Breaking patterns of conflict in Northern Ireland.

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Posted on behalf of John Coakley and Jennifer Todd

Blog from the Special Issue of Irish Political Studies: Breaking patterns of conflict in Northern Ireland: the British and Irish states

The British and Irish governments were central to the move to peace in Northern Ireland. Their negotiations and mutual agreements, their cooperation and coordinated stances and pressures, led finally to the Agreement reached in 1998. Their continued  cooperation and intervention remains central to the stability of the settlement. The motives of state actors, however, have been unclear, and the role of the state in the political process has been the subject of scholarly controversy. Did the British do their best, keep their patience, and try to get the parties to reach agreement? And how ‘perfidious’ were they, and in what ways? Were the Irish helpful or difficult? This article from the Special Issue of Irish Political Studies ‘Breaking Patterns of Conflict in Northern Ireland’ http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07907184.2013.874998#.UxChnIXn_o4 looks at the types of evidence that can help to resolve such questions. It argues that – for all of the problems of elite evidence, elite self-justifications and elite dissimulation, the best way to understand state strategies is to ask the people involved. Of course one must critically compare their answers one with another, with the written record, and with other documentation: but if we want to see the meaning of state actions, the possibilities that politicians and officials were holding open in their own minds, we have to ask them.

The article argues that elite interviews can constitute an important and irreplaceable body of evidence when used critically. It describes a major research project in University College Dublin whose aim was to record the experiences and interpretations of the actors who engaged in British-Irish negotiations over the last four decades. It discusses the resulting elite interviews and witness seminars and the methodological and ethical difficulties encountered. It describes how these were overcome, and outlines the conditions of confidentiality imposed. This serves as an introduction to a special issue of Irish Political Studies, volume 29 no 1, which focuses on the role of the states in bringing about change in Northern Ireland, and many of the articles in which use interviews from the ‘Breaking Patterns’ research project.

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