Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Northern Ireland: A Promising or Partisan Peace?

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Northern Ireland: A Promising or Partisan Peace?

Article excerpt

Despite the continuing difficulties of the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement--which for the first time allowed all the involved constituencies a voice and a role in the future of Northern Ireland--there is still a degree of optimism in the province. The absence of serious intercommunity violence, the sight of local politicians trying to be constructive, the apparent marginalization of perpetual dissidents and the sense of an economic and cultural revival are all strongly felt. There is also evidence of a determination that the horrors of the past will not recur and that the will of the people--as expressed in the referendum and in the subsequent elections--will be obeyed.

The long conflict emerged as much from social and cultural differences between the two communities as from politics. The civil rights campaign in the late 1960s derived its energy and validity from a nationalist(1) sense of injustice and discrimination. The resulting violence had its origins, at least in part, in the local government's inability or unwillingness to deal with that perception: it continued for so long because of the absence of trust on all sides that justice could be guaranteed. Nationalists have therefore argued consistently that peace has to be accompanied by justice. The consequence of this view can be detected not only in much of the debate preceding the agreement--especially in the demand for confidence-building measures--but also in much of the content of the agreement itself. The demand for North-South bodies, for example, reflects the need for a Dublin voice in the governance of the North as a guarantor of just processes. The emphasis on human rights, policing and prisoners are all examples of measures intended to build confidence.

On the unionist side, changes within Northern Ireland--including dramatic developments such as direct rule imposed by London in 1972 and the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement--have resulted in a correspondingly potent sense of alienation, loss and injustice.(2) This is also reflected in unionist anxiety about the peace process, in their demand in the Good Friday Agreement for constitutional reform in the Republic of Ireland and in their determination to continue their parading traditions and to resist demands from nationalists for police reform.

Politics alone will not provide a final resolution. The continuing anxieties and fears on both sides betoken the deep-rooted mutual distrust between the unionist and nationalist communities, their mutual sense of injustice and their concern that only vigilance will ensure justice in the future. Success in resolving these difficulties may well be the final building-block in the process and despite the apparent intractability surrounding them, there is evidence that a large proportion of the population on all sides is willing to compromise and move on.


It is impossible to identify the exact moment when what became known as the peace process began. The violence during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, and the many associated atrocities, deaths and injuries, meant that almost everyone in Northern Ireland had at least one personal experience with violence and its results. These experiences, and the bitterness and anger that they caused, constituted the greatest barrier to any peace process. Because of these personal experiences, and for political reasons, the idea of becoming involved in talks or negotiations with leaders on the other side was anathema. Even those politicians who saw the need to swallow the bitter pill of consultation with opposition paramilitary group representatives were always aware of more extreme political elements in the wings waiting to attack. The result was that the twists and turns of the peace process--and the political motivations and changes accompanying it--produced a complex, tortuous story.

From an early stage, the program of reform developed by the civil rights movement meant that many of the structural and political determinants necessary for a resolution were already apparent. …

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