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The Irish Peace Process
- Background Briefing by Roger Mac Ginty (1998)

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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 sustain.

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 extremes.

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 " is for the people of Ireland alone.. 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 July 1997.

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 the talks.

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 Assembly.
  • 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.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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