Foreign Policy Impasses: Notes from Northern Ireland

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Be a student of history, not its prisoner. That is the major lesson to be taken away from Northern Ireland’s peace process. Its history is littered with sectarianism, human rights abuses and terrorist atrocities. And yet, in 1998, the two sides of its bloody conflict signed an agreement (the “Good Friday Agreement”) which has led to decommissioning of terrorist weapons, a swathe of reformed institutions and most importantly, a shared democracy.[i]

The conflict which dogged Northern Ireland for over 30 years illustrates how even the most entrenched foreign policy impasses can be overcome if the desire for some form of resolution is present. To understand the extent to which the positions were entrenched in Northern Ireland, one has to look at its history and gain an overview of the opposing cultural and political standpoints that have existed there, side by side, for centuries.

A Brief History of Northern Ireland

In the 1600s, the island of Ireland was a troublesome colony of the British Empire. Rebellions among the Irish against British rule were commonplace and a constant drain on Britain’s resources. Ireland’s location on the windward side of Britain meant that a naval attack could be launched there at any time, making it of extreme strategic military importance to Britain. From a British perspective, the situation needed to be contained. The solution the government of the day decided on was the plantation the north east of Ireland[ii].

The plantation (sometimes called “a settlement”) involved tens of thousands of British people being given land in the area now occupied by Northern Ireland. The idea being that, to quote Machiavelli in the Prince, “a prince does not spend much on colonies, for with little or no expense he can send them out and keep them there, and he offends a minority only of the citizens from whom he takes lands and houses to give them to the new inhabitants.”[iii] In the case of Northern Ireland, Machiavelli was plainly wrong.

Over 300 years later at the beginning of the 20th century, a minority of the Northern Ireland citizens (being Catholic) were still offended. To complicate matters further, the southern part of Ireland had gained its independence in 1921. Relations between the British leaning Protestants and Irish leaning Catholics deteriorated quite significantly in the years thereafter. By the 1960s, discrimination against Catholics culminated in gerrymandering, which in turn led to riots and the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. Sadly and ironically, the quest for civil rights for Catholics marked the beginning of an extended period of violence.

Between 1966 and 1998, two broad ethno-political groups (Protestant Unionists who wished to remain part of the UK and Catholic Republicans who wished to join the Republic of Ireland) embarked on a bloody tit-for-tat battle that would leave 3,600[iv] people dead and divide the two communities more than they had ever been before. As in all such conflicts, innocent people on both sides lost their lives and reasonable people were whittled down in number as the unreasonable became a majority. Treaties, agreements and ceasefires all came and went over the years but the violence dragged on.

Landslide Elections in Great Britain and Ireland

In 1997, landslide general victories in the general elections of Great Britain[v] and Ireland[vi] brought Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern to power. Both leaders had made the ongoing crisis in Northern Ireland a priority as part of their election campaigns and the large majority that each had, gave them a mandate to focus more attention on Northern Ireland than otherwise might have been the case. This was particularly true in the case of Blair, whose Labour Party had no presence in Northern Ireland[vii], meaning he had potentially more to lose than to gain in political terms.

In his autobiography, Blair devotes a chapter to the peace process that ensued in Northern Ireland. It is a fascinating insight into what was involved in overcoming the impasse there and the seeming impossibility of the task that confronted them: “A culture had grown up around the dispute. The Unionists didn’t simply have a disagreement with the Nationalists, nor simply a religious difference; they had different music a different way of speaking, a different attitude, a different nature…any theological dispute had long since been subsumed in the tribal one”[viii]

The tribal nature of the dispute also meant that the Unionists couldn’t be seen to be shaking hands with the Nationalists, lest it be seen as some form of pandering to terrorists. In a similar vein, when all-party talks began, negotiations between each side were usually held with them located in separate rooms. Meanwhile, outside negotiations, terrorist factions with links to political parties on both sides were being kept in the loop. The Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, even made a point of visiting them in prison[ix] to include them in the process - another landmark.

In early April 1998, all parties involved in the process signed what became known as the Good Friday Agreement. It was ratified by elections in May of that year. This meant that the two sides of Northern Ireland, engulfed in tribalism, were beginning a shared government together; no more sitting in separate rooms in different wings of government buildings. It is irresponsible in cases such as this to suggest it was the triumph of hope over adversity; lessons can and should be learned from the Northern Ireland peace process. Broadly speaking, these are the following:

  1. Core principles need to be established between all sides. In the case of Northern Ireland, both sides had irreconcilable differences in their views on whether it should remain in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. The core principle established in Northern Ireland was the principle of consent – that only fair elections could decide its fate.
  2. Parties to the conflict needs outside assistance from a third party. If you keep doing things as you have always done them, you can expect the same results. A third-party with no agenda can bring a new perspective, new arguments and a new energy to an impasse.
  3. Negotiations need to be relentless. The Northern Ireland peace process was characterized by politicians effectively living in government buildings for days at a time, as details were thrashed out. A lack of urgency in many cases is to risk the lives of more innocent people.
  4. Consideration to details is crucial. This is not as soft an argument as it might appear. Small details in the Northern Ireland process such as the Irish language, army checkpoints and marching parades became bargaining chips[x]. Although at times they may have led to tangents, ultimately, all of them became part of a more holistic final agreement.
  5. There will be dissenters who don’t want to overcome the impasse. Generally, they will do what they can to disrupt negotiations. In the example of Northern Ireland, the largest atrocity came after the Easter Friday Agreement was signed in August 2008. Thankfully, it didn’t derail what had already been set in motion.
  6. The character of political leaders is important. For a political leader, it is not just about finding agreement with the other side, but convincing their own people to buy-in to the agreement. In the case of Northern Ireland, getting traditional hard-liners like Ian Paisley on the Unionist side and Gerry Adams on the Nationalist side to compromise was an extraordinary step. demanding real leadership from both. Likewise, Mo Mowlam taking the unprecedented step of negotiating with terrorist prisoners was a huge moment of leadership.


The most important element in any conflict resolution is a genuine desire on all sides to finish the conflict. No impasse in foreign policy has ever been overcome through peaceful means without this. Unfortunately, getting to a stage where this is desired often comes long after bloodshed and destruction have made people rethink their intransigence in favour of compromise. Northern Ireland’s history is an unfortunate reminder of this.

Lev Tolstoy’s quote that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,”[xi] applies very well to foreign policy impasses. The ultimate resolution of Northern Ireland’s conflict is not an exact template for every other impass of its kind. However, it does provide some useful general lessons that can and should be taken on elsewhere in the world. Most of all, it should send the message that no conflict is so intractable that a peaceful resolution cannot be found.



[iii] Machiavelli, N., (1513), “The Prince.” Chapter 3: Concerning Mixed Principalities.

[viii] Blair, T (2010). “The Journey: My Political Life.” ISBN-10: 0307390632. P. 148.

[x] See Blair (2010) Chapter 6.

[xi] Tolstoy, L (1877). “Anna Karenina.” ISBN 9780191500374. Page unknown.


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