History, structure and action in the settlement of complex conflicts: the Northern Ireland case

Posted on behalf of Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd

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

What was the Good Friday Agreement? A final settlement, to be sold abroad as a success story and model for other peace processes? Or a wrong turn, as the flags protest is finally showing? And if it was a major step forward in the road to peace – as we think – how was it possible? In our article, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07907184.2013.874997#.UxCkEIXn_o4 we argue that the political agreement, brought in 1998 in Belfast and secured further in 2006 at St Andrews with so much political effort, mediation, planning, was dependent for its success on longer-running changes in the  power balance and in the stance of the British (and Irish) states. Good Friday was not Sunningdale for slow learners – its institutional similarities to the Sunningdale settlement were situated in a radically different structural and geo-political context and that is why Sunningdale was brought down in months, and Good Friday remains after 15 years. But the longer-run changes are far from complete, and the lack of clarity and momentum here underlies the recent flags protest and the crises that have followed.

It is an axiom of new institutional analysis that how political  institutions function is a product of the expectations and coordination patterns of the actors within them, And what actors expect, and what resources they can call upon, is in large part determined by the wider political-economy, available political alliances, even geopolitical constraints. This insight  needs to be applied to analysis of  conflict and settlement. In Northern Ireland, unionists and nationalists, loyalist and republican paramilitaries are working within constraints set by states, structural inequalities and geo-political relations far beyond their own control. Their ideologies and historical ‘myths’ and memories grasp aspects of the longer historical process which has produced and embedded these constraints. Of course the myths and ideologies involve misguided and usually false beliefs. But much more important, they are functionally useful short-hands, metaphors, by which actors remind themselves and their supporters of the historical trends and constraints in which they are working. They are false in detail, but give a fair map of the wider terrain and the historical trends over long periods – fair enough to allow for some strategic successes. Conversely, when these historical trends change, when structural and geopolitical constraints are lifted, it gives good reason for the actors in conflict to change their strategies.

We argue that precisely such real-world change in British state positioning and in the structural relations between the communities in Northern Ireland, gave unionists and nationalists and republicans very good reason to change their political strategies and move to settlement. We test this out by comparing the failed Sunningdale initiative of 1973-4 and the relatively successful Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement of 1998. Conventional explanations of the failure of the first and the relative stability of the second refer to slow-learning unionists and republicans, war-weariness in the 1990s, and  to a set of imperfections in institutional design –  the attempt to create a power-sharing government from the moderate middle-ground, rather than including also the extremes. While each grasps part of the reality, none of these factors accounts for the difference between the outcomes of the settlement initiatives. The central difference lies in real world change: a process of equalisation in Northern Ireland driven by British state repositioning from 1985 on. There were indeed learning processes undertaken by unionists and nationalists, but these involved coming to terms with the new situation, and accurately assessing the changed opportunities and constraints. The parties and paramilitaries adapted their ideologies to fit the new facts.

Change in long-embedded patterns is difficult and slow,and requires continued engagement by the British and Irish states. And those states’ own narratives of change changed over time and for different audiences. In the article we analyse their interpretations showing the dissonances between them. Both republicans and unionists must at times have wondered if they accurately assessed the trends. But the central failure lies less in their assessment than in the need for the states to follow through on the path begun. The failures here – in tackling the institutionalisation of division in schooling and housing and in clarifying and institutionalising the important but ambiguous norm of ‘parity of esteem’ have opened the way to a repoliticisation of issues. The flags protest is an attempt to redefine the constraints on change. If the 1998 Agreement part-succeeded where previous initiatives had failed, it was because it confirmed and advanced processes which evened the political playing field, providing for a principled equality and an opening of political and constitutional options within this frame. If we are to move beyond it, it has to involve building a more sensitive equality, not rolling back the reasons for success. .

One thought on “History, structure and action in the settlement of complex conflicts: the Northern Ireland case

  1. Wasn’t the part missing from the peace process always the same – that in order to have a genuine and lasting peace there needs to be honesty. I think most people can make their peace with certain people not going to jail for murdering their loved ones, but what they cannot and should not have to accept, is people getting an amnesty but never having to admit to their past.

    It makes you wonder why did SF/IRA (pretending they are not one and the same is an insult to ones’ intelligence, as is pandering to Adams and McGuinness’ claims about their past) get such a sweet deal, which wasn’t offered to the others.

    It’s also worth reminding ourselves that there was already a peace process and ceasefire in place from when SF/IRA admitted it had lost and surrendered in its 1st ceasefire in 1994. The Good Friday wasn’t the be all and end all and the price not pandering to SF/IRA over arms etc is now being seen.

    Working class communities are still as divided as ever, while the middle classes carry on as before. Little has been done to change this. That needs to be faced up to – integrated education, no ‘peace’ walls, no marches, and get rid of most of the murals and stop pandering to terrorists. If they want us to draw a line over their past, they need to admit to it and then they too need to shut up about it.

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