Northern Ireland--Between War and Peace: The Political Future of Northern Ireland

By Paul Bew; Henry Patterson et al. | Go to book overview

2
THE AMBIGUITIES OF THE
ANGLO–IRISH AGREEMENT

A key element in the rationale of the 'peace process' that culminated in the eighteen month IRA cease-fire (August 1994-February 1996) was that, since the Northern Ireland moderates had consistently failed to bridge the divide and neutralise their respective extremes, there needed to be comprehensive negotiations to embrace the two extreme poles of the problem. Implicit here was a reference to the various earlier attempts, starting with the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, to establish a legitimate set of governmental institutions based on 'power sharing' and an 'Irish Dimension'. Such an agreement between mainstream Unionism and the constitutional Nationalism of the SDLP was designed to politically marginalise Republicanism. The collapse of the power-sharing experiment in 1974 under the pressure of the Ulster Workers' Council strike was subsequently read by key British policy makers as showing the virtual impossiblity of a settlement which would have at its heart a set of devolved institutions of government based on an accord between Unionism and constitutional Nationalism.

Some political scientists have given their own academic twist to the judgement by describing British policy in the period 1972–74 as an attempt to apply the 'consociational model' developed by Arendt Lijphart for governing deeply divided societies. This necessarily failed because the various conditions identified by Lijphart for a successful consociational deal – for example, political elites unconstrained by hard-line followers or threatened by more extreme parties in their own electorate – did not exist in Northern Ireland.1 The various 'solutions' suggested since by these constitutional engineers have varied from support for the Anglo–Irish Agreement (misconceived as an exercise in 'coercive consociationalism'), joint sovereignty and ultimately – until its collapse – support for the Reynolds-Major 'peace process'. Even such a politically astute commentator as Robin Wilson, former editor

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