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Northern Ireland: The background to the Peace Process,
by John Darby (2003)

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Text: John Darby

The following monograph has been contributed by John Darby, who was Founding Director of 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 monograph is copyright (© 2003) of John Darby 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.

Northern Ireland: The background to the Peace Process
by John Darby



What’s the trouble anyway?
The Historical Background
The Troubles
Building Blocks for the Peace Process
First movements: 1990-1994
Ceasefires and after, 1994-1995
The Good Friday Agreement, April 1998
Bedding in the Agreement, 1998-2003


What’s the trouble anyway?

Northern Ireland’s conflict is a tangle of interrelated questions. What should be the essential political context for the people of Northern Ireland? How can social and economic inequalities, especially in the field of employment, be remedied? How can the state accommodate religious and cultural differences relating to education, the Irish language and the broad spread of cultural expression? How can political disputes be conducted without resorting to violence? How can security and order be justly and inclusively administered in a deeply divided society?

It is not easy to weigh the relative importance of these questions. Northern Ireland’s population is approximately 55% Protestant and 45% Catholic, and the two communities place their emphases on different elements of the problem. Protestants are more likely to see the conflict in constitutional and security terms, and are primarily concerned about preserving the union with Britain and resisting the perceived threat of a united Ireland. Catholic views fall generally into two broad categories. Some perceive the issue as a nationalist struggle for self-determination, looking back to what they regard as the historical integrity of the island and the gerrymander of partition. Others approach it as a problem of corruption or unfair practices by successive Unionist governments between the 1920s and the 1970s which, if removed, would create a society in which both Catholics and Protestants could live peacefully together. These two categories are not discrete, and the balance between them has shifted back and forwards since the formation of the state.

Amid these interwoven perceptions, four issues have been particularly intractable: politics, violence, community relations, and inequality. The political dispute about the existence and nature of Northern Ireland itself lies at the core of the conflict and ensured that elections were dominated by the constitutional issue, and that political allegiances remained petrified. The problem of endemic violence is the manifestation of the Northern Ireland problem best known internationally. No generation since the sixteenth century Plantation of Ulster has escaped it, and it went on without interruption for twenty-five years before the 1994 ceasefires. The community relations problem, if less easily quantified, is equally persistent, with high levels of demographic and social segregation and a perception among many Catholics and Protestants that they belonged to distinct groups. Inequality added an additional layer of grievance for Catholics; on many indicators of socio-economic disadvantage – employment, educational and health care provision - Catholics experienced higher levels of need or disadvantage than Protestants. Yet majorities in both groups tend to believe that government gives preferential treatment to the other group.


The Historical Background

Two general points about the historical origins of the conflict are worth making. The first is that the proximity of Britain and Ireland has guaranteed a long history of interaction and linkage. In addition to the military and political history of conquest and resistance, there were exchanges, many of them unequal, of people, cultures, goods, technologies, ideas and language.

The second general point relates to the peculiar nature of the settlement of the northern areas of the island of Ireland by English and Scottish settlers from the sixteenth century onwards. The ‘Plantation of Ulster’ attracted settlers from all classes, many of them smallholders or artisans. This pattern of settlement meant that the Protestant settlers lived in close proximity to the Catholic Irish who were cleared to the geographical margins but not exterminated. Within several generations the broad outlines of the conflict had been established. The territory contained two groups who differed in political allegiance, religious practice and cultural values. One group believed that their land had been stolen, while the other was in a constant state of apprehension. Northern Ireland still suffers from the problems of rival ethnic groups living cheek by jowl and in suspicion of each other.

The island was partitioned in 1921, with the southern twenty-six counties gaining independence from Britain. The other six north-eastern counties remained part of the United Kingdom. The new state of Northern Ireland had an in-built Protestant majority (roughly 65 per cent Protestant and 35 per cent Catholic at the time of partition) and acquired its own parliament and considerable autonomy within the United Kingdom. Sovereignty was retained in Westminster, as was responsibility for defence, foreign policy and other UK concerns. London was content to leave most Northern Ireland matters in the hands of the new Stormont administration. From its inception until the return of Direct Rule in 1972, political tension was constant in Northern Ireland, only varying in intensity. Sectarian strains were never far from the surface. A chronically insecure Protestant majority, an alienated Catholic minority, electoral malpractice, ethnic bias in the distribution of housing and welfare services, and a declining economy meant that the state could never command full political legitimacy. Nevertheless few observers could see the meltdown around the corner.1


The Troubles

During the 1960s a civil rights movement began to campaign for a more equitable access to political power, social provision and cultural recognition. It met with resistance and divisions within unionism. Politics spilled onto the streets. In 1969 the London government deployed the British army in an attempt to restore order. Initially many in the Catholic population saw the army as their protectors from the Northern Ireland state and a repressive majority population. For more militant nationalists, however, the introduction of the army restored the traditional republican symbol of oppression - British troops on Irish soil. The campaign for internal reform of the Northern Ireland state was subordinated to the need to remove the British presence and unify with the rest of Ireland. A rejuvenated militant republicanism, in the form of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA/IRA), emerged from the increasingly politicised and assertive Catholic minority. This in turn prompted violence from Protestant loyalist militants. By early 1970 the Provisional IRA had started its campaign of violence against the army. By 1972 it was clear that the local Northern Ireland government, having introduced internment in 1971 as a last attempt to impose control, was unable to handle the situation. Invoking its powers under the Government of Ireland Act, the London parliament abolished the Northern Ireland government in March 1972. Northern Ireland was to be governed from London, with a British Secretary of State responsible for Northern Ireland affairs.

The pattern of violence changed throughout what were colloquially called the Troubles. The inter-communal rioting that characterised the late 1960s was gradually, although not completely, replaced by a triangular low intensity conflict. The protagonists were the British state (represented by its army, locally recruited regiments and a militarised police force), republican paramilitaries (mainly the PIRA, but including smaller violent groups like the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)) and loyalist paramilitaries (the Ulster Defence Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UDA/UFF) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)). State responses to the violence sometimes contravened basic human rights. By the mid-1990s, more than 3500 people had been killed, a significant number given Northern Ireland’s small area and 1.6 million population.2

Other, more indirect, impacts of the violence were less easily quantified. They included the deepening of community divisions, the perpetuation of old grievances and the creation of new ones. The economy, struggling to keep pace with the restructuring of the British economy in the 1970s and 1980s, was further battered by a backdrop of political violence. Above all the Troubles were a human crisis with thousands of individual, family and community tragedies.

Between 1974 and the ceasefires of 1994 there were seven attempts to reach a political and constitutional settlement.3 All of the initiatives were London-led and included an element of power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants. All foundered in the face of local opposition. In 1985, unable to secure a political settlement between majorities in both communities and unable to do more than simply contain paramilitary violence, the British government went over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland and reached an agreement with the Republic of Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Agreement gave the Irish government a consultative role in Northern Ireland’s affairs. Although this fell short of joint authority, the Agreement institutionalised and made permanent the co-operation between the two governments on the management of the conflict. It was a recognition by the British government that it held limited legitimacy among the nationalist community and could not secure a lasting political settlement on its own. The Irish government was now in the position to act as a formal guarantor for Northern Ireland’s nationalist community. In return, the Irish government recognised the existence of the State of Northern Ireland for the first time. For the first time it accepted the ‘principle of consent’, that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom while a majority there wished it. The Agreement also paved the way for increased security co-operation between the two governments and was an important precursor of the post-1994 peace process.


Building Blocks for the Peace Process

A number of pieces fell into place during the late 1980s and early 1990s to make a peace process possible. Through the Anglo-Irish Agreement the British government recognised the validity of both the nationalist and unionist traditions. New legislation was introduced to deal with religious imbalances in education and employment.4 This period also saw further development of civil society in Northern Ireland, a development that was vital for creating the conditions for wider political change over the subsequent decade. South of the Irish border, the retreat from the demand for Irish unity was accepted with equanimity by the people of the Republic of Ireland, reflecting a growing post-nationalist ethos.

The militant republican movement underwent a number of significant changes from the mid-1980s onwards. An internal debate on the sustainability of the conflict led to a questioning of the ‘long war’ or attrition strategy designed to wear down British government resolve to stay in Northern Ireland.5 The ‘long war’ had exacted a heavy toll from the republican community in terms of lives, prison sentences and quality-of-life opportunities. In addition, violence led to exclusion, demonisation and lack of legitimacy. The move towards a more political approach was confirmed by the emergence of new leaders, predominantly from the north, and the election of Gerry Adams as President of Sinn Féin in 1983. The development of a dialogue between the SDLP leader John Hume and Adams eventually led to closer co-operation between a coalition of pro-nationalist partners to pursue a united Ireland agenda. The coalition would include republicans, constitutional nationalists, the Irish government, the Irish Diaspora and the United States government. In unionist eyes, this was a ‘pan-nationalist front’. A key actor in these developments was the SDLP party leader, John Hume, who had long favoured a peacemaking model in which all of the participants in the conflict would cease violence, enter into negotiations and agree to share power. The Hume-Adams talks were unpopular, not least among SDLP supporters, but helped to assist the republican move towards a political approach.

The move towards a political approach was mirrored within loyalist paramilitary organisations. The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), representing respectively the UVF and UDA, often appeared more pragmatic and willing to compromise than the constitutional unionist parties.

Changes in the United States also contributed towards the start of the peace process. The emergence of a small group of Irish-Americans, with key political and corporate links, was instrumental in persuading the Clinton White House to become interested in Northern Ireland.6 They reflected background changes within the Irish-American diaspora. Traditionally sympathetic towards militant republicanism, many moderated their attitude and encouraged Irish republicans to consider the advantages offered by a ceasefire and a peace process. For Clinton, Northern Ireland would be a low-cost, low-risk foreign policy endeavour. He was pushing a door already half open.


First movements: 1990-1994

The first moves towards peace progressed along two parallel routes. Route one sought to maintain momentum between the constitutional parties, and route two saw the first tentative moves to involve republicans in talks. In 1990, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Sir Peter Brooke authorised secret contact with the IRA in order to find the conditions under which republicans would consider calling a ceasefire and was complemented by more public overtures. In late 1992, the Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, unaware of the back channel between the IRA and British government, authorised secret contacts between his officials and senior members of Sinn Féin. These secret talks eventually drew both governments towards the same conclusion. On 15 December 1993 the British and Irish governments published the Downing Street Declaration. In a key line, the Declaration noted that ‘the British Government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.’ In what the British government regarded as a major coup, the Irish government reiterated its support for the principle of consent and promised, in the context of an overall settlement, to amend the Irish Constitution to enshrine the consent principle in law. In January 1994 President Clinton’s decision to grant Gerry Adams a US entry visa despite a continuing IRA campaign was a further reminder of the rewards on offer should Sinn Féin pursue the path of constitutional politics. Northern Ireland’s unionists, meanwhile, remained acutely suspicious that a secret deal was under way between the British government and republicans.


Ceasefires and after, 1994-1995

On 31 August 1994 the IRA declared ‘a complete cessation of military operations’, the main loyalist paramilitary organisations following their example in October. The British government shared the unionist suspicions of the IRA ceasefire and ruled out face-to-face talks with Sinn Féin until the permanency of the ceasefire could be established. Nevertheless the British and Irish governments moved to establish the conceptual framework for any political negotiations through the publication of the Frameworks for the Future document. The document stressed that the two governments wanted to see a ‘comprehensive settlement’ that would return greater ‘power, authority and responsibility to all the Northern Ireland people’.7 It also reaffirmed the three stranded approach and outlined, in detail, the issues that could be discussed in each strand.

The Frameworks document marked the limit of early progress. The slim majority held by the British Prime Minister, John Major, removed momentum from the peace process. In March 1995 the Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, elevated British demands for arms decommissioning into a formal precondition for Sinn Féin’s entry into talks. Sinn Féin regarded decommissioning as a diversion designed to mask an underlying British reluctance to enter into negotiations with them. In late November the governments announced a new approach to the impasse. Under a ‘twin-track’ scheme, an independent decommissioning body, chaired by former US Senate Majority leader George Mitchell, was set up to consider options for paramilitary disarmament while, in parallel, multi-party talks would commence. The International Body on Arms Decommissioning published its report on 24 January 1996. The Mitchell Report’s key recommendation that arms decommissioning and all-party talks should begin in parallel was turned down. In February the IRA called off its ceasefire by detonating a massive bomb in London’s Canary Wharf. It accused John Major and unionists of ‘squandering this unprecedented opportunity to resolve the conflict’.8

The collapse of the ceasefire did not mean an end to the peace process, although Sinn Féin was barred from the talks on 10 June. Nevertheless talks started between nine other political parties and the two governments. The negotiations rapidly became bogged down on procedural issues, particularly over the appointment of George Mitchell as chair. They were suspended in early July 1996 when tension and violence associated with a contentious Orange Order parade at Drumcree near Portadown spread across Northern Ireland. In July 1996 an independent review body was established to recommend how the parading issue could be handled in the future.


The Good Friday Agreement, April 1998

In May 1997 the Labour Party leader Tony Blair took power with a massive parliamentary majority. He quickly set about drawing Sinn Féin into the political process. By mid-June, the demand for decommissioning prior to Sinn Féin’s entry into talks was dropped. The IRA declared another ceasefire on 20 July 1997, and Sinn Féin entered the talks on 9 September. Throughout the negotiations Unionists refused to engage directly with Sinn Féin, converting them into Dayton-like proximity talks. Reports of splits and dissension within both the IRA and Sinn Féin underlined growing nervousness among republicans. There was also dissatisfaction within David Trimble’s UUP. Four of the its ten MPs made a public call for the party to leave the talks.

In April the chairman of the talks, George Mitchell, set a target date of 9 April for an agreement in order to facilitate a referendum in May. In late March the negotiations intensified, although many issues were still outstanding. The UUP and SDLP held differing views of how power would be shared between both communities in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin was deeply uneasy at the prospect of any new Northern Ireland assembly and contributed little to negotiations on this matter. The UUP was concerned the remit of cross-border bodies and their relationship with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Irish Parliament, and anxious to tie the Irish government down on the proposed changes to its constitutional claim on Northern Ireland’s territory.

A copy of the Good Friday Agreement was delivered to every home in Northern Ireland in April 1998. It had five main constitutional provisions. First, Northern Ireland’s future constitutional status was to be in the hands of its citizens. Second, if the people of Ireland, north and south, wanted a united Ireland, they could have one by voting for it. Third, Northern Ireland’s current constitutional position would remain within the United Kingdom. Fourth, Northern Ireland’s citizens would have the right to ‘identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both.’ Fifth, the Irish state would drop its territorial claim on Northern Ireland and instead define the Irish nation in terms of people rather than land. The consent principle would be built into the Irish constitution.

Three new interlocking institutions were set up. Relations within Northern Ireland were to be addressed by a power-sharing assembly that would operate on an inclusive basis. All of the main parties would be members of a permanent coalition government. Key decisions would be taken on a cross-community basis. Relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were to be dealt with through the creation of a North-South Ministerial Council which would allow co-operation between the Northern Ireland Assembly and Irish Parliament on certain functional issues. As a safeguard, the Northern Ireland Assembly could only operate if the North-South Ministerial Council was also functioning. Under Strand Three, a British-Irish Council was to be established. This would draw members from the British and Irish governments, as well as the devolved parliament in Scotland and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland.


Bedding in the Agreement, 1998-2003

A referendum was held on 22 May to ratify the Agreement. Seventy-one per cent of Northern Ireland’s voters supported the Agreement. This represented virtually all nationalist voters, but unionism was evenly split between supporters and opponents of the Agreement. The Agreement received 94 per cent backing in the Republic of Ireland.

Following intensive talks between the local parties, and much arm twisting by the British and Irish governments, agreement was reached on two critical issues - the number of government departments in the new Northern Ireland administration and the remit of the cross-border bodies. Despite these successes, a number of serious obstacles remained in the post-accord years. One was policing reform, a real and symbolic conflict between unionists and nationalists, and a committee under the chairmanship of Chris Patten was set up to suggest a way ahead. The Patten report’s 175 recommendations included proposals to reduce the force’s size from 11,400 to 7,500 while increasing Catholic representation from 8 to 30 per cent within ten years.9 The other main problems were summarised in the phrase ‘no guns, no government’. Unionists were still unhappy at the prospects of Sinn Féin assuming ministerial office in the absence of IRA decommissioning. IRA statements, while re-affirming their ceasefire and support for the peace process, refused even to accept in principle that decommissioning could take place at some time in the future.

In 1999 the British and Irish governments invited George Mitchell to help break the impasse, and the resulting Mitchell Review squeezed through the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) by 480 to 349 votes. At last the Northern Ireland Executive was elected and took office in November. The UUP and SDLP nominated three ministers each, and the DUP and Sinn Féin two each. Unionist discontent continued to grow, and, with the sand in David Trimble’s resignation hourglass fast running out, Peter Mandelson stepped in on 11 February and suspended the devolved institutions. It was restored, after another close vote in the UUC, following an IRA statement contained the breakthrough phrase that it would ‘completely and verifiably’ put arms beyond use.10 Arms dumps would be inspected by third parties, later confirmed as former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and ex-ANC General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa. Meanwhile elements of normal governance crept into Northern Ireland’s body politic. In early July the Executive announced its ‘Agenda for Government’ in which the outlines of a legislative and policy programme were set out. By December 2000 the Assembly approved a £6bn budget.

However, with the political issues of decommissioning, demilitarization and policing unresolved, the façade of business as usual still looked decidedly thin. The Unionist party was deeply divided over the agreement, many thinking that too much had been conceded to republicans. The UUP remained vulnerable to attack from the Democratic Unionist party, which was unqualified in its opposition, and lost support in succeeding elections. In 2002 the Executive and Assembly were suspended again, and direct rule was resumed. On the nationalist side too Sinn Féin continued to make inroads into the SDLP vote. To this back-cloth of electoral pressure on the centre parties, by 2003 the peace process stood in suspension until the stalemate was resolved between Unionist demands for an unqualified disbanding of the IRA and nationalist demands for full implementation of policing reform, demilitarization and a return of local institutions. The peace process had delivered changes almost unimaginable in 1994, but in 2003 the strength of the underlying sectarian suspicions and fears seemed as stark as ever.



1. For an overview of the modern phase of the conflict see John Darby, Scorpions in a Bottle, (London: Minority Rights Group, 1997).

2. A detailed analysis of the death and injury toll can be found in Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey & Marie Smyth, Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The human costs (London: Pluto Press, 1999).

3. Details can be found in Brendan O’Leary, ‘The Conservative Stewardship of Northern Ireland, 1979-97: Sound-bottomed contradictions or slow learning?’ Political Studies, xlv (1997), pp. 663-676.

4. Anthony M. Gallagher, ‘The Approach of Government: Community relations and equity’, in S. Dunn (ed.), op. cit., pp. 27-42.

5. For more detailed reviews of the changes within republicanism see Eamonn Mallie & David McKittrick, The Fight for Peace: The secret story behind the Irish peace process (London, Heinemann: 1996) and Peter Taylor, Provos: The IRA and Sinn Féin (London: Bloomsbury, 1997)

6. See R. Mac Ginty, ‘American Influences on the Northern Ireland Peace Process’, The Journal of Conflict Studies, 17, 2, (Fall 1997), pp. 31-50.

7. Frameworks for the Future, (Belfast: HMSO, 1995), p. v.

8. IRA statement contained in ‘Truce lies in tatters’, Belfast Telegraph (10 February 1996).

9. The full Patten Report, and other key documents in the peace process, are available at:

10. IRA statement, Irish Times (8 May 2000).


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