Northern ireland peace: staying apart or coming together

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Charles P. Kelly, Ph.D

Political Science Program

Kean University

Union, New Jersey

Prepared for the 2012 Northeastern Political Science

Association Conference

November 15-17

Omni Parker House Hotel

Boston, MA


The history of Northern Ireland peacemaking has been one of staying apart or coming together. The British Government partitioning of Ireland in 1920 clearly illustrates the staying apart approach to resolving the ethnic conflict between the unionists (Protestants) and the nationalists (Catholics). The Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement in 1998 illustrates the coming together approach to resolve violent conflict. There is no doubt the level of violence is significantly down as a consequent of the 1998 Agreement but it has not disappeared. Currently Northern Ireland seems to be moving toward coming together, yet there are some indications that it may be falling apart. Does the long term peace in Northern Ireland rest in the coming together or staying apart approach to conflict resolution or does it reside in a balance of coming together and staying apart? Is the staying apart component of this balance a temporary or permanent factor of the Northern Ireland peace? What do social science theories such as: modernization theory, social identity theory, contact theory, consociational theory, civil society theory, rational choice and prospect theory offer us as answers to these questions?

Are there any lessons one can draw for other ethnic conflicts in the case of Northern Ireland?

As is in most ethnic conflicts, the origins of the conflict in Northern Ireland is a matter of dispute. The Northern Ireland Irish nationalists and the British unionists have different historical perspectives. Nationalists and unionists refers to groups in the communal divide in Northern Ireland. Within the nationalists there are those who are referred to as republicans. Both aspire to a united Ireland but the nationalists are opposed to the use of violence to achieve it. The republicans are nationalists in aspiration but do not reject violence as a means to achieve Irish unity. Parallel are the unionists and the loyalists. The unionists in Northern Ireland are those who support union with the United Kingdom and who oppose violence as a means to maintain union. The loyalists are unionists who use militant methods to support the union which may include violence. Both loyalists and republicans draw support largely from the working class of Northern Ireland.
Nationalists claim that the Celts originally inhabited Ireland and the conflict originates with the Norman invasion in the 12th Century and the plantation system in the 17th Century, which established Protestant English rule over the majority of the island's Catholic population, and that led to the redistribution of about 95 percent of the Catholic's land to Protestant British settlers. The unionists, in particular some loyalist historians recently, argue that the Cruthin inhabited Northern Ireland before the Celts.1 The plantation system which brought the Scottish settlers to Ulster in the 17th Century, according to the loyalists' view , was simply a return of the Cruthin (Scottish) to their original homeland. The unionists believe the plantation system and the Protestant Scottish settlers brought civilization to a primitive people. The Irish Catholic rebellions and battles fought in the 17th Century against the Protestant settlers has been memorialized by unionists in their marches that continue today. The two greatest unionist commemorations are the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. In the Siege of Derry the Protestant Apprentice Boys slammed the gates of Derry shut when Derry's Protestant Governor Lundy proposed to surrender the city to the forces of the Catholic King James II. The Protestants were able to ultimately prevail when Protestant King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James at the Battle of Boyne. The Siege of Derry is still today invoked by unionists to remind themselves that a defiant "no surrender" posture can bring success.2 William of Orange's victory at the Battle of the Boyne, established Protestant dominance of Ireland. A century later, the Protestant Wolfe Tone led the United Irishmen (nationalists) combining Catholics and Presbyterians in a rebellion to gain independence from England.3 This too was defeated and the United Kingdom enacted in 1801 the Act of Union which integrated the Irish Parliament into the Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland.
At the end of the 19th Century a constitutional movement for Irish Home Rule made some headway in gaining considerable land reform for the Irish Catholics. World War I, however, stalled Home Rule's momentum. Unionists, mainly Protestants descendants of the plantation system, led resistance to Home Rule. The unionists who were particularly concentrated in the northern region of Ireland, called Ulster, feared Catholic domination in an All-Ireland Assembly. The Ulster unionists gained support from the Conservative Party in England as well as from sections of the British military. By 1914 England was bitterly divided over the "Irish Question." The outbreak of World War I, however, dramatically altered the political agenda for the British.
At Easter, 1916, a small group of republicans entered the Dublin General Post Office and declared an Irish republic. The British easily defeated the rebellion and captured many of the republican leaders. The subsequent execution of many of the republican leaders shocked the Irish Catholics and sympathy shifted away from Home Rule to the republican cause of independence. In 1918 the republican political party, Sinn Fein, easily won the all-Ireland election. The armed wing of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a war for independence against the British. The war lasted from 1919 to 1921 with the signing of a treaty that formalized the partitioning of Ireland into Northern Ireland (6 counties of Ulster) and the Irish Free State (the remaining 26 counties). The nationalists viewed the partition as a temporary measure and saw the treaty as a path to reunification. Unionists viewed the partition of Ireland as the South's decision to secede from the Union. Unionists asserted that the partition is a reflection of the people's will and a product of a power conflict not unlike the drawing of borders in other societies.
The division between the Protestant Northern Ireland State created by the Treaty and what later became known (1948) as the Republic of Ireland grew. The Catholic minority within Northern Ireland suffered discrimination in the unionist state. The unionists deny or minimize the allegations of discrimination against Catholics or justify it on the basis of the threat posed by the IRA in the South. The double minority complex characterized Ireland after partition, the Catholics were the minority in Northern Ireland and the Protestants were the minority in all of Ireland. The Protestants have approximately a two to one majority in Northern Ireland. "Fear and suspicion of Catholics in Northern Ireland do not correspond to these proportions," as Conor Cruise O'Brien has pointed out, "but to the proportions between Catholics and Protestants in the entire island of Ireland, in which Protestants are outnumbered by Catholics by more than three to one." O'Brien further noted that Catholics not only are conscious of the proportionality but believe they are entitled to rights this proportion suggest.4 In the 1960's Catholics began to demand for their civil rights to be respected by the unionists regime. The denial of civil rights led to street demonstrations and then to violence. The unionists viewed the civil rights movement as a Communist/republican inspired campaign to re-open the border question, not an authentic reform movement. The British Government was finally forced to intervene when the street violence got beyond the control of the local police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The IRA came to the defense of Catholic areas in Northern Ireland from attacks by the loyalists paramilitary groups, but also seized the opportunity to try to force the British out of Ireland.
In 1972, after escalating violence, the British Government suspended the Northern Ireland Parliament (Stormout) and introduced direct rule. The British attempted to resolve this conflict with a proposal (the Sunningdate Agreement) for power-sharing between the unionists and nationalists including an all-Ireland body. The unionists vehemently and successfully defeated it and according to one observer, "the British Government and the IRA settled down for a 'Long War'."5

In the aftermath of Sunningdale Agreement's failure, the British treated republicans caught resisting direct rule as criminals. This led to the Hunger Strike to gain political status for those arrested. The Hunger Strike resulted in the death of ten republicans incarcerated by the British. One of the first hunger strikers to die was Bobby Sands who was elected to the English Parliament at Westminster in April, 1981. Voters were urged to vote for him to save his life. After 66 days of refusing to eat in prison, Sands died on May 5, 1981.

Britain and the Republic of Ireland attempted again to resolve the conflict with the Anglo Irish Agreement (AIA) of 1985. Both governments, however, underestimated the strength of the unionist's opposition. The unionists saw AIA as a move to unite Ireland and the loyalists were prepared to start a civil war over it. Even moderate unionists spoke that opposition to AIA may turn inevitably to violence. AIA and the unionists reaction provoked by it demonstrated to everyone including the IRA the limits of Britain's power to impose its preferred settlement on the conflicting parties.6 It became apparent that the "unionist veto on Irish unity lay not just in the democratic principle of consent [the majority of Northern Irish citizens would have to vote for it] but also in the ability of unionism to make Northern Ireland ungovernable."7
The IRA continued its armed struggle for a united Ireland but also entered into secret talks with the British from 1990 to 1993. In 1994 the IRA announced a ceasefire and attempted to gain the acceptance of Sinn Fein, its political arm, into the all-party negotiations with the unionists. The British insisted on some decommissioning of IRA weapons as a condition for Sinn Fein's acceptance. The IRA refused. In February, 1996, the IRA ended its ceasefire. A year and a half later, the IRA renewed its ceasefire following the election of a British Labour Government and entered into negotiations with the unionists. These negotiations led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This treaty laid the basis and framework for the peace Northern Ireland enjoys today.8
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is a classic case of allowing contentious parties to agree to disagree and building agreement on ambiguity. The nationalists/republicans have claimed that the treaty provides a workable path to a united Ireland. The unionists/loyalists contend that the IRA have been effectively defeated and that the treaty reassures Northern Ireland's union with Great Britain. The treaty does not change the ultimate goals of the unionists/loyalists nor that of the nationalists/republicans. It does, however, transform the tactics both sides employ to pursue these goals. The GFA and the peace that followed it represents, in the eyes of one observer, "a triumph for politics over the use of violence."9
What Does Political Science Offer?
In a reflective essay, Sidney Verba in 2005, a past president of the American Political Science Association, commented that political science is open to various approaches, methods and theories in regard to the question, "Where are we now that we weren't several decades ago?".10 Political Science draws on such fields as economics, psychology, sociology, history, culture studies, statistics and many more. When Verba started his political science career in the 1960's, in the developing world the role of ethnicity and religion as the source of identity conflict had just been uncovered. At the time these bases for political identity were believed to be "primordial," i.e, received at birth and extremely difficult to change, if not impossible. In contrast to this static view of political identity was the theory of modernization. Modernization driven by technology and economics would spread education, rationality and diminish ideology, traditional religion and the bonds of ethnicity.
Fifty years later, Verba notes that "religious and ethnic cleavages dominates politics across the world".11 He believes that political science today is more capable now of understanding these phenomena than it was then. Verba attributes this enhanced capacity to the aggregation of work performed in different disciplines. Verba specifically credits rational choice theory (economics) as contributing to a better understanding of political identity:
The seminal addition of rational calculation to understanding of identity in the guise of straightforward self-interested motive for adhering to one or another identity, for the social calculation associated with cementing relations with others, or the strategic calculation of elite building support, has given sharpness to a sometimes fuzzy subject.12
Verba notes, however, that identity and the role it plays in conflict is not fully explained by rational choice theory. He concludes that socialization (sociology), the content of belief systems (culture studies) institutional development (history), the roles of elites (political science) are needed to provide a fuller understanding. While he does not address the addition of prospect theory (behavioral psychology) and its debate with rational choice calculation explicitly, he most certainly would find it consistent to his overall conclusion. Verba concludes that political scientists do not have an agreed upon formula for predicting or analyzing ethnic and/or religious identity and the conflicts it stimulates, but we do have a "toolbox filled with ways of coming to grips with such phenomena."13

Coming Together or Staying Apart
The debate of coming together or staying apart lies at the heart of many social science theories dealing with identity conflict. The debate often exaggerates the differences between and among theorists. In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, two well known political scientists attempted to address the question of coming together or staying apart in terms of the new world order. Frances Fukuyama, in his frequently quoted book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that modernization, technology and economics will ultimately bring us all together.14 Fukuyama speculated that there is a linear path into the future with an end point in history for all humanity. Similar to Karl Marx who argued that economic forces will ultimately lead all societies to communism, Fukuyama believes historical forces will lead all of us to liberal democratic capitalism. Liberal democratic capitalism will be based on the adoption of a universal set of values of individualism, rationalism and materialism. In Fukuyama's view these values are in and of themselves meritorious, objective and superior to all other competing values. Like Marx, Fukuyama is taking the long view of history and is not predicting this universal civilization and new identity in the foreseeable future.
Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilization theorized that the end of ideological conflict with the collapse of the Soviet Union would unleash a multitude of ethnic and religious conflict that had for decades been suppressed.15 These conflicts were essentially identity conflicts driven by cultural differences. The cultural differences (primarily associated with religion) would result in a violent world especially if policy-makers ignored their significance and pursued interventionist policy. His overall conclusion is that the world would be better off if cultural groups (regional civilizations) stayed apart rather than interfering with one another.
Coming together or staying apart underlies many social scientific approaches to conflict resolution and conflict management. Even the definition of conflict resolution implies that all conflicts are resolvable and therefore with the right focus, energy, time and resources it is possible to eliminate conflict. On the other hand conflict management implies that not all conflicts are resolvable and therefore keeping people apart in these situations is better than forcing them to interact because interaction may lead to violence. It is difficult to discuss these approaches without addressing one's own bias. Most social scientists like myself favor coming together. There is clearly this normative view in most of our concepts of democracy, conflict resolution, and peacemaking. Regardless of this bias there are those who do not share the coming together belief. They nonetheless embrace the consensus of limiting, avoiding and/or managing violence destructive capabilities. Building on this fundamental consensus, the question then is how do we as social scientists contribute to managing violence.
In the latter half of the 20th Century, largely due to the work of Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (1954), many social psychologists asserted that there was a way to address intractable conflicts between/among groups. This approach became known as the contact hypothesis. It claims that inter-group contact would reduce inter-group antipathy. The advocates of the contact hypothesis/theory believe that people interacting with one another from different groups would through interaction discover similarities they shared and that this discovery would mitigate the hostility they have over their differences. Allport noted that certain conditions for hostility reduction were important. He stated that "prejudice (unless deeply rooted in the character of the individual) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals."16 Contact would improve inter-group relations because it would either reveal interpersonal similarities or create them through the process of assimilation.
The "staying apart" challenge to contact theory is from the work of researchers who advocate the social identity theory. According to this theory individuals have a psychological need to belong to a group and the need "to differentiate their group positively from others to achieve a positive social identity."17 These identities help you define yourself to you and to others as well as define others for you. Social identity theory focuses attention on the importance of establishing inter-group differences and the search for distinctiveness of the in-group. In contrast to contact theory that claims a positive result from discovery of similarities when group interact social identity theory suggests that the discovery of similarity threatens the need for distinctiveness and will have a repulsive effect on relations of groups.
The coming together and staying apart assumption is also a distinguishing factor in the civil society and consociationalist approach to conflict. The civil society approach focuses on the mid-level and grassroots of societal conflict. It attempts to build bridges of understanding, open pipelines of communication and foster cooperation and collaboration of antagonistic groups in society. Civil society approach also referred to as transformational conflict resolution and peace building is premised on the contact theory "that person-to-person contact in structural settings creates the possibility of reducing tensions in inter-communal relationships as well as engendering solutions to structural problems that can meet the basic needs of both communities."18
The staying apart challenge to the civil society approach is the consociationalist approach. Consociationalists prefer a top down approach and the separation of groups as a means to manage conflict. Arend Lijphart characterizes consociationalism by five features: government by grand coalition, the mutual veto for ethno-national groups; proportional representation as an electoral system; civil service based on merit with an equitable allocation of public resources; and each segment of society running their own affairs with a high degree of autonomy.19 He asserts that rival groups may "coexist peacefully if there is little contact between them and consequently few occasions for conflict."20 The consociationalists hope that the separation and distinctiveness of groups will promote internal cohesion which will in turn permit a group leader to strike bargains with leaders from rival groups. Lijphart views such latitude as "vital in consociational politics, because the elites have to be able to co-operate and compromise with each other without losing the support of their own rank and file."21 Pessimistic about Northern Ireland chances of creating a consociational democracy, Lijphart concludes that partition, i.e. the creating of two homogenous societies of Northern Ireland may be the only workable solution. Writing in 1975 he felt that further partition of Ireland even with the resettling of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland should be seriously considered.22
Coming together and staying apart is also addressed by rational choice theory and prospect theory. These theories claim no predisposed bias toward coming together or staying apart per se. The basis assumption, however, is competition based on self-interest and as such has an inherent conservative bias. The coming together according to these theorists will occur when the payoff of one outcome "coming together" is greater than the other staying apart. Game theorists, a version of rational choice theory, predicts the coming together is based on expected utility. Similar to consociationalist theory in the respect of viewing conflict resolution from a top down perspective, some theorists employ what they refer to as the theory of moves, a dynamic version of game theory, to show how political decision-makers may find their way to peace. Steve Brams and Jeffrey M. Togman apply this theory to the Northern Ireland peace process and explain how Sinn Fein used threats of violence to achieve its best interest through a peaceful settlement..23
Prospect theory adds a psychological dimension to game theory. It asserts that decision-making occurs in two stages: framing and choice. In the framing stage the decision-maker selectively edits information as the basis for choice. The form, method and order in which this information is received, effects perception of options available to choose. Game theory assumes the information is self-evident and psychological perception has little or no role in framing the options. The second stage is evaluation. Prospect theory claims on the basis of experimental evidence demonstrated in laboratories that evaluation is shaped by the value function and the weighing function. The perception of values vary whether you are in the gains versus the domain of losses. Outcomes that are viewed as gains are valued less than outcomes viewed in the loss domain. Game theory judges outcomes in absolute terms making no difference between values that are gains versus values that are losses.
The relative value of gains versus losses in prospect theory makes decision-makers risk averse in the former and risk seeking in the later. In other words if things are going well, decision makers are cautious in taking chances even when high probability of success exists. However, if things are going poorly, decision makers are more inclined to take chances even when low probability of success exists. For example, Kahneman illustrates this theory with the choice between accepting $800 with certainty or taking an 85% chance of winning $1,000. Most people will choose the certain $800. However, if you had to choose the certain loss of $800 versus an 85% chance of losing $1,000, most people would take the option where they have a 15% chance of losing nothing. The weighting function pertains to assigning probabilities. In contrast to game theory low probability events are given more weight in prospect theory while moderate and high probability events are given less weight. These probability assessments effect choice in decision-making significantly different than those choices predicted by game theory. The authors of prospect theory, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, are behavioral psychologists who derive this theory based on how individuals decide.24 Political scientists have explored the value of this theory to group decision-making and in one case applied it to the implementation decisions regarding the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).25

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