Northern Ireland: A Deeply Divided Society Conflict Assessment and Recommendations for Conflict Regulation and Transformation

 

By​
Lauren Stackpoole

8 March 2010

Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society that, up until recently, was engaged in a violent ethno-political conflict. With its roots stretching back to the 17th century (some sources go as far back as the 12th century) the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland seemed unlikely to reach a peaceful settlement. The signing of the Belfast Agreement in April 1998 formally ended the conflict and established a devolved, power-sharing government in the region. Even with the signing of a formal peace agreement, the conflict is not resolved; deep-rooted ethno-political tensions remain to this day. This paper assesses the conflict in Northern Ireland, examines the current power-sharing system and makes recommendations for the continuance of a stable peace with an ultimate goal of reconciliation.

Conflict History

Conflict in Northern Ireland goes as far back as the 12th century when England invaded Ireland and staked claim over the entire island. From the 1600s on, England introduced "the Plantation"- a plan that offered the most fertile land as an incentive for English and Scottish Protestant settlers to move to Ireland. This was an "early but obvious form of colonialism." [1] "Plantation" pushed Irish Catholics off their traditional land and into the less desirable areas of the country. Plantation thus created resentment toward newly arrived settlers as well as toward British rule. Irish Catholics regularly attempted to overthrow their imperial rulers, but to no avail. Shortly after England conquered the island and the Plantation began, English political and military leader, Oliver Cromwell, implemented a policy of "ethnic cleansing." In the process he "slaughtered Irish Catholics by the thousand." [2] Policies such as those introduced by Cromwell and enforced by British rulers instilled anger in the Irish people and set in motion the Irish Republican movement.

According to David Bloomfield, an expert on the conflict in Northern Ireland:

The Plantation flourished best in north-east [sic] Ireland. For the next 250 years, the history of Ireland developed along two main themes. On the one hand, there were regular but unsuccessful attempts at rebellion by the dispossessed Catholic Irish, during which a cumulative sense of Irish nationalism developed. On the other, the British-sponsored industrialization and economic development of the north-east raced ahead. [3]

Rapid and successful development of the Northeast, particularly Belfast created economic disparities between the Northern and Southern regions. Economic development of the region was fueled and sponsored by the British government-Belfast's location made it an ideal port within close proximity to Liverpool, a British industrial hub. Those living in the North benefited economically from British rule and therefore felt no reason to separate from Great Britain. The majority of people living in the Northeast were the descendants of Plantation settlers; they shared a common heritage and religion with mainland Britain; these citizens became known as Unionists. Conversely, the rest of Ireland, primarily Irish Catholics, suffered economic hardships, famine, and discrimination. The disparities between these two groups, both economic and social, continued to grow, which in turn prompted a sense of nationalism and the growth of Irish Republicanism. Irish nationalist mobilized and led small revolts into the 20th century, when in 1916, Irish nationalism reached a critical juncture.

The 1916 Easter Rising was a seven-day rebellion (April 24-30) in Ireland organized and led by the Irish Republican movement. The British responded harshly to the uprising and violently suppressed the protesters. The Republican movement was on the rise for years before this event, but the rebellion in Dublin brought Irish Republicanism to the forefront and further publicized their demands. In 1921 Britain granted, "limited independence" to twenty-six of the thirty-two counties and partitioned the island, creating the Irish Free State. This divided the island and imposed a separate British Protestant identity of on the North. [4] The Irish counties did not receive the same economic and social benefits provided by the Crown to the Northern counties. Neither side moved to resolve the prior conflict and divisions, instead they ignored the divisions and allowed the conflict to worsen. According to Mari Fitzduff, "little was done by the parties in the North or the South to ensure the necessary contract and reconciliation work that might have diminished old suspicions and angers in the two parts of the island." [5] Partition further defined the separation and exacerbated underlying tensions. The Irish Republic declared full independence from Britain in 1937. In doing so, Irish nationalists achieved a rather large victory, but their desire for an independent and sovereign Irish Republic would remain unfulfilled until Northern Ireland was united with the south.

Throughout this period discrimination continued against the minority of Catholics living in Northern Ireland. According to David Bloomfield,

The Northern Ireland State practiced [sic] decades of discrimination against Catholics in employment, voting, education, housing, and so on. A highly segregated society developed, ruled by a permanently Unionist government who controlled a highly armed and 90 per cent Protestant police force. For 40 years, the society remained stagnant, with two almost totally separate communities living parallel lives in a patchwork of small segregated areas, each with their own housing, schools, shops, churches, factories, clubs, sports, etc.

As Bloomfield indicates, life in Northern Ireland was segregated along Catholic/Protestant lines. Education, community centers, housing, pubs, sports facilities and so on were all segregated along these lines. [6] Protestant Unionists had almost complete control over the police force, due to this "the police have usually been seen as not only consolidating the divisions, but as largely representing and supporting the Unionist, Protestant hegemony." [7] Protestant control over the vast majority of government institutions and the police force made Catholics suspicious and untrusting of power structures with in Northern Ireland. [8] Catholic mistrust of formal authority structures and institutions continues to play an important role to this day. With such unequal treatment of the Catholic minority, in combination with deep-seeded resentment over colonial rule and ethnic divisions, violent conflict was practically inevitable at this point.

The period known as "The Troubles" began in the late 1960s when the Unionist government of Northern Ireland responded brutally to peaceful civil rights protests led by Catholic university students. The situation transformed from peaceful protests to bloody violence as the Unionist government and police responded violently to the protests. The British Army was called in for additional support and as the crisis persisted, the British government took complete control of the government. These developments fueled anger on the side of Nationalists: "both communities grew more polarized than ever, the sense of stagnation prevailed, and more than 3,000 people died violently as each community mythologized its contemporary martyrs and heroes." [9]

"The Troubles" was a period of violent conflict between Unionists and Nationalists. Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972 was an incident in which twenty-seven civil rights protesters where shot dead by British military in Derry, Northern Ireland. This tragic incident only increased the determination of the Republicans to continue to fight against the British for the liberation of Northern Ireland and unification of the island under a single, sovereign government. Many viewed Bloody Sunday as a clear indication of British imperial control and were infuriated that Great Britain took such a prominent and overwhelming role in Northern Ireland.

1981 witnessed a series of hunger strikes in which ten Nationalist prisoners in Northern Ireland died. The prisoners were protesting their rights to be viewed as political prisoners instead of criminals, which is how they were being treated at the time. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to acquiesce to their request. One of the prisoners, who died, Bobby Sands, was elected to parliament (representing Sinn Fein) during the strike. This event radicalized Nationalist politics and pushed Sinn Fein and Irish Nationalism further into the spotlight. [10]

Various approaches to peace were attempted throughout "the Troubles," but as the British government refused to meet Nationalist demands, agreements were never reached. The majority of violence ended when the opposing parties signed a negotiated settlement (after years of talks, meetings and negotiations), known as the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement, April 10, 1998. The agreement had a three-strand approach. The first strand "would be the removal from the Irish Constitution of the territorial claim to the North, in parallel with a British repeal of outstanding legislation claiming jurisdiction over Ireland as a whole." [11] Strand two called for the establishment of "a North-South Ministerial Council…consisting of ministers from both the Irish Parliament and the Northern Irish Assembly…to work together in at least 12 specified areas of common interest." [12] The Third Strand described "a new Irish-British Treaty [that] would replace and take over the workings of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and would permit intergovernmental co- operation on Northern matters." [13] Although a peace agreement was signed, Northern Ireland is only at the beginning of the path to sustainable peace.

Conflict Parties

Primary parties, as defined by Paul Wehr, are "parties whose goals are, or are perceived by them to be, incompatible and who interact directly in pursuit of those respective goals. Where the conflict parties are organizations or groups, each may be composed of smaller units differing in their involvement and investment in the conflict." [14] The primary parties of the conflict in Northern Ireland are the Unionists (primarily Protestant) and the Nationalists (primarily Catholic).

Unionists, as their name implies, supported continued union with Great Britain. They believe that maintaining strong ties with Britain is in their best interest, both economically and socially. They are primarily Protestant and are the descendants of settlers who moved to Ireland during the Plantation. They share strong cultural ties with England and Scotland and identify as British. The Unionists, through the Unionist political party, also controlled Northern Ireland's government institutions as well as made up the better part of the national police force. [15]

Nationalists, also knows as Republicans, supported Irish nationalism and political independence from British rule. Since partition they want to unite the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland and unify the island under a banner of democracy and equal rights. They are primarily Catholic, although there are many Protestant nationalists as well. They support a unique Irish identity separate from the British identity imposed upon them through Home Rule. Since the peace agreement in 1998 they continue to support the idea of a united Ireland, but through peaceful means. [16]

Sinn Fein is the main political party of the Republic opposition. The party was founded in 1905 on the platform of "seek[ing] the establishment of a new Ireland based on sustainable social and economic development; genuine democracy, participation, equality and justice at all levels of the economy and society; and a lasting and meaningful peace with unity of purpose and action." [17] Sinn Fein is currently the second largest party, holding twenty-eight of one hundred and eight seats, in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Democratic Unionist party holds thirty-five and the Ulster Unionists hold eighteen followed by five smaller parties. [18]

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is the militarized faction of the Nationalist movement. Founded in 1969, the IRA is "devoted both to removing British forces from Northern Ireland and to unifying Ireland." [19] According to Mari Fitzduff, members of the IRA "were the descendents of the most forceful military group that had fought for independence in 1921." [20] The IRA has often been classified as a terrorist organization and its traditional activities have included "bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, punishment beatings, extortion, smuggling, and robberies." [21] There rumors of connections between Sinn Fein and the IRA, but Sinn Fein refutes these and does not public acknowledge or endorse any connection with the Irish Republican Army.

The secondary parties to the conflict are the governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Secondary parties are defined as "parties that have an indirect stake in the outcome." [22] These parties are interested in the outcome of the conflict, but do not "feel themselves to be directly involved." [23] Furthermore, their roles in the conflict are not static-these parties may become primary parties.

For example, Great Britain has, at times, acted as a primary party to the conflict, but it is included here as a second party because its current stance is that of a secondary party. Britain is an ally of Northern Ireland and supports the Unionists stance. In the 1960s when Britain used military force to quell peaceful civil rights protests it was acting as a primary party to the conflict. The temporary British takeover of the government of Northern Ireland at the same time is also an example of Britain acting as a primary party. Currently, the government of Northern Ireland is devolved, and therefore, benefits from limited self-government from the Britain (similar to the arrangement in Scotland). Northern Ireland has its own assembly and has relative autonomy in developing and enforcing laws, yet ultimately answers to British authority. As one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, Britain has a continued interest in the outcome of the conflict.

The Republic of Ireland has a stake in the outcome for several reasons. First, the prospect of a unified Ireland, however likely it may or may not be, would dramatically change the political and cultural makeup of the country. Even if the island remains partitioned, the shared environment is of interest to Ireland, economically, politically, socially, and environmentally. Second, since many members of the IRA and the Irish Republican movement are citizens of Ireland, living in the border counties, the government has a responsibility to enforce laws and punish illegal activities or face scrutiny from the international community.

Third parties are "actors, such as peacekeeping forces or mediators, who have an interest in the resolution of the conflict." [24] The main third party interested in the conflict is the United States of America. The U.S. did not publically display an interest in the conflict until the election of President Clinton. George Mitchell was appointed as the United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland in 1995. In the 1990s the United States took on the important role of a third-party mediator, with Mitchell acting as the primary mediator in the talks that led to the Belfast Agreement. [25]

To this day the United States continues to play this role; U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is "to preside over an investment conference to be held later this year." [26] Clinton is also rumored to have played an important role in the most recent agreement between the power-sharing government, discussed in further detail below. Despite the signing of a peace agreement in 1998, the position of U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland still exists. Throughout the history of the conflict other governments and organizations took an interest in the conflict, but the United States has been very public about their interest in seeing an end to the violence and continues its involvement in the region.

Causes and Consequences

Territorial claims are highly diffuse throughout the conflict. Many Nationalists believe that the land of Northern Ireland is the rightful property of the Irish people, this claim dates back to the 12th century and the English invasion of Ireland. On the other hand, Protestant Unionists who have lived in Northern Ireland for generations feel that they also have a rightful claim to the land. According to Mari Fitzduff, "to many Unionists, the problem was the continuing desire of the Republic of Ireland to reclaim Northern Ireland as part of its territory, and they saw Republican paramilitaries [the IRA] as pursuing that agenda violently." [27] Land and property rights are deeply entrenched in this struggle.

The opposing actors also have differing views on their respective relationship to Great Britain. Unionists remain loyal to the British government; they feel that Northern Ireland's connection to Britain is a positive one. Many Unionists benefited economically from British investment in Northern Irish industries as well as trade. Conversely, many Irish Republicans the cause of the conflict "was seen to bee the continuing presence of the British government in the region." [28] British involvement on island was highly resented by the Irish, who felt that British presence was an unwanted imposition.

As with many conflicts in deeply divided societies, identity is at the root of the problem. David Bloomfield describes it as "Europe's longest-standing identity related conflict." [29] As mentioned above, Partition created two separate identities on the island-a British identity and an Irish one. These identities were initially constructed on the basis of various traits and experiences both fixed and acquired. The entrenchment of these collective identities over a protracted period of time has led to deep divisions between the opposing groups. The division between these identities was exacerbated over time by a series of contrasting beliefs.

Contrasting Beliefs

The conflict has often been posed as Catholic versus Protestant, because the majority of Unionists are Protestant and most Republicans are Catholic. These contrasting religious beliefs have been exacerbated throughout the course of the conflict through political tactics on both sides indented to vilify the other group. There are plenty of societies where Catholics and Protestants live side by side in peace, yet this is not the case in Northern Ireland. Unionists are primarily Protestant while Nationalists tend to be Catholic; while this is not a steadfast rule, these groups have used religion to further polarize the conflict. This religious divide constitutes a value-based issue, as defined by the Hocker-Wilmot Conflict Assessment Guide. [30]

Civil rights are another area of contestation between the primary parties. The Catholic minority felt that they were not being treated equally to the Protestant majority. This discrimination was both political and economic. Northern Ireland had an informal discriminatory economic system that favored Protestants. Due to this, Catholics felt they were not receiving equal employment opportunities.

The groups also disagreed on the presence of the British military and its role. Unionists were, for the most part, comfortable with the presence of the British military due to a well-founded fear of Republican paramilitaries. Conversely, Republicans felt that the British military was beyond its jurisdiction and had no legal basis for being there. The military presence fueled support for the Irish Republican Army. Debate over this issue intensified during "the Troubles" when the British military violently suppressed civil rights protestors and killed civilians on Bloody Sunday.

Goals and Interests

The primary goal and interest of Unionists is continued loyalty and union with Great Britain. As discussed above, Unionists also sought to "have the Republic of Ireland withdraw the articles of its constitution that laid claim to Northern Ireland." [31] The Unionists are mistrustful of Irish Republicans because they believe that the Republicans are only interested in reclaiming territory that Unionist's believe is rightfully their own.

Throughout the course of the conflict some of the Republicans' interests and goals have been achieved, yet many remain unrealized. A primary Nationalist goal, Irish independence, was achieved in 1937 when Republic of Ireland declared independence from Great Britain. Stemming off of this goal is the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland and the creation of a sovereign, democratic state. According to Fitzduff, almost all Catholics want this. [32] Republicans are also interested in the removal of British military presence in Northern Ireland.

In many instances the primary parties to the conflict have conflicting interests. Although these parties view their competing interests as intractable, peace is not impossible. The primary parties in Northern Ireland compromised on these goals and interests, making a peace agreement possible. Their willingness to work toward their goals in a non-violent manner has greatly enhanced the possibility for sustained peace in Northern Ireland.

The opposing parties reached a negotiated settlement, known as the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement, April 10, 1998. The Belfast Agreement addresses the issues of identity, one of the core causes of the conflict, in that "the citizens of Northern Ireland…have the right to an identity that was British, or Irish, or both, including holding passports associated with such identities." [33] While this does not solve the deeply rooted identity issues, it does alleviate tension by allowing citizens of Northern Ireland who feel closer ties to Ireland than the Britain to obtain some legal standing in that country.

The peace agreement also includes "the development of social, economic, and cultural inclusion policies, the need to recognize the needs of victims, the acceleration of paramilitary prisoner releases, the normalization of security arrangements as the threat of violence diminished and the setting up of independent commissions for the criminal justice system and for policing." [34]

The Belfast Agreement compromised on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland changed its constitution to formally remove its claim to the region. The Agreement also established a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, ensuring representation for competing ethnic groups within formal government structures. According to the agreement, Irish unification is possible if a majority in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland vote in favor of it. [35] The ability of these conflicting groups to come together and compromise on issues that once divided them is the first step in moving toward a sustainable peace.

Conflict Regulation and Transformation

Power Sharing versus Power Dividing

One of the main provisions of the Belfast Agreement is the establishment of a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive, the establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly with devolved legislative powers (devolved from the government of Great Britain), demilitarization, and creation of a human rights commission amongst others. [36] The 1998 Belfast Agreement called for the establishment of:

A power-sharing assembly within which the parties would allocate chairs and vice chairs on an agreed basis, and a cross-community consensus would be necessary for agreement on issues of major relevance to both communities. A North-South ministerial body would be set up to deal with issues of common concern, and a British-Irish Council would also be established. [37]

This power-sharing system of government has been in place since the implementation of the agreement, but its efficacy and sustainability have recently been brought into question. In Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil Wars, Philip G. Roeder states "the evidence indicates that divided-power arrangements are more likely to deter the escalation of ethnic conflict situations." [38] This is a particularly interesting statement, because Northern Ireland currently has a power sharing government. If what Roeder suggests is true, the sustainability of Northern Ireland's government, as well as its ability to deter ethnic conflict, is questionable.

On February 5, 2010 the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland reached an agreement to hand over control of the police and justice system in Northern Ireland from British to local control. The shift of control is scheduled for April 12, 2010. [39] Many feared that an agreement would not be reached, which, in turn, could collapse the power-sharing government currently in place. If the inability to reach an agreement has the power to bring down an entire government system, perhaps that government system should be altered. Roeder and Rothchild would agree, and say that this is an indication of the weakness and potential for failure inherent in a power-sharing system and that Northern Ireland should switch to a power-dividing system in order to maintain peace.

Roeder and Rothchild outline seven conditions that they believe are necessary for a successful power-sharing system: elite dominance, a culture of accommodation, sincere commitments, state strength, economic prosperity, stable demographics, and a constructive relationship with the international community. [40] Roder and Rothchild are quite clear in believing that these conditions are unlikely to occur and that power-sharing systems will always fall apart. The power-sharing arrangement established by the Good Friday Agreement appears to have fostered several of Roder and Rothchild's conditions including, sincere commitments, economic prosperity and a constructive relationship with the international community. While Northern Ireland does not currently meet all of Roder and Rothchild's requirements, the power-sharing government is young and working toward achieving all of the necessary conditions seems plausible. Since the signing of the Belfast Agreement, the power-sharing government of Northern Ireland looks promising.

Theoretically, a power-sharing system is an excellent idea. It provides for the joint exercise of power between conflicting groups, allowing competing groups to work together instead of promoting the dominance of one ruling group. This model of governance is difficult to implement if parities are unwilling to work together and propose ethnically neutral solutions. The current government of Northern Ireland, established in 1998 through the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act has faltered several times, yet it currently appears to be on track. Therefore, it may be premature to suggest a shift to a power-diving system, but the option should be kept in mind. Instead, to there are several ways enhance a power-sharing system and increase its efficacy. For example, Northern Ireland should focus on reconciliation, discussed in detail below.

Goals and Recommendations

Rethinking the Time Frame

In his book, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, John Paul Lederach discusses rethinking time frames. This concept is very important in the case of Northern Ireland. The conflict has been going on, depending on the source, since the 12th century. There is deep-seeded animosity between the groups and it is going to take a substantial amount of time to build the capacities necessary for sustainable peace in the region. While middle-level leaders may have a better understanding of the appropriate time frame, upper-level politicians do not always. Politicians, in general, aim to achieve certain goals within a specified timeframe; if they do not, their career may be in jeopardy. Upper-level politicians may undermine the overall peacebuilding process by focusing on too short of a timeframe (their time in office) instead of on the time necessary to establish a sustainable peace. One hopes that politicians and upper-level public figures are able to look past their own political careers and work towards building a sustainable peace for Northern Ireland.

The Belfast agreement was signed nearly twelve years ago. Although this is a considerable length of time and displays great potential for continued peace, individuals at all levels of leadership should not become lax about peacebuilding. Lederach focuses on working at the middle range, these leaders have connections to both the upper-level and the grassroots. They often act as mediators and facilitators between the other two levels of a deeply divided society. The middle level may be key to building and maintaining a sustainable peace because they are not under the same time constraints as high-level politicians, but they have more voice and connections than the grassroots level. Leaders at all levels in Northern Ireland must remain attentive to building peace and reconciliation, discussed below, in order to achieve sustainable peace.

The United States' continued presence in Northern Ireland is a positive indication that America remains committed to the creation of a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. The position of U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland was created in the early 1990s to facilitate U.S. involvement in mediation and reconciliation discussions. In addition, Secretary of State Clinton, as discussed above, is a constant and symbolic figure of this commitment. Almost twenty years later, and twelve years after the signing of the Belfast agreement, the US has no intentions of relinquishing its role. This continued presence should have a positive effect on local peacebuilders, particularly the upper-level. Clinton and the U.S. Special Envoy are able to motivate leaders at this level to continue working towards peace. When new officials and leaders come to power these U.S. mediators can smooth the transition, as far as peacebuilding work is concerned. American mediators can aid in the creation of a "process-structure of change that engenders hope despite its slow progress." [41] Ideally, their work and continual presence will help conflict parties rethink the time frame. They are also capable of engaging with multiple levels of leadership and establishing relationships across all levels and between opposing groups.

Peacebuilding is a process-it does not happen overnight and change is incremental. Patience is essential to achieving sustainable peace. The work done by today's peacebuilders may not come to fruition for years, if not generations. If conflict parties successfully rethink the time frame they will be able to put their work as peacebuilders into the proper perspective.

Building an Infrastructure for Peace

The conflict in Northern Ireland is no longer violent, but that does not mean that the underlying causes have been addressed. It is important that these causes are acknowledge and addressed by the public at large. The past tends to repeat itself; if people begin to move on without remembering the past, the probability that conflict will break out increases. Almost twelve years on, the potential for sustainable peace in Northern Ireland is promising, but it is something that requires constant work. Outlined below are several goals and recommendations for how all the conflict parties can work towards sustainable peace.

One goal for achieving sustainable peace in Northern Ireland is the creation of "ways to support, implement, and sustain the building of an infrastructure for peace over the long term." [42] Leaders should focus on capacity building in Northern Ireland. If done properly, Northern Ireland will be better equipped to handle conflict situations and mediate their resolution internally, or at least begin to. Lederach recommends approaching "resources for peace under two broad headings: socioeconomic and sociocultural." [43] Northern Ireland can build upon existing resources to create an infrastructure for peace.

The international community can play an important role in building an infrastructure for peace in Northern Ireland. Lederach recommends "that we in the international community adopt a new mind set-that we move beyond a simple prescription of answers and modalities for dealing with conflict that come from outside the setting and focus at least as much attention on discovering and empowering the resources, modalities, and mechanisms for building peace that exist within the context." [44] The United States appears to be doing this quite well, yet more international support for peace and reconciliation will aid the process in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has yet to fully develop such an infrastructure, although there are many indications that the foundation for such an infrastructure exists. According to Lederach, "the greatest resource for sustaining peace in the long term is always rooted in the local people and their culture." [45] If leaders ignore the people, those most directly affected by the conflict, the odds for renewed violent conflict increase. Building an infrastructure for peace should occur at all levels, but most importantly at the grassroots level. Once a conflict is "resolved" it seems that much of the support and momentum behind the initial peace talks fades away- this is when things can really fall apart. It is important, if not essential, to maintain the positive energy that began the peace talks and resulted in a peace agreement. A signed agreement is only as good as the commitment behind it. If politicians and leaders do not take the tenets of the agreement seriously and commit themselves to carrying out the terms, the agreement is merely symbolic.

Reconciliation as the Ultimate Goal

Reconciliation should be the ultimate goal for Northern Ireland. John Paul Lederach defines reconciliation as "the creation of the social space where both truth and forgiveness are validated and joined together, rather than being forced into an encounter in which one must win out over the other or envisioned as fragmented and separated parts." [46] Reconciliation goes well beyond the signing of a peace agreement. This is not to discount the importance of peace agreements, rather to acknowledge peacebuilding as a continuous process. Reconciliation is the ultimate goal, a path to give a deeper meaning to a signed piece of paper.

Reconciliation addresses three paradoxes. The first is that "reconciliation promotes an encounter between the open expression of the painful past, on the one hand, and the search for the articulation of a long-term, interdependent future, on the other hand" [47] Primary parties to the conflict must acknowledge wrongdoing committed by and against them, while at the same time extending a helping hand to rebuild a fragmented infrastructure. The second paradox is that reconciliation also "provides a place for truth and mercy to meet, where concerns for exposing what has happened and [sic] for letting go in favor of renewed relationship are validated and embraced." [48] Reconciliation is not easy to achieve, parties must be willing to forgive, but not forget, to move forward to a better and brighter (hopefully) future. The third paradox is that "reconciliation recognizes the need to give time and place to both justice and peace, where redressing the wrong is held together with the envisioning of a common, connected future." [49] It is essential for conflict parties to be able to look beyond past and present difficulties and envisage a common future built together.

It is all well and good to be able to define reconciliation and to be able to identify the paradoxes it addresses- but how does one actually achieve it? John Paul Lederach would say reconciliation is possible through relationship building. Relationship building should be mainstreamed in order to build a solid foundation for achieving reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Reconciliation Through Relationship Building

One way to work toward sustainable peace and reconciliation is through relationship building-"develop[ing] and build[ing] relationships both in and across the lines of the division in the context of protracted conflict" (Lederach 1997, 109). Through the creation of relationships, divided parties become invested in each other. Relationship building is proven to decrease the outbreak of conflict. An example of this is the relationship between France and Germany after World War II. These two nations experienced centuries of animosity and violent conflict, yet after WWII they, and four other European countries, came together to form the European Economic Community. By creating relationships built around economic interdependence, these nations decreased the incentives to go to war and have been at peace for over a half-century. Economic disparities are one of the underlying causes of the conflict; if opposing parties in Northern Ireland are linked economically they will be forced to work together to maximize their economic benefits. This is one way to encourage cooperation and build relationships in and amongst conflict parties.

Economic based relationships are just one option. Cultural and social integration programs can promote relationship building across lines. In her book, Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Process in Northern Ireland, Mari Ftizduff describes numerous scenarios and ways that relationships can be built and strengthen at all levels, both inside and amongst conflict groups. Ireland has a strong musical tradition. The incorporation and blending of Protestant/British musical traditions with the more prominent Catholic/Irish traditions will cross ethnic boundaries and create a new, unique sound that can be attributed to Northern Ireland. [50] The creation of a sense of multiculturalism is essential. Instead of pitting two different cultures against each other, building relationships helps people to embrace and understand diverse cultural traditions.

If possible, relationship building should not be limited to one sector (economic, social or cultural), instead attempts should be made by both sides to cross cut sectors and build deep and meaningful relationships. One positive step towards reconciliation and relationship building is integrating the education system. In order to create sustainable peace, subsequent generations should be taught tolerance and open-mindedness. An integrated educational system would facilitate relationship building across ethnic lines at a young age, ideally embedding tolerance and understanding into their everyday lives.

Mari Fitzduff discusses the importance of achieving quality contact, "which means that where possible contact should be undertaken in a context where group identity, and not just individual identity is acknowledged, where differences are articulated rather than avoided, and where superordinate goals…are agreed for cooperative work by groups." [51] Without quality contact between conflict groups very little progress will be made. It is a difficult process to address identity issues and to acknowledge differences, but it is necessary in order to achieve sustainable peace. There are numerous organizations (in Northern Ireland and elsewhere) that work on increasing the face time and quality contact between conflict parities.

As discussed above, relationship building must happen at all levels, but especially at the mid-and grassroots levels. Although high-level leaders, such as politicians, play an important role in the peacebuilding process, their positions are only temporary and they may not have the staying power necessary to build sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. John Paul Lederach stresses the importance of promoting peace at the middle ranges. While the middle range is extremely important, the other levels should not be neglected; relationships should be built at all levels because they are all able to make important contributions to the peacebuilding process. Relationship building is the best path to encourage reconciliation between disputants.

Relationship building is a form of capacity building that is essential to the peace process. In Northern Ireland, one of the core causes of the conflict is identity. Misunderstanding and distrust between groups often fuels identity conflicts; eventually these groups do not even attempt to understand each other. Relationship building, encouraged from both sides of the conflict, will help disputing groups reconcile their differences. Continued dialogue promotion, both from within and outside the conflict, is necessary to facilitate reconciliation. This process will take generations to make a visible difference, but if both sides remain dedicated to the cause, relationship building will help construct and maintain a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland.

Conclusion: On the Path to Peace

Conflict will always exist, yet there are ways to mediate conflict and prevent it from turning violent. Northern Ireland is an example of a deeply divided society that has experienced violent conflict, but is currently at peace. If Northern Ireland is able to develop and maintain a sustainable peace it will illustrate successful (and not so successful) peacebuilding techniques. Perhaps, the lessons learned from the peace process in Northern Ireland will build upon existing scholarship and contribute to peacebuilding and conflict resolution in other deeply divided societies.

The goals and strategies proposed focus on building institutions, capacities and an infrastructure that will mediate ethnic conflict and prevent it from turning violent. Rethinking the time frame and creating short-term goals as well as long-term goals are essential to achieving sustainable peace. It is crucial that political leaders do not let their personal aspirations interfere with peacebuilding. Reconciliation is an ongoing process and an accessible approach to achieve reconciliation is relationship building.

Northern Ireland appears to be well on its way to building sustainable peace, yet its future is uncertain. No one can be sure of what the future holds for this deeply divided society, but if the people and leaders of Northern Ireland remain committed to building peace and active in the peace process, they will most likely achieve it. The peace and reconciliation processes must remain at the forefront in order to attain the goals outlined in this essay.


[1] Peter Harris and Benjamin Reilly, Democracy and Deep-Rooted Conflict: Options for Negotiators, (Ljubljana: Korotan Ljubljana d.o.o, 1998), 123.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 124.

[5] Mari Fitzduff, Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Process in Northern Ireland (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2002), 10-11.

[6] Ibid, 5-6.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Harris and Reilly, 125.

[10] Harris and Reilly, 126.

[11] Bloomfield, David, Peacemaking Strategies in Northern Ireland: Building Complementarity in Conflict Management Theory, (New York: St. Martin's Press Inc., 1997), 46-47.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hocker, Joyce L. and William W. Wilmot, "Conflict Assessment," Conflict Information Consortium, (15 January 2010).

[15] Harris and Reilly, 123-126.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sinn Fein, Sinn Fein Online, (10 February 2010).

[18] Northern Ireland Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly, (5 February 2010). 

[19] John Pike, "Irish Republican Army (IRA)," Federation of American Scientists, (12 February 2010). 

[20] Fitzduff, 8.

[21] Pike, .

[22] Paul Wher, "Conflcit Mapping," Beyond Intractability, September 2006, (15 January 2010). 

[23] Hocker and Wilmot.

[24] Hocker and Wilmot.

[25] Fitzduff, 15.

[26] Burns, John F., "Deal Saves N. Ireland Government," New York Times, February 5, 2010.

[27] Fitzduff, 171.

[28] Ftizduff, 171.

[29] Harris and Reilly, 123.

[30] Hocker Wilmot.

[31] Fitzduff, 172.

[32] Fitzduff, 9.

[33] Fitzduff, 15.

[34] Fitzduff, 15-16.

[35] Northern Ireland Office, Northern Ireland Office Homepage, (30 January 2010). 

[36] Northern Ireland Office.

[37] Fitzduff, 15.

[38] Roder and Rothchild, 51.

[39] Burns.

[40] Roder and Rothchild, 41-49.

[41] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 118.

[42] Lederach, 87.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid, 95.

[45] Ibid, 94.

[46] Ibid, 29.

[47] Ibid, 31.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Fitzduff, 64.

[51] Fitzduff, 33.