The international system and the Irish peace process


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CHANGES in the international system have had a profound effect on the course of conflict in Ireland, notwithstanding the common jibe that the clock has stood still in the country for more than 300 years. The onset of Northern Ireland’s troubles in the late 1960s coincided with the beginnings of the post-colonial era, while the troubles started to peter out with the end of the Cold War. The correspondence was by no means accidental.

At the start of the troubles, the prevailing interpretation of self determination was territorial and the world appeared to be heading towards an international political system composed entirely of sovereign independent states with permanently fixed boundaries. In contrast, by the end of the troubles, not merely had the interpretation of self-determination become problematic, but the process of globalization was eroding the concept of sovereignty with the consequence that the notion of the modern international political system as being based on the principles established by the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 was being widely challenged.

Similarly, at the beginning of the troubles the emphasis on individual human rights undercut the notion that minorities should enjoy special rights. By the end of the troubles, the notion of minority rights were firmly embedded in a number of international conventions.

During the process of decolonization the principle of self determination was interpreted as a right of peoples, and ‘people’ was defined in territorial terms as simply being the inhabitants of a political entity with pre-existing boundaries. Colonies, generally speaking, were administered as separate political entities by colonial powers so that treating the self entitled to self-determination as the majority of people within any given territory facilitated the transfer of power to nationalist movements with a minimum of disruption to the international political system.



However, this political revolution was not achieved universally without violence. This was because in some instances there was conflict among nationalists over the spoils of independence and because in other cases there was resistance by the colonial power in question to ending its rule for strategic, economic or ideological reasons.

But the most difficult problem was where the line should be drawn in the unfolding process of decolonization. In particular, did ‘peoples’ of regions of former colonies have a right to secede from a newly established independent state? And did ‘peoples’ of regions of the former European colonial powers themselves possess any right to self-determination? In particular, were such regions entitled to secede if a majority of the people in the region supported such a step? And would a bare majority in a referendum suffice?

One of the reasons for the adoption of the 1970 United Nations Declaration of Principles of International Law was the desire of most members of the international community to provide definitive answers to these questions. It was seen as a way both of underpinning the legitimacy of the new post-colonial order in Asia and Africa and of drawing a line as to where the process of decolonization should stop.

Thus, the strongest element in the 1970 declaration was its anathema against secession, though some room for argument was left by the reference to ‘sovereign and independent states conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination and thus possessed of a government representing the whole state belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed, or colour.’

The main purpose of restricting protection against secession to such states was to prevent colonial powers which integrated territories administratively without extending full citizenship rights to their population from invoking the anathema against secession to resist decolonization. The hostility of the international community towards secession was reflected in practice in the response of most states to the two principal African conflicts of the 1960s – the Congo crisis and the Nigerian civil war.



Northern Ireland was one of a number of places within the First World of western states where conflict erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s challenging attempts to limit the geographical scope of decolonization. Others included Quebec, Corsica and the Basque country in Spain. In Northern Ireland the nationalist argument was that Northern Ireland was a gerrymandered political entity constructed on the basis of covering the largest part of the north-east of the island as was compatible with the maintenance within it of a secure and permanent Unionist majority. Nationalists rejected the legitimacy of partition which was imposed unilaterally by the British government under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 and which, significantly, preceded the negotiations with Sinn Fein to end the Anglo-Irish war.

A weakness of the case for partition from a political perspective was that dividing the island between entities comprising respectively of 26 and six counties was difficult to defend on the basis of the pre-existing administrative divisions of colonial Ireland. The opt-out of the province of Ulster, comprising nine counties, might have been justified on the grounds of the opposition of a majority of the inhabitants of the province to rule from Dublin. Alternatively, the exclusion of four counties from rule by Dublin might have been justified on the basis of the opt-out of individual counties with Unionist majorities. The actual exclusion of six counties entailed including in Northern Ireland two counties with nationalist majorities.



However, arguments over the genesis of partition were almost certainly less important to members of the international community at the start of the troubles than the simple argument that the division of an island under more than one sovereignty was a violation of the principle of territorial integrity. Political acceptance of the notion of the wholeness of islands was reflected in political practice. The division of islands under more than one sovereignty was comparatively rare and in the small number of cases where it occurred it was often the product of establishment of settlements by rival colonial powers with the partition of the island justified as corresponding to this division.

A number of factors contributed to the perception of Northern Ireland as an illegitimate political entity at the onset of the troubles. The peculiar status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom was one factor. Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom then to have a devolved government of its own. It was the only part of the country where elections were not contested by Britain’s main national political parties. It was also the only part of the United Kingdom where membership of the United Kingdom was explicitly stated to depend on the continuing support of a majority of its electorate or, to put it another way, to be accorded the right of secession from the union.



The corollary of the constitutional guarantee that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as that was the wish of its parliament at Stormont and, after its suspension, that of the Northern Irish electorate as expressed in a referendum, was that it would cease to remain part of the United Kingdom if that condition was not met. The outbreak of disturbances in the province itself put a question mark over its legitimacy by the visible demonstration of disaffection from the polity of a sizeable minority of the population. Further, in the context of the completion of the process of decolonization, it seemed to provide an answer to the questions – where next and what is left?

The difficulty of addressing the question of Northern Ireland’s place in the world and at the same time devising political arrangements capable of securing widespread support across the province’s sectarian divide contributed to the intractability of the Northern Ireland problem though the course of the 1970s. The either/ or basis on which the issue of sovereignty was perceived during this era was reflected in the attitudes both of the politicians and the paramilitaries.

The interpretation of existing international norms underpinned the zero sum approach taken by Republicans and most Unionists. The prevailing emphasis on individual human rights and the lack of any special provision for the rights of minority groups gave Republicans little incentive to accept the framework of the six counties. Republicans had a stronger case in terms of world opinion by pressing their claim to self-determination as part of a territorial majority on the island of Ireland. Even constitutional nationalists seeking a political accommodation with Unionists rejected the notion of a wholly internal settlement, insisting that there had to be an Irish dimension to the resolution of the Northern Ireland problem.

Republican and nationalist attacks on the legitimacy of Northern Ireland as a political entity had the effect of reinforcing the siege mentality of Unionists. Compromise was seen by most Unionists as entailing a slippery slope to a united Ireland. At the same time, the contrast between the principles underlying the proposals for the governance of Northern Ireland and those underpinning the status quo in the rest of the country provided a ready justification for Unionist opposition to change.



At the time of Northern Ireland’s experiment in power-sharing in 1974, Third World states were pressing for the creation of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which was designed to enhance the economic sovereignty of states by increasing the power of governments to control and to regulate the activities of multinational companies. The context of the debate in the United Nations General Assembly on the NIEO was the threat that the quadrupling of oil prices posed to the economies of western states. The use of the oil weapon was intended to put pressure on the West in relation to Israeli-Arab dispute, but it also gave the Third World majority in the General Assembly a measure of leverage to press for changes to the organization of the world economy in line with prevailing ideology in economic matters among Third World states, which was nationalist in its assumptions.

One way of interpreting the attitude of Third World states on economic issues was as a defensive reaction to growing economic interdependence, a process that was attracting the attention of international relations scholars and providing a challenge to the dominance of the realist perspective in the discipline. But it could also be presented as a logical extension to the economic sphere of the quest of Third World states for independence.



Thus, it was commonly argued that the continuing dependence of Third World states on the West amounted to a system of neocolonialism. Those fighting against this system saw themselves as engaged in a common anti-imperialist struggle. The aspiration to combine economic and political independence – often allied to a radical programme for the transformation of society through measures such as land reform – was encapsulated in the concept of national liberation.

Through the 1970s, the example of Vietnam provided inspiration to revolutionary movements throughout the world, while the popularity of the concept of national liberation was reflected in the inclusion of the term in a variety of languages in the names of numerous violent organizations that emerged in the 1970s both in the Third World and regions of the First World. These points were exemplified in Ireland by frequent references by Republicans to Northern Ireland as Britain’s Vietnam and the formation of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in 1975.

From the vantage point of the beginning of the 21st century, it seems that these ideas reached the peak of their influence in the mid 1970s. Despite declarations from the UN General Assembly, a new international economic order was not adopted. The threat posed to western economies by the rise in oil prices was met by the recycling of petro-dollars through the western banking system and not by a new deal for the Third World. The significance of this outcome tended to be masked at the time by political developments, particularly the collapse of authoritarian right-wing governments in Southern Europe, which seemed to provide a further boost for left-wing forces.

Moreover, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the revolution in Nicaragua in the same year, and the victory of guerrilla forces in Rhodesia culminating in the emergence of Zimbabwe in 1980, hardly suggested that anti-imperialist forces were in retreat and concerns over these and other challenges to western influence were a factor in the victories of conservatives in elections in Britain and the United States in 1979 and 1980. However, none of these political developments actually enhanced the credibility of an economically nationalist alternative to the rejuvenation of the capitalist system through measures of economic liberalization.



By the end of the 1970s, the Provisional IRA had abandoned its expectations of a quick victory achieved as a result of the withdrawal of British forces. A new strategy was adopted, that of the long war, in the expectation that only sustained pressure over a long period would secure the Republicans’ objective of a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Ireland.

During the 1970s, Republicans had set great store by opinion polls showing that a large majority of the British electorate wanted the troops withdrawn. The failure of public opinion to change policy led to a reassessment of British intentions. Republicans explained the reluctance of Britain to withdraw in terms of strategic and economic interests in the maintenance of partition. The political boost to the position of the Republican movement as a result of the 1981 hunger-strike crisis in the prisons ensured that for almost a decade these propositions were not subjected to critical scrutiny.



The proposition that Britain had an economic stake in partition was only possible to sustain on the basis that autarky was a viable economic strategy in the context of a united Ireland. This was not immediately undermined by the entry of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland into the European Community, since on the left in both countries there was considerable support for the view that entry had been a mistake because the rules of the Community, particularly in relation to free movement of capital and economic competition, prevented the adoption of socialist policies. However, in the longer term the new economic realities did begin to erode Republican analysis of the economic motivation for British imperialism in Ireland. Thus, by the 1990s, the model which had once been central to Republican thinking of a socialist, economically self-sufficient, united Ireland seemed a pipe-dream, even to Republicans.

After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, the SDLP leader, John Hume, tried to persuade the Sinn Fein leadership that the agreement meant that the British government was now neutral on the question of the union and that there was therefore no justification whatsoever for the continuance of the Provisional IRA’s campaign of violence. He did not succeed largely because the Republican movement remained wedded to the view that inclusion of Northern Ireland in NATO was still an important objective of British policy. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, this last prop of the Republican analysis of British policy in Northern Ireland disintegrated.

In November 1990, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, made an important speech in which he declared that ‘the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.’ The speech had a profound effect on Republican perceptions and Brooke’s declaration became a core element in the discussions between John Hume and Gerry Adams on the peace initiative that paved the way to the Joint Declaration by the British and Irish governments in December 1993 which launched the Irish peace process.



Other changes in the external environment played a part in the Republican movement’s abandonment of the long war. During the 1980s, the Republican movement made wide use of comparison of the Provisional IRA’s campaign of violence with the ‘armed struggle’ of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and that of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) against the state of Israel and its continuing occupation of territories captured in 1967. It was reflected in the widespread use of these comparisons in Republican rhetoric and propaganda.

Inevitably, President de Klerk’s liberalization of the South African polity in February 1990 and the decision of the ANC to suspend its armed struggle in August of that year had a profound impact on the Republican movement. If fundamental change was achievable in South Africa of all places through negotiation, then how could Republicans sustain the position that Northern Ireland was irreformable? Agreement between Israel and the PLO in September 1993 simply added to the pressure on Sinn Fein to come up with a peace strategy to sustain the credibility of the comparisons it had come to rely upon.

A further source of external pressure on Sinn Fein was evolution in the attitudes of the various elements of the Irish-American lobby. Influential in changing the reactive basis of the lobby’s engagement with the conflict was a new organization, Americans for a New Irish Agenda (ANIA). While sympathetic to the Republican movement, it subtly changed the objective of American involvement from the achievement of Irish unity to one of ending the conflict without prejudging the shape of a settlement. At the beginning of 1994, ANIA persuaded President Clinton to admit Gerry Adams on a 48-hour visa to attend a conference, on the understanding that such a development would facilitate its efforts to bring about a cease-fire by the Provisional IRA. (It is worth noting in parenthesis that an American President would hardly have contemplated taking such a step during the Cold War. Entirely predictably, it would have angered the British government, despite its ultimately pacific intent.)



The declaration of a cease-fire by the Provisional IRA in August 1994 did not lead directly or quickly to a political settlement. The Republican movement’s dissatisfaction with the pace of political developments after the cease-fire led to its breaking down in February 1996. The cease-fire was reinstated in July 1997. It took a further nine months for agreement to be reached in the multi-party talks. Further, the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998 fell far short of the political objectives of the Republican movement, leading to Sinn Fein’s qualified endorsement of the agreement on the basis that it would facilitate the transition to a united Ireland.

The agreement was far closer to the objectives of its nationalist rival, the SDLP, in its emphasis on political accommodation. It also bore a sufficiently close resemblance to the power-sharing experiment of 1974, which the SDLP had participated in but which the Republican movement had denounced, such that the deputy leader of the SDLP was moved to describe the agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. The same basic elements of power-sharing in a devolved government for Northern Ireland and an Irish dimension were present in both agreements.



However, both the external environment and the ideological climate of opinion surrounding the agreements were very different. In particular, by 1998, globalization and rapid technological change through the information revolution had discredited policies of economic nationalism. The progress of European integration had reached the point of agreement on the creation of a single currency, though, admittedly, without Britain’s participation.

The demise of communism had led to a decline in politics based on class as parties aspiring to government found themselves driven by market forces to operate within the prevailing neo-liberal consensus on economic policy. Identity politics had tended to displace class politics, facilitating – and facilitated by – an increasing focus on the rights of minority groups. The prospect of the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales created the context of the innovative proposal for a British-Irish Council to balance the enhancement of North-South ties within Ireland, thereby ameliorating Unionist fears that closer ties between the two parts of Ireland would automatically distance Northern Ireland further from the rest of the United Kingdom.



In addition, the interpretation of both self-determination and sovereignty was undergoing considerable change in the wake of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The international community’s anathema against secession had been considerably weakened as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia. Admittedly, the independence of Slovenia and Croatia and their recognition by the international community have yet to prompt the United Nations General Assembly to rewrite the 1970 Declaration, but these two cases clearly set a precedent for the unilateral secession of regions from existing sovereign states.

At the same time, cases of genocide and other atrocities in the post-Cold War world have led to the view that intervention in the affairs of sovereign states may be justifiable if gross violations of human rights occur. This has taken the world further away from the Westphalian ideal of the international political system as being made up of sovereign, territorial states not penetrated by external authority – an ideal which had been supported by most members of the international community as recently as the 1970s.

These changes in the interpretation of both self-determination and sovereignty have been reflected in a remarkable transformation in perceptions of Northern Ireland’s conditional status. At the start of the troubles it was viewed as an indication of the province’s semi-colonial status, detracting from its legitimacy as a political entity. Enshrined as the consent principle in the Good Friday Agreement, it has been hailed by regional nationalists and ethno-nationalists in other parts of Europe, such as the Basque country and Corsica, as providing a model for their situations.

However, in part, the change has come about because the implications of the province’s conditional status appear in a different light as a result of demographic change. Thus, at the start of the troubles there seemed no prospect whatsoever that the principle of consent might facilitate any change in its constitutional position. The prospect that it might, has played a very large role in nationalist acceptance of the principle. The facilitation of cross-boundary links under the Good Friday Agreement, the soft sovereignty which that implies, the emphasis on minority rights, and the explicit provision for the transfer of sovereignty if that is a wish of a majority, are aspects of the agreement that have attracted interest as possible elements in the resolution of ethnic conflicts elsewhere.

However, the significance in the Irish case of the provision for the transfer of sovereignty should not be exaggerated. As pointed out above, this position is not in any way new. Much more significant is the manner in which the agreement recognises that good governance can only be achieved through political accommodation within the province between two communities with differing national allegiances. It explicitly recognises that special measures are needed that take account of each community’s differing national identity, and that these will be necessary in the future regardless of which community happens to constitute a majority of the population within the province.

In fact, what is most remarkable about the agreement is that it has provided a way of legitimising Northern Ireland as a political entity for the first time in its history and that has been done without a change in the border or a transfer of sovereignty.