The Impossibility of Reform

The majority of those in the civil rights movement were reformists, not revolutionaries, and their hope was to receive the equality they were guaranteed as UK citizens. Many Unionists, while uneasy with the challenge to the established order, recognized the legitimacy of Catholic grievances. However, the confrontational nature of political relations between the two communities guaranteed that moderate voices would quickly be drowned out by extremists from both sides.

Conservative Unionists saw any concession to the Catholic minority as the first step toward the dissolution of the union and the return of the six counties to Ireland. They were horrified at the thought of becoming an unwilling minority in a much larger Ireland that was to them very much a foreign country in terms of culture, faith, and politics. They fought any concession tooth and nail.

By 1966, small groups of Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland began taking up arms against their Catholic neighbors. By the end of the decade, the civil rights movement had become adversarial, resulting in violent clashes between civil-rights marchers, Protestant mobs, and the police.

When communal violence in the north reached a peak in the summer of 1969, the UK government was no longer able to ignore the situation and on August 15 deployed the army to maintain peace in the six counties. However, by using the army, a symbol of the British state, to support the Unionist government of Northern Ireland, the UK government inadvertently escalated the conflict.

At this time, the IRA was too small and too poorly armed to have much of an impact, leaving resentful Catholics in Belfast to joke bitterly that IRA stood for “I ran away.” In response, the IRA split in 1969, with a new, more militant wing called the Provisional IRA recognizing the need to actively defend the Catholic community.

Initially many Catholics had hoped that the UK army would be more impartial than Northern Ireland’s sectarian government and police. However, the army soon began implementing collective punishments against the Catholic community, such as curfews and internment without charge or trial. Catholics therefore came to understand the army as being on the side of the Unionists, which in turn lent credence to the Republican axiom that Catholics could not receive fair treatment in a British state. The IRA’s hardline version of Republicanism became an ever more viable alternative for many Catholics.

Hardline Republicans were re-energized and soon moved from simply defending the Catholic community to assuming the purpose of the original IRA, which was to fight the British government until it unilaterally withdrew from Ireland.

Within a few short years, Northern Ireland transitioned from a divided community at peace in spite of itself, first to a community endeavoring to reform and then to a community on the brink of civil war. Nearly 500 people were killed by political violence in 1972 alone as Northern Ireland teetered on the brink of cataclysm.

The impossibility of reform allowed extremists on both sides to hijack the political crisis of 1968-1969 for their own purposes. Unionists used the violence of the IRA to justify maintaining the status quo. Republicans, both in the IRA and in Sinn Fein, used the collusion of British and Unionist power to justify a complete break with the UK.

Political deadlock ensured that for the next 30 years Northern Ireland would remain entangled in a complex tapestry of insurgent terrorism, state repression, communal violence, and personal vendettas and feuds.

Bombs, first delivered by hand and then by car, became the preferred weapon of both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. Brutal and indiscriminate, bombs killed and maimed innocent civilians by the thousands. The center of Belfast soon became a burned-out wasteland, crippling commerce, investment, and tourism. In the 1990s, the IRA deployed massive truck bombs against targets in English cities such as London and Manchester, causing billions of dollars in damage.

By 1998, in an area with a total population of 1.5 million, approximately 3,600 people had died and 42,000 injured in what came to be called, with characteristic British understatement, the “Troubles.” (The IRA referred to it simply as “the war” understood to mean the war for Irish independence.)

The Possibility of Peace

By the early 1990s, several factors converged to make a negotiated end to the violence seem plausible for the first time.

The most development was the decision of Republicans to pursue a political route in addition to their armed struggle. In 1981, 10 Republican prisoners, led by IRA and Sinn Fein member Bobby Sands, fasted to death in a high-profile effort to pressure UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher into recognizing them as political prisoners rather than criminals.

Thatcher refused, but thanks to an unanticipated series of events, Bobby Sands was elected to the UK parliament while still on hunger strike. Although his election did not influence Thatcher, Sands’ success persuaded Sinn Fein leaders to complement the IRA’s armed struggle with a political track, and Sinn Fein candidates began to stand for elections in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.

In 1986, Sinn Fein took the dramatic step of ending its policy of abstention and began to participate in the Irish parliament, whereas before Sinn Fein candidates who had won elections had refused to take their seats in protest of the lack of legitimacy (in their eyes) of a parliament that represented only 26 Irish counties.

Sinn Fein’s electoral success motivated the British and Irish governments to enter into discussions about Northern Ireland. By late 1993, they had reached a consensus that would form the heart of the Good Friday agreement.

Both governments renounced their claims to the six counties, promising instead that the fate of Northern Ireland would be tied to the political wishes of its citizens. This principle, usually referred to as the principle of consent, made the short-term success of the Good Friday agreement possible by allowing politicians from both communities to claim that their desires—either ongoing union or integration into Ireland—could be accommodated within Good Friday.

Sinn Fein’s turn to politics also led the party to a working relationship with the moderate nationalist party in Northern Ireland, John Hume’s Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP).

Across the Atlantic, U.S. President Bill Clinton had promised Irish-American groups that he would take a more active role in promoting peace in Northern Ireland, even though this would cause tension with his allies in the UK government. In early 1994, he allowed Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams (below right) to visit the United States to build support and raise funds.

With the Irish government and the SDLP on board as potential allies and the United States willing to play the part of honest broker, moderate members of Sinn Fein had the strength necessary to procure a ceasefire from the IRA in August 1994.

Protestant paramilitaries soon followed with their own ceasefire, and surprisingly issued an apology as well, offering “the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 25 years abject and true remorse.”

The ceasefires in turn allowed moderate Unionist politician David Trimble the possibility of working with nationalist political parties without appearing to be a traitor.

The last piece to fall into place was the election of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister in 1997. With a strong majority in the UK Parliament and a desire to make a fresh start, Blair was not dependent upon Unionist politicians and therefore had both the will and the means to promote a compromise more aggressively than his predecessors.

The United States dispatched former senator George Mitchell to broker the talks. All parties sensed that the conditions for reaching an agreement were as promising as they were likely ever to be, yet they were unable to make headway in 1996 and 1997. Worried that the opportunity might be lost, in early 1998 Mitchell decided to set a firm deadline—Thursday, April 9, the day before the Easter holiday weekend.

The British and Irish governments drafted a framework, sent it to the moderate Unionist and nationalist parties for approval, then finally—not until early on the morning of Good Friday—were able to get the more radical parties such as Sinn Fein on board. Although they missed Mitchell’s deadline by one day, by the evening of Friday, April 10 the participants had a potential deal in place.

What Good Friday Does and Does Not Do

In the following months, the Good Friday agreement was ratified through referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As noted earlier, one of the central elements of the agreement was to secure in writing the principle of consent—that neither Ireland nor the United Kingdom would attempt to hold Northern Ireland without the express permission of the majority of its population.

The Good Friday accords established cross-border bodies to give Ireland a consultative/advisory role in Northern Ireland with regard to social and political issues. The agreement also established a British-Irish council to provide oversight. One of the agreement’s most challenging provisions was the amnesty and release of paramilitary prisoners from both sides. In the following year hundreds of terrorists, some guilty of dreadful acts of violence, were granted amnesty.

Most importantly, the agreement set up a power-sharing executive branch of government in Northern Ireland. The first minister would be a candidate chosen by the party with the largest share of the vote. The position of deputy first minister was also established and assigned to the largest party of the other community, guaranteeing that the executive would always balance a Unionist against a nationalist.

Thus, in 2007 when Sinn Fein replaced the SDLP as the most popular nationalist party, Martin McGuiness, former leader of the Derry Brigade of the Provisional IRA, became deputy first minister and wound up shaking Queen Elizabeth’s hand.

The Good Friday process does not, however, contain any mechanisms to integrate Unionists and nationalists into interdependent political relationships, nor does it provide incentives for parties to mobilize along anything other than sectarian lines. Quite the contrary, it ensures that political parties will continue to be based on sectarian lines and that public resources such as housing will also be allocated according to sectarian criteria.

Furthermore, the principle of consent was selected precisely because it was ambiguous. David Trimble (right), on the Unionist side, could promise his supporters that it reaffirmed and strengthened the union because it made integration into Ireland impossible so long as Unionists were a majority of the population.

Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, in contrast, could promise his supporters that it offered the possibility of Irish unity in the future, since differential population growth between Catholics and Protestants had been narrowing the Protestant majority for many years.

Scholar Feargal Cochrane has astutely observed that rather than a definitive resolution to the question of how best to govern all citizens of Northern Ireland equally and fairly, Good Friday really is more an agreement to disagree about the future of the region.

Treating the Symptoms

Like doctors treating a patient on the brink of death, the Good Friday negotiators were under intense pressure to do something to stabilize the situation, or at least to refrain from making it worse.

Now that the situation has indeed stabilized, the difficulty of treating the underlying cause has again become the central issue. The situation of course is made more difficult by the fact that there is no consensus among the political “doctors” as to precisely what ails the patient and therefore no clear path to recovery.

Some undoubtedly believe that the cure is Irish unity, some that the cure is the status quo. More likely a durable cure is to be found somewhere in the middle, through a deeper set of political and social reforms the likes of which were not possible in the 1960s when the Troubles began, but might be possible now.

In recent years, the successful reform of policing in Northern Ireland, an issue so contentious it was left out of the Good Friday agreement, suggests that this may well be the case.

Like some illnesses that have no medical cure, the political malaise in Northern Ireland may not be suitable for outside intervention. Easing it may be dependent upon the underlying health and constitution of the patient, and time and patience.

Daithi O’Ceallaigh, Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, suggested somewhat optimistically that the end of sectarianism in Northern Ireland was likely two generations away. If this current generation growing up as part of the Good Friday process can maintain the peace, interdependence does have a chance of following in their children’s time.

Should this prove to be the case, it will strongly suggest that the Good Friday strategy of pragmatically addressing the symptoms of political dysfunction, rather than the root causes, is a valid strategy that may well have application in other conflict ridden societies.