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An Outline of the Main Political 'Solutions' to the Conflict

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Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

This page (updated June 2000) provides brief explanations of the main political 'solutions' that have been advocated at various times during 'the Troubles'. The various options are only briefly considered in the following page. This section draws on material written by, among others: Whyte (1990), Rose (1976), Boyle and Hadden (1985), McGarry and O'Leary (1995), O'Malley (1983). The reader should consult the CAIN Bibliography for full citations and other books on this topic.
A range of solutions to the political problems of Northern Ireland have been advanced since the constitutional question re-emerged at the beginning of 'the Troubles'. Some of the solutions have been proposed for the full period of the conflict, some of them only found favour for a relatively short period of time. Each of the possible options has been advocated with varying degrees of vigour at different times.

Integration with Britain

Definition: The government of Northern Ireland by the British Parliament at Westminster.

Those in favour of integration with Britain use the central argument that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom (UK). Devolution of power in Britain has recently led to the establishment of a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales. Prior to devolution the argument used by integrationists was that Northern Ireland should not be treated any differently from any other part of the UK. There are a number of slightly different options of integration proposed by various groupings within unionism.

Full (Institution) Integration
This section of opinion includes those who want the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom to be confirmed and for it to be legally as much a part of the Union as, say, Yorkshire. For those proposing this solution the aim is to make Northern Ireland indistinguishable from any other region in the UK. Even within this option some unionists argued for Northern Ireland to be treated as Scotland or Wales prior to devolution while others took the view that Northern Ireland should be treated as if it were part of England.

Electoral Integration
There is a section of opinion that argues that if the main political parties in Britain were to organise and campaign in Northern Ireland many of the divisions between the two communities would disappear. The argument is based on the assumption that constitutional differences would be replaced by differences based on class or other aspects of 'normal' British politics. The Campaign for Equal Citizenship (CEC) is the main pressure group arguing for this type of approach. The Conservative Party in recent years was persuaded to support the setting up of a constituency branch in North Down. However, on the few occasions that Conservative candidates have stood for election their support has been very low.

Direct Rule (De facto Integration)
The system of 'Direct Rule' from Westminster between 1972 and 1999 was a form of de facto integration. The system was introduced as a temporary arrangement until a political settlement could be agreed between the main political parties. Since 1972 there have been many policy initiatives which have brought Northern Ireland more into line with, for example, United Kingdom legislation. Integrationalists argue that Direct Rule should be made permanent.

Devolved Government

Definition: The government of the Northern Ireland by a local administration with its own legislative powers.

For much of the period of 'the Troubles' various British governments have favoured a system of local government with legislative powers which are devolved from Westminster. Devolution was also favoured by a significant section of unionist opinion. One of the arguments used in favour of this form of government was that it would act as a safeguard against any future Westminster government trying to impose a solution which might lead to a United Ireland. There were a number of different versions of devolved government advocated.

Return to Simple Majority Rule
There remains a small number of people who would like to see a return to the system of government, based on majority rule, which managed Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972. Advocates of this position are mainly to be found among members and supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) but also in the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). This proposal was totally rejected by nationalists.

Majority Rule with 'safeguards'
There was a group, called 'reformist devolutionists' by McGarry and O'Leary (1995), who were prepared to modify the principle of majority rule to deal with some of the criticism of the old Stormont government by including "a Bill of Rights, proportional representation, and a role for minority parties in the committee system of any future devolved assembly" (McGarry and O'Leary; 1995 p94). The group supporting this approach were to be found in the UUP and the DUP. There was little support among nationalist parties for this proposal.

There was some support for devolved government which included power-sharing. This approach involves unionists and nationalists sharing executive and legislative power in a new assembly. Support for this approach was to be found among the members and supporters of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) and to a lesser extent among the UUP.

Power-sharing with an Irish Dimension
The basis of this approach is that the Irish Government has a significant role in a devolved power-sharing administration. The main support for such a solution was to be found among the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). In 1974 such a scheme was tried when a power-sharing executive took office at Stormont following the Sunningdale Agreement which involved the establishment of a Council of Ireland and a North/South Commission. The experiment was short-lived and the administration collapsed following the Ulster Workers' Council Strike in May 1974. The peace process resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which had elements that were very similar to Sunningdale. The arrangements for government in Northern Ireland include a power-sharing devolved assembly at Stormont and a number of north-south bodies that take decisions on matters of mutual interest to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Independent Northern Ireland

Definition: The political independence of Northern Ireland from both Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Those who advocate independence for Northern Ireland argue that both British and Irish sovereignty are unacceptable to one or other of the two communities and therefore it makes sense to consider independence. This approach was advocated by the New Ulster Political Research Group (NUPRG). One of the main question marks over this proposal was whether or not Northern Ireland would be an economically viable unit. Opponents also questioned the degree of support for such an outcome.


Definition: The division of Northern Ireland into two areas, one which would contain a majority of unionists and the other which would contain a majority of nationalists.

Those who argue for repartition begin with the assumption that it is impossible to reach compromise between the conflicting aspirations of unionism and nationalism. In this case one practical solution would be to redraw the border to divide the two communities. This solution has been advocated at different times during the past 30 years. Various schemes have been advanced for the division of the current Northern Ireland state. A comprehensive defence of this approach and details of the various options involved can be found in Kennedy (1986). One of the main criticisms of this solution has to do with deciding where the new boundary should be drawn. While it is true that a large proportion of the Catholic population is to be found in the west and south of the region there are a number of notable exceptions including Catholic west Belfast. The existence of pockets of population which find themselves in areas dominated by the other community means that drawing a line between the two communities is very difficult. The most straightforward line, for example along the River Bann, would have the advantage of simplicity in terms of administration but would mean that significant sections of both communities would be on the 'wrong' side of the new border. Any division which tried to be as inclusive as possible would cause many administrative problems.

Joint Authority

Definition: The sharing of the sovereignty of Northern Ireland by Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

A one end of the spectrum this solution might involve the British and Irish Government signing an agreement, which would be enshrined in international law, to govern Northern Ireland on an equal basis. At the other end of the spectrum joint authority may only entail a sharing of responsibility with the British Government as the major partner. Some Unionists would argue that this type of outcome was the de facto situation under the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and under the Good Friday Agreement (1998). Joint Authority was considered by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1972 and was discussed as part of the New Ireland Forum in 1984. It was also the subject of a recent book (O'leary, et al., 1993). While the approach has the advantage of addressing the central problem of a clash of national and political identities, it is viewed by unionists as a 'stepping-stone' on the path to a United Ireland and is thus opposed by them.

United Ireland

Definition: The reunification of the 32 counties of the island of Ireland (the six counties of Northern Ireland and the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland) into a single state.

The majority of nationalists in Northern Ireland hold a long-term aspiration to see the island of Ireland reunified. There are two ways in which this aspiration has been pursued, by consent and by coercion. The final outcome of these two approaches could involve either a unitary state or a federal / confederal state. A United Ireland, in any form, is fiercely opposed by unionists.

United Ireland by Consent

A majority of those nationalists who wish to see a United Ireland are only prepared to support this option if it can be achieved by agreement. The level of expressed support among the Protestant population for a United Ireland has declined since the beginning of the present 'Troubles'. Although the British Government has said that it would bring forward the enabling legislation if a majority voted for this solution, the prospects remain slim. Even if the Catholic and nationalist population increased continually at the present rate, it would take many decades to achieve a simple majority of the electorate in favour of a United Ireland.

United Ireland by coercion

Republican paramilitaries, in particular the Irish Republican Army (IRA), have spent over 25 years trying to achieve a United Ireland by force of arms. The central strategy has been to force an end to British rule in Northern Ireland and then find an accommodation with the unionist population. The central part played by Sinn Féin (SF) in the peace process and in the devolved government under the arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement is a recognition that a United Ireland through coercion is unlikely to be achieved.

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

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