NORTHERN IRELAND: A Balanced Approach to Amnesty, Reconciliation, and Reintegration

By Clark, John | Military Review, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

NORTHERN IRELAND: A Balanced Approach to Amnesty, Reconciliation, and Reintegration


Clark, John, Military Review


SINCE 1969 the United Kingdom (U.K.) has attempted to resolve conflict in Northern Ireland through amnesty, reconciliation, and reintegration (AR2). Conflict resolution in Northern Ireland presents valuable lessons for any student of AR2 because it is a rare example of such processes in the context of a Western liberal democracy. This discussion surveys British AR2 efforts, framing them as a case study to help with understanding how these three concepts functioned in leading to peaceful resolution.

Terms and Processes

The Oxford English Dictionary defines amnesty as "a general pardon, esp. for political offenses."1 In this paper, however, I widen this definition to include a "weapons amnesty" or, as referred to in Northern Ireland, "decommissioning," which represents a critical part of the peace process as a whole. "Reconciliation" often signifies the breaking down of social barriers within communities.2 While that meaning remains important in this case, the term also betokens opposing groups managing their political agendas so that meaningful and progressive dialogue becomes possible.3 Finally, in the context of Northern Ireland, "reintegration" suggests the coming together of opposing sides to form a viable polity and society, allowing those granted amnesty to play a part in AR2.

Given this understanding of terms, AR2 is still happening in Northern Ireland, and it will take some time to determine whether it will be fully successful. Even though the political process appears to have been concluded with the reconvening of the Northern Ireland Assembly on 8 May 2007 and the ending of the British military's security operations the following July (after 38 years), AR2 will continue for years to come.

While the British military's role in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Northern Ireland has received the lion's share of attention and analysis, it was only a part of the wider AR2 process. This article will look at the wider whole, highlighting military force as an important factor rather than narrowly focusing on it. By suggesting ways in which the British military made positive contributions to the AR2 process, and sounding cautionary notes where it arguably had an adverse impact, the hope is that this case study provides insight for future military planning for similar situations.

The roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland were chiefly political and economic.4 Resolution of the so-called "troubles" there has, for the most part, come by way of political agreements encouraged by economic incentives. But AR2 has not taken place in a vacuum of politics and economics; rather, it has transpired in an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and violence, with far-reaching consequences. As David Bloomfield writes: "The protracted nature of the violence has, through a process of institutionalization that has spanned a generation, produced profound effects in structural and societal aspects that are less amenable to quantification; for example, the spread and normalization of paramiltarism, the growth of intimidation as a constraint on social behavior, [and] the growth of the 'security' industry."5 Resolution of the conflict required a security component to cope with the violence and intimidation that engendered fear. Fear in turn impeded political and economic progress. These three dimensions-political, economic, and security-influenced one another in the dynamics of societal progress in AR2 in Northern Ireland.

As Michael Cunningham writes: "Political progress, aspects of social reform, the defeat of terrorism and economic progress are mutually reinforcing and advances (or regressions) in one area can have a knock-on effect in others."6 The U.K. Government was unable to make real progress in Northern Ireland until it achieved a balance between security operations and progressive political dialogue encouraged by economic growth. In examining this balancing act, the following analysis describes the security, political, and economic dimensions of AR2 as they influenced one another and combined to shape the resolution process in Northern Ireland. …

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