Academic journal article Social Justice

Beyond Neoliberalism: Peacemaking in Northern Ireland

Academic journal article Social Justice

Beyond Neoliberalism: Peacemaking in Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

Is the peace process in northern ireland another case of liberal internationalism at work, a neoliberal project in search of economic stability rather than reconciliation and social justice? In this article, I argue that Northern Ireland is an exception to the post-Cold War process at work in Southern Africa or Israel-Palestine. A heavily subsidized province of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is sheltered from global economic pressures for peace. Yet the pull of social and political change and the push of governmental policy initiatives have created endogenous incentives for accommodation. It is too early to predict whether the cease-fire and constitutional agreement now in place will hold. Neither can we know whether reconciliation will replace the fragile truce between the nationalist and Unionist communities. However, there are encouraging signs of new efforts at compromise among Northern Irish leaders from every political tradition.

In section one, I outline the implications of Northern Ireland for the liberal internationalist model of peacemaking. Section two argues that conflict management, or containment, has been a centerpiece of British policy there. Security forces have often overreacted to paramilitary violence, but they have contained the violence well enough to allow room for several positive political developments. In section three, I describe the gradual expansion of the government's social agenda from a focus on antidiscrimination to a more recent commitment to social and political justice. The concluding section assesses Northern Ireland's progress toward reconciliation and draws three cautionary lessons for peacemaking elsewhere.

Liberal Internationalism and Its Critics

One of the ironies of the post-Cold War era is the militarization of peacemaking: soldiers no longer needed for anti-Soviet defense have a new job rebuilding collapsed societies in the aftermath of civil war.(1) The shift of security concerns from interstate war to the more pressing problem of intrastate conflict raises new questions about the nature of peace, the best strategies for peacemaking, and the role of states and international actors in the peacemaking process. While scholars debate these issues, practitioners have to act, and in the current global environment they follow, for the most part, liberal internationalist principles articulated early in this century and now widely accepted by U.S. foreign policy elites. The main instruments of peace for liberal internationalists are international law and institutions, working with the multilateral support of governments. The goal is to maintain a minimalist definition of peace (the absence of armed conflict) and to move as quickly as possible to promote a transition to democratic governance and a market economy. In short, "government's role is to lay the tracks and then get out of the way" (Sanders, 1992: 370).

Northern Ireland illustrates at least three problems with this neoliberal approach. First, it conceptualizes peace as merely the reduction or elimination of armed violence. Ronnie Lipschutz (1998) argues in the lead article of this volume that such a minimalist definition of peace ignores the complex process of "social reconciliation and domestic restructuring" necessary to ensure a durable settlement. On this point, it is worth noting that British policymakers have assumed that permanent peace could never come in Northern Ireland without a political settlement acceptable to a majority of both communities, that is, without some degree of reconciliation. Given the failure of repeated attempts to build reconciliation "on the ground" and political accommodation among elites, security policies followed by the British Army and the provincial police have accepted the premise that paramilitary violence will not be eliminated, only contained to an "acceptable level." Arguably, the success of this policy has freed governmental resources for attention to political and social reform. …

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