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?