland itself, the meaning would have been abundantly clear: on Easter Monday 1916, the Easter Rising began in Dublin.This marked the beginning of the process of Ireland gaining independence.The uprising, unsurprisingly, suffered defeat. Nevertheless, the fact that the British government executed the leaders of the uprising had the opposite effect to that intended – the military defeat was turned into a ‘moral victory’ and the executed leaders of the uprising became heroes; thus, the armed struggle for an independent Ireland received a powerful boost.

Many Protestants view these events from a different perspective. They see an important contrast between the ‘heroic wartime deeds’ of thousands of Protestants on the front in the First World War and the republican betrayal at home. Instead, the year 1690 has particular resonance in the Protestant calendar, marking the Battle of the Boyne, when the Protestant King William III was victorious over his predecessor, the Catholic King James II.Strictly speaking, the battle formed part of the struggle for power in England. Nevertheless, many Protestants see it as an episode from their heroic past, while many Catholics associate it with tragedy. In any case, if you live in Northern Ireland, you are not likely to forget these dates. Northern Irish author Feargal Cochrane tells of the Northern Irish professor who used 1690 as the PIN for his bank card because he was so sure that he would never forget this combination of numbers.[3]

The consolidation of a Protestant dynasty on the throne in London meant that, over a period of several centuries, the Protestants enjoyed a range of benefits, while the Catholics, even though they made up the majority of the population in Ireland, endured discrimination. Nevertheless, the correlation between nationalists and Catholics and unionists and Protestants was not always as straightforward and clear-cut as it became in the second half of the last century. Thus, discriminatory laws did not apply only to Catholics; they also affected those who belonged to Protestant denominations that were not part of the official Anglican Church. Overall, the Catholics were certainly largely opposed to London and the majority of Protestants supported British rule.However, despite the social and religious differences between the two groups, some Protestants played a major part in the national movement in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, both Protestants and Catholics took part in the 1798 rebellion against British rule. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, there were Protestants among the supporters of Irish independence. One of Ireland’s most famous poets, W.B. Yeats, was a Protestant, but this did not stop him from supporting the nationalist movement.[4]

However, within the context of Irish nationalism, a tendency gradually emerged for an ethno-cultural and religious interpretation of national identity.In the newly formed Republic, Catholicism and the Irish language came to be seen as the main pillars of national identity, neither of which could form the basis of uniting the Irish of different denominations, particularly since this interpretation of Irish identity was viewed with some ambivalence even among many Irish Catholics.Writer on Irish nationalism Richard English describes how attempts to revive Irish and the emphasis on Catholic identity further discouraged the Protestants, who in any case did not feel particularly comfortable in the southern part of the island of Ireland.[5]

In turn, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the majority of Protestants did not see themselves as part of an autonomous, let alone an independent, Ireland.As the movement for independence for Ireland became increasingly formalised and aggressive in nature, the Ulster Protestants also began to marshal their forces. They made it very clear to the British government that, if Ireland became an autonomous or independent state, they were not willing to be part of it and were prepared to take up arms to defend this position. As a result of these processes, the leaders of Ulster’s Protestant unionists gained almost full control of the political institutions in the newly formed Northern Ireland.

This control by one community persisted for decades until the end of the 1960s, when, due to the escalating conflict, it became clear that this political system was no longer working. Attempts to replace it with a more open and inclusive system that would reflect the interests of both communities proved unsuccessful, however, and direct rule from London was introduced in Northern Ireland.In fact, it was only following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that a political system that reflected the interests of all the communities living in Northern Ireland began to be established there.

The peace process: a first attempt

The peace process, which successfully led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, was not the first attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. A similar endeavour had been undertaken in the early 1970s: the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 included some of the same principles that underpinned the Good Friday Agreement. However, the Sunningdale Agreement failed and the conflict continued for almost another quarter of a century.

Even before Sunningdale, efforts had been made in Northern Ireland to develop a form of government that would work for both communities. In fact, the escalation of the conflict in the late 1960s actually came in the wake of attempted reforms by the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (and UUP leader), Terence O’Neill. He realised that the system that virtually deprived Catholics of the possibility of influencing the process of government was hopelessly outdated. However, his own Protestant voters were afraid that the planned concessions to the Catholics were nothing short of a first step towards union with the Republic of Ireland. The reforms collapsed, in turn leading to a corresponding reaction in the Catholic camp: moderate nationalists, advocates of the legal political struggle, began to lose support in Catholic neighbourhoods. The resulting vacuum began to be filled by paramilitary organisations, in the first instance the IRA. The Protestants, seeing this radicalisation among the Catholics, also took up arms, especially since the loyalist paramilitary groups had already been in existence for some time. Northern Ireland began to resemble a powder keg. Slowly but surely, a spiral of political violence developed.

The Sunningdale Agreement was an attempt once and for all to resolve the problem O’Neill had been unable to solve: how to ensure that the Catholic community had equal rights in the government of Northern Ireland. The unionists agreed to the establishment of a coalition government with the SDLP. Provision was also made for the involvement of the Republic of Ireland, described as the ‘Irish dimension’. A Council of Ireland was set up, which had a consultative function and within which the governments of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and their legislative bodies were represented. At the heart of the Sunningdale Agreement were the same principles that later formed the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement: the representation of both communities and consensus decision-making. However, in contrast to the Good Friday Agreement – which, although it contained many problematic aspects, nevertheless formed the basis of an effective transformation of the conflict – the Sunningdale Agreement failed.

One of the main shortcomings of the Sunningdale Agreement was the fact that it did not involve all the actors in the conflict: the participants comprised the governments of the UK and Ireland, the UUP, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. The radical and paramilitary organisations on both sides did not take part in the peace process and did not recognise its outcome. Many unionists were dissatisfied with the Agreement, in particular regarding the ‘Irish dimension’. Even though the Council of Ireland basically had a consultative function, many unionists were unhappy about the fact that the government of the South had the right to play a role in the government of the North. The Catholic community, with the exception of the radicals, was largely satisfied with the Agreement, but in the unionist camp discontent was brewing. The leader of the unionists, Brian Faulkner, evidently made more concessions than his voters were prepared to allow for. In the end, the dissatisfied unionist trade unions called a strike, which was supported by paramilitary groups. The British government was not prepared for this turn of events and the strike organisers were able to bring the whole of Northern Ireland to the brink of collapse. The Sunningdale Agreement broke down and direct rule from London was once again introduced in Northern Ireland.

Why did the Sunningdale Agreement fail when the Good Friday Agreement, albeit with difficulties, has stood the test of time? To some extent, the failure of Sunningdale was due to situational and subjective factors. It is possible that, in the early 1970s, the sides were simply too deeply locked into the logic of violence and retaliatory violence to be prepared to accept difficult compromises. Nevertheless, the failure of the Sunningdale Agreement was to a considerable extent due to the structural shortcomings of the peace process – in particular, the fact that only the ‘constitutional’ parties were involved in it rather than all the actors with influence. As a result, the paramilitary organisations were not represented and did not feel connected to the Agreement. The decision not to engage ‘terrorists’ in the talks made it easier to reach an agreement but, in the end, condemned it to failure. Furthermore, the leaders of the sides entered into a compromise without ensuring that there was backing for it among their supporters.

Another reason for the failure of the Sunningdale Agreement was the lack of support for it among voters. No provision was made for a voting procedure on the Agreement and its fate depended on support from the voters of the parties that concluded it. Yet, at the Westminster elections that followed Sunningdale, the Agreement’s supporters suffered a resounding defeat. Consequently, the Agreement lacked democratic legitimacy and was therefore short-lived.

The peace process: a second attempt

According to John Alderdice, former speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland and now a member of the UK’s House of Lords:

“The mistake made by many politicians is that they think people act on the basis of a rational understanding of their interests, especially their socio-economic interests. There are things which people view as sacred and which cannot be the subject of negotiations, especially if it is suggested that they give them up in exchange for material benefits … if you suggest that people give up their demands in exchange for material assistance and you are greeted with anger, offer more money and you will be greeted with more anger. But say that the other side would be prepared to accept an apology for violence perpetrated and they will say, ‘That could form the basis of negotiations’. Whenever there is a terrorist campaign, there will be a group of people who feel hurt and humiliated – and often both sides feel hurt and humiliated. In order for the resolution of the conflict to become possible, it was important for each side to stop seeing each other in the context of clichés and stereotypes and to start to some extent to understand the motivations of the other side.”[6]

Thus, in the case of the unionists, in order for them to accept the peace process, they had to stop seeing the republicans purely as ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’. They had to understand that what they considered (often entirely justifiably) to be terrorism was the consequence of many years of discrimination against Catholics. As David Trimble, leader of the UUP, acknowledged in his Nobel lecture: “Ulster unionists … built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics.” (Trimble and John Hume, leader of the Catholic SDLP, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in the Good Friday Agreement.) Catholics did not just feel humiliated, they also saw no way to change their situation by legal methods – the ‘constitutional’ parties were doomed to ineffectiveness by the circumstances of the Stormont system. Consequently, what they termed ‘armed struggle’ was perceived by them to be the only effective means of achieving political objectives. In addition, a precedent had already been set demonstrating the effectiveness of violence or threats: the creation of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland itself had, to a considerable degree, resulted from violence (or the threat of violence). Moreover, the leaders of the paramilitary groups of the early 20th century in time became respectable politicians and statespeople – republicans in the South and unionists in the North.

For their part, the Catholics also had to abandon their clichés and stereotypes. For years, republicans had believed that the source of all their problems was British imperialism. The armed struggle was meant to lead to the British government abandoning its claims to Northern Ireland, thereby resolving the issue of the union of Ireland. The obvious but rather awkward question of what would then happen to the Protestant community was carefully avoided. The assumption was that sooner or later the unionists would come to terms with the situation. The unionists were not recognised as being real parties to the conflict – if an agreement was to be made with anyone, it would be with London and not with its ‘lackeys’.

Many people associate the change in attitudes to the conflict in the nationalist camp with the actions of the SDLP leader John Hume, who played a particular role in ensuring that both the IRA leadership and the government of Ireland were involved in the peace process. Persuading respectable politicians to sit round the negotiating table with the leaders of a terrorist organisation was not easy. However, there was an even greater challenge to come: engaging the IRA in talks with the British government and unionists from Northern Ireland itself seemed to be completely impossible. Yet, in the end, this did actually happen during the Northern Ireland peace process.

With so many different actors taking part, the peace process had to be structured. Thus, there were three strands of engagement: between the Republic of Ireland and the central UK government; between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and between the communities of Northern Ireland itself. The most difficult of these were the talks held between the different organisations from Northern Ireland. Some loyalists refused to take part in the talks if they were going to be attended by representatives of the IRA. The fact that the IRA actually sat down at the negotiating table was a significant achievement.As mentioned above, one of the reasons for the failure of the first peace process attempt was the non-participation by paramilitary groups.

In the 1970s the IRA, or more accurately the ‘Provisional’ IRA, was not willing to take part in the political process, although communication with the British government did take place. At the beginning of the 1990s there was a major shift in the IRA’s position. It was a long process in which a key role had been played by well-known IRA hunger strikers in prison in the early 1980s. Technically, the hunger strikers, whose aim was to gain special category status for republican prisoners, did not achieve their objective: the British government, led by Margaret Thatcher, insisted that the republicans in British prisons were not political prisoners but ordinary criminals. However, their defeat was turned into political gain when, at the height of the hunger strike, republican prisoner and hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected a member of the British parliament. Sands did not take up his seat and died soon afterwards without having broken his hunger strike, like several other prisoners. As a result of this, in the eyes of many people all over the world, the IRA had transformed itself from a terrorist organisation responsible for the deaths of innocent people into a symbol of resistance to imperialism.

The response generated by the hunger strike showed the IRA leadership that the use of political methods in the struggle might be more effective than violence. Nonetheless, the transition from armed struggle to politics was a difficult process. There was a risk that IRA supporters would not accept this change of strategy and that there would be a new split, as had already happened to the organisation in the past, which would lead to a continuation of the violence. Once the IRA announced its ceasefire, much time passed before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and the truce was repeatedly broken. However, a new split in the IRA did not happen and the majority of its supporters accepted the renunciation of violence. Admittedly, there are still groups today that have broken away from the IRA and that have not abandoned their terrorist methods, but they are marginal in character.

Another significant factor for the success of the peace process was the change in position among some of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. During the years of the conflict, many loyalist paramilitaries had been behind bars. Some of them went to prison as young radicals and came out having learnt from their experience and being fully convinced that the issue had to be solved by peaceful means. The fact that the UK, for whom in their opinion they had been ‘fighting’, treated them like criminals forced many of them to critically reconsider the political tenets of unionism. At the same time, the years they had spent behind bars conferred on them a moral authority among loyalists and gave them immunity from accusations of weakness or betrayal. When, during the negotiations, Ian Paisley called a press conference to accuse the leader of the loyalists of excessive compliance, he was interrupted by several former loyalist prisoners with cries of ‘Where are you taking us, Ian?’ and ‘Where’s your number, Ian?’Such statements were alluding to the fact that, despite his radical rhetoric, Paisley had never taken part in armed clashes or been imprisoned and so, unlike them, he could not boast of his own personal prisoner number. The incident was immediately broadcast by the media and was a PR disaster for the unionists who did not accept the peace process.[7]

The peace process: winners and losers

Eventually, the talks, which had been repeatedly at risk of breaking down, ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. With regard to numerous issues in the Agreement, an approach known as ‘creative ambiguity’ was adopted, helping the sides to secure support for the Agreement within their own communities. Under this approach, some issues were not resolved at all and it was decided to postpone them for the future. Despite these efforts, Ian Paisley’s DUP refused to accept the document and was at the forefront of Protestant opposition to it. In general, Catholics were happy with the document, although Sinn Féin expressed reservations in its support for the Agreement.

Under the terms of the Agreement, a system of power sharing has been introduced for the administration of Northern Ireland. The executive is headed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Ministerial posts are shared between the parties in the Legislative Assembly that receive the most votes, in accordance with a proportional system, so that the government comprises representatives from both communities. Voting on the most important issues must be decided using the principle of consensus between the communities, meaning a majority of each community is required for a decision to be passed. In practice, this means that responsibility for governing Northern Ireland is shared between unionists and republicans. A number of other bodies have also been established, most of them with a consultative function, with the aim of ensuring communication between the two parts of Ireland and between them and London.

As mentioned above, one of the reasons for the failure of the Sunningdale Agreement was that it was not supported by the voters. This time, the lessons of history were heeded and it was decided to hold a referendum in both parts of Ireland: in the North, the subject of the referendum was the Agreement itself; in the South, it was the changes to the Irish Constitution that would remove the territorial claims to Northern Ireland. Civil society in Northern Ireland organised a non-partisan campaign of support for the referendum, which played an important role in its success. In Northern Ireland, 71% of the electorate voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, with a turnout of 81%.[8] Bearing in mind that the political parties were, to put it mildly, not particularly active in their support for the Agreement, these results can be seen as largely the achievement of civil society.

The results of the referendum were nevertheless a cause for concern. Sociological research showed that, although almost 99% of Catholics supported the Agreement, the majority among Protestants was much smaller at 57%.[9] This was bad news for the peace process but even worse news for David Trimble’s UUP. At the elections in 2003, his party suffered defeat: the majority of Protestants voted for Paisley’s DUP, which was against the Agreement. Talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin on forming a coalition cabinet did not produce results.

It seemed as though history was repeating itself. However, the dynamics of the situation in Northern Ireland had changed. In the end, in 2006 an agreement was signed at St Andrews, enabling the formation of a new Sinn Féin–DUP cabinet and also resolving a number of issues that had not been covered by the Good Friday Agreement (for instance, on police reforms in Northern Ireland). Many people were astonished that Paisley, the most uncompromising unionist politician (one of his most famous slogans was “Ulster says ‘No’!”), ultimately agreed to share power with Sinn Féin. In reality, the new executive was headed by two people who in the past had not simply been the bitterest of enemies, but had also been symbols of two conflicting ideologies: unionist Ian Paisley and republican Martin McGuinness (the elderly Paisley was soon replaced in his post by fellow DUP member Peter Robinson).

On the whole, all sides gained from the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. However, purely in terms of political consequences, for some political actors the Agreement was disappointing. Catholic voters did not rate the efforts of Hume’s SDLP in achieving peace as highly as might have been expected. Even at the elections in 2001, Sinn Féin proved more popular, despite its obvious links with the IRA (or perhaps because of them). As mentioned, Trimble’s party suffered defeat at the hands of the more radical DUP. In fact, a process whereby the more moderate party conceded ground to more radical forces took place within both communities. Not even the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Trimble and Hume, could help. Thus, if the choice made by the Catholic community can be seen as an expression of approval of the shift by the IRA towards peaceful political campaigning, the electoral success of the DUP was a reward for the party’s more radical position (which it abandoned after the elections).

This illustrates how participation in a peace process is associated with serious political risk for those who take compromise decisions: voters often punish politicians for moderation and reward them for radicalism. It is therefore of great importance that the political fate of the peace agreement has as little connection as possible to the political fate of particular politicians or parties. It is also why support from civil society for peace initiatives is so important. This is another lesson to be learnt from the Northern Ireland experience.



Conclusions and recommendations

A review of the dynamics of the Northern Ireland conflict points to a number of factors that might contribute to the success of conflict transformation elsewhere.

  • Of considerable significance is the non-intervention by third countries or consensus between them in relation to the resolution of the conflict. In Northern Ireland, global and regional powers with conflicting interests were almost nonexistent. The only superpower involved in the process was the US, which was committed to resolving the conflict and took its mediation role very seriously.
  • An important factor in resolving the conflict was (at least in theory) the shared democratic, cultural and political values, such as human rights, democracy and freedom of conscience. Of course, in practice, almost all the sides in the conflict flouted these values at times. However, on the whole, there was a common ideological landscape, based on the traditions of Western European democracy, which prevented the conflict from going beyond certain limits.
  • The resolution of the conflict was facilitated by the existence of democratic institutions comprising politicians who were answerable to their communities – meaning that they acted in the interests of their communities and not in their own narrow interests. Although, in Northern Ireland’s case, the functioning of the democratic institutions was interrupted due to the introduction of direct rule from London, this situation was viewed as temporary and abnormal by all the actors, who each in their own way sought to ensure that the normal democratic institutions were restored (even though they had different ideas about them) and did not lose touch with their communities.

In addition to these general observations, a review of the Northern Ireland peace process allows a number of recommendations, which could be useful in other peace processes, to be made.

  • An essential element is an acknowledgement of the character of the different groups involved in the conflict. Although the sides in the conflict may be perceived by outside observers as monolithic entities, in fact within each side there can be different groups, with different perceptions and different interests. Acknowledging the existence of such diverse groups with unique approaches is a necessary condition for the success of the peace process.
  • Each side must stop seeing the other side in the context of clichés and stereotypes. An understanding of the motivations of the other side is essential. This does not mean that they must recognise this motivation as justified: this is by definition impossible; otherwise there would be no conflict. However, there should be an understanding of the other side’s way of thinking, allowing a better and more realistic perception of the issues in the negotiating process. It is also important to understand that the other side’s motivation is based not on a rational calculation, but on considerations that may appear ‘irrational’ from a purely pragmatic perspective.
  • Another essential condition for success is the inclusiveness of the peace process to ensure the participation of all the groups and actors involved in the conflict. However, inclusiveness also demands flexibility in the format of the peace process. If involving all the groups might jeopardise the peace process (for example, where group X refuses to take part in talks if group Y is participating), a way around the problem must be found. One possible solution in this instance is to hold parallel talks at different levels.
  • In order to ensure the democratic legitimacy of the agreement, plans must be made for an effective democratic voting procedure. Obviously, an agreement that does not have democratic legitimacy has no chance of surviving. In concrete terms, this means different types of referenda, although alternative options also exist.
  • In developing mechanisms to ensure the democratic legitimacy of an agreement, it is important that it is not associated with the electoral prospects of the political powers who signed the agreement. As illustrated by the example of Northern Ireland, the population may support the agreement but not the political entities that concluded it.
  • Support for peace initiatives by civil society may be decisive, in particular at the democratic approval stage of the agreement, as was the case with the referendum in Northern Ireland.

Finally, it should be remembered that the different perspectives on the essence of the conflict, its history and the ideal solution to it generally still persist, even after a successfully concluded peace process. A peace process cannot eliminate the clashes between the different views of reality that exist on the different sides of the conflict. However, as the experience in Northern Ireland shows, a peace process can facilitate the establishment of democratic formats within which the conflict between different interpretations of the past can remain a conflict of perceptions of the world, instead of leading to violent confrontation.




[1] The term ‘nationalist’ in the Irish context does not have the same undertone of radicalism as it does in the post-Soviet context; a ‘nationalist’ in the Irish sense of the word may well have relatively moderate views.

[2] The names Sinn Féin and the IRA duplicate the names of similar organisations that existed at the beginning of the 20th century with which they have no direct genealogical link, although they see themselves as their ideological successors.

[3] F. Cochrane (2013). Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 7.

[4] R. English (2007). Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland. London: Pan Books. p. 237.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interview, John Alderdice, London, 21 June 2013.

[7] F. Cochrane (2013). Op. cit. pp. 181–2.

[8] Ibid. p. 198.

[9] Ibid. p. 201.


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