Where Hope and History Rhyme - Prospects for Peace in Northern Ireland?

Article excerpt

On 31 August 1994, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a complete cessation of military operations, foreshadowing the hope that an end had come to the use of violence to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland. The IRA, a secret and revolutionary organization which finds its historical roots in the violent birth of the Irish Republic,(1) had been engaged in a systematic campaign of violence and terror since the early 1970s. The campaign of violence had the singular political aim of removing British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland by force, and creating a unitary state on the island of Ireland. On 24 October 1994 the Combined Loyalist Military Command, the Protestant paramilitary counterpart to the IRA, followed suit by declaring its own military ceasefire in the jurisdiction. The political declaration of an end to violence by opposing paramilitary organizations was a novel departure, creating the perception that democratic dialogue could facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict in the jurisdiction. In the autumn of 1994, an new optimism pervaded the island of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The pendulum had swung from violence to constitutional politics: Political parties of all shades and hues seemed poised on the threshold of negotiations to facilitate political and cultural accommodation.

That fragile confidence was shattered on 9 February 1996, when an IRA bomb exploded in the Docklands area of London, injuring 43 people and killing 2 others.(2) The IRA issued a statement declaring that a resumption of the "armed struggle" was taking place, citing its frustration with the lack of movement on political talks as a motivating factor in that decision. Since its inception, the pace of the "peace process" has ebbed and flowed. Movement has been halting and, notwithstanding an end to the physical manifestations of violence, Northern Ireland remains a society deeply scarred by its long history of conflict, and highly cynical of the possibility of breaking the cycle of sectarian strife. As the poet John Montague phrased, we see "a dark permanence of ancient forms," alluding to the difficulty in overcoming this entrenched conflict, where individual and communal responses are cyclical and predictable.

The momentum toward negotiations in which all parties would participate, has been hampered by the insistence of the U.K. government that the paramilitary organizations, primarily the IRA, relinquish its weaponry prior to its political wing, Sinn Fein, entering negotiations.(3) Such a prerequisite has proven to be political anathema to the Republican paramilitaries. The deadlock on this and other political issues, in addition to the limited majority of the ruling Conservative Party in the United Kingdom's House of Commons,(4) leaves little room for political maneuver in the circumstances. The limited space for compromise has been significantly narrowed by the resumption of violence by the IRA. The interim solution has been to set a date of 10 June 1996 for the commencement of all-party negotiations, preceded by democratic elections.(5) However, Sinn Fein remain excluded from the pre-planning for the election by both Irish and British governments until the IRA reinstates the shattered military cease-fires. This article will analyze the current state of the peace process in the jurisdiction and the prospects for its success. Its focus is upon linking the causes of conflict in Northern Ireland to the potential for its resolution. Implicit in this is an understanding of the history of the conflict and the impact of religious divisions on its creation and perpetuation. The role of religious institutions and individuals will be critically examined. Finally, the article seeks to clarify what constitutional and legal protections will need to be put in place to ensure protection for minority, group and religious rights in any potential political entity emerging from a negotiated settlement.

A Brief Historical Overview

The Northern Ireland sub-state came into existence before the independence of the 26-county Irish Free State in 1921. …