The Peace Process in Northern Ireland (1997 – 2007):

From Hatred to Reason

Behind the picture-perfect Ireland seen on postcards, famous for its friendly people and beautiful countryside, hides a population torn apart by centuries of war between Catholics and Protestants, and between the Irish and the British Crown. The deep historical roots of resentment made it seem that it would take two or three generations before peace would be achieved, but after four centuries of struggles of varying degrees, the 10 years between 1997 and 2007 saw women and men of courage take action to put an end to the cycle of violence. The Good Friday Agreement (1998) and the institution of a mixed government in Northern Ireland (2007) stand as bookends to a remarkable period of convergence between the parties. These 10 years of negotiations constitute the history of a successful peace process. An analysis of the conditions for the success of the process in Northern Ireland may serve, at least in part, as a model for attempts to end other conflicts currently raging in the world, and as a standard for all of us.

Secular Wars in Ireland

For 19 centuries, the island of Ireland was peopled by successive flows of migrants who generally became well integrated. The Celts arrived from Central Europe roughly 600 years before our era, and were Christianized by Saint Patrick in the fifth century. The Vikings arrived from what is now Denmark in the eighth century and founded the city of Dublin. The Normans based in Wales were invited in the 12th century by an unfortunate pretender to one of Ireland’s thrones. While assimilating the Normans (through marriage and adoption of the Irish language) originally fit into the English plan of developing an independent country, it eventually became a problem as it meant a loss of power. In 1366, the British Parliament based in Ireland ordered the cultural and ethnic separation between locals and settlers: new arrivals were prohibited from speaking Irish, using Irish names, and marrying the Irish. This attempt at separation failed, however, and two centuries later the Normans were fully assimilated except in the fortified area around Dublin.

The English then colonized the island and imposed their law. To better control the country, Henry VIII decided in the sixteenth century to appoint a representative from the Irish territory to London and tried in vain to impose Protestantism. The Irish rebelled but were beaten at the battle of Kinsale in 1601. The Irish leaders went into exile, leaving behind them land for the taking. Scottish Presbyterians then colonized a portion of Ulster (a northern territory) to civilize the island. An English government was established in Dublin and English garrisons occupied Ireland. In the seventeenth century, 3000 Protestant colonists were exterminated during a siege by Catholics. Cromwell’s response was bloody, and new fertile lands were distributed on a large scale to Protestant settlers. Criminal laws were then passed that left little or no rights to the island’s Catholic majority. On July 1, 1690, James II, the deposed Catholic King of England who was seeking to regain the throne, lost the Battle of the Boyne to his Protestant rival, William of Orange. To this day, the Orange Order celebrates William’s victory on July 12 (due to the change to the Gregorian calendar).

At the close of the eighteenth century, Republican winds began to blow across Ireland. The Protestant Wolfe Tone managed to bring Presbyterians and Catholics together against the king of England and in favor of a Republic, but in vain. Westminster, sensing the Republican threat, once more imposed direct control from London: in 1800 the parliament in Dublin was dissolved and London passed The Acts of Union, merging Ireland into the United Kingdom. The great famine (1845-1849) then decimated the Irish population, killing one million and causing another million to emigrate. British responsibility for the disaster led to the founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the ancestor of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), composed of “Volunteers” who favored armed struggle to establish a republic and Irish independence. In the late nineteenth century, two Protestants, Charles Stewart Parnell, a landowner and member of the House of Commons, and the British Prime Minister William Gladstone, started the Gaelic revival, a movement that promoted the Irish language and the redistribution of Anglo-Irish lands to Gaelic Irish. This movement eventually led to the Home Rule Act (1914), which instituted more decentralized management of Ireland. Once again feeling they were under siege, northern Irish Protestants mobilized their own Volunteers in a paramilitary movement called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

The time for Republican emancipation had come: on Easter Monday 1916, Republicans in Dublin rebelled against the sitting government, established a provisional government and declared a Republic. The rebellion was put down, the leaders executed, and the population punished, causing a swell of support for Republicanism and Sinn Féin, the political branch of the Irish Republican Volunteers. As a result, the 1918 election was an overwhelming victory for Sinn Féin. Campaigning on an independence platform, they won 73 of the 105 seats for Irish deputies in the House of Commons. But instead of going to London in 1919 to take those seats, the Sinn Féin deputies set up their own parliament in Dublin, the Dáil Éireann, and proclaimed the Irish Republic. The British government immediately outlawed the Dáil, setting off a two-year war of independence to defend the results of the 1918 election. The Republican Volunteers became the IRA. In the context of this struggle and to preserve the Protestant majority in the North part of the island, the British government, pressured by Unionists, partitioned Ireland between the province of Ulster in the north, which remained subject to the crown, and the rest of the island. In 1920 a decree then partitioned Ulster by excluding three of its nine counties because they had a Catholic majority. In 1921 Michael Collins, an IRA leader, went to 10 Downing Street to negotiate, and eventually signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Lloyd George. The treaty provided for an Irish Free State, which the British government would recognize as a Dominion in exchange for an oath of allegiance to the king. When Collins returned to Ireland, the treaty was rejected by Sinn Féin hardliners led by Collins’s rival, Éamon de Valera, and the 1922-1923 civil war began between the pro- and anti-Treaty factions. The Free State won, and in 1937 de Valera had the Republic of Ireland’s claim to Northern Ireland included in the Irish Constitution (articles 2 and 3).

The history of Ireland is thus the history of repressed nationalism against a background of de facto apartheid between Protestant settlers and Irish Catholics. In the 1960s, Catholics in Northern Ireland were in a position of complete inequality: the police were 90% Protestant, judges were 100% Protestant, priority was given to Protestants for housing and jobs, and the unemployment rate was twice as high for Catholics as it was for Protestants. The proportional representation law was even amended to guarantee a Protestant majority in cities that had a Catholic majority, such as Derry (renamed Londonderry). In 1967, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Alliance began a “one man, one vote” campaign that, in 1969, met with violent repression by Unionists, who beat demonstrators with clubs while the local police stood by. This event marked the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Extenuated by the incessant violence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary asked the British Army for reinforcements. While the northern Irish Catholics were relieved to see them arrive, they were quickly disenchanted: on January 30, 1972 the British Army killed 13 people in Derry. The images of Bloody Sunday were seen around the world, strengthening support for the IRA abroad and causing an influx of money, arms, and new recruits. Reprisals and counter-reprisals succeeded one another.

In 1980 Bobby Sands, elected as a nationalist deputy while in prison, died following the hunger strike he’d begun to protest the harsh treatment of Republican prisoners in British prisons. Ten other prisoners died under the government of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, and the world again expressed massive support for the IRA. The pressure led to the start of talks in 1993 at the instigation of John Major, who’d succeeded Thatcher in 1990. The Irish government announced that it might give up its quest for the Northern Territory written into its constitution. A framework for the future, a simple statement of intent, but a first essential step, was put on paper, but there was also distrust: in 1996 Sinn Féin claimed the English wanted a victory, not a cease-fire.

Ten Years to Put an End to Secular Struggles

As soon as he arrived at 10 Downing Street in 1997, Tony Blair made the Irish problem one of his priorities and informed his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, of his desire to put an end to the violence. Negotiations with the main parties were begun, and eventually culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This Agreement, which takes the form of what William Zartman would call a formula that precedes the subsequently negotiated details, provided for:

– keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom;
– British recognition of the Republic of Ireland’s full sovereignty over its own territory;
– removal of articles 2 and 3, related to the Republic’s claim over the northern territories, from the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland;
– the nomination of an Assembly with a Northern Irish Executive so power would be shared between Protestants and Catholics;
– a North/South council composed of ministers of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with a veto right for each party.

For the first time, the Republicans publicly agreed to negotiations that would not move in the direction of a reunified Ireland, and the Unionists agreed to share power with the Catholics. Off-camera, their leaders met for the first time since 1920 and in 1998, the Assembly met. Bill Clinton’s visit and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to John Hume and David Trimble, the respective moderate leaders of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), provided support for the peace process.

Even though the peace process had begun, however, on Saturday August 15, 1998 a bomb exploded shortly after 3 PM in the shopping center of the peaceful town of Omagh. The hardline Real IRA (RIRA) claimed credit for the action, which killed 29 people (including a woman pregnant with twins) and injured hundreds. Tony Blair saw this bomb not as a return to the past, but as confirmation that the political process had to move forward. Isolated, the RIRA ceased all violent operations three weeks later, though this did not keep Sinn Féin from declaring later that year that they would never disarm.

Disarmament nonetheless progressed in tandem with political emancipation. After various options had been considered, it was decided that both sides’ paramilitary organizations would turn in their arms and John de Chastelain, a neutral observer, would supervise the decommissioning until the arms were destroyed. A first deadline was set in 1999 to coincide with the institutional process: meeting of the Assembly, first meeting of the Executive, and the first official handshake between Unionists and Republicans. From then on, neither party would want to be responsible for the failure of negotiations. The peace process had started. It would last another eight years.

The decommissioning schedule was not followed, and the institutional process was interrupted for the first time in 2000. After obtaining relaxed police inspections in Northern Ireland, the IRA declared that it agreed to disarm the movement in a context where the conflict’s causes were removed. This was a turning point. The northern Irish Assembly and Executive began meeting again, even though violence persisted.

The process was interrupted a second time in 2002, as a result of the terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001 and arms talks. Although the IRA quickly claimed that its arsenal had been destroyed, Tony Blair made a statement on TV welcoming the news which he said was not an act of weakness, but a sign that politics was working. Evidence of arms trafficking on both sides was brought to light in 2001–2002 however, which in 2002 led to the second suspension of the northern Irish institutions.

Despite some reluctance, negotiations began again in 2003 on the issue of creating a disarmament commission (the Independent Monitoring Commission, or IMC) composed of three members—one Irish, one English, and one American—to supervise the decommissioning process on both sides by carrying out inspections and imposing penalties. The institutional process was also able to start up again, and saw electoral wins by the two extremist parties: Sinn Féin and the Unionist DUP led by Ian Paisley, known as “Mr. No.” Paisley’s arrival in the process worried those who wanted peace, but in 2004 he underwent surgery and came back transformed and with a mission: to find a solution to the problem of Northern Ireland. While many former combatants were taking up politics one after the other, “proximity talks” were started in London.

The institutional process was halted a third time in late 2004, after 30 million pounds were stolen from the Northern Bank by movements close to the IRA. Martin Mac Guinness, a co-leader of Sinn Féin who did not want to leave all the power in Unionist hands, said that “the struggle can now be taken by other means […]. In the past, I have defended the right of the IRA to engage in armed struggle. I did so because there was alternative for those who would not bend the knee or for those who wanted a national republic. Now, there is an alternative. That alternative is Sinn Féin” (rf Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, p. 269). This was another turning point.

In 2005, in the difficult context of a wave of Islamic terrorist attacks in London, de Chastelain announced on September 26 that all the arms of the Republican and Unionist paramilitary movements had been destroyed. The Executive was able to begin meeting again, Sinn Féin and the DUP were the two big winners in the March 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and Ian Paisley was ready to appoint his Executive cabinet members. In May 2007 an agreement was reached: Paisley would be prime minster, and Sinn Féin’s Mac Guinness would be deputy prime minister. On May 8, 2007 they were sworn in in the presence of Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, and a few individuals with a troubled past, but all united by the peace process. Tony Blair declared it was time ‘to escape the chains of history’ (rf Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, p. 307). Violence finally gave way to political struggle.

A Successful Peace Process: Determination as to the Objectives, Flexibility as to Means

Be Strong but Flexible

In hindsight, it seems that the main feature of the peace process in Northern Ireland is that it benefited from the unfailing courage and commitment of the main players, starting with Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. Their tenacity and ability to stay the course, to persevere for peace despite frequent outbreaks of violence, was without a doubt a decisive factor. Blair restarted the process several times when it had reached an impasse. Faced with a “no,” he asked his negotiators to try again and be creative. The process was also subject to deadlines, which guaranteed progress.

Despite their determination, both parties had to prove their openness. As soon as he took office in 1997, Blair issued an official apology to Ireland, on behalf of the British government, for the government’s role during the great famine of 1845-1849. At the same time, he promised the Unionists the United Kingdom’s unswerving support. These concessions helped cool the debate. Republicans felt their pain was being heard and Unionists felt less under siege. Dialogue was finally possible. The clear recognition of each party’s deepest aspirations, whether for symbolic, historical recognition or recognition of an immediate need for security, helped reassure them both with respect to the rest of the process.

In addition to recognizing these crucial needs, a certain amount of practical creativity came in handy. Concrete interests had to be defended and understood. Why was the IRA supported by the Catholic community? Because it defended that community’s cause. Simple police measures could not put an end to the conflict. In the 1980s a new, independent government had been set up to guarantee a more equitable distribution of housing and jobs between Catholics and Protestants. The reform did not resolve the conflict, but it eased tensions. Then came the power sharing, incorporating each party’s hopes and protecting minorities. Finally, the ambiguity promoted in the beginning to get the dialogue started progressively gave way to precision, especially for neutralizing arms.

In short, the ability to put one’s personal feelings aside and be patient, persevere, and get to know one’s counterparts were essential.

A Foreseeable Process that Included Third Parties

At crucial times, the parties were able to agree to call on a mediator: behind the disarmament issue laid the question of trust. Once disarmed, a paramilitary movement can always buy more arms. Turning to a mediator like de Chastelain helped soften the edges, prevent veering off track, and keep moving slowly but surely toward a common goal.

Sequence the process. When a mediator tries to reconcile opposing parties, each avoids making the first gesture because there is always a fear the other won’t reciprocate. This is why it is important to divide the process into small stages and maintain constant contact with those involved. The sealed arms depots were regularly inspected by neutral observers, as was the case in Bosnia. The parties must not feel they are surrendering.

Both parties eventually agreed to the six principles of non-violence the U.S. Senator George Mitchell proposed in 1996, which have been used to resolve a number of conflicts since then:

1. Favor peaceful, democratic means;
2. Completely disarm paramilitary organizations;
3. Have an independent commission supervise disarmament;
4. Renounce the use or threat of force;
5. Accept the agreement obtained without force or the threat of force;
6. Accept the end of repression and reprisals.

Practical arrangements made with these principles in mind can give full effect to symbolic connotations. In 2007 the bitter rivals Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, a Sinn Féin co-leader, had to sit down at the negotiating table. Should they be seated across from each other like adversaries, as the Unionists advised, or next to each other like friends, as the Republicans suggested? In the end they chose a diamond-shaped table, so each could sit at the head and thus be both across from and next to each other, like partners.

Progressing from Negotiating Positions to Negotiating Interests

Find the shared interest in the parties’ individual interests. For the Republicans, the important issue was not necessarily a reunified Ireland, but the defense of their rights over the northern Irish territory and access to power over Ireland’s affairs. For the Unionists, the real issue was not to be part of the United Kingdom but to be recognized by the British crown and to have a say in the management of Northern Ireland, where most of them had lived for 400 years. Their shared interest was peace.

Leave a door open. Unlike in previous negotiations, disarmament was not a prerequisite to talks but led simultaneously to political emancipation. This left time to think and prevented the risk of hitting an impasse, which would have caused the parties to camp on their positions: union with the United Kingdom or not.

The source of the conflict in Northern Ireland was not ethnic or religious, it was above all nationalist: it involved sovereignty over territory and the rights of peoples. The key to resolving it lays essentially in managing the process in a European context. The peace is of course fragile today, but the governmental institutions function and the people are more relaxed. While no negotiations can be transferred wholesale, this process can be a source of inspiration in the search for ways to reduce differences in armed conflicts, such as in the Palestinian territories or the Kashmir.

It is also a source of hope for all of us, because what happened there is also what is happening here and now for each of us: can I lower my weapon, question my initial position and look instead for shared interests? The peace process in Northern Ireland shows that it’s possible.

Written by

Marc Beretta

Academic Director at HEC Paris

Directeur académique à HEC Paris, il y intervient sur les thèmes du Management, du Leadership et du Développement Personnel auprès des programmes Executives depuis 2009. Executive Coach à l’international depuis près de 15 ans, il accompagne depuis 2012 les participants de TRIUM, le Global Executive MBA de HEC Paris, New York University (NYU) et London School of Economics (LSE), dans leur évolution professionnelle et personnelle ; il y est membre du corps professoral (Faculty).

Diplômé de l’ESCP, il est certifié « Master Coach » (MCC) par la Fédération Internationale de Coaching (ICF), « Coach Professionnel » par le RNCP, praticien MBTI® et Experience Change®. Il  a été formé à la psychologie (Analyse Transactionnelle).

Il croit que de petits changements peuvent faire une grande différence.

Chapitre extrait de l’ouvrage collectif ‘Négociations d’hier, Leçons pour aujourd’hui’ (Éditions Larcier, 2014), sous la direction d’Emmanuel Vivet.


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