- Why did you choose to write about this conflict?
- What is the premise of the volume?
- What policy choices exist for governments facing political violence?
- Why go back to a period of failure?
- What are the lessons for policymakers?
- What are the lessons for peace research?
- What lies ahead for Northern Ireland?
Why did you choose to write about this conflict?
I was born in Belfast and I have lived through the Troubles. As a public official and political scientist, I have witnessed both the terror and the gradual dawning of peace since 1994. I have known and shared ideas with British ministers and with politicians from both sides to the conflict. I understand the depth of feeling on both sides. I agree with the view expressed by Queen Elizabeth during her recent historic visit to Ireland, that the work of peacemakers in Ireland offers hope to others around the world and that through the right understanding and sustained effort, peace will prevail. This includes apparently intractable cases such as Israel/Palestine, the war-ravaged countries of central Asia and the countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring. By drawing out the lessons of Northern Ireland’s hard-won experience, I intend to contribute to the collective effort of peacemakers everywhere to improve our skills and understanding.
What is the premise of the volume?
Some commentators have expressed doubts about the value of cross-national research in conflict resolution. I accept that simplistic generalizations must be avoided. So instead of comparing Northern Ireland with other places, I decided to compare four distinct policy approaches pursued by the British government in Northern Ireland at different periods.
Each of my four case studies is designed to identify the impacts of rational, cognitive, political and organizational factors inside the machinery of the state. I then compare the four cases in order to assess which of these sets of factors made the most impact and how.
What policy choices exist for governments facing political violence?
The fundamental choice is between coercion and concessions. Coercion means using force or the threat of force to suppress or restrain protest. Coercive measures range from judicial procedures, constrained by statute and precedent, through curfews and mass detention to targeted assassination and genocide. In democratic societies, they generally fail except to the extent that they have real legitimacy and broad popular support. As to concessions, it is useful to distinguish between policy reforms, which offer limited compliance with the demands of protest leaders; and constitutional reforms, which bring protest leaders into the machinery of government. Policymakers may direct either type of response at entire communities, at politically active groups only or exclusively at critical individuals leading protest organizations.
Why go back to a period of failure?
I wanted to explore what factors shape states’ strategies for tackling ethnic violence: Why do they choose coercion rather than concessions? Having selected the British state in Northern Ireland as my example, I realised that when they first engaged with the conflict, its ministers and mandarins knew little about the place. They learned largely by trial and error. It took four years to devise the official doctrine which underpinned the eventual agreement—essentially powersharing between the leaders of the two traditions.
I considered that there would be more to be learned from the many failures of that formative period than from the later time, when the doctrine had crystallised.
What are the lessons for policymakers?
Perhaps the most important lesson is that policymaking for conflict resolution needs to be transparently evidence-based and intelligently self-aware. Top decision makers should be wary of false optimism, their own preconceptions, transient political pressures and organizational rigidities. They must realize that the solution they get will depend on who they give the problem to: diplomats will propose negotiations, generals force.
Restoring peace should not be confused with imposing one’s own worldview. During this formative period, British policymakers were hampered by ignorance of Irish history and a simple inability to come to terms with the fundamental difference between the politics they were accustomed to and the politics of the region. They believed that if Northern Ireland’s political leaders would conduct their affairs in line with British democratic standards, all would be well. One obvious lesson—read up on your political history!
Another lesson is the value of anticipating problems before they get out of hand. There is a common pattern of engagement between states and protestors in which concessions encourage more aggressive forms of protest, resulting in more widespread coercion. This fuels more violent and sustained protest and can strengthen insurgent organizations. In a divided society, concessions to one side may provoke violence by the other, resulting in a policy pendulum whereby the state offers concessions to whichever side prevents the greater risk, so generating continuous protest and counter-protest. Once the spiral begins, it’s hard to stop. State coercion is itself a major cause of violence. But where coercion is used it should be consistent and as far as practicable compliant with international human rights standards.
What are the lessons for peace research?
The book will be valuable for peace researchers everywhere. It sets out a robust practical framework for the analysis of democratic governments’ approaches to the management and regulation of violent political conflict in deeply divided regions. It will enable those working for peace to become more aware of the intellectual, political and organizational constraints which are likely to impact policy and frustrate them in achieving their goals. Once they know what they are, they can plan for them.
The final chapter also illustrates the limitations and qualifications which must apply to ostensibly consociational solutions in any particular case, especially where the territory in question is the subject of competing sovereignty claims between neighboring states.
What lies ahead for Northern Ireland?
It would be unwise to offer any predictions. The one certainty is that unforeseen events will occur. A pessimist might point to the fact that deep divisions persist, notably in education and housing. Irreconcilable national aspirations are still the basis for party politics. Small factions have broken away from the main body of Irish republicanism, dramatizing their opposition to the agreement through bullets and bombs.
But I am cautiously optimistic. As long as the two national governments and the party leaders continue to support the agreement, the prospects are excellent. The agreement is rooted in an international treaty between the British and Irish governments. Queen Elizabeth’s recent visit to Ireland cemented the improvement in relations between the two countries which has been developing over the past two decades. The Irish state no longer claims jurisdiction over the entire island, and the majority community in Northern Ireland has accepted powersharing as an everyday reality. Mainstream republicanism has decisively moved beyond violence. The Assembly and Executive created by the agreement have recently completed their first uninterrupted term of office, and have successfully taken control over policing and criminal justice. In the Assembly election campaign of May 2011 the largest parties’ manifestoes focused on strengthening the economy, and they received a fresh mandate for working together.