Deescalation/Negotiation in N.Ireland

The crisis situation existing in Northern Ireland today provides an ideal setting for a thorough analysis upon the nature of conflict. As this may encompass an entire discipline in and of itself, it becomes necessary then to limit this study to several specific analytical elements of conflict. As a direct result of recent articles from the New York Times, the factors of conflict de-escalation and third party intervention have been chosen for in-depth examination of this Northern Ireland dilemma. In order to gain a better understanding of their relation, it is essential to provide a brief historical account of the Northern Ireland conflict and how it has progressed to it current condition.

Background to the Conflict

The history of Ireland is marked by oppression and foreign rule. Since English ascendancy in Ireland was established in 1171 by Henry II, the Irish have been engaged in a constant struggle for a nation of their own.1 Problems first began when many members of the English aristocracy began settling in the area of northern Ireland. Over the years, these traditionally wealthy families flourished in this area and a distinct Anglo-Irish identity was created. In 1543 Henry VIII was crowned King of Ireland in a gesture which would haunt Britain to this very day. By this very act, England was committed to a colonial type of situation in northern Ireland where the settlers had to be defended by the Crown from encroachments by the Irish. The Irish felt that this land was rightfully theirs and that Britain had no right to settle there. Tensions between these two groups escalated over the years and was compounded by several important factors. Firstly, the area where the British settled contained the most significant natural resources and sea ports vital to the financial interests of the whole of Ireland. Secondly, as the British were Protestants and the Irish were Catholics, sectarian divisions arose which only increased harsh feelings between the two groups and led to small-scale war on several occasions. In the late 19th century, a huge debate occurred over the issue of granting Home Rule to Ireland. Ireland had previously been run exclusively by the Westminster Parliament and Home Rule would allow for the establishment of an Irish Parliament with limited power. The Protestants in the north openly disapproved of granting the Irish any reforms and continued along their lines of Irish suppression. In the early 1920's, Britain was finally forced to deal with the issue because of escalating violence and they partitioned the country of Ireland. A six county state was established in the north which became known as Ulster, and the remaining 26 counties were established as the Republic of Ireland. Although this may sound like a reasonable solution, it was opposed by both the Catholics and the Protestants and would merely serve to escalate divisions between the two. Ulster was set up with a majority Protestant population who over the years have had a history of suppressing the Catholics and maintaining control of all vital industry. In this manner they are assured of having higher living standards than the Catholics in this area and in the rest of the Republic as well. The Protestants of Ulster feel superior to the Catholics and deem it right and acceptable to treat them as second-class citizens. The Protestants are hostile towards the Catholics also because they feel threatened by a Papist conspiracy and the possibility of being a repressed minority in a United Ireland.2 Any concessions or conciliatory gestures made towards the Catholics are thus seen by the Protestants as steps moving in this direction. On the flip side, the Catholics are tired of being repressed by this minority and are flustered with the British government for protecting the Protestants. It is in the face of no alternative options that paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army conduct terrorist acts in Ulster and England as well. Although this summary has been fairly extensive, it is vital to an understanding of the conflict and of the specific aspects that will be discussed; namely its de-escalation over the past few months, and methods of negotiation being implemented.

De-escalation of the Conflict

De-escalation of conflict can occur in a variety of ways depending on the nature of the specific dilemma. It will be useful to present the various manners in which the conflict in Northern Ireland has recently deescalated as seen from the recent New York Times issues. Firstly, the conflict was reaching intolerable levels and no further progress could be made. The last 70 years has been marked by uncontrolled terrorist activity from both sides which has caused them to become inflexible towards each other about reaching a settlement. Recently peace talks were called for by the British government under the leadership of Tony Blair who has sought to include all factions into the talks. Elected as Britain's Prime Minister earlier this year, Blair is in a much better position to deal with this conflict than his predecessor, John Major. Major needed Northern Ireland Protestants' votes in Parliament to stay in power and thus could not press them to negotiate.3 Therefore he was unwilling to take the same steps that Blair is taking at the present time. A large controversy was sparked over Blair's inclusion of the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Fein, under the leadership of Gerry Adams, into the peace talks. In a symbolic gesture of his willingness to work for peace, Blair stated, "I treated Gerry Adams and the members of Sinn Fein in the same way I treat any other human being, I think what is important about the situation in Northern Ireland is that we do actually treat each other as human beings."4 This was a very bold statement by Blair which upset many people in Britain. In a more significant move, Blair went as far as shaking the hand of Gerry Adams. The last time a British Prime Minister had even met with Sinn Fein leaders was in 1921, when Ireland was still ruled by England.5 This move was unprecedented and could only represent true sincerity on the part of Blair in reaching a settlement. A recent editorial from the New York Times states that what is required in a situation such as this are leaders, such as Blair, who can persuade their own radicals of the need for peace without being dismissed as a sellout.6 Blair also realized that the situation in Northern Ireland was "ripe" for the initiation of de-escalatory gestures.7 The conflict may said to have reached stalemate in which neither side knew what steps to take; violence was being used as the last resort. It will be interesting to see by events in the near future whether or not Blair's timing was ideal for the initiation of these talks. An additional factor precipitating de-escalation has to be the initiation of a mutually motivated sense of trust. In a conflict such as this that has been going on for decades, the trust factor plays a larger role in the continuance of the conflict itself. In taking a bold effort to regain the trust of the Irish Republicans, Blair recognized and invited Sinn Fein to the peace talks and even shook Adams hand as mentioned earlier. In response, Sinn Fein agreed to come to the talks and even called a temporary cease fire. Gerry Adams also promised "generosity" and "compromise" in coming to the peace talks. In a subsequent statement building up this trust, Adams said "our commitment to a negotiated settlement is forever" and he vowed that Sinn Fein is ready to "compromise, compromise, compromise for a lasting peace."8 Although these actions are far from attaining a settlement, they are the small yet necessary steps which must be taken in order to gain trust between the parties. It is unfortunate, however, that this sense of trust has not encompassed the Ulster Loyalists. Throughout the peace talks, the Loyalists have refused to recognize Sinn Fein and are very upset with Tony Blair and the stance the British government is taking towards the affair. This is really not surprising and it parallels the Loyalists views over the last 70 years. They become even more unwilling to compromise as they feel their interests and rights are being infringed upon by the Catholics and especially by the British themselves. The actions taken by Blair and Adams were major steps towards deescalating the conflict by getting all factions together in peaceful talks. Having attained this goal, it is necessary then to begin a brief study upon the role of a third party in bringing these parties to the peace talks and paving the way for successful conflict negotiation to begin.

Third-Party Intervention

Due to the limited size of this analysis, the single theme of third-party intervention will be discussed as it relates to the Northern Ireland conflict. It is rather difficult to assume that Britain is playing the role of the third party because of its historical connections with this conflict and the repercussions that may come from any kind of settlement. The United States, however, may be a legitimate third party to this conflict. President Clinton has made it his goal to see a negotiated solution take place during his Presidency, and the US has been instrumental in getting Sinn Fein to the peace talks. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams came to Washington in September and pledged his party's willingness to uphold the cease fire and join in the talks. The US also urged the Ulster Unionist Party under David Trimble to attend the talks. Trimble was adamantly opposed to Sinn Fein attending the talks and American officials urged him to join at the last minute. They told Trimble, "Blair has done all he can, and now it's time to come to the table with an understanding that no one will get everything they want from the talks, and that to get everyone to be pragmatic and forthcoming, you have to be, too."9 In urging all sides to attend the peace talks, the Americans completed the first stage of the model of third party intercession as developed by American psychiatrist Bryant Wedge in 1970. Wedge's model begins with the intercessor establishing contact with each side as an interested outsider and initiating a process of dialogue. This first stage is accomplished by understanding individuals and groups on their own terms without agreeing or disagreeing.10 Another negotiation tactic employed by the US was their decision to suspend deportation of six former IRA convicts now living in the states. This conciliatory move was seen as a payoff to Sinn Fein for its first formal acceptance of non-violence in its efforts to change the political status of Northern Ireland at the peace talks.11 This may also be building a mutually motivated sense of trust as described earlier. Wedge's second stage of third party intercession involves defining each side's mutual and individual interests. As this conflict has been raging for several decades, the interests of both sides are fairly well known and do not have to be introduced by the US. The third stage Wedge proposed deals directly with events that have shaped the current peace talks in Ireland. In this stage members of the two sides are brought together on neutral ground to establish contact. However, the purposes are not directly related to the conflict, and no agenda is provided, for it is assumed that the identified common interests will assert themselves later. This is most likely the stage which the talks are now entering. The US has successfully brought all sides physically together to the table, and has stressed this as the main goal rather than entering into actual negotiation over specific issues of the conflict. It is hoped that in the near future the fourth and fifth stages of Wedge's model can be completed. These consist of the assistance provided to the parties in considering programs of consideration, and the ending of intercession once cooperative programs have been established.12 These steps will be much harder to accomplish and may never even occur. Up to this point in time, however, the United States has done an excellent job in bringing all parties to the conflict together and having acted as an ideal third-party negotiator.


The conflict in Northern Ireland has seen significant advances over the last few months which have de-escalated the situation and brought all parties to the negotiating table. It will be very difficult, however, for any kind of settlement to be reached which is acceptable to all the parties involved. The historical roots of the conflict are embedded into the minds of all Protestants and Catholics and it is very difficult to change the resentful ideologies these two groups have for each other. Although this paints a gloomy picture, any steps taken which lead the conflict away from violence may be seen as beneficial. It is hoped that through these peace talks, all parties involved will strive to reach a lasting settlement and put forth sincere efforts in this struggle. The United States has been careful not to take sides in the crisis and has been taking small, yet important, steps in de-escalating this situation from the stalemate it was previously in. Although this study focused on a very limited amount of factors, they are extremely important ones in allowing for peaceful negotiations to begin.

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