The Cadogan Group


Square Circles




The Cadogan Group, October 1996


The Cadogan Group was formed in 1991 by a small number of academics and others in Northern Ireland unhappy with overall government policy on the province, and with the consensus analysis of the problem shared by the United Kingdom and Irish Governments and by many observers and commentators. This, the Group felt, was based on a too ready acceptance of received wisdom as to the origins of the problem, and an uncritical willingness to believe that a solution could be found only within a framework which leans too readily towards an untenable nationalist viewpoint. It was, we believed, a fundamentally mistaken approach


Where now in Northern Ireland? The official line, from the United Kingdom and Irish Governments, and from most political leaders, is that multi-party talks must proceed, that the best and only hope of a resolution is through dialogue around the table. This is also the opinion of observers from outside, while within Northern Ireland the same view emerges from newspaper editorials, from meetings, conferences and commentaries. Young people express impatience with their elders, and declare themselves unable to see why political leaders cannot sit down and reach agreement. Varieties of churchmen, evangelicals and concerned citizens point to South Africa and the Middle East, where, they argue, round table talks among opponents sharing nothing more than a commitment to peace have produced dramatic results

At the same time, the insider view is that the talks are doomed to failure. Government officials say it, politicians say it, commentators say it - all in private, all afraid that to say so clearly and publicly would be to precipitate failure, or to invite condemnation for bringing it about. The result is considerable public unease and uncertainty. The purpose of this pamphlet is seek an explanation for what now seems the inevitable failure of the talks, to question whether the round table approach of all-party negotiations leading to a comprehensive settlement is appropriate to the Northern Ireland situation, and to suggest what should happen then.

Desire for a rapid resolution through negotiation is understandable. For the duration of the Troubles the dominant reality of terrorism has exerted pressure for a dramatic breakthrough. The search for a comprehensive agreement producing peace began at Sunningdale and has continued ever since. Since the Sunningdale Conference in December 1973 right through to the 1996 multi-party talks, representatives of the major political forces in Northern Ireland, and of the United Kingdom and Irish Governments have been engaged in almost continuous dialogue, sometimes formally as in the Brooke-Mayhew talks of 1991 and 1992, or in various assemblies and forums, or informally through the generality of political debate and within the busy conference circuit that has flowered around the Northern Ireland problem. In some instances, particularly during the Brooke-Mayhew talks, the participants have devoted much time, energy and serious thought to the issues confronting them.

Despite this, and notwithstanding strong commitment from the two governments to the search for a solution, and pressure from them on the political forces in Northern Ireland to pursue that goal, not even an interim agreement has been found. Nor has the accompaniment of appalling terrorist violence and sectarian guerrilla warfare succeeded in concentrating minds sufficiently for dialogue to succeed. The events of July 1996 indicated the existence of a level of communal hatred as bad as at any time during the past quarter of a century.

The search for a solution has continued at intergovernmental level, as well as in the multi-party format. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the most substantial piece of governmental infrastructure to be put in place to try to solve the problem of Northern Ireland, was the result of intergovernmental dealing, involving no negotiation at all among the main parties in dispute. This Anglo-Irish bi-lateral approach to the problem, characterised by repeated and prolonged dialogue between government officials and government ministers, up to the level of heads of government, has culminated in a common policy, but has not resulted in solution of the problem. Its success has been limited to bringing the two governments together in a broadly common stance, which may, perversely, have helped stultify dialogue among the key antagonists in Northern Ireland, and indeed within both nationalism and unionism.

Why has multi-party dialogue proved so unsuccessful in Northern Ireland? Are the people and politicians of the province inordinately obtuse and stubborn? Is the problem immeasurably difficult? Part of the answer may indeed lie in the multi-layered nature of the problem, which defeats all attempts at simple and superficial analysis. In one sense it is a territorial dispute, and territorial disputes are notoriously difficult to resolve; they lie outside the confines of domestic law and much established international law.

Another layer of difficulty arises from the fact that the dispute, at its present crisis level, has existed now for a sufficient length of time for it to take on the characteristics of a feud. In the typical feud the supreme aim of the combatants is to defeat or discomfit each other. The underlying issues may become unimportant, or may be pushed aside, leaving the feuding itself as the most striking aspect of the problem. To observers outside Northern Ireland, and indeed to many people of goodwill inside the province, the real problem seems to be the bad or childish behaviour of the opposing factions. It is to those who take this view that the appeal of the round table is greatest. This overall view of the problem helped frame the dominant interpretation of the July 1996 disturbances surrounding and following the Orange Order march at Drumcree. To many, the behaviour of the Orangemen, of other loyalists and, subsequently, of nationalists reacting to loyalist violence, was both incomprehensible and unnecessary, not to say disgraceful

What is missing from this general reaction is any reference to the fundamentals, to the dispute over the territory of Northern Ireland and the diametrically opposed and deeply-held views on the issue. Here may lie an indication of just why efforts to resolve the problem by round-table negotiation have proved so unsuccessful - they have all been based on an assumption that a settlement is possible which will, in the words of the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, produce no winners and no losers, no victories, no surrenders. Such an assumption, and any policy based on it, is seriously underestimating the reality of the problem.

Just recently some commentators have brought re-partition or canonisation into the discussion; this is at least a belated recognition of the depth of division and the irreconcilability of opposing positions. But it is not the type of solution which the advocates of dialogue can imagine emerging from multi-party talks, nor indeed is it a solution at all, given the enormous difficulty the devising of any such scheme would present, and the near certainty that it would not end conflict. Yet repartition is, in many ways, the logical end position of the joint approach of London and Dublin, based as it is on their policy of parity of esteem between the two political traditions.

It is the contention of this pamphlet that a vital layer of difficulty in the Northern Ireland problem has been this mistaken approach of the United Kingdom Government over many years. Not only has that approach, undertaken in partnership with and much influenced by the Irish Government, failed to produce a resolution, it has actually contributed to a worsening of the problem, and rendered almost impossible the sort of negotiated settlement the Government now so keenly pursues.

It is no great thing to suggest a government has got it wrong; it is rather more serious to say that successive governments in two countries have, together, misread the problem of Northern Ireland, and pursued erroneous policies for at least a decade. Nevertheless it is the contention of this pamphlet that mistaken policy at government level is a significant factor in explaining why a small minority dedicated to violence has effectively held two European governments to ransom for more than 20 years in the second half of the twentieth century.



Commentators on Northern Ireland repeatedly point to South Africa and the Middle East as models to be followed, as examples of how round-table dialogue between entrenched opponents can break down the most historic divisions and enmities, of how compromise can be found through discussion, even in the most unfavourable circumstances. In particular they point to South Africa, where dialogue produced the remarkable coming together in a coalition government of the Afrikaner National Party and the African National Congress, in a truly historic move towards a solution of the most intractable problem in the modern world.

But genuine admiration for what has been achieved in South Africa and elsewhere, and fervent wishes that Northern Ireland could produce political leaders like Nelson Mandela, should not obscure fundamental differences between these most frequently cited examples and the situation in Northern Ireland.

In South Africa the vital point to note is that the negotiations followed the identification of the solution; it was not the case of a compromise solution emerging from dialogue. What was the problem? Essentially it was the imposition and maintenance of the apartheid system by an undemocratic minority government. There was universal agreement that this was the problem; both the racism of apartheid and the despotic nature of minority rule had been formally and explicitly denounced by the Union Nations and by world opinion. Nowhere in the globe was there support for the National Party Government in South Africa; inside the country there was a tacit admission by much of white South Africa that its position was untenable, and the white business community in particular, hit by trade and investment sanctions, knew that the time had come to attempt a negotiated settlement. During a visit to Belfast in June 1996, the Secretary General of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, told a meeting that by 1990 the National Party Government had reached the conclusion, under the threat of pressure from the international community, and the possibility of outside intervention, that it could no longer defy world opinion. All this was against the background of the demographic realities of South Africa, where the whites were becoming a steadily smaller minority in percentage terms.

What was the solution? Again there was agreement; the solution was the dismantling of apartheid and the end of minority rule. Dialogue began when the South African Government accepted that that had to be the solution. There was no compromise on this the fundamental issue; there were clear winners and clear losers. Nelson Mandela moved from long-term imprisonment to the presidency of his country. Once that solution was accepted, then dialogue and compromise went some way to ensuring that all citizens of South Africa, white and black, could share and enjoy the benefits of a common citizenship of their country. But that negotiation, and all discussion over the organisation of the transition from one regime to another, over the decommissioning or retention of arms, took placeafter, not before, there was general agreement that apartheid must go and minority rule must end.

In the Middle East the scenario was similar, though less transparent. The problem, initially, was the very creation of Israel in what Arabs regarded as their lands, but it became, essentially, the Israeli occupation of ‘Palestinian’ land in Jordan and Egypt, and also in Syria, seized by armed invasion in the Six Day War of 1967, and held ever since in defiance of world opinion and of specific United Nations’ resolutions. It was complicated by other factors, such as the continued refusal of some Arab states to recognise the state of Israel or its legitimate borders, and by repeated acts of terrorism against the state of Israel, also in defiance of the United Nations. But in later years the issue became concentrated upon the demand of the Palestinian people to have their own state based on the ‘occupied territories’.

As in the case of South Africa, there was a clear moral issue, recognised, largely, by world opinion and formally endorsed by the United Nations - that Israel, since 1967, was in illegal occupation of Arab territories, and that the Palestinian people, as represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, had a right to a homeland in those territories. Thus, again, the solution was known, in outline at least, before the negotiations. In this case the resolution has not been as dramatic as in South Africa; Palestinians and other Arabs are still divided over the settlement, and over the fundamental issues of Israel’s legitimacy, while opinion within Israel is also sharply divided. Fudge and ambiguity, plus a change of government in Israel, have left things balanced precariously. But it was the acceptance by Israel that some form of autonomous Palestinian homeland had to be conceded to the PLO, and that most, if not all, of the occupied territories would have to be given up, thatopened the way for dialogue.

If negotiations have been less productive in the Middle East than in South Africa, then the explanation lies in the continued opposition to that consensus, both among the Palestinians and within Israel. Arab militants reject the settlement and continue their terrorist acts against Israel, while inside Israel serious opposition remains to the idea of a Palestinian homeland, and to any surrender of the occupied territories.

Nevertheless, in the Middle East as in South Africa, the broad outlines of a solution were already evident and widely acknowledged. In both cases the negotiations were vital, and required courage and imagination, to ensure that the proposed solution could actually be implemented in a manner which would provide some hope of stability, and which could take account of the legitimate concerns - as distinct from the undemocratic demands or unrealisable aspirations - of all parties.


Legitimacy Recognised

But where, in Northern Ireland, is the acknowledged solution? Where, indeed, is the clearly recognised problem? Irish nationalism, in its broad analysis, still argues that the very existence of Northern Ireland is illegitimate, that its territory rightfully belongs to the ‘Irish nation’, from which it was detached in 1921 by the power of the British state. This is, essentially, the view embodied in the constitution of the Irish Republic. But it is a view with no basis in international law, where the legitimacy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is fully recognised, and has never been challenged, not even by the Irish Republic. The United Kingdom itself asserts no claim over the territory of Northern Ireland other than that based on the clearly expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom.

In practice, governments of the Irish Republic have fully accepted this situation; they may themselves have avoided actually using the proper title ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and have persuaded London to fudge the issue in the Downing Street Declaration, the New Framework for Agreement and elsewhere by constantly referring to the ‘British Government’, but the fact remains that Ireland has signed numerous international treaties and agreements with ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ without demur, and shares membership of the European Union with that same United Kingdom. It does not challenge the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.

Irish governments and political parties also declare their endorsement of the principle of consent, that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom because a majority of its people so desires, and that there can be no change unless and until a majority decides otherwise. There is therefore, neither in international law and practice, nor in the context of how the mainstream Irish nationalist position is now presented, any ‘cause’ as regards Northern Ireland. There is no great moral issue, endorsed by international opinion or by the United Nations, over partition. The aspiration of a body of opinion on the island towards achieving a united Ireland is just that, a political aspiration, not the pursuit of a fundamental right. While outside opinion might have some sympathy with a nationalist minority wishing to be part of another state, few can support a demand that territory be transferred contrary to the wishes of the majority in that territory.

In tacit recognition of this, Irish nationalism has substituted for traditional anti-partitionism and revanchism an approach stemming from the issue of civil rights within Northern Ireland, particularly as regards the Catholic minority. It is argued, not just that there must be full respect for all basic civil and human rights within Northern Ireland - as indeed there must - but that the circumstances of Northern Ireland mean that these rights cannot be adequately protected within the normal arrangements for the governance of the United Kingdom. Therefore there must be an institutionalised role for the Government of the Republic of Ireland in the administration of that part of the United Kingdom to ensure that the Catholic, or nationalist, minority is given fair play.

In support of this, Irish nationalism, through the New Ireland Forum of 1984, articulated a new basic right for the minority in Northern Ireland - the right to political expression of their Irish identity. As the Cadogan Group has argued in earlier pamphlets, this is a novel concept going far beyond any of the numerous conventions and agreements in the international sphere on the treatment of minorities. It is, essentially, the assertion that a political minority within a state with which it does not identify, but from which it is unable to secede because it has no territorial base within which it is a majority, has a ‘right’ , through treaty and institutional arrangements, to involve, on its behalf, the government of another state, with which it does identify, in the administration of the affairs of the state, or a region of the state, within which it is trapped.

This is an imaginative and, to some, attractive approach to a difficult problem. It has had some appeal to United Kingdom governments - and opposition parties - and is the basis of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Framework proposals of 1995. It is, however, an approach that has no place in international agreements on minorities, mainly because of the obvious threat of instability it carries, and the potential for interference by one state in the affairs of another.

Despite the lack of a basis in international law and practice, this is the approach to Northern Ireland favoured by both the British and Irish Governments, and supported, perhaps unthinkingly, by external opinion. It is seen as a worthwhile option, as a possible solution - not as something required by international law, not a moral imperative, not as something the rejection of which could be condemned by resolutions of the Security Council. It is also an approach which has been consistently rejected by a substantial majority of the inhabitants of the region concerned - Northern Ireland.

This joint London-Dublin approach cannot therefore, in any sense, correspond to the end of apartheid and overthrow of minority rule parameters that were set before negotiation in South Africa. The fact that the approach has been rejected by the greater number of the inhabitants of the region concerned is made particularly vital by the repeated insistence of both governments that any solution in Northern Ireland must have the general agreement of the people living there. There is not, therefore, in Northern Ireland the broad agreement on what must and should, morally, be done which allowed negotiation to start in South Africa or the Middle East. The examples of South Africa and the Middle East are inappropriate for Northern Ireland, indeed they are misleading as models in so far as they suggest there is, too, in Northern Ireland, a clear, simple, moral issue posing clear, if difficult, choices.



 It is not just the obvious differences between the circumstances in South Africa and the Middle East and those in Northern Ireland, notably the absence of a clear, predominant moral issue, that explain why multi-party dialogue has proved so unproductive here. There are other factors, which become evident in a survey of government policy towards Northern Ireland, both over the general period of the Troubles, and more particularly over the past few years.

Simplistic faith in the power of discussion can confuse, not clarify the issues and make more difficult the hard choices that must be involved in the resolution of a long-term and bitter dispute. For instance it has been the prime assumption of all British Governments for some years that a stable compromise can be brokered, through negotiation, between unionists and nationalists - a compromise which would leave Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, thereby satisfying unionists, while offering a range of rhetorical, institutional and other expressions of ‘Irishness’ which would satisfy nationalists. Southern political leaders have indicated a similar belief in the power of dialogue, and the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring has pinned his faith to a settlement within which there are ‘no winners, no losers’. The parameters of such a deal are set out in the Frameworks proposals, produced jointly by the British and Irish Governments, and published in February 1995.

But while the main sponsors of dialogue in Northern Ireland, the two governments, may agree on the broad outline of a settlement, the principal antagonists - unionism and nationalism - fundamentally disagree, and their disagreement is not just over the suggested settlement, but over the whole Anglo-Irish consensus policy which has produced it.

This consensus has been warmly supported by the broad body of Irish nationalism. Unionists see it as an essentially nationalist agenda, and perceive an obvious determination on the part of nationalists of all hues to keep moving policy in the direction of eventual Irish unity. It is true that the unification of Ireland has been long abandoned as a short, or even medium-term policy goal by Irish governments and most southern political parties. But as a legitimate aspiration it is untouchable, even in a state where energies are manifestly devoted to social and economic modernisation within an integrating Europe. Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution embodying the explicit claim to the territory of Northern Ireland were first seriously questioned by the Southern political establishment in the 1960s. Since then there has been an unspoken consensus that while the aspiration to unity should not be abandoned, it is inappropriate actually to pursue the constitutional claim.

But the refusal, or inability, of the Republic to remove that claim has left it as confirmation to unionists that unification remains the ultimate objective of all nationalist policy. It is extremely difficult, therefore, to present the unusual type of arrangement envisaged in the Framework proposals, or embodied in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, as a genuine settlement of the problem, an end position beyond which things will not move, and within which Northern Ireland can find stability and normality. The rhetoric of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, and of the Frameworks, is essentially favourable to nationalist aspirations, giving the impression that Irish unity is indeed a reasonable, even desirable expectation, albeit one that cannot be forced upon Northern Ireland while unionists remain a majority.

The reason for this odd and unsatisfactory policy pursued by the two governments is not hard to find. The republican element of the nationalist community has pursued a determined guerrilla war for 25 years, which it has proved impossible to defeat by the acceptable security means available to a liberal democratic regime. Successive governments have thus attempted to isolate the terrorists by accommodating the nationalist minority, and responding to its economic and political concerns.. In addition to high levels of financial subsidy to the province, this initially included attempts to involve constitutional nationalists in regional government and administration. Most recently efforts have been made to treat directly with the republicans themselves. Successive Irish governments have pushed steadily for greater influence in Northern Ireland, at limited cost to themselves

Unionists, and others, looking back over the history of Northern Ireland since the early 1970s can trace an evolution of policy from the point where London considered the province solely an internal United Kingdom matter, through acceptance of the Dublin Government’s ‘legitimate concern’ and its role as the second guarantor of the Northern minority, down to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the formal acceptance of an advisory role for the Dublin Government in the administration of Northern Ireland. Since then London has taken no major political initiative directed towards a solution in Northern Ireland other than in agreement with Dublin. There have been vigorous disagreements in the course of negotiation, leaving each side, on occasion, less than happy with the compromise, and London has, at times, made sensitive policy decisions without what Dublin would regard as adequate consultation. Even so, it is arguable that as regards key steps, such as the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration and the Frameworks for the Future, British policy has been significantly modified to incorporate the priorities of the Irish Government.

Such a solidly bi-lateral approach may seem eminently sensible, given the historical background to the problem, and may appear to many to offer the best, perhaps only, hope of a solution. But it is undeniable that it has moved the wider public and political perception of the problem a long way along the spectrum towards both a nationalist analysis and a nationalist solution. The issue is no longer how to ensure that a reluctant minority is fairly treated within the United Kingdom and helped to identify with the state, but how to reach agreement among the peoples of Ireland. United Kingdom Governments since 1972 have tailored policy to meet the nationalist insistence that all moves must be in the direction of Irish unity, and no move must be away from it. Since 1972 the ratchet has worked, and nationalist gains made have been rigidly maintained, with no slipping back.


Inconsistent Analysis

Alongside this approach has been the re-assertion of the constitutional guarantee, that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland, a guarantee endorsed by the Dublin Government

Even allowing for those variations, it is clear that these two bedrocks of policy, constant movement to satisfy nationalist aspirations and continued affirmation of the constitutional guarantee to the unionists, contradict one another. Nationalism in Northern Ireland wants a process; unionism demands a settlement. The nationalist approach abhors stability; unionists want an end to uncertainty, a positive and final agreement. Nationalists always talk in terms of processes, of which the ‘peace process’ is the most recent manifestation. The processes of nationalism are constantly in motion, and stability can be found only in the ultimate goal of unity.

The attempts of United Kingdom governments to find an agreed settlement short of Irish unity have always foundered on this reality, and will continue to do so. Attempts at a settlement so far, whether imposed, as in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, or proposed, as in the Frameworks, have not only been rejected by unionists, they have been acceptable to nationalists only as interim accommodations, staging posts on the way to somewhere else.

For example when Mrs Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, she and her Government believed they had achieved a settlement under which Dublin effectively abandoned any prospect of Irish unity. However, when her Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King, suggested in a speech in Brussels a month later that, in the Agreement, the Republic had ‘accepted for all practical purposes and into perpetuity that there will never be a united Ireland’ this view was hotly rejected by Dublin. Any idea that the Agreement implied any weakening of the Constitutional claim to Northern Ireland was subsequently dismissed by the High Court in Dublin.

Inside Northern Ireland nationalist politicians repeated their view that the Agreement was not a settlement, but a process. More recently, SDLP spokesmen have talked of a new agreement to ‘transcend’ the existing one, and reaffirmed their party’s objective of full joint-authority over Northern Ireland by Dublin and London, an arrangement hinted at in the Agreement, but going far beyond it.

The seriousness with which nationalists pursue their aim has always been either underestimated or ignored by British governments and the British political establishment. Perhaps the general acceptance by nationalists that the ultimate aim of Irish unity is, at present, unrealistic, has obscured the truth that their policy is governed by the imperative to move in the direction of unity, to win the argument, as it were, even if unity itself is currently out of range, and may long remain so. As a result, British policy in Northern Ireland for twenty five years was based on a futile attempt to gain nationalist acceptance of the permanence of partition by means of a series of concessions in the vague direction of its removal.


Origins of Accommodation

While this may sound irrational, it was in line with the overall policy of accommodation adopted by London towards nationalism over most of the period of the Troubles. The most urgent and difficult factor for government, and for everyone else, in Northern Ireland since 1970, has been the terrorist campaign of the IRA. (Loyalist terror has also been a factor, and at times an extremely important one, but it grew, essentially, as a response to the IRA.) For many years the defeat of the IRA was the Government’s primary policy objective, and an essential ingredient of that policy was to strengthen constitutional nationalism as a means of weaning away support from the IRA and Republicanism. Ideally this would result in constitutional nationalists sharing in government in Northern Ireland, and standing together with unionists in resisting both IRA and Loyalist terror.

This approach appeared fully logical to almost all strands of British opinion, including the more moderate unionist elements in Northern Ireland. The present Troubles grew out of the civil rights disturbances of the late 1960s, and the early civil and social reforms were seen, correctly, as remedies of Catholic grievances, not concessions to nationalism. But the onset of the IRA campaign and the evolution of the civil rights movement and its leaders into a new and articulate political nationalism, persuaded many that much more was needed. In such a crisis it was essential to secure the ‘consent’ of the disaffected minority to the governmental arrangement within which they found themselves, just as it was essential to strengthen constitutional nationalism in its contest with Republicanism.

A strong belief in the abuses of the Stormont era produced a consensus that unionists could not again be trusted to run Northern Ireland; it thus became more important than ever to persuade moderate nationalists to participate in the politics of the state, and indeed to join in a power-sharing arrangement with unionists for the administration of the province. This broad view has been widely accepted, even by some unionists, and every attempt at a settlement since Sunningdale has included proposals for some sort of power-sharing or partnership arrangement.

But the nationalist argument was not just that unionists could never again be trusted with majority rule; it was that minority rights within Northern Ireland could never be fully guaranteed within a completely internal United Kingdom arrangement. Hence the demand for recognition of Dublin as the ‘second guarantor’. The SDLP’s commitment to joint Dublin-London authority over Northern Ireland as the real policy goal dates from its 1972 document, Towards a New Ireland. As that document made clear, even joint authority was viewed as a stepping stone to full Irish unity.

So guarantees of fair play and a share in the administration of Northern Ireland were not sufficient for the Northern minority; to get them on board, the Government had also to make concessions to the political demands of nationalism. The most conspicuous early result of this was the inclusion of the Council of Ireland element in the Sunningdale agreement - an inclusion which was, in the end. to prove fatal to the power-sharing administration of 1974..

While the intention of this policy of accommodating nationalism may have been to defeat the IRA, the immediate result was to move, albeit slightly, in the direction it wanted to go. In any event, it did not work, and the IRA continued to flourish, thereby suggesting, at least to the IRA, that violence did pay. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was a second major and radical attempt to accommodate specifically nationalist requirements into a settlement plan for Northern Ireland. One of its prime motivations was to ensure that moderate nationalism in the form of the SDLP was not electorally eclipsed by Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein’s gains at the polls in the early 1980s in the aftermath of the H-Blocks hunger-strikes had particularly alarmed the Dublin Government.

From 1972 to the early 1990s, the Government put considerable effort into this policy of accommodating nationalists, seeking to encourage them into some power-sharing arrangement within Northern Ireland. This effort has been bedded in a more continuous policy of economic and legislative generosity, towards Northern Ireland as a region, but discernibly towards nationalists’ interests within the region. Public expenditure, as a result, has averaged per head 40 per cent more than in England, and is higher in almost every single government expenditure programme. The pattern of disadvantage in Northern Ireland has meant, inevitably and justifiably, that this investment has ended up more frequently in nationalist areas rather than in unionist ones. But there have also been conspicuous examples where public expenditure projects have gone to nationalist areas ahead of real need; the new Foyle Bridge, the transfer of the port of Londonderry to a new down-stream site, and the development of Eglinton airport, all in the Derry area, are examples of projects which have clearly been given upgraded priority for political reasons.

Northern Ireland’s Fair Employment legislation is another striking example of government’s determination to go out of its way to address nationalist concerns. The 1975 Fair Employment Act was brought in, in the words of a then Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, William van Straubenzee, not because the Government had any evidence that job discrimination was a major problem and a crucial factor in high unemployment rates among Catholics, but to deal with the perception, among Catholics, that such discrimination existed, and to prevent any possible discrimination in the future. When the 1975 Act proved ineffective in reducing the unemployment gap, a second, much stricter measure was introduced in 1990, despite an almost complete lack of research evidence to support the view that discrimination is a cause of high Catholic unemployment.


Failure of Accommodation

This policy of responding to particular concerns of moderate nationalists and of seeking to give priority to the social and economic needs of nationalist areas did appear to have a measure of success. The threat from Sinn Fein to the SDLP as the majority party of the minority, receded during the second half of the 1980s. By 1990 opinion polls were indicating that one half of all SDLP voters (that is about one third of the Catholic minority) had as their preferred option for a settlement in Northern Ireland some arrangement within the United Kingdom.

But despite this apparent shift in nationalist opinion towards moderation, the policy did not achieve its major objective. It did not bring an end to IRA violence, nor did it make inroads into the core support for that violence as measured by the Sinn Fein vote. Most particularly it did not bring the SDLP any closer to accepting an internal settlement for Northern Ireland. The party’s policy remained joint-authority as an immediate goal, no modification of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and preferably its strengthening through ‘transcending’. Given the continued unionist rejection of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, this left no common ground upon which any real dialogue could be launched.

In the early 1990s the beginning of the Hume-Adams process and the secret contacts between Her Majesty’s Government and the IRA led rapidly to a switch from accommodation and concessions to moderate nationalism, to direct appeasement and concessions to Republican terrorism. A policy which, for almost two decades, had been all about strengthening the moderate centre and holding the SDLP and the Dublin Government in common cause with London against extreme Republicanism and terrorism, was suddenly transformed into a peace process within which a pan-nationalist front brought Sinn Fein in from the cold alongside the SDLP, the Dublin Government and Irish-America. Together this ‘pan-nationalist front’ persuaded the British Government to appeal directly to the IRA.

It is easy to see how this came about. The earlier policy had not succeeded either in marginalizing Sinn Fein or persuading the IRA to stop. The security forces, as senior British military men obligingly told everyone, had not been, and would not be able to defeat the IRA. There were at least some signs that Sinn Fein were open to persuasion that they could more readily achieve their aims by political means than by armed struggle. For nationalists there was the prospect of a re-united nationalist family capable of winning more significant concessions. Their long-term refusal to split completely with republicanism through a deal with unionists could now take on a more respectable and, for them, productive, role. For the Dublin Government there was the prospect of taking the gun out of Irish politics, and finally settling ‘the North’. For the Government in London, the British political establishment and the media, there was the Holy Grail itself - peace.

In these circumstances, and particularly in the post-cease-fire haven of (comparative) peace, it was easy for many to avoid seeing that the price of all this was appeasement of terrorism. It was possible for others to argue that a measure of appeasement was small price to pay, and in any case what opponents of nationalism might term appeasement was, to the pan-nationalist front, simply the recognition of the correctness of the nationalist case. But appeasement it was, and this became undeniable as the Government progressively abandoned its demands that the IRA declare their peace permanent, and that it surrender its arms. After the resumption of IRA bombing the only precondition for negotiating with Sinn Fein seemed to be a resumption of the cease-fire. The word ‘permanent’ disappeared from official discourse. The requirement for even a token ‘decommissioning’ of terrorist weapons had gone. And there were those, like former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, ready to argue that Sinn Fein should be brought into negotiations immediately without any renewed cease-fire.

Under cover of the general euphoria surrounding the ‘peace process’ the essential character of dialogue in Northern Ireland had changed. What had been a search for a political accommodation between the broad strands of nationalism and unionism became more a negotiation between militant nationalism and the British state. The imperative of ensuring that the cease-fire was maintained, or once broken, reinstated, dominated all other considerations, and threatened to move matters to the plane the IRA and Sinn Fein had always been seeking - that of a peace conference, an exercise in ‘conflict resolution’ to end hostilities between two sides which had been pursuing their legitimate aims (legitimate in their own eyes) by force of arms. The closing of nationalist ranks, including the Dublin Government, SDLP and Irish-America behind Sinn Fein in pressurising the British Government to accommodate Republican demands, meant the broader dialogue on a settlement in Northern Ireland was submerged in ‘conflict resolution’ between a minority terrorist group and the British state. The most damaging result of this, and the one precisely desired by Republicans, has been a post-facto legitimising of IRA terrorism. A small group long denounced by the Irish Government, moderate nationalists and many others, as ruthless and mindless terrorists who must be suppressed, are now dignified as essential interlocutors, without whom dialogue is not worth a penny candle.

This distortion of reality survived the resumption in early 1996 of the IRA’s campaign of terrorism, with massive car-bombing of civilian urban areas in Britain. Unfortunately, and despite John Major’s repudiation of Gerry Adams at the 1996 Tory Conference, and John Bruton’s strong Dail statement, the distortion appears to remain the policy of both the United Kingdom and Irish Governments.



Even before the ‘peace process’ of Hume-Adams began dominating the search for a solution, the gulf between unionist and nationalist analyses of the problem and the articulation of their aspirations had deepened and hardened. This is shown in the accounts of the government-led attempt to find all-party agreement in the period between 1989 and 1992.

The Brooke-Mayhew Talks of 1991 and 1992 constituted the most intensive attempt at seeking an overall settlement in Northern Ireland by means of multi-party dialogue since Sunningdale almost 20 years earlier. They involved the British and Irish governments, and the four main parties - the Ulster Unionists, SDLP, DUP and Alliance. Over a total period of 19 months the participants met in Belfast, London and Dublin and explored at length, and in considerable detail, many aspects of the problem with the declared aim of finding ‘a new and more broadly-based agreement’ to replace the contentious Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

The process began with a request from unionist leaders to the then Secretary of State Tom King in 1988 for ‘talks about talks’ to break the deadlock over the 1985 Agreement. In early 1989 Brian Mawhinney, then a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, began a round of informal discussions with political leaders. By January 1990, Peter Brooke, who had replaced Tom King, felt able to state that there was sufficient ground between the parties to make talks worthwhile. It was more than a year later, however, when the Secretary of State could tell the House of Commons, in March 1991, that an agreed basis for talks had been found.

It is accepted that discussions must focus on the three main relationships; those within Northern Ireland, including the relationship between any new institutions there and the Westminster Parliament; among the people of the island of Ireland; and between the two governments

The aim, he said, was to produce a new and more broadly-based agreement. They would begin with discussions among the Northern Ireland parties aimed at achieving devolved government for the province, and would go on to consider the North-South and Ireland-UK strands when the Secretary of State deemed appropriate. All strands were to be part of one package, with nothing agreed until all was agreed, and the final result would require ‘popular validation’.

The Brooke talks began at Stormont on April 30th, and after much procedural wrangling, arrived at full round-table discussions. However, it was soon clear that progress was not possible within the time allowed - a gap in meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference - and the talks were brought to what Mr Brooke called an orderly conclusion on July 3rd, without reaching strands two and three, but with the hope that a foundation had been created for ‘further constructive political exchanges in the future’.

Almost a year later, in April 1992, the talks resumed at Stormont under the new Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew. Again the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference had suspended its meetings for three months to allow this to happen. This time the talks did reach strand two (without agreeing strand one) and the Australian independent chairman, Sir Ninian Stephen, presided over discussions in London and Dublin involving the northern parties and the two governments. Work was also begun on strand three, but the imminent resumption of the meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference prompted a unionist withdrawal and the talks collapsed on November 10th.

A great deal of time and effort was put into the talks by all the participants, particularly in their second phase under Sir Patrick Mayhew from April to September 1992. Position papers were exchanged, and there was lengthy and serious discussion of themes, and principles, accompanied by specific proposals, resulting in voluminous documentation which has, largely, remained unpublished. Some common ground was established. Nevertheless the breakdown of the Mayhew round in November 1992 came as little surprise to most commentators.

The principles of disagreement were not random and contingent. They were logically related to the conflicting purposes of the main political parties engaged in the talks. The unionists were seeking ‘an alternative to and a replacement of’’ the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985. Their aim was to achieve a political arrangement which would be substantially British and only residually Irish. The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, supported by the Irish Government, sought a new agreement which would ‘transcend’ in significance anything achieved hitherto. That meant an agreement which would have a substantially greater Irish Government involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland. For nationalists the purpose of the talks was to devise structures necessary to reconcile the interests of two traditions on the island of Ireland. For unionists the purpose was to devise structures to confirm the reality of two states on the island of Ireland.


Parity of Esteem

The concept of ‘parity of esteem’ based on the ‘legitimacy of both traditions’ was the logical spine running through the nationalist submissions at all levels of the talks. The formula involved a set of interlocking propositions.

  • There are two politico-cultural traditions on the island of Ireland. While the unionists assert that their tradition is wider than the six counties of Northern Ireland (ie British), nationalists know that their tradition transcends the boundary of Northern Ireland (ie all-Irish).
  • The political reality of the Troubles is, as the SDLP noted in its opening submission to the Brooke talks in May 1991, that "the two traditions must aim to reach agreement on how best to share the island of Ireland".
  • The conflict of these two traditions is a conflict about political structures. Because these traditions transcend existing political structures then it is pointless attempting to deal with the present crisis by taking those political structures (what is meant is the entity of Northern Ireland) for granted. Existing political arrangements in Ireland are artificial constraints upon one tradition, the nationalist, and cannot accommodate its fullest expression. As the SDLP put it in a paper of 24 July 1992, ‘we cannot confuse the legitimacy of the two traditions with the supposed legitimacy of two distinct entities....Some people have set great store by legal and constitutional acts as the source and guarantor of legitimacy. But we are dealing with relations among people. Surely mutual respect and accommodation is the optimum expression of legitimacy. (It is somewhat ironic that the SDLP does set great store by another legal and constitutional act - Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution.)
  • Each tradition has an absolute right of self-definition . The SDLP claimed, in Strand 1, to be content for unionists to define their own relationships but reserved to itself the right to define its own relationships. This right of self-definition elides the distinction between culture and politics. For the right of self-definition translates very quickly into the right to self-determination, a claim which demands not only parity of esteem for fellow citizens but also thoroughgoing constitutional change.
  • Nationalists define their tradition in terms of allegiance to the Irish state. What is crucial is the belief that this definition of allegiance confers on the Irish Government an equal right of involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland. The logic of equal recognition of traditions means quite simply the immediate right of the Irish state to equal and joint authority with the United Kingdom over the territory of Northern Ireland.

This whole approach was rejected by the unionist parties. One submission - Impediments to Progress, submitted by the Democratic Unionists (DUP) on May 27th) - went to the heart of what was common to the unionist position. The document made three propositions about the language of debate, the idea of self-determination and the idea of statehood.

  • On the language of the talks the paper attacked the nationalist assertion of two Irish traditions: ‘It is important, for the record, to point to the disservice done to clear thought by the use of metaphysical language, loose characterisation of groups as reflecting traditions, simplistic stereotyping of groups as monolithic communities, and the identification of political groupings as communities with traditions.’
  • On the issue of self-determination, it was denied that it was meaningful to speak of ‘the nationalist community in Northern Ireland having self-determination. Only ‘peoples’ had the right to self-determination, and since 1920 there had been a ‘people of Northern Ireland’
  • As far as statehood was concerned, the reality was that the island was not divided between two traditions: ‘It is divided into two states each with a right of self-determination’.

The logic of these three arguments underpinned the unionist position throughout the talks. In Strand 1, since they did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the ‘two traditions’ analysis as proposed by the SDLP - two traditions on the island of Ireland demanding full parity of esteem at all levels of government and administration - both unionist parties were concerned to create arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland as a region of the British state. Hence there emerges the key distinction between the unionist approach to devolution and the approach of the SDLP.

In Strand 2, despite divisions between the DUP and the UUP over the scope of cross-border cooperation, the two unionist parties agreed that there should be no fudging of the distinction between tradition and statehood. Any relationship between North and South must be based on the constitutional, political and institutional integrity of the two separate jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. It was to be inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary (acknowledging the fact of separate jurisdictions ) or it was to be nothing. The Unionist parties saw Strand 3 as an opportunity for the British Government to confront the Irish over Articles 2 and 3. The purpose of Strand 3, then, for the UUP and the DUP, was to establish an unequivocal recognition and acceptance of Northern Ireland's position as an integral part of the United Kingdom state.

Given the nationalists’ definition of their identity/tradition, the unionist position was understandable - unionists interpreted the ‘political expression’ of that identity as a stratagem to undermine the status of Northern Ireland. That the SDLP was not interested in devolved government for Northern Ireland was equally understandable. The SDLP did not want to be involved in any arrangement which would allow the unionists a greater degree of control over political developments, and any recognisably democratic forum in Northern Ireland would confirm the minority status of the nationalist political aspiration. This would be a step back from the logic the SDLP has always seen at the heart of Anglo-Irish policy. Now this position has hardened; like Sinn Fein, the SDLP insists there can be no internal settlement.`

This difference in position between unionist and nationalist is not just a matter of words. It expresses a real division in political life which no form of words seems capable of resolving. The nationalist is that of pushing beyond the established boundaries of Northern Ireland and the fact of its existence as a political entity. The unionist approach is that of defending those boundaries and confirming the fact of Northern Ireland's United Kingdom statehood. These political purposes are mutually exclusive.

The mutual claims of bad faith and intransigence with which the talks broke up revealed the limits of this form of political dialogue when fundamental positions are at stake. An ironic conclusion may be drawn. The sort of political compromise and exchange envisaged by those who put their faith in the talks procedure would be successful if the participants were agreed on the nature of the problem and the neutrality of the rules and agenda. If they were agreed on the nature of the problem and the neutrality of the rules and agenda, then there would be no need for an elaborate talks procedure.



The Government appeared to draw few lessons from the breakdown of the Mayhew talks in 1992. Indeed it proceeded to introduce new obstacles to all-party negotiation, or give added emphasis to existing ones. In the background in 1992, the policy of isolating Sinn Fein/IRA by courting moderate nationalism was already giving way to the idea of including the terrorists in negotiation as the best way to peace, raising the vital question, can, and should, democratic governments and representatives negotiate with minority terrorist groups while those groups remain armed and committed to violence? Then, as part of the policy of attracting Sinn Fein and the IRA into a political process, new dimensions were added to the already problematical concept of ‘parity of esteem’.

In his Coleraine speech in December 1992, Sir Patrick Mayhew declared that within any future arrangements, the identity of each of the two main parts of the community in Northern Ireland would have to have appropriate expression; ‘The principles of equality of opportunity, equity of treatment and parity of esteem, already established by the Government, must be upheld and applied’. In April 1993 he again used the phrase in a speech in Liverpool, when he referred to the two principal traditions with distinctive identities in Northern Ireland . Each of these, he said, would need to be given recognition by the other, and in any settlement ‘each much be accorded parity of esteem, the validity of its tradition receiving unqualified recognition’.

Parity of esteem is a simple enough concept when applied to elements in society distinguished by religion, culture, language, colour, race or even national identity. Opposing political philosophies espoused by parties within a state can have their parity of esteem protected by freedom of speech, of association and other civil rights. But it is much more complex in Northern Ireland where the political divide is between supporting the state and seeking its dissolution, and where the latter view is held by a numerical minority which defines itself as of a different nationality.

As we have seen, the 1984 report of the New Ireland Forum demanded for Northern nationalists the right to political expression of their Irish identity. This was obviously not merely a demand to engage in politics on a specifically Irish nationalist platform - such a right has always existed and been exercised - but something much more. The Forum indicated how much more when it referred to nationalist convictions "that justice and effective exercise of their rights can come only from a solution which transcends the context of Northern Ireland and which provides institutions with which they can identify".

Since the Forum Report it has become clear, in the Brooke/Mayhew talks and elsewhere, that ‘the right to political expression of an Irish identity’ involves a demand by nationalists that the government of the independent Irish state, the Republic, must somehow be associated with the exercise of authority within the United Kingdom, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, and that only in that way can ‘the national minority’ in Northern Ireland accept the legitimacy of the United Kingdom state. Even this is never described as a final settlement. The Frameworks document, which draws heavily on the Irish Government’s submission to the Mayhew talks of 1992, foresees new North-South institutions helping people enter ‘agreed dynamic new....relationships’ and declares that the remit of the proposed North-South body should be ‘dynamic’.

This claim to a right to political expression of an Irish identity has been merged into the principle of parity of esteem, as seen in the arguments of the SDLP and the Irish Government during the 1992 talks. As we have noted in the previous chapter, the SDLP justified its scheme for Dublin and European Union involvement in the government of Northern Ireland, presented to the Mayhew talks, by arguing that this would ensure that ‘parity of esteem, the legitimacy of both traditions and equity of treatment’ were basic principles of the new arrangements, ‘thereby ensuring for the first time structures with which both traditions in Northern Ireland are able to identify fully and actively’.

The logical conclusion of the position taken by the Irish Government and the SDLP on parity of esteem would appear to be that genuinely equal recognition of the two traditions can be accorded only in a situation where the Irish state has equal and joint authority with the United Kingdom over the territory of Northern Ireland.

But joint authority has been explicitly ruled out by Sir Patrick Mayhew in a speech to the House of Commons on 30 June 1994:

It is feared that the two Governments seek or plan to impose that (joint authority). There is no truth in that at all. To impose such a structure against the will of the people of Northern Ireland would be incompatible with the principle of consent. For that reason, it would, in my belief, be unacceptable to this House. Additionally, however, it is not sought by the Irish Government, let alone our own. As Mr Spring said on 25 April, ‘Joint authority is not being considered’.

(A Cadogan Group pamphlet of 1994, Blurred Vision, argues that joint authority, while superficially attractive, is impracticable, impermanent, unbalanced, undemocratic, and financially unsustainable.)


The Framework Proposals

In seeking to ensure parity of esteem short of formal joint authority, the two governments have gone to extraordinary lengths in the Framework proposals. For example they agree (paragraph 19 of the New Framework)

that future arrangements relating to Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland’s wider relationships, should respect the full and equal legitimacy and worth of the identity, sense of allegiance, aspiration and ethos of both the unionist and nationalist communities there. Consequently both Governments commit themselves to the principle that institutions and arrangements in Northern Ireland and North/South institutions should afford both communities secure and satisfactory political, administrative and symbolic expression and protection.

Such a scenario opens up endless prospects of controversy and disagreement, yet it comes to the multi-party talks table not just as part of the solution suggested in the Frameworks, but as the outworking of a principle already deemed essential by the two governments. What would it mean in practice? How, for instance, could ‘new arrangements for Northern Ireland and for its wider relationships’ (presumably with the European Union and the Republic of Ireland) give full and equal legitimacy to the nationalist sense of allegiance - which is to an independent Irish Republic - or offer to nationalists secure and satisfactory political, administrative and symbolic expression of that sense of allegiance? On the basis of that paragraph a nationalist might reasonably expect nothing less than full and formal joint Irish-British sovereignty over Northern Ireland. He could certainly argue that any British symbol, without an accompanying Republic of Ireland one, on any identity card he might be expected to carry, would be contrary to declared British Government policy, and he could argue for similar parity of ‘symbolic expression’ as regards any emblem of authority whether on a passport, a flagpole or a postage stamp.

That Framework paragraph alone indicates just how difficult comprehensive agreement among the parties in Northern Ireland is in the context of present Government policy. It illustrates one of the most dangerous aspects of the Government approach in recent years, in that it raises great expectations on the nationalist side, and correspondingly great fears or suspicions on the unionist. This is the background which helps explain the explosion of street violence and manifestations of communal hatred in the summer of 1996, of an intensity not experienced for decades. It is not an oversimplification to say that it was unionist fear and suspicion that led the Orange Order to defy the re-routing at Drumcree and organise province-wide resistance to it, nor that it was nationalist shock that their views could in turn be overruled that produced nationalist fury on the streets.

Significantly in a television interview at the height of the 1996 unrest, on July 12th, an angry Cardinal Daly demanded ‘What about parity of esteem?’ when questioned about the decision to allow the Orange parade down Garvaghy Road. Had the march been merely a church parade, even an Orange Protestant one, he seemed to indicate, he would have had little objection to it. But it was, in his words, an exclusively unionist parade. The decision to allow the Orangemen along the Garvaghy Road was, by implication, an infringement of the principle of parity of esteem, not a policing decision taken, correctly or incorrectly, on the basis of public order.

Most notable in July 1996 was an acute sense of nationalist grievance. Government’s commitment to an open-ended, and illogical, concept of parity of esteem, had given to northern nationalists a blank cheque for complaint, which Sinn Fein rushed to cash. Once again nationalists were marching and demanding ‘justice’. Having been promised a ‘parity of esteem’ which, in effect, could be delivered only by the dismantling of the Northern Ireland state, nationalists could revive the old cries of second-class citizenship until that goal was achieved.

The tribal animosities revealed in July 1996 may be the reverse side of the parity of esteem coinage. When two sides in a political dispute are officially encouraged to think of themselves as two distinct communal entities, whose aspirations and arguments are equally valid though mutually contradictory, then a further descent into inter-communal conflict is at least a possibility.


The Peace Process

Into this maelstrom, the ‘peace process’ and the response of the two governments to it, have thrown the explosive issue of negotiating with armed terrorists or their representatives. As the Cadogan Group argued in its pamphlet Decommissioning (January, 1996), there is no precedent in Irish history, north or south, of a democratic government opening negotiations with a terrorist group which has, at best, the electoral support of a small minority. In 1921, De Valera was invited by Lloyd George to London as ‘the chosen leader of the great majority in Southern Ireland’, Sinn Fein having just won 124 seats out of 128 in the May election for the proposed Southern Parliament. Nor is there any parallel for such a move in the modern world. Groups which have used both arms and terrorism have been brought into negotiations - in South Africa, in the Middle East, in Zimbabwe - but in every case those groups have enjoyed majority, even overwhelming support, among the people they claimed to represent. Their passport to the table was their representative mandate, not their terrorism.

Sinn Fein, even with the increased electoral support given to it by the ‘peace process’ has no such passport. Yet it still seems the intention of both the British and Irish Governments to find a way of bringing Sinn Fein/IRA into the talks. Initially the passport was to be a ‘permanent cease-fire’ and a surrender of illegally held arms. When neither was forthcoming the British Government was ready to make a working assumption that the cease-fire was permanent, and to settle for a token ‘decommissioning’ of arms. Then it was all handed over to Senator George Mitchell to find a way forward. His answer was subscription to a set of principles and ‘parallel’ decommissioning, that is arms given up as political negotiations proceeded, with the terrorists at the table.

The key assumption underlying the Mitchell Report was its authors’ conclusion ‘that there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such (illegal) arms to work constructively to achieve full and verifiable decommissioning as part of the process of all-party negotiations’ This conclusion was based on what the report called the ‘sustained observance of the cease-fires’, which had then been in being for more than a year. This, according to the report, was a significant factor which must be given due weight in assessing the commitment of the paramilitaries to work constructively to achieve full and verifiable decommissioning.

Since then the IRA cease-fire has been both formally and explosively terminated, and the IRA has publicly declared its intention never to decommission its arms until it has achieved its final objective. Thus the whole basis of the Mitchell Report has been destroyed. Yet the two governments continue to base their policy towards Sinn Fein and the IRA on it, and have insisted on the appointment of Senator Mitchell as the chairman of the talks. All that is now required, it would seem, is a renewed IRA cease-fire, no more permanent than the last one turned out to be. This time around it would not be possible, even for Senator Mitchell, to assume that there was any commitment whatsoever on the part of Sinn Fein/IRA to full and verifiable decommissioning.

In those circumstances all-party negotiation in Northern Ireland would take on the unique characteristic of having democratic governments and political representatives dealing with representatives of armed terrorists, who have the support of no more than a small minority, and who have made it clear they will continue to bear illegal arms until they have achieved their objectives. Such a scenario is thinkable only in the context of a policy of appeasement, where the appeasers, that is the governments, are still convinced that appeasement will work, and that the terrorists, whatever they say now, will accept compromise and abandon violence.



This booklet began with the anomaly that many of those currently supporting the idea of all-party negotiations concede privately that the chances of reaching agreement by this path are remote. Why, then, pursue a path that is leading nowhere?

Once again, terrorist violence, or the threat of it, is crucial. While the IRA cease-fire of 1994 was never total, and has now been declared at an end, with major atrocities beginning again, it is undeniable that the situation in Northern Ireland in 1996 remains much more peaceful than for twenty years or more. It is possible to argue that in the two years since the declaration of the cease-fires some 200 people in Northern Ireland have not died who otherwise might have, that a great deal of damage to property has been avoided, and that life has returned to something like normal. All this has been achieved without any amnesty or significant release of prisoners, and without any new dramatic political concessions to Sinn Fein/IRA or to nationalism generally.

This leads to an understandable concern that a change of policy could precipitate a return to full-scale violence; the talking may be leading nowhere, but to keep on talking is better than risking a relapse into full-scale terrorism.. Talking is not always about coming to a decision; it can be about avoiding physical confrontation. It can be an end in itself; the exploring of differences between parties is a valuable activity, and can engender some measure of mutual respect, or at least a better appreciation of the formidable differences that exist.


A Quixotic Policy

All these considerations help explain why the British Government has, for many years, pursued a policy in Northern Ireland which resembles a Quixotic and endless attempt to square circles. Supporters of this policy use the phrase ‘necessary nonsense’ to describe much of the nationalist language that has found its way into formulations of government policy - in the Downing Street Declaration and in the Framework proposals in particular. Such rhetorical and symbolic or token concessions to nationalism are ‘necessary’, it is argued, to keep nationalists at the table and prevent a return to full IRA violence. But they are also ‘nonsense’ because against them is set the frequent qualification that most of these implied promises can be met only ‘by agreement of the parties’, and ultimately there is the bastion of the consent principle, meaning no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without, effectively, unionist consent.

Two assumptions are key to any such policy; first, that the IRA can be accommodated well short of its declared aims, and second, that it actually wants to stop the violence. It is true that the Republican movement’s articulation of its objectives has become increasingly complex and sophisticated, and some observers do indeed believe that even the IRA is now ready to accept a settlement well short of an independent united Ireland. But at the same time there is no indication that it would touch any arrangement which left the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom unmodified. - which is the only outcome likely to pass the consent test - or that it would regard any settlement short of Irish unity as other than interim, another of Michael Collins’ stepping stones to desired end.

The argument that such a policy is working rested on the shaky basis of the continued fragile partial cease-fire in Northern Ireland, though that is now being breached, spectacularly so by the bombs at Killyhevlin and Thiepval Barracks. Moreover it can hardly be said that the policy is promoting peace and reconciliation, or leading, however slowly, towards a resolution of the problem. Here it runs up against the realities of the summer of 1996, and the starkly widening gulf between the two communities in Northern Ireland, and the deepening animosities. These have been shown, not just by the dispute over Drumcree and several other marches, but by subsequent boycotts and the return of street violence to Belfast and elsewhere,. At a political level, there is no evidence that the basic positions of unionism and nationalism have moved any closer; indeed here too there are signs of hardening of stances, not modification.

Sir Patrick Mayhew is right when he says, repeatedly, that the people of Northern Ireland long for peace. But this is little more than a platitude; people do indeed yearn for peace, but the important question is always the price to be paid, and also whether, that price having been paid, peace will result. The evidence is that neither camp is willing to pay a significant price, particularly when peace cannot be guaranteed.

But, so the argument runs, there is peace of a sort, and current policy can claim at least some of the credit for it. Here delicate and difficult points have to be considered. There has been a substantial degree of peace in Northern Ireland, but we have had it because it was a tactic adopted by the IRA. Contrary to what the SDLP, the Dublin Government, Senator Mitchell, and, to a lesser extent, the British Government believed, the IRA cease-fire of 1994 did not indicate any change of heart on the part of the IRA. It may well be that Sinn Fein would prefer to achieve its political aims without further violence, and that it is ready to contemplate intermediate steps to its political goals, but, as is now obvious, there was no ‘clear commitment’ to get rid of guns and abandon violence. As the formal ending of the cease-fire, and bombs in Britain, and now in Northern Ireland, along with IRA statements, have made clear, the threat of IRA violence is as real as ever, and would not be removed by a renewed IRA cease-fire.

Those most persuaded that Republicans have modified their position, and are anxious to move away from violence, must confront the real significance of recent events. The entire Mitchell approach was based on a mistaken view that the IRA was genuinely committed to finding a way of stopping violence and giving up its arms. That view can fairly be described as mistaken, because the IRA since has demonstrated that it fully retains its faith in violence. And despite much Sinn Fein rhetoric, the IRA has also indicated that its basic political aims remain unchanged. In these circumstances the crucial question has to be asked: at what stage does such a policy constitute an encouragement to further violence, rather than an enticement to stop?

That point is surely now past, and the acute danger is that any further concessions, or ‘nonsense’, towards Sinn Fein and the IRA will both encourage further IRA violence, and provoke renewed Loyalist violence. To help stabilise a volatile situation, Government should make it clear that no further concessions or fudges will be forthcoming.


Territorial Dispute

That would still leave a political stalemate, and the near inevitability that all or multi-party talks will not and cannot produce a settlement in the present circumstances. As this pamphlet has argued, the aspirations of unionism and nationalism are incompatible, the one being the negative of the other. Assurances of ‘parity of esteem’, that one claim is just as valid as the other, make a settlement even more difficult.

This is best illustrated if the problem is seen as a territorial dispute. In Northern Ireland two sets of people claim the same ground, each wanting it attached to a different state. That is the essential quarrel, though over the years it has been obscured. The present troubles began in an era of civil rights agitation, and grew out of unrest resulting from such agitation. Although almost all of the explicit complaints of the civil rights campaigners were quickly met, and the problem reverted to the historic quarrel between unionism and nationalism over the territory of Northern Ireland, many people continued to use the language and arguments of civil rights. Today demands for ‘parity of esteem’ have become a catch-all cry for supposed denials of civil rights. While such perceptions or misperceptions are serious matters, and must be addressed by cross-community contact and discussion, the real issue remains the fundamental dispute over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

Territorial disputes are the most difficult of political problems to resolve, but there are precedents which suggest some key principles to help towards a settlement. Most such disputes are settled with one side prevailing over the other. In the Middle East the continued existence of Israel suggests that Israel has prevailed over Arab attempts to destroy her. On the other hand the beginnings of a Palestinian state suggest the dispute over the occupied territories will end in favour of the Arabs. In Cyprus there is no settlement because neither side has prevailed. In Europe, two little mentioned territorial disputes have been settled amicably on the basis of one side clearly winning the territorial claim - the German-speaking South Tyrol remains within Italy, and the Swedish-speaking Aland islands are still Finnish.

The recently signed Treaty between Hungary and Romania illustrates contemporary European thinking on the handling of minorities across sensitive boundaries. Romania has a 1.7 million strong Hungarian minority, about seven to eight per cent of total population; Hungary has a much smaller Romanian minority. The Treaty commits both states to apply the Framework Convention of the Council of Europe for the protection of national minorities, and to incorporate in legislation the provisions of a specified range of agreements on minority rights emanating from the United Nations, the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council of Europe. But it also specifically commits the two signatory states to respect each other’s territorial integrity, ‘in accordance with the principles and norms of international law and the principles of the Helsinki Final Act’, and both states formally confirm ‘...that they have no territorial claims on each other and that they will not raise any such claims in the future’.

There is clearly a pattern in all these examples of the actual, or de facto situation, becoming the reality within which a settlement is negotiated. Where the solution is non-violent, it is usually because the ‘losing’ side is offered sufficient compensation to accept the reality to which it was opposed - a large degree of local autonomy, for instance. This is in line with the prevailing international wisdom that established boundaries are sacrosanct, and minority problems best dealt with by guarantees of rights and identities.

In Northern Ireland, the first of these principles is turned on its head, with the joint Anglo-Irish governmental approach actively sustaining nationalist hopes, and unionist fears, that the boundary can indeed be changed. The Irish Government’s failure to alter Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, and its general encouragement of nationalist aspirations as regards Northern Ireland is at odds with its commitment to the principles of international law and practice, and is unhelpful in the search for a solution.


Lack of Principle

In admittedly difficult circumstances, the United Kingdom Government has played a baleful role. By adopting a ‘holier than thou’ stance of neutrality it has abrogated its moral responsibility to arbitrate, and to inject some guiding principles into the dispute. To suggest that the Government has ‘no selfish economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland’ is not only inaccurate and insulting to those United Kingdom citizens in Northern Ireland whose government it is, but it dramatically undermines the boundaries of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland’s position within the UK, the phrase suggests, is merely provisional, or temporary, contingent upon the will of a majority; the boundary is not settled. This is a view confirmed by the language of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration, both of which specifically contemplate, and make provision for, Irish unity, subject, of course, to agreement..

To make matters worse, the Government appears to have reversed a key principle of the Brooke-Mayhew talks, which began with a clear assertion from the Government that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was not at issue. Now everything is on the table, including constitutional issues, and, therefore, the boundary settlement.

The response of both governments to such criticism is to point to the principle of consent - that no constitutional change can take place without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland. The principle itself is a good one, the foundation rock of democracy. But the usefulness of this principle depends on general acceptance of the territorial boundaries within which such consent is to be measured. For Sinn Fein and the IRA, Northern Ireland’s boundaries are the core of this dispute, so there is no overall agreement about the electoral unit within which consent can be measured. Republicans assert that it should be the island of Ireland, while unionists insist on Northern Ireland, and a few mischievous souls suggest the entire United Kingdom or the British Isles as a whole.

The Irish Government and the SDLP have formally accepted the consent principle, but this commitment has been undermined by various attempts to fudge the issue - for example, by asserting that nationalist consent, inside Northern Ireland, and in the rest of the island, is also necessary to legitimise the present situation, or by arguing that almost any far-reaching change in the position of Northern Ireland can be implemented without majority approval, so long as theoretical British sovereignty over the area is maintained, and, not least, by insisting that there can be no ‘unionist veto’. Since unionists form the majority, the phrase ‘consent of the people of Northern Ireland’ essentially means that unionists will determine the outcome. Since this is, and always has been unacceptable to nationalists, it does nothing to solve the problem. In addition, the territorial claim to Northern Ireland in the Republic’s constitution is incompatible with full acceptance of the consent principle.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that repeated affirmation of the principle fails to reassure unionists that constitutional change cannot be implemented over their heads, while at the same time such reaffirmation leaves nationalists concerned that there is indeed a unionist veto.

The second principle emerging from international practice, is the special deal for the minority on the ‘wrong’ side of a settled boundary. This is particularly difficult in Northern Ireland, partly because the minority claims the whole territory of Northern Ireland, within which it is a minority, and partly because of the widespread distribution of the minority over that territory. A self-governing ‘South Tyrol’ in part of Northern Ireland is not an option.

Nevertheless, the outline of a possible arrangement is already visible - ‘partnership’ administration of Northern Ireland as a region of the United Kingdom, institutionalised links between North and south in Ireland to promote island-wide cooperation in commerce, tourism, culture and whatever else is of mutual benefit, and a new agreement covering relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Common ground on some of this agenda was found in the Brooke-Mayhew talks.

The Frameworks for the Future proposed a set of arrangements along these lines, and the two Governments have reaffirmed that they believe these are the parameters within which a settlement can be achieved. Unfortunately the philosophy underlining the Frameworks, and the analysis upon which they are based, have a distinctly nationalist flavour, rendering them unworkable as the basis for a settlement, and unacceptable to the majority in Northern Ireland. The language of the Frameworks makes little clear, least of all the parameters they set. Their fatal weakness is that arrangements which might indeed secure the constitutional status of Northern Ireland while giving the minority assured and special status within it, are presented in language which suggests that the intention is to go far beyond accommodating the nationalist minority within a United Kingdom settlement; rather, a dynamic process taking Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom and progressively attaching it to the Republic of Ireland seems to be envisaged.

Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds has encapsulated the whole point of the Frameworks as allowing nationalists in Northern Ireland to ‘look to Dublin’, while unionists can ‘look to London’. Such a view totally defeats what should be the object of the exercise, to encourage nationalists to look to the United Kingdom as the political and organisational reality within which they live, while enabling them to play a full part in the life and society of the island.


Political Stalemate

In these circumstances it is not surprising that the two sides in Northern Ireland are still deeply entrenched in their fundamental positions. Indeed the combined policies of British and Irish governments have made the situation worse by stultifying dialogue among the key elements in Northern Ireland, and indeed within both nationalism and unionism.

Over the past two decades there has been little pressure on nationalists for internal dialogue on the nature of nationalism, or on its relevance to late 20th century Ireland. The SDLP emerged from a civil rights movement which, for a brief period, seemed to switch the focus of the Northern minority away from political nationalism towards an accommodation within the United Kingdom. But in the context of the IRA campaign and worsening sectarian conflict, it rapidly reverted to a traditional nationalist posture. Despite a considerable cultural revolution in Southern academic and some related media circles, effectively discounting the whole basis for a nationalist approach to the Northern Ireland problem, and despite the continuing lessons of 20th century Europe on the folly of much of nationalism, mainstream Southern politics still endorse the rhetoric of Irish nationalism, and allow a vigorous Northern nationalism, allied now to republicanism, largely to dictate Dublin government policy on the North.

The New Ireland Forum, which presented itself as a serious re-examination of Irish nationalism, culminated in 1984 with a disappointing endorsement of much traditional thinking, modified only by a partial acknowledgement that joint authority, rather than full Irish unity, was the most that could be hoped for. While Irish Government spokesmen often stress in private how far traditional nationalist analysis has changed, the changes are clearly incomplete, and have not resulted in any major overhaul of policy on the North. Nationalists are therefore left with the obvious contradiction between accepting the principle of consent, and continuing to support Irish unity. Their method of squaring the circle now seems to centre on pressing the British Government to take on the role of facilitator, or persuader of unionists to move in the direction of constitutional change.

Unionism, too, has shown a depressing lack of internal dialogue. The Sunningdale Agreement showed how far a section of unionism was prepared to go in rethinking traditional unionism, but it was required to go too far, and Sunningdale helped ensure that unionism has lived ever since under pressure from its more extreme elements. The IRA campaign exerted a similar influence, greatly strengthening the Loyalist paramilitaries, and the British Government’s steady shift from a pro-unionist stance to one of, at best, a neutrality benevolent towards nationalism, helped ensure that unionism remained essentially defensive and negative. Just as the collapse of the Executive in 1974 marked the end of one experiment in liberal unionism, the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 helped eclipse signs of rethinking which had been emerging in the immediately preceding period.


Time to Rethink

If movement is to be achieved, there has to be pressure on both sides to rethink their approaches, rather than what is now the case, encouragement to hold fast to their most unrealistic expectations. The two governments should reconsider their positions and begin a long-term approach which induces stability, and converges on an eventual solution. Policies which encourage minority aspirations for and expectations of constitutional change are destabilising. These same policies also undermine majority confidence that the principle of consent will prevail, and they should be stopped. The keystone of consent is fatally weakened if support for it is not whole-hearted, open, and above all, credible.

The United Kingdom Government, as the legal authority in Northern Ireland, should openly debate its own position. Its hidden agenda in Northern Ireland needs to be brought into the open. Ever since Gladstone, United Kingdom governments have striven to avoid ‘contaminating’ British mainland politics with Irish problems. The cost of this policy of distancing Northern Ireland from Great Britain has been heavy in terms of United Kingdom lives, property, expenditure and international reputation. It is time for all major parties to consider whether a policy of distancing is any longer necessary for party unity, and, more importantly whether it works in Northern Ireland. This question is particularly important for a Labour Party which even now clings to its meaningless formulation of a united Ireland by consent.

United Kingdom Government policy on Northern Ireland has been destabilising. It is time to take a more principled stand and to attempt to shape events rather than inducing all factions in Northern Ireland to compete for the attention of a supposedly neutral referee. In practice, any government has little choice but to base its policy on democratic consent. This need not mean crude majoritarianism within the existing boundaries of Northern Ireland, but it must at least entail a full recognition of the right of the more than one million pro-union people to remain fully and permanently within the United Kingdom. A cast-iron assurance of this sort will make possible a genuine debate of how to accommodate the nationalist minority.

An essential element of such an approach has to be a clear understanding that Irish unity is not an option, and may never be one. Until this is done, the ball will remain in the air with both sides eagerly competing to ensure that it lands on their side. When it is done, the nature of the compromise can begin to be formed. This is what happened in German-speaking Italy. Imaginative compromise arrangements became possible after the boundaries were fixed, not before. More than anything a new policy must avoid the fatuity of a United Kingdom Government conceding parity of esteem to the contradictory aspirations of two antagonistic communities.

The Irish Government must move to resolve the contradiction between what Articles 2 and 3 say, and its professed commitment to the consent principle. The Republic’s claim to the territory of Northern Ireland is an obstacle to the start of any real negotiation, not a card that can be playedduring negotiation.

The essential philosophical or moral weakness in the nationalist case is not the reasonable desire of people, who perceive themselves as Irish, to live under an Irish government. It is in their insistence that people who perceive themselves as United Kingdom citizens should also be forced to accept the Irish hegemony. Despite all attempts to disguise the fact, this is a crude territorial claim. The United Kingdom and Irish Governments must take a view on the legitimacy of this claim, and on the morality of continuing to assert it, and then act upon this view. Nationalists in Northern Ireland must face the reality that continuing to campaign for Irish unity, or for joint authority, means there can be no settlement.

Unionists should begin a more confident public debate on how to achieve a satisfactory accommodation with the nationalist minority. It is abundantly clear, as it has been for decades, that nationalist aspirations will not easily dissolve. Neither can they be satisfied, as Northern Ireland will not leave the United Kingdom, so there remains the considerable task of reconciling nationalists to this reality. Closer links with the Republic, including institutional links, as a means of enhancing a non-political Irish identity, based on the context of the island rather than on political nationalism, and compatible with continued membership of the United Kingdom, should be openly debated within unionism. This debate can safely take place as long as it is made absolutely clear that any accommodation with nationalism must be in the form of a final settlement, with no subsequent slippery slope. Such an offer is unlikely to be acceptable immediately to nationalists. but the onus is on unionists to make it. It could open the way to a long overdue reconsideration of entrenched attitudes, including unionist attitudes, and it would put pressure on nationalists to consider, for the first time, the possibility of accepting a final settlement short of unity, or joint authority..

The lack of any real evolution in unionism can be gauged from the fact that the wisdom of the institutional link between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order was first seriously questioned inside the party in the 1950s. Forty years on, not only is that link still in place, but the identity of interest, and of key personnel, between the party and the Order has been dramatically illustrated by the events of July 1996. Even though, in present circumstances, the breaking of the institutional link would mean little in itself, the symbolism of such a break would be vital in moving political unionism away from its unnecessarily narrow sectarian base.

A more principled stand by the United Kingdom Government does not mean an imposed solution. As experience has shown, imposed solutions do not work. What does need to be imposed is a set of limits on what is possible, and what can reasonably be negotiated. In such circumstances, real progress might be made on practical arrangements to cater for the three sets of relationships - within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between the Republic and the United Kingdom.



The policies of successive United Kingdom Governments towards the Northern Ireland problem over the past quarter century have been based on three cardinal tenets:

  • democratic consent - the principle that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland will be decided by the majority vote of its citizens. Most recently this principle has been embodied in the promise of a referendum on any agreement emerging from current talks;
  • the defeat of terrorism - the stated determination of government to defeat terrorism by military and police methods within the constraints set by the normal procedures of democratic societies ;
  • the accommodation of constitutional nationalists - by special legislation to meet their concerns, by high levels of public expenditure to boost economic development and employment, and by involving the Dublin Government as a guarantor of nationalist interests.

These principles have been espoused more energetically at some times than at others, and the balance between the importance attached to them by Government has varied. But they evolved in the difficult conditions of the early 1970s, and while they have neither solved the problem nor eradicated terrorist violence, it could be argued that they have served as a basis for management of the most intractable political dispute in western Europe. It might also be argued that, by playing a long game of containing terrorism, this approach was a significant factor in the IRA decision to call its cease-fire in 1994.

However, even if one recognises the exceptional difficulties facing policy makers in Northern Ireland, not least in the context of attempting to secure and preserve a cease-fire, there must now be increasing concern that the three principles themselves have become blurred, and the application of them unbalanced; the policy has become self-defeating, and destabilising, and may result in the efforts and sacrifices of the last 25 years being wasted.

Efforts to restore and copper-fasten the IRA cease-fire have come close to open appeasement; the Government currently indicates its willingness to negotiate directly with the representatives of armed terrorists, and gives every appearance of seeking to pressurise local democratic parties into doing likewise. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that negotiations under such circumstances could proceed only by bargaining constitutional change against a promised cessation of violence. For such a fine balancing act to succeed, either unionists would have to concede politically under the threat of renewed violence, or Republicans would have to be persuaded to renounce violence with no promise of real constitutional gain.

This policy fudge may have helped delay a return to full-scale violence, but it is difficult to see how it could have ended in other than failure. It undermines both the principle of consent, freely given, and the principle of combating terrorist violence by the rule of law and the use of proper security measures.

Without clear principles, policy becomes rudderless, and any uncertainties will be ruthlessly exploited by those with both the will and the power to do so. Already the damage done to government credibility on the principle of consent by the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, has been compounded by what is an implicit offer to reward violence. Few unionists now believe that John Major’s triple lock of consent ( from local parties, from Westminster, and by referendum) will hold when the chips are down.

It is unnecessary to look further than this loss of credibility to explain the unionist upsurge at and after Drumcree. There is little point in governments or liberal opinion wringing hands and denouncing what happened as bad and lawless behaviour. That it undoubtedly was, but the game is one of power politics, and if both the British and Irish Governments show every sign of bowing before the threat of Republican force, they can hardly be surprised if counter threats are produced, nor should they delude themselves that what happened was mere thuggery.

This is not to condone the violence and the threats of violence surrounding Drumcree. The use of violence is abhorrent and must be rejected. However, governments must also do their utmost to protect the right of citizens to give, or withhold consent, through normal democratic channels. In Northern Ireland citizens have limited opportunity to vote for parties which might form their government, and United Kingdom governments have, therefore, a special responsibility not to erode further the democratic process.

In its understandable anxiety to achieve and sustain, or restore, an IRA cease-fire, the present Government has also perversely encouraged the aims of the minority through the wording of its policy documents, and has further undermined the confidence of the majority. By espousing neutrality on the constitutional question, and by offering parity of esteem to nationalist demands for Irish unity, the Government has again undermined the principle of consent. The balance of opinion, both at present and in the foreseeable future, is to refuse consent for any change in Northern Ireland’s United Kingdom status. No government should remain neutral in the face of that expressed desire, and no government should actively encourage the opponents of that position.

These lapses of principle are unlikely to succeed in securing the peace. It is inconceivable that they will underpin a stable settlement. Already we see strong signs of rising minority support for Irish unity, not only in the Forum elections, but also in subsequent opinion polls. A corresponding toughening of unionist attitudes is also emerging. An urgent rethink is necessary, returning to the key principles.

‘Consent’ means that Northern Ireland must stay within the United Kingdom, and the Government must clearly support the consequences of this, and not just pay lip service to the consent principle. The threat of terrorism can be countered only by equal or stronger security counter-measures. Holding out the possibility of political gains as a reward for ceasing violence, without the means of delivering those gains, can only encourage further violence. If there is some re-thinking going on in Republican circles, it is more likely to be stimulated by clear evidence that no concessions will be made to violence, however long it continues.

This leaves a considerable and increasingly disaffected minority within Northern Ireland. Past efforts at accommodation have not worked, partly because they too were offered with the promise of further political gains, thereby encouraging people to remain ‘unaccommodated’. Further efforts at accommodation should be possible, but these can occur only within a firm framework which makes clear what the limits are, and what reciprocal responsibilities are expected under any new arrangements.


Recognising Reality

The base of that framework must be Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom; this is not a statement of political preference, but a recognition of current legal and constitutional realities, and of the inevitable outcome of the consent principle. On that base, the three strands identified in past multi-party talks would be part of the framework.

  • It seems essential, and generally agreed, that whatever system of administration or governance is set in place for Northern Ireland as a region of the United Kingdom, it must give representatives of the nationalist community a guaranteed partnership role.
  • Part of the framework must also be the closest possible cooperation with the rest of the island for the mutual benefit of all, with the creation of mechanisms or institutions appropriate to the promotion of such activities.
  • The starting point of the current talks process was the search for a new London-Dublin agreement to replace, or ‘transcend’ the existing Anglo-Irish Agreement. This is still an essential element of the framework, but should avoid the concepts and institutional arrangements which made the 1985 document unacceptable to a majority in Northern Ireland.

Some may rush to condemn such a framework as a simple, one-sided, unionist solution. Certainly it offends against the principle of ‘parity of esteem’ as currently defined by the two governments. But if stability and reconciliation are to be found in Northern Ireland, such comfortable ambiguities will have to be abandoned. Promising all things to all men inevitably increases instability and mutual distrust. It is the role of government to set a stable framework, so that each side can see the consequences of any moves it might make; it is the role of the local parties to negotiate an agreement within that framework. A stable policy framework underpinning the principle of majority consent could be useful in extracting, within that framework, concessions from majority to minority in Northern Ireland. Such concessions would be most unlikely to be forthcoming in a situation which was visibly deteriorating from a majority point of view.

Government must take the lead, but it is the people of Northern Ireland who have the greatest vested interest in peace and a resolution of the problem, and who must also contribute to that goal. Considerable rethinking is needed by both unionists and nationalists, and part of that rethinking must be the realisation that the framework outlined above implies neither the triumph of traditional unionism, nor any limitation on the full enjoyment of an Irish identity.


A Multi-cultural Society

The United Kingdom itself today is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, political entity, extending beyond and embracing much more than any traditional idea of historic British nationhood, though this is not always apparent. Such an entity should be able to offer special status and assurances to accommodate people from an Irish nationalist tradition, without any diminution of their Irish identity.

Within such an entity the civil, cultural, religious and other rights of all sections of the community must be afforded both legal and practical protection at the highest levels established by international convention, and it should be clear that the circumstances within Northern Ireland would require sensitivity in the use of British symbols and emblems. Unionists would have to understand that in a religiously divided community, the stability of the Union can only be undermined by any identification of political unionism with one denomination

In accepting a solution within a United Kingdom framework nationalists would be acknowledging that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, in accordance with the democratic rights of its citizens, and the principles of international law. That would be a break from the narrow political nationalism which has seen an Irish identity almost entirely in the rejection of a British one, but there is no reason why a broadly Irish identity cannot be fully expressed within any constitutional arrangement on the island. It is not intrinsically linked to an independent Irish state

Part of the current reality which both the Dublin Government and northern nationalists must confront is that the continued pursuit of the political unification of Ireland, or of joint-authority as a means to that end, makes a settlement impossible and condemns everyone to continued instability, violence, and possible repartition

Nothing in the above implies an abandonment of the search for a solution. What is required is a narrowing of the parameters to take account of the realities of the situation, and it is the prime responsibility of the United Kingdom Government to define those parameters. In this it should have the responsible support of the Irish Government. The current policy based on mutually contradictory, and largely unbelievable promises to everyone has had the effect of inflaming the contradictory aspirations of two antagonistic political traditions, contributing to a disastrous worsening in community relations.

Efforts should be directed, not to creating a pretence that all hopes are realisable however ill-founded, but to the putting in place of sensible mechanisms for the benefit of all.