Peace and Conflict

Peace in Northern Ireland – Lessons for Sri Lanka?

There appears to be renewed interest in Northern Ireland (NI) and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) within policy circles here.  The GFA is certainly unique because it fundamentally reconstituted the state and politics in NI. Republican and unionists expectations on a number of issues were diametrically opposed to each other, but major concessions were made on both sides in order to reach agreement. Sinn Fein (SF) and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) eventually agreed to a settlement which did not grant them their primary political aspiration – a united Ireland.  The unionist agreed to share executive power with the Catholic community, an idea resisted by them for decades. The GFA has many lessons for Sri Lanka, and it is equally important to understand what made the GFA and its slow but eventual implementation possible. I want to argue that four factors played a crucial role in resolving the conflict in NI.  

Firstly, the SF/PIRA and the British Government recognised the existence of a military stalemate.  

Most protracted conflicts by their very nature are stalemates, but conflicting parties are unwilling to recognise this. In NI however both SF /PIRA and the British government did finally recognise that the ‘troubles’ had become ‘a flat unpleasant terrain stretching into the future providing no later possibilities for decisive escalation or for graceful escape’.

At the outset of the conflict, the PIRA believed that its guerrilla campaign would force the British to withdraw from NI quite soon. They didn’t account for fierce resistance from unionists to ending partition and British policy to fight what was seen as terrorism.  The war prolonged. The PIRA did attempt to break this deadlock in 1985 by way its own tet offensive, but the plan went awry and a long stalemate again seemed inevitable. Britain increasingly recognised that the kind of warfare fought by the PIRA could not be beaten or even suppressed except by means which were not acceptable in a democratic state or to international standards of human rights. The PIRA did not have similar constraints but it became more difficult to inflict casualties on the British military and prevent British intelligence infiltration of its cells. In 1990s, the PIRA compensated by bomb attacks mainly in the UK from department stores to rail lines, but both parties were forced to conclude that the war could not be won or lost by either party, which meant that they had to reassess their options.  


Secondly, the Sinn Fein (SF), the political wing of the PIRA was willing to move away from armed struggle and pursue a political solution.

The twin pillars of PIRA ideology at the outset was Irish union and armed struggle as the only way to achieve that goal. As it happened, given the stalemate and the ascendancy of Gerry Adams within SF, much of republican strategy came to be driven by SF, facilitated by the fact that Adams enjoyed membership in the PIRA Army Council. In the 1980s a leading faction within SF led by Adams had come to believe that military force alone might be insufficient to achieve their goal, and the decision was taken to complement the armed struggle with politics. The aim was to become the voice of Catholic nationalism in NI in order to put pressure for British withdrawal through both the ‘armalite and the ballot box’.

This change of policy had enormous implications for the organizational shape and ideological direction of republican politics. It transformed SF from a poor cousin of the PIRA into a political organisation in its own right. Of course, once SF set out to capture and hold pubic support at the electoral level, it had to do so in a democratic context which proved to be a challenge. Despite long standing Catholic grievances, Catholic support for PIRA’s violent tactics oscillated. With the ascendancy of John Hume’s moderate Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP) in 1980s, SF could never eclipse the SDLP at the polls.

It is in this context that the SF began questioning the efficacy of armed struggle in achieving its goals and whether or not politics might provide a complete alternative to the armed struggle. In the mid 1980s, Adams began to explore an ‘honourable exit’ in a way he could carry the republican movement with him. Following secret negotiations with the British government in Dec. 1993, he got Britain to declare that 1) it had no strategic interest in NI, 2) that it was prepared to allow SF into negotiations provided violence is renounced, 3) that it is willing to convene a conference without imposing its will on the deliberations and implement any settlement in legislation, even though 4) physical withdrawal from NI was not possible. On these grounds, SF could secure the first PIRA ceasefire in August 1994, although it is only able to participate in multi party negotiations following a second ceasefire declared in June 1997.  He also entered into a dialogue with the Irish Republic, the SDLP and the Irish American diaspora with a view to developing a pan nationalist axis for Irish unity.

The remarkable achievement of SF and the Adams’ leadership is that it secures a ceasefire without seriously splitting the organization. The total decommissioning of PIRA arms and a final end to the armed struggle however came much later following changes in the international security context following 9/11 that further tilted the power balance in favour of SF.   

Thirdly, Britain (which had sovereign authority over NI) and the Republic of Ireland (whose cooperation was necessary for a solution) had the political will to find and the political authority to implement a solution.     

Following partition of NI, Britain did not want much to do in NI. However once it sent troops and imposed direct rule, successive governments were forced to contend with a part of Britain which seemed increasingly unbritish. Withdrawal was briefly considered, but rejected as a solution. British policy from then focused on 1) Remedying the discrimination against Catholics through legislation; and 2) finding a political solution.

It helped that NI never became a party political issue either in Britain or in Ireland, even though the major parties, Labour and the Conservative party in the UK and Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in Ireland had their preferences. In Britain, it was possible because neither Catholics nor Protestants were significantly represented in the UK electorate outside NI, and governments were free to make decisions based on ‘national interest’. Even in Ireland, it did not become a party issue despite being an emotive issue for many people.     

A number of developments which led to the PIRA ceasefire in fact occurred during consecutive Conservative regimes first headed by Thatcher, and later John Major. The first PIRA ceasefire was secured by Major, although unionists’ insistence shared by the British government at the time, that the PIRA had to begin to disarm delayed the commencement of talks, and the PIRA responded by breaking the ceasefire in February 1996.  It was the election of a Labour government with a substantial majority in parliament and the election of a Fianna Fail government in Ireland that made it possible to move the peace process forward with SF participation. Once SF joined the talks, they were able to proceed in confidence that the British government had not only the commitment but the political authority to implement any agreement reached by the political parties.  

Finally, the NI peace process and its culmination in the GFA was helped by changes in the broader regional /international context.    

The end of the cold war and increasing political and economic integration of Europe had enormous implication for the conflict. No longer was it possible for the republican movement to argue that Britain had a strategic interest in preventing a united Ireland due to its need to secure NI for NATO. It also opened the opportunity for US involvement, pushed by a new coalition of influential Irish Americans known as Americans for a New Irish Agenda (during the cold war due to security concerns, the US was obliged to treat NI as an internal affair of the UK. By opening diplomatic relations with SF in January 1994, the Clinton administration showed the republican movement the kind of political legitimacy and support they could get if the path of violence was renounced. It also strengthened Adams’ leadership in his own negotiations with the hardliners within the movement to give up the armed struggle. Once the negotiations commenced the US also played the crucial role of an ‘honest broker’ in the form of Senator George Mitchell.

Furthermore, the US brought political leverage with it to NI. The personal efforts of Mitchell and Clinton in convincing the various parties to accept the terms of the agreement have been widely acknowledged. It was also responsible for resolving the most contentious issue that emerged following the GFA – the issue of decommissioning of PIRA arms. It was US pressure that eventually led the PIRA to formerly end its armed struggle in July 2005.

A number of scholars also show that European integration created an environment that made peace in NI more of a possibility. European unity made borders increasingly irrelevant, redefined the notion of national sovereignty, and created a common identity among these nations. Membership in the EU changed British / Irish sovereign claims over NI. Britain recognised the importance of Irish cooperation to deal with republican violence. Ireland, as its economy boomed under European unity became less inward looking. The Irish nationalist project to unite Ireland became less relevant. This new cooperation between Britain and Ireland was embodied in the Anglo – Irish Agreement of 1985 which forced the unionists in particular to confront a new reality of British and Irish cooperation in which they had no place nor voice. It was the threat of continued cooperation with Ireland which finally gave Britain some leverage over the unionists.


The negotiated settlement in NI was the result of a convergence of a number of circumstances. Or in the words of Seamus Heaney an instance where ‘hope and history’ rhymed to produce a unique accord between two conflicting parties. Even a few years before the GFA, many did not believe that this was possible. What lessons can we draw from the circumstances that made the GFA and its implementation possible?

  • Laken Puit

    Once again some are trying the ” White Man Knows Best ” theory ‘ We suffered enough since around 1500 AD (correct me if I’m wrong) when the Portugese invaded Ceylon. Then the Dutch and the British who managed to introduce their well tried ” Divide and Rule ” policies.

    Northern Ireland was formulated after a so called referendum around 1916. It was part of Ireland. Well, the name still carry that word.

    It is best that Sri Lank does not take those pre fabricated solutions. Sri Lanka’s situation is unique.

    It may well be the writer is on LTTE payroll, just like most westerners. Afterall, when Ceylaon was under British rule, it was the Tamils had most top jobs.

    Writer to negotiate with India to make Tamil Nadu a seperate state. !

  • Liam McNulty

    Good article. Just one small point; the SDLP are the Social Democratic and Labour [not Liberal] Party.

  • While I feel the context is very different, I can definitely see some broad-level lessons that can be learned.

    Particularly by the LTTE if they really are tasking themselves with the aspirations of the Tamil people and the fulfillment of their human rights. While some believe adamantly that this is so and others find it a savage hypocrisy….if we were to superficially parallel it all with the situation above…

    SF realized that an armed struggle alone would not enable them to realize their own vision. In fact they gave precedence, latterly, to the political struggle. This is , in my opinion, the main lesson for not just the LTTE but the Tamil people of our country. The support of terrorism and the relative apathy with regard to forming a political agreement that is “less than” a separate state has prolonged this conflict. I by no means intend to offend large number of the Tamil populace who are very much opposed to the LTTE. I am speaking broadly , forgive me.

    I do not hold the GOSL free of any blame. They too have long fostered conflict for many reasons. However, my view is that if the LTTE and its sympathizers really had the aspirations and freedoms of its people at heart, it would realize that an armed struggle is perpetual anarchy and self-destructive. If the same effort was sincerely put into a political struggle, the hearts and minds of its own people as well as the international community would be won. It would be difficult for the GOSL to combat an intellectual struggle and justify oppression.

    Ireland had alot of international interest and regional forces play a big hand. I guess the question that looms is the role of India. Many contest that they’d never want Sri Lanka peaceful and at the same time, they’d never want a seperate state for Tamils….thus they are ambivalent. Truth be told….I don’t know.

    These situations are never clear cut and there are so many vested interests…the rights and freedoms of people become a mere backdrop for all this ugliness. I don’t see this article or similar ones comparing our conflict with those of other nations to be a pre-fabricated imposition by the West or otherwise. I personally find that narrow thinking. I see nothing but positives coming out of a detailed analysis of root problems and how they are/were solved. It fosters better knowledge and understanding. Yes , a solution needs to be “home grown” but it’s best to really take a socio-political gander outside our limited, prejudicial box to grow it.

  • The solution to the problem of self rule for people of North East is not the LTTE, not the Tamil people but the Sinhala nation.

    I repeat below my comment to “the solution to the Conflict in Sri Lanka” as I have attended to the basic factor preventing a solution.

    Any leader of any country who practices fairness and likes good governance should; show kindness to all its citizens and care for them; exhibit equality of citizenry; do justice to all without fear or favour; honour promises to citizens and respect agreements with other nations, and readily grant the legitimate rights of all its citizens. Such an attitude is learnt and developed over many years, from good leaders and not from a television series “Mafia” boss.

    Likewise, the people who own a country should have the right attitude and character to run it fairly, justly and equitably. Such a development requires spiritual standards that include love, forgiveness and care but exclude violence, murder and disrespect for others.

    Jimmy Carter was elected as the president of America because of his character. At his presidential inauguration he promised that he would endeavour to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. He is remembered to this day for his high degree of honesty and integrity. Michael Gorbachov, the former president of Soviet Union is still loved for his honest kindness and justice in freedom to the former states of Soviet Union.

    A country that does not value honesty and justice is like a ship stranded in deep sea, tossed in all directions, without any ability whatsoever to reach its destination. The people of such a country become a lost people, tossed everywhere, reaching nowhere.

    The Sinhalese as a people appear “lost in deep sea” ending nowehere and Sri Lanka(SL) has become a failed violent state after 60 years of freedom. The “colombo limbo” in granting the fundamental and legitimate rights to the people of North East (NE) is dragging for long 50 years, solely because of the lack of right attitude and character in the Sinhala nation (SN)

    “As a man thinks in his heart so he is”. The Buddhist priests sit on glamorous seats but they think and preach violence and war. The Sinhala Catholics too silently support war. They both appear to have lost their “way”. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not in their vision. They are blind. About 83 perecent of SN is blind too supporting war and bloodshed. They all have created a “dog eat dog” culture in SN. The impoverished Sinhalese village boys are enticed with money by the state to “eat dog” in the North and are getting killed or maimed in numbers; a naked exploitation of the poor by the powerful.

    The universal spiritual principle is this; one reaps what he sows. If one sows violence he reaps violence. The Sinhalese started violence against Tamils in 1958. To this day, the country is full of bloody violence. If any one sows dishonesty he reaps dishonesty. The government of Sri Lanka was dishonest with “Banda-Chelva pact”. To this day, there is dishonesty, untruthfulness and trickery in agreements with Tamils.

    Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King and SJV Chelvanayakam provided political leadership embodying the principle of sowing and reaping. Gandhi and King succeeded but Chelvanayakam failed in SL. Buddhist clergy punditry blurred justice and vision. That was stupid.

    Without correction of its attitude and character by the SN, the state of SL will never cross the river to enter the land of fairness, justice and honesty. Indo Lanka Accord (ILA) and CFA were abrogated by the government because of the “characterlessness” of the SN. Now, SN cannot be trusted. Even after 20 years they will not hesitate to undo an agreement as it happened to ILA.

    Therefore, a solution to the problem of self rule to the people of NE cannot come from within SL because the SN has always remained a problem to the solution. The solution has to be imposed and supervised from outside.

    A right is theree to be granted. It is neither for denial nor compromise. It is not even for deceptive rhetoric as it has happened for the past 50 years. Civilised people respect the rights of others. Even the UN is estblished for that purpose.

    An unavoidable solution would be to let the people of NE go into their independent land to determine their own destiny. And then, develop a joint destiny for all the people of the island. This solution is pragmatic. Talk of any other solution is rhetoric and wasteful.

    General Peyton, the former chief of staff of USA once said “… happiness, freedom and peace of mind are always attained by giving them to someone else”
    The SN must learn to give happiness and freedon to the people of NE.

  • Sam,

    One side of a coin. You are rather blatant in stereotyping an entire race and people. It seems so black and white the way you paint it. Poor innocent tamils pitched against the Sinhala devils. Eloquently put of course. I reckon you tread a fine line, the Tamil plight has also been made worse by its own people….I can’t see how that fact can be denied. The conflict itself is clear cut example of it…the point is a military strategy by the LTTE has not delivered anything in the form of rights, development or freedom to the Tamil people…in fact it has deprived them of even more.

  • Shanil

    I never used the term “devil” in my entire opinion. I just described the past events and the reasons for them. But you appear to have seen a “devil” in the actions of the Sinhalese.

    My opinion showed clearly that the problem for self rule to North East (NE) will never come from Sinhala nation (SN) because of its dishonesty, untruthfulness and trickery against the Tamils, who have remained the “underdog” for the past 50 Years.

    Although I did not elaborate in my opinion, the truth is that Buddhist principles are dead in Sri Lanka (SL). Of course, there is still the temple structure with monks but Buddhist religion has metamorphosed into a Buddhist cult with human killer tendencies and worshipping Buddha statue, contrary to basic Buddhist philosophy.

    The Buddhist monks were Schizophrenic against Tamils in 1958. Psychologists say that when Schizophrenia is not put right timeously, it turns into mental madness. The past 50 years appear to have developed a condition of “mental madness” against the legitimate rights of the people of North East (NE), amongst the Buddhist priests, changing also Buddhism into a Buddhist Killer cult.

    Whether one likes it or not, the truth is that the major political parties; UNP, SLFP and JVP are political proxies of this Buddhist cult. The political parties compete with each other and go on “low knee” position to please the cult leaders and in the process become more against the rights of Tamils for legitimate self rule in the NE.

    Recently, Wimal Weerawansa went to get blessings from the cult leader of Malwatte chapter after he left the JVP. Buddhism has nothing to do with Marxism. Weerawansa also knows with certainty that any cult or religion is the “opium of masses”. But he went to confirm that he would remain a proxy to the Buddhist cult like the present JVP.

    Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP leader, lit a “Buddhist traditional lamp” in the Eastern province recently, to confirm his alegiance to the Buddhist cult.

    Buddhist monks do not study political science. They only know Sinhala mythology, but call it true history and teach in their temples. Their political decisions are based on such foolish myths causing national calamity. How can the proxies of such a cult solve any political problem?

    The Sinhala nation will never extricate all the proxy political parties from politics and bring to power new parties that will not go on “low knee” position to the cult leaders.

    Therefore a solution for the self rule of Tamils in the North East can never come from within, as I explainedin my earler opinion.

  • Ekcol

    You mentioned that the plight of the Tamil people are created by them. How absurd. I have heard this refrain from distinguished Sinhala gentlemen in 1956, 1958, 1977, when there were no armed conflict. Why blame the victim? When a woman is raped there are people who say, she deserved it because she was wearing provocative dress. Another former Ambassador told me that Krishanthy Kumarasamy deserved what she got – raped and killed, because he was told that Krishanthy was a snooty girl who talked back to the soldiers. These gentlemen have screwed up psychy.

    You also said that both peoples should talk and solve our problems. Tamils have been talking since 1917 till 1977 peacefully and politically. Do you really think that Tamils will benefit now in a worse situation than ever before? Let the Sinhala people talk among themselves and offer a political solution that a majority of Sinhalese approve and that Tamil civilians will accept at a referendum. Then all communities can interact and talk together to reconcile. If you are old wake up. If you are young grow up.

  • Again. Black and White.

    Comparing the plight of a raped woman to the plight of the tamil people is what is absurd. Yes in a political context where the struggle is political and on an intellectual plane, fine…perhaps that parallel can be made. The point i’m trying to take is NOT that the Tamils created the disparity but the fact that they have been digging a deeper hole for themselves by pursuing a military struggle. If i wasn’t clear about that I apologize but I personally don’t see how one can deny this fact. I repeat my question…what has this military struggle by the LTTE achieved?

    It’s ironic because so much hatred has been built towards the Tamils because of the association with terrorism. Yes there was prejudice and oppression before but how can one deny the obvious negative impact this terrorist struggle and its claimed representation of the Tamil people has had on the “SN”. Reverse the position, had Tamils been dealing with a Sinhala separatist struggle, you think they’d be free of prejudice, you think they wouldn’t be prone to treating the minority with suspicioin and so forth.

    I mean it’s all well and good to take the victims perspective and blame the majority but you have to understand that its a complicated position to be in. The fact is the LTTE are a terrorist organisation, its is a Tamil militant organisation. I find it quite imprudent that you request me to “Wake up” or “grow old” Eckol when your perspective simply states that the Tamils “were talking since 1917 -1977”. Are you implying that that in itself justifies the barbaric of the LTTE? That just because their struggle for equality was not fulfilled through diplomatic means that a terrorist struggle is justified. Do you even know what they the do to their own people ? To recruit…to keep them loyal? Obviously not the die-hard diaspora overseas…

    It is not like the Govt. has been totally inept at working towards a political solution either…asking the Sinhalese majority to approve of a seperate state isn’t going to happen. But autonomy is something that can be worked on…but realistically…only if conflict stops at both ends. If there is a true commitment from both sides to lay arms and find a lasting solution.

    I concede that the GOSL is mostly full of prejudiced, corrupt mongrels. I really do….our country is screaming out for good leaders. Sinhalese people need to open their eyes to alot of things, especially this false ego they tend to have. I seem to have come across as someone who is blaming the Tamils for their own problems. I hope my point is clear in that it’s their military struggle that has led to the exploitation and further degradation of their rights situation.

    Sure its easy for me to be an armchair observer and pass judgement on these things but for me…I don’t see how Tamil people can claim humanitarian grounds without being hypocrites if they do not pressure the LTTE to lay down its arms. I know they do not speak for all tamils and most tamils have a moderate voice and just want equal status. But my point is, given reality and the perceptions of the majority Sinhalese …who you rightly said…will determine the political future of this island…and the (hopeful) inclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils as proper equals… is essential that the Tamil people rid themselves of any association with a group like the LTTE and the proliferation of violence.

    I see how you may argue that it should happen in the reverse but well..I don’t see how that’s going to happen…realistically. I don’t really agree with any of the current policies..i’m merely speaking from observation .

    As for Sam’s comments about Buddhism being dead, I agree in many senses of the word. Religion entering politics was a savage hypocrisy. Monks are largely decadent powermongers…but not ALL. One has to read lightly when making all these generalizations and I fear I too may have crossed this line when making these arguments. But then is this just applicable to Buddhism.and only to Sri Lanka? My point is there are minorities being exploited in ALL corners of the world in all sorts of savage ways…most of the time you don’t even hear about it. You hear churches, leaders, prophets …monks…priests…chanting love and harmony and endorsing hatred and prejudice the next moment. These are truisms on a very human level…they don’t just apply to Sri Lanka and Sinhalese.

    I don’t defend the Govt. or the Sinhalese…I just find it all one sided when one side
    is labeled with little recognition of the many crimes committed by the other. There seems to be little of that discussed….I don’t see how any of it is legitimate….

  • Shanil,

    During the last general election the people of North East clearly expressed by casting their votes to 22 MPs of TNA that LTTE should be their sole representatives in any talks with the government. The people wanted LTTE to be a part of the political solution.

    But you and the Sinhalese want the elimination of LTTE !! Very democratic !!
    The excuse is just terrorism but the soldiers are involved in state terrorism against Tamils that needs resistance by the LTTE. This was the reason for the people desiring LTTE as an armed resistance movement.

    ANC was also called terrorists by the Apartheid White regime of South Africa. Today they run the best government in Africa, performing even much better than the government of Sri Lanka.

    Therefore, the word “terrorism” by the Sri Lankan state is a political phrase against the LTTE. By real standards the government is more terrorist than LTTE. Yet you refrain from using the word terrorist against the Sinhala state because you are a biased Sinhalese.

  • sham

    sarvan, the TNA came into being becasue we sent the ballot boxes into LTTE area for them to vote as the terrorist pleased creating one of the biggest blunders in Ranil’s administration. please dont think they were elected democratically. shows how much you know about democrasy.

  • Bollocks Sarvan. Terrorism isn’t a phrase my friend. Yes the Govt does all those things but you all seem to really get away from the fact that the LTTE are indeed terrorists…not because we phrase it as being such…not because we are all ig bad wolves hurting sheep…but because their military struggle…whatever the justifications maybe…have led to them performing some vile …sick acts. They’ve killed people…does that not register? Murdered…thousands of people…you can go on about the Govt…and I won’t deny it..but my point is long can you go on calling the Govt inhumane and so forth when a portion of the Tamil people…saying tit for tat has got us all nowhere.

    As for South Africa, i’m part South African and I grew up there …the ANC is far from the best Govt in Africa, that title could probably go to Botswana…it is rife with its own problems and is a very different context. As is the Irish conflict upon which this post is based. All I was saying was that I feel that its in the Tamil people’s best interest that they desist from a military struggle as it is counter productive to their struggle for equality…saying its merely a response to state terrorism is being far too simplistic…it takes two to tow the line…both sides have been extremely stubborn (ego) and short-sighted..but that’s just my view.

  • I find that there are very few WISE people around to resolve the issues. We need a rapid solution and need to learn from other countries. I feel all concerned parties should travel to DR Congo and see the manner in which peace deals were signed. However, the recovery of the country may take many years as it is large. The principles are the same. We have to advocate our leaders (Everywhere) to bury their EGOs and seek a way to participate in a humble dialog to resolve the issues. They know what they are and the power they have.