chapter  3
11 Pages

Consociationalism and the wider peace process


The picture of the smiling faces of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness enjoying a joke together is the most powerful positive image to have come out of Northern Ireland for many years. Not surprising, this image has rarely been out of people’s minds when analysing Northern Ireland’s political condition. Consequently, the timing of this volume could hardly be more felicitous from the perspective of the supporters of the current dispensation in Northern Ireland. It is too easy to forget, amidst all the current goodwill, that there have been many ups and downs in Northern Ireland’s political process over the last decade. Indeed, the process has at times resembled a ride on a roller coaster. And, to extend the metaphor, it is fair to say that it has caused plenty of discomfort over the years for participants who are not adrenalin junkies and do not enjoy the thrills of the funfair. For much of the last decade the watching public has averted their eyes in despair from the political process as there appeared to be no end in sight to continuing impasse. I deliberately use the term “political process” rather than “peace process” in this context since an important feature of the crises that Northern Ireland has faced since the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998 is that the continuation of the peace process has rarely been in doubt in the midst of all the political difficulties that have arisen over the implementation of the accord. At the same time, very much at issue has been the quality of the peace that

has been achieved. It is summed up in the words “cold peace,” a phrase coined by McGarry and O’Leary at the start of the peace process that has retained its resonance ever since the publication of Explaining Northern Ireland.1 But apparently it has lost its resonance for the authors themselves as their contribution to this book reminded me rather of the mindset of Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide – that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I willingly accept that the situation perhaps merits the description of “as

good as it gets,”2 considering the depth of the impasse that had arisen after the Northern Bank robbery in December 2004 and the murder of Robert McCartney in January 2005. However, I do think that their analysis is overly sanguine. The separation of the political process and the peace process is worth commenting on since it has a bearing on a number of the issues that they discuss in their contribution. But first the wider context of the peace process itself needs to be spelt out since that too has to be made sense of for a reasonable judgement to be made of Northern Ireland’s political prospects.

An unusual feature of Northern Ireland’s peace process from the outset was that it required a commitment by those in paramilitary organizations to cease their violence on a permanent basis well in advance of even the start of negotiations on a new political dispensation. In situations of violent conflict it is more common for the two to take place in tandem or even for violence to continue during the early stages of negotiations. Understandably, there was considerable suspicion among unionists that the reason why the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was willing to declare an open-ended cessation of the long war in August 1994 was that a deal between the British government and the republican movement had been done behind their backs. In fact, unionist fears were unfounded. There was no deal beyond what the two governments had announced when they had launched the peace process in December 1993. This was that in return for a permanent end to violence, the political wing of the republican movement, Sinn Féin, would be admitted into talks on the province’s future after a short period, to establish the good faith of the IRA’s commitment to a ceasefire. One might add to this that Peter Brooke’s statement as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, which was made in the dying days of Thatcher’s premiership in November 1990, was also important in persuading the republican movement to make a commitment to a negotiated settlement. It was repeated in the governments’ joint declaration of December 1993. Nevertheless, the obvious implication of the IRA’s announcement of a

ceasefire, for all the attempts to portray it as a victory, was that the IRA’s long war strategy had been defeated. For many years republicans had believed, in accordance with the views espoused by numerous Third World revolutionary groups, that they merely had to maintain a stalemate and prevent normalization by the state to win. One of Brooke’s most significant contributions as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was to disabuse republicans of this illusion. Unlike his predecessors, Brooke did not make

extravagant claims that the IRA could be defeated. On the contrary, he emphasised that the IRA had the capacity to continue its campaign if its leaders so chose, but he argued that if the IRA’s violence continued it would achieve nothing. Lending verisimilitude to Brooke’s argument was the nature of the violence in the 1990s. The IRA had been drawn into a war with loyalist paramilitaries. Relatively few members of the security forces were being killed in the conflict. Further, Ulsterization and police primacy had put local forces in the front line of the state’s counter-insurgency efforts. Thus, whereas over 100 members of the British army had died in 1972, the most lethal year of “the Troubles,” only 23 members of the British army (excluding local forces from both these calculations) were killed in the five years from the beginning of 1990 to the end of 1994. This point is rather forcefully made by David Trimble in a piece on

what he sees as misuse of the Northern Ireland model in the context of the Middle East.