Friday, 01 December 2017 11:07

Peace Is a Process – and Should Always Be Emphasised as Such

Peace Is a Process –  and Should Always Be Emphasised as Such

“How do you think you can learn from the success of Northern Ireland?” Masis Mayilian, Minister for Foreign Affairs Minister of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, was asked during a recent briefing on Nagorno-Karabakh. A few days earlier at a conference on the Palestine-Israel conflict, Kai Frithof Brand-Jacobsen of PATRIR spoke of Northern Ireland’s experience as an example to the international community as it seeks to construct a path toward peace in the Middle East.



In many respects, the peace process in Northern Ireland has been a great success. There was an 87% decrease in the amount of conflict-related deaths in the ten years after the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement compared to the decade preceding its implementation.[1] In 2011, conciliation was symbolised by the handshake between Queen Elizabeth and the late Martin McGuinness. McGuinness had once led the Irish Republican Army (IRA), an organisation whose victims include the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten.


An attendee at one of these events might have been left with the mistaken impression that Northern Ireland was now home to a functioning administration governing a peaceful society. But despite the peace process’ many achievements, obstacles to stability in Northern Ireland remain today.


The lack of a government is chief among these obstacles. The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that Northern Ireland be governed by a devolved administration led by a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, each from the largest parties of the unionist (who want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom) and nationalist (who want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland) designations. Despite being at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, a power-sharing government has been absent from Northern Ireland for the best part of a year.


Negotiations between Sinn Féin (the largest nationalist party) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP - the largest unionist party) have repeatedly failed to produce a government. The imposition of direct rule - by which the British government would take control of issues usually devolved to the Northern Irish government - continues to loom. Direct rule would have detrimental implications for Northern Ireland’s political representation, given that Sinn Féin’s Members of Parliament (MPs) are mandated not to take their seats in Westminster. Sinn Féin’s MPs refuse to take the Oath of Allegiance (to the Queen) required for them to take their seats because they oppose the UK’s jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin’s absence is exacerbated by the fact that the DUP are currently in a confidence and supply agreement with the UK’s Conservative Party. This agreement, which allowed the Conservative Party to put together a government after the June elections, means that the DUP must support the government by either voting in favour of or abstaining from certain motions.


Nor has sectarian violence ceased to exist in Northern Ireland. In September, loyalist paramilitaries were blamed for intimidating Catholic families out of their homes in Belfast. In mid-October three families were evacuated while police dealt with two pipe bombs near their homes in Derry. At the end of October, a bomb was discovered in a residential area of west of Belfast. Responsibility was claimed by a new dissident republican (hard line nationalist) group.[2] All the while, issues related to the conflict continue to dominate Northern Irish headlines:





In an article from earlier this year entitled “Northern Ireland: an uncertain peace”, Matthew Engel wrote that, “Ulster [Northern Ireland] has had two decades of what outsiders call peace”.[1] Beyond Northern Ireland’s borders, even nearby in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, the past tense is frequently used to refer to its peace process. But such language undermines the process by which positive peace is still underway.


Ironically, the path toward positive peace seems to have been somewhat hampered by the design and structure of the Good Friday Agreement. As Dr Eoin O’Malley of Dublin City University recently pointed out, the agreement inadvertently institutionalises nationalist-unionist division in Northern Ireland both socially and politically, and provides little incentive to go beyond these dichotomous designations. “They [unionists and nationalists] now work and live maybe more separately than they did in the past,” Dr O’Malley said.[2] Although plans are now being put in place to remove them, the so-called “peace walls” that were first erected in 1969 to prevent violence, continue to separate predominantly nationalist areas from predominantly unionist ones.


Cross-community trust - essential for peace - has suffered from such division. This mistrust led to the government’s collapse in January 2017, when First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster became implicated in a botched renewable heating scheme, which was believed by some to have disproportionally benefitted unionists. And mistrust has prevented recent negotiations from resulting in a government. Sinn Féin’s foremost precondition for reentering into power-sharing has been the provision of an Act granting “equal rights” to Irish speakers, which would give the Irish language the same legal status as English in Northern Ireland. But this request has been met with suspicion and resentment from the DUP and its voters; they haven’t forgotten Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adam’s 2014 comments: “What’s going to break them [unionists] is equality. […] That’s what we need to keep the focus on and that’s the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy...”.[3] Adam’s comments could be indicative of a wish to bring Northern Ireland’s laws more in line with those of the Republic of Ireland or, more sinisterly, of an intention to undermine power-sharing by making demands it knows the DUP will never accept.


Calls have been made by both the UK’s Labour party and Northern Ireland’s non-sectarian Alliance Party to involve an external mediator in talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP. While mediation has the potential to settle the political deadlock in the short-term by helping to put together a government, a long-term strategy that builds trust and encourages conciliation is essential to creating sustainable peace in Northern Ireland.



[1] Matthew Engel, “Northern Ireland: an uncertain peace”, The Guardian, 21 January 2017,

[2] Dr Eoin O’Malley, The Week in Politics, RTÉ One, 5 November 2017.

[3] “Gerry Adams: Unionists condemn use of swear word”, BBC News, 25 November 2014,


[1] Simon Rogers, “Deaths in the Northern Irish Conflict since 1969”, The Guardian, 10 June 2010,

[2] “Police find ‘dissident device’ in Poleglass alert”, BBC News, 1 November 2017,