CAIN Web Service
The Irish Peace Process
- Background Briefing by Roger Mac Ginty (1998)
Text: Roger Mac Ginty
The following article has been contributed by Roger Mac Ginty, who at the time was a Research Officer at INCORE
(INitiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity). The views expressed
in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of
the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets
our guidelines for contributions.
This article is copyright (© 1998) of Roger Mac Ginty and is included
on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt,
or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use
without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for
commercial purposes is not permitted.
The Northern Ireland Peace Process: A briefing
The origins of what became known as
'the Northern Ireland peace process' can be dated to the signing
of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement between the British and
Irish governments. The Agreement recognised that Northern Ireland's
constitutional status within the United Kingdom could not change
without the consent of the majority of its citizens and gave the
Irish government a consultative (undefined) role in the affairs
of Northern Ireland. The most important impact of the Agreement,
however, was that it set in train a permanent, institutionalised
co-operation between the two governments dedicated to achieving
a durable settlement in Northern Ireland. It obliged the British
and Irish governments to at least have policies towards Northern
Ireland; something which had not always been the case over the
previous decade and a half. Central to the subsequent peace process
was that both governments worked on the understanding that
if conditions of political and constitutional certainty could
be engineered, and validated by substantial sections of both communities,
then political violence would become increasingly difficult to
Over the next seven years, both governments
attempted to foster political accommodation among Northern Ireland's
constitutional political parties. Unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish
Agreement was deeper and more long lasting than either government
expected, and so attempts to convene talks among the constitutional
parties were fruitless. At the same time, robust security measures
were introduced in an attempt marginalise those on the political
Preliminary talks ('talks about talks')
did begin in the early 1990s. Although they failed to reach agreement,
these talks did have a lasting impact in that the broad parameters
of any future Northern Ireland agreement became apparent in this
phase. There was a recognition that any agreement would have
to be comprehensive and address what became know as 'the totality
of relationships.' A three stranded talks framework emerged.
Each strand addressed a different relationship; with strand
one referring to relationships within Northern Ireland, strand
two referring to relationships between Northern Ireland and the
Republic of Ireland, and strand three referring to relationships
between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Changes within the republican movement,
from the late 1980s onwards, were also central to the development
of a peace process. A broad range of factors contributed to a
growing internal debate within the republican movement on
the sustainability of its 'long war'. These factors included war-weariness,
the impact of massive and increasingly sophisticated British security
strategies, increased attacks by loyalist paramilitaries, the
evolution of society in the Republic of Ireland away from simplistic
notions of nationalism, the end of the Cold War and the demonstration
effect of seeming movement in other protracted conflicts.
From the late 1980s onwards, the main
constitutional nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the British and
Irish governments attempted, separately, to draw Sinn Féin into
the political mainstream. For both governments, this contradicted
their publicly stated policies of marginalising those on the political
extremes. Crucially, a dialogue developed between the conflict's
chief protagonists; the republican movement and the British government.
They were also engaging each other within the same paradigm;
how to end the violent phase of the conflict.
John Major (British Prime Minister
1991-97) and Albert Reynolds (Irish Taoiseach 1992-94) re-energised
governmental attempts to foster a Northern Ireland settlement.
Reynolds in particular was
encouraged by signals that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) would be prepared to call a
ceasefire in return for Sinn Féin's entry into talks. In December
1993 both governments launched the Downing Street Declaration.
In it, the British government recognised that "...it
is for the people of Ireland alone.. ..to exercise their right
for self determination." After much debate, this proved enough
for the IRA to call a ceasefire on 31 August 1994.
The IRA ceasefire was followed by a
ceasefire by loyalist paramilitary organisations on 13 October
1994. The atmosphere within Northern Ireland changed significantly
in the weeks following the ceasefire announcements. But there
was little movement on core political issues. Republicans
were anxious that the British government convene all-party talks.
The British government held off meeting Sinn Féin until they were
satisfied that the IRA ceasefire was permanent. Many unionists
were suspicious of the IRA ceasefire, believing it to be, in the
words of one MP, "more of a comma than a full stop."
Meanwhile the issue of decommissioning
paramilitary weapons gained prominence. Unionists and the
British government argued that by decommissioning their weapons,
the paramilitaries could indicate the permanence of their ceasefires
and their seriousness about joining the constitutional politics.
Those political parties fronting paramilitaries responded that
it would be unrealistic to expect paramilitaries to decommission
before agreement was reached on an overall political settlement.
Once formed, these basic positions on decommissioning proved
extremely difficult to surpass and effectively blocked substantive
political movement for over a year.
In February 1995, the British and Irish
governments moved to regain the initiative in the peace process
through the publication of the Frameworks for the Future document.
The governments hoped this would serve as the basis for talks
between Northern Ireland's political parties. The document also
re-affirmed the three-stranded approach. The greatest significance
of the Frameworks Document was that it anchored any emergent political
process to a pace and an agenda established by the two governments.
Throughout 1995, republicans felt that
the British government was stalling attempts to start all-party
talks. The British government re-stated its insistence on the
decommissioning of weapons and also said that many unionists were
simply not prepared to sit down with Sinn Féin. An international
commission on decommissioning, established by both governments,
reported in January 1996. It recommended that all-party talks
and decommissioning occur simultaneously. This amounted to a rejection
of the British government insistence of prior decommissioning.
John Major effectively binned the decommissioning report and instead
called for Northern Ireland elections as an entry mechanism into
all-party talks. The IRA calculated that the Major government
was unwilling or unable to address its concerns and called off
its ceasefire on 9 February 1996.
The peace process did not end with
the ending of the IRA ceasefire. It
had assumed a momentum of its own. The loyalist ceasefires stayed
reasonably intact. Talks began between ten Northern Ireland
parties and the two governments in June 1996. They quickly became
mired on procedural issues and made little progress. In the absence
of an IRA ceasefire, Sinn Féin were excluded. The issue of parades
by Protestant marching organisations became particularly contentious
in 1996. The importance attached to the issue reflected deep concerns
among nationalists and unionists about possible political changes.
The multi-party talks, under a tired,
minority Conservative British government made little progress
through 1996. The election of a strong Labour government
under Tony Blair in May 1997 reenergised the peace process. Labour,
with startling speed, began to draw Sinn Féin into the political
process. Within three months, Sinn Féin's conditions for entering
talks had been met and a new IRA ceasefire was announced on 20
The way was now set for all-party talks.
Northern Ireland's largest party, the Ulster Unionist Party,
had serious concerns about entering into a process which included
Sinn Féin, but calculated that since the British and Irish
governments would engineer a settlement anyway, they must
attempt to mould it from the inside. The second largest constitutional
unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party', angered at the
lack of prior decommissioning by paramilitaries, withdrew from
Talks between eight political parties
and the British and Irish governments continued until 10 April
1998. A comprehensive agreement, addressing all three strands,
was reached on 10 April. Its contents will be put to the people
of Northern Ireland in a referendum on 22 May 1998.
The Agreement recognises the "opportunity
for a new beginning" and the need for "reconciliation,
tolerance and mutual trust."
It recognises that:
- Northern Ireland's constitutional
status is dependent on the consent of the majority of its citizens.
- Northern Ireland's current position
is as part of the United Kingdom.
- Should a majority of people in Northern
Ireland wish to bring about a united Ireland, they can vote for
it and both governments are obliged to legislate for it.
- The people of Northern Ireland are
free to identify themselves as "Irish, British or both."
- The Irish Constitution is to be
amended so that its territorial claim over Northern Ireland is
redefined to take account of consent.
- A Northern Ireland Assembly is to
be established. It will have substantial administrative and legislative
powers and will operate on a power-sharing basis. (Strand One)
- Substantial power will reside in
a cross-party 'executive authority' committee.
- A North/South Ministerial Council
will be established "to develop consultation, co-operation
and action within the island of Ireland". (Strand two).
- The continued existence of the Assembly
is dependent on the operation of the North/South Ministerial Council.
- The Council has a limited remit.
- Northern Ireland representation
on the Council is to be mandated through the Northern Ireland
- A British-Irish Council is to be
established. (Strand three)
- The British-Irish Council will have
representation from the British and Irish governments and the
devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
- A substantial range of human rights
legislation will be introduced.
- Programmes of social and cultural
inclusion will be enacted.
- A Northern Ireland Victim's Commission
will be established.
- The parties "reaffirm their
commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations."
- A "normalisation" of security,
"consistent with the level of threat," is to take place.
- A Commission on Policing for Northern
Ireland is to be established. And there is to be a review of the
criminal justice system.
- There will be an accelerated programme
of prisoner releases.
- A new British-Irish Agreement is
to be signed to replace the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Dr. Roger Mac Ginty
INCORE, University of Ulster, 20 April 1998.