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11. An intractable conflict? Northern Ireland: A need for pragmatism

John Darby

John Darby

An intractable conflict?
A tractable conflict?


The conflict in Northern Ireland is often seen as intractable, mainly because of the persistence of violence in conducting it and the failure of Catholics and Protestants to reach political accord. Both indicators must be qualified. The violence, though persistent, operates under a number of military and social constraints which have prevented it from spiralling out of control.

Although no political accommodation has yet been reached, progress has been made on other elements - social reforms, respect for cultural diversity, discrimination, and socio-economic inequities - of this multi-faceted problem. It is clear that the problem will remain until it is tackled across a broad front.

One of the numerous apocryphal stories arising from Northern Ireland's violence concerns an event which allegedly took place in 1969. That was the first year of serious widespread violence in the current outbreak of what we euphemistically call the "Troubles." The British army had just arrived to separate the warring factions and was still regarded with benevolence by the Catholic community. Some soldiers based in Derry, therefore, were surprised to find themselves the targets of stone-throwing children. Grabbing an eight-year-old boy, one of the soldiers asked him for an explanation. "Listen," said the child. "You English bastards have been pushing us around for 800 years and we're taking no more of it."

Two points about the anecdote are illuminative. First, it seems to confirm the widely held view that the conflict in Ireland has remained essentially unchanged since the English invasion in the twelfth century, that it is essentially a colonial struggle, and that it cannot be solved. The second point is that the child knew, with some precision, that the English had first invaded Ireland in 1170. Dates, slogans, and apocryphal stories are important in Ireland. They provide the furniture for debate and disagreement. The following observation was made in 1976:

Sellar and Yeatman, in their comic history of Britain, 1066 and All That, decided to include only two dates in the book, because all others were 'not memorable'. They would have had much greater difficulty writing an equivalent volume on Irish history. 1170, 1641, 1690, 1798, 1912, 1916, 1921, 1969 - all these dates are fixed like beacons in the folklore and mythology of Irishmen. They trip off the tongue during ordinary conversation like the latest football scores in other environments, and are recorded for posterity on gable walls all over Northern Ireland. (Derby, 1976: 1)

The intervening 15 years of violence - on top of the seven already experienced by 1976 - have changed public perceptions of history, shifted the furniture around. A succession of historians has radically challenged the nationalist interpretation upon which Irish historiography was based for almost a century; that is, the view that all Irish history exists only to justify the struggle for unification.

I teach a course on the Irish conflict in the University of Ulster. The students, most of them from Northern Ireland, enter readily into class discussions. The same issues are not discussed afterwards over cups of coffee or pints of beer. It is certainly not that they are uninterested - the course, which is optional, is currently being taken by all final-year undergraduates. It is that they have become heartily sick and deeply wary of discussing the Troubles outside the formal setting of a university lecture theatre. Could it be that they share the gloomy analysis that nothing has changed, or can be changed?

If so they would cite in support two of the most over-used quotations about the Irish problem. The first is from Winston Churchill, describing the end of the first world war:

Then came the Great War. Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed... The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world. (Churchill, 1934)

More recently, Richard Rose offered this devastating conclusion:

Many talk about a solution to Ulster's political problem but few are prepared to say what the problem is. The reason is simple. The problem is that there is no solution. (Rose, 1976:139)

An intractable conflict?

How is such a proposition to be examined? What evidence might inform the proposition that the conflict is intractable? Two main arguments might be presented. First is its persistent tendency towards violence; second is the failure to find political structures acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.

1. The persistence of violence

Persistent it certainly is. The seventeenth-century Plantation of Ulster, when large numbers of Protestant settlers were attracted from Britain to the province by generous grants of land confiscated from the native Catholic Irish, provided its demographic base. Scarcely a decade since then has not been marked by political violence. Between 1835 and 1969 there were nine periods of serious rioting in Belfast alone and many other years where disturbances have been recorded (Boyd, 1969; Townshend, 1983). The current period of violence is the longest and most sustained of all. It has been uninterrupted, except for variations in form and intensity, for more than twenty years.

This persistent antagonism has not been between hostile neighbouring countries, but between two internal groups occupying what Stewart called the same "narrow ground" (Stewart, 1977). The distinction between ethnic conflicts and international wars needs to be emphasized. In most ethnic conflicts the combatants permanently inhabit the same battlefield. Even during periods of tranquillity their lives are often intermeshed with those of their enemies. It is not possible to terminate hostilities by withdrawal behind national frontiers. As a consequence, ethnic conflict is often characterized by internecine viciousness rather than by the more impassive slaughter of international wars.

In such circumstances violence, unless arrested at an early stage, tends to develop along predictable lines: disagreements harden into disputes; the violence expands to involve a greater number of activists disputing a greater number of issues; the combatants become more efficiently organized under more implacable leaders; the restraints on decent behaviour are eroded. Conflict is, after all, a "joint interaction" (Shibutani and Kwan, 1971: 135) and tends to spiral from reciprocal tit-for-tat attacks. As Coleman (1971: 256) put it, "the harmful and dangerous elements drive out those which keep the conflict within bounds," creating a Gresham's law of conflict.

The last twenty years, it might be argued, confirm this. More than 3,000 people have died as a result of political violence, and much greater numbers have been injured.

2. The failure to reach political accord

The inability of the protagonists to reach an agreed political accord is often cited as evidence of intractability. In 1972, following growing civil disorder and violence, the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government at Stormont were prorogued. They were replaced by Direct Rule from Westminster. The Stormont regime had lasted since 1921, in 51 years of majority rule, which had been characterized by minority exclusion from power and abuses of electoral, judicial, and policing functions. During its existence, only one measure proposed by the opposition had passed into law - the Wild Bird Act of 1932, a measure which not even the most ingenious argument could classify as sectarian.

Since then there have been six attempts to restore self-government to Northern Ireland. All have failed.

- 1973-4: The Power-sharing Executive, which lasted for three months, remains Northern Ireland's only experience of a government shared by Catholics and Protestants. It attempted to construct a devolved system based on power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics, and on a Council of Ireland to regulate affairs between the two parts of Ireland. It was opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and most of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), but eventually was brought down through a Protestant workers' strike in May 1974.

- 1975-6: A Constitutional Convention was convened to enable elected representatives from Northern Ireland to propose their own solution. Not surprisingly the majority Unionist parties proposed a return to majority rule, modified by a committee system with some minority rights inbuilt. It was rejected by both the British government and by the minority Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

- 1977-8 and 1980: Two attempts to set up devolved institutions were initiated by two Northern Ireland secretaries of state, Roy Mason and Humphrey Atkins. Neither got to first base. They were opposed, for different reasons, by the SDLP and the UUP, but both simply petered out. As a measure of the cultural gap between the two sides, two bars were set up in Stormont during the Atkins talks of 1980, one serving only nonalcoholic beverages. Students of national stereotyping may guess which bar was designed for which political parties.

- 1982-4: Rolling Devolution, introduced by James Prior, was perhaps the most ingenious proposal, again involving an elected assembly and a committee system. This envisaged a gradual return to power by elected representatives, but only if the proposed powers had "widespread acceptance," defined as 70 per cent agreement. In other words, the amount of power allowed to local political parties depended on their ability to agree, and would roll along at the speed of progress determined by them. It was boycotted by the SDLP because it did not guarantee power sharing.

- 1991: The Brooke Initiative, which sought to introduce phased talks, involving the Northern Irish parties first and the Dublin government at a later stage. This initiative followed the introduction of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, an agreement signed by the governments of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, but which did not involve local politicians and has been bitterly opposed by Unionists. A major survey in 1990 confirmed that, for Protestants, the Anglo-Irish Agreement is still perceived to be the biggest single obstacle to peace. The Brooke Initiative was halted for lack of progress in July 1991.

- 1993: In November 1993, however, the prime ministers of Ireland and the United Kingdom announced the Downing Street Agreement, offering for the first time the possibility of addressing the constitutional and security problems together as part of a peace package. The agreement appeared to copper-fasten, in quite unprecedented terms, Northern Ireland's right to determine its own constitutional status, and its right to remain in the United Kingdom until a majority in Northern Ireland wishes to change it. Second, the government of the Irish Republic has undertaken to "forward and support proposals for change in the Irish Constitution" as part of an agreed settlement. Third, Sinn Fein might become involved in political talks when they have demonstrated a willingness to abandon violence. Some of these possibilities had been floated before. Now they are accepted in a formal agreement between two governments.

The possible involvement of Sinn Fein in political talks was a particularly significant development. All previous attempts to reach a political settlement in Northern Ireland were confined to constitutional parties, leaving the ending of violence for later discussion. The Downing Street Declaration introduced for the first time the possibility of combining the political and security strands of Northern Ireland's problems. Almost a year later the IRA announced a complete cease-fire, and was soon followed by the main loyalist paramilitary organizations. In February 1995 the two governments released an agreed Framework Document, and talks about a political settlement are planned for later in the year. Whether or not they will take place in a spirit of political compromise remains to be seen.

A tractable conflict?

Twenty-five years of failed initiatives, until the 1994 IRA cease-fires, seem to provide a strong argument that the Northern Ireland conflict is intractable. There is, however, an alternative analysis. It argues that the conflict is neither unchanging and sterile, as Churchill claimed, nor incapable of solution, as Rose implies. This analysis is based on a closer scrutiny of the same evidence, first on violence and then on political intransigence.

1. The controls on violence

Insufficient distinction is made between the terms "conflict" and "violence." The tendency to confuse them is not new. It arose around the turn of the last century from the willingness of the new discipline of sociology to regard society rather as a machine that occasionally breaks down, and sociologists as mechanics, whose role was to identify the fault and point out how it might be fixed. This is a view of society that regards conflict as dysfunctional, as evidence that something has gone wrong in the social body. This view of conflict still dominates some departments of sociology.

But there has been an alternative strain of conflict analysis, weaker but never quite defeated, represented by George Simmel in Germany almost a century ago (see Lawrence, 1976) and more recently by Lewis Coser (Coser, 1956). In this view it is as pointless to attack conflict as to attack the aging process. Conflict is neither good nor bad, but intrinsic in every social relationship from marriage to international diplomacy. Whenever two or more people are gathered, there is conflict or potential conflict. The real issue is not the existence of conflict, but how it is handled.

Reference has already been made to the tendency for ethnic violence, unless rapidly addressed, to spiral out of control. During the early 1970s many observers believed that the upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland could lead to only two outcomes: the belligerents would either be shocked into an internal accommodation, or propelled into genocidal massacre. Neither has occurred. Two decades later there is still no settlement and the level of violence, though remarkably persistent, has not intensified. On the contrary, there is evidence that violence has diminished rather than risen in intensity. It reached a peak in 1972, when 468 people died. Since then it has gradually declined to below 100 in each year since 1981 until its rise in 1991 to over 100. The ratio of civilian to military deaths has diminished, and the number who have died from direct violence between the communities has almost disappeared; in 1992 it is difficult to find any examples of the direct sectarian confrontations which had been the main form of violence in 1969 and 1970 (McGarry and O'Leary, 1990: 318-41). This is not to diminish the awful tragedy of those who have suffered. Nor is it to suggest that paramilitary violence is dwindling away and will peter out; its pattern over the last twenty years has been spasmodic and subject to sudden increases. The point is that there are mechanisms operating in Northern Ireland - social, military, and paramilitary - which conspire to keep the level of violence under control but are not strong enough to eliminate it.

Ninety years ago Simmel used a domestic analogy to illustrate the danger of assessing the seriousness of a conflict by its outward expression. He described two married couples, one a model of harmony, considerate towards each other, always in agreement; the other given to spectacular public arguments. The real picture, he pointed out, may be completely different The agreement of the first couple may be based on a realization that their marriage is fragile and threatened; they cannot afford the risk of the one final quarrel that may topple them into divorce. The second couple, on the other hand, confident in the strength of their relationship, can afford to make every disagreement exuberantly public.

The same principle of refusing to take the visible expression of conflict at face value can be applied to ethnic conflicts. Developments during the early 1990s in Eastern Europe are reminders that countries which appeared to be insulated against ethnic conflict were in fact not. Ethnic identity, like the seeds discovered in the Egyptian pyramids, can lie dormant for centuries and, given the right conditions, spring into life. The only solution that history has shown to be completely effective in removing it is genocide. If that is not socially acceptable, we must look for better ways of handling it.

There is an analogy here with the treatment of cancer. Until recently cancer was seen as a terminal condition. Now each year sees a statistically measurable improvement in the survival possibilities for cancer victims. There has been a corresponding switch in treatment. Patients are no longer prepared for death but encouraged to enjoy a normal life. Ethnic conflict should be regarded in the same way, as a permanent but not a terminal condition - one to be tackled and improved.

2 Politics in context

"The Northern Irish problem" is a term widely used both in Northern Ireland and outside it as if there were an agreed and universal understanding of what it means. Richard Rose's conclusion that "there is no solution" to the problem is correct, within his own terms. The problem lies with his terms. These regard the problem as a constitutional one, with the implication that improvement is inconceivable without political accord. It is more accurate, and more productive, to consider the issue, not as a "problem" with the implication that a solution lies around the corner for anyone ingenious enough to find it, but as a tangle of inter-related problems:

- There is a central constitutional problem: what should be the political context for the people of Northern Ireland? Integration with Britain? A united Ireland; independence?

- There is a continuing problem of social and economic inequalities, especially in the field of employment.

- There is a problem of cultural identity, relating to education, to the

Irish language, to the whole spread of cultural differences.

- There is a problem of security; people are being killed and maimed because of it. Some even think there is a problem of religious difference.

- There is certainly a problem of the day-to-day relationships between the people who live here.

All of these are elements of the problem, but none can claim dominance. Each affects the others. Any approach to change needs to take into account all elements of the problem. Educational reforms will be frustrated if they are not accompanied by the removal of fundamental inequalities in the distribution of jobs. It is foolish to seek a political settlement that does not acknowledge that each tradition has cultural expressions which are nonnegotiable to them but anathema to many of their opponents. It is ridiculous to devise security policies - peace lines; undercover operations - without trying to anticipate their effect on community relationships. To gauge progress along the single track of political negotiation - no matter how important that is rather like gauging a person's health by the condition of their kidneys. Important, yes, but any more important than bowels, liver, or heart?

A multilateral analysis suggests the need for a multilateral prescription. At certain times there is a chance of movement on some of these issues, while on others progress is impossible. In such circumstances it makes sense to adopt a pragmatic approach, with initiatives determined by opportunity and circumstances. Push where there is give. If one element of the problem seems intractable, accept it as such, at least in the short or medium term. Then get on with progress on the other elements. During the last three years there have been changes in the educational and fair employment fields which would have been unthinkable just five years ago.

The issue of cultural pluralism is firmly on the agenda: the law now requires every primary-school child in Northern Ireland to be introduced to the concepts of cultural diversity and mutual understanding. Despite the political stalemate at macro level, there has been some movement in the political undergrowth at local government level.

Eleven of Northern Ireland's 26 councils are currently operating a powersharing regime, often involving rotation of the chair, and 18 have agreed to implement a community relations programme with specific and binding requirements.

These are undramatic but significant changes, but they should not be presented as the first glimmerings of a bright future. Progress towards a more general political solution has been more disappointing. It is not easy for politicians to abandon overnight the rhetoric and suspicion nurtured over centuries and appear, phoenix-like, at peace talks, ready to draw up new plans on a clean slate. Politicians have the same prejudices and weaknesses as the rest of us. In Northern Ireland, as in the Middle East, there has been too much eagerness to regard the first meeting of the protagonists as an end rather than a start. When the first meeting takes place, it will be necessary to leave space for the exposition of old sores and the repayment of old scores. Only later can the poultices be applied.

The Downing Street Agreement between the British and Irish governments, signed in November 1993, offers for the first time the possibility of addressing the constitutional and security problems together as part of a peace package. Peacemaking, especially between conflicting ethnic groups, is a long process. Let us hope for the best. But let no one believe that, even if political talks are successful, the other elements of the problem will meekly solve themselves. I am an optimist, but I believe that an optimist is one who plans for the worst rather than expects it.


This chapter is based on a paper entitled "Intransigent Ethnic Conflicts: Prospects for Peacemaking," presented at Haverford College on 12 November 1991. I would like to record my thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, at whose centre at Bellagio part of the work for this paper was carried out, and to the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC.


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Churchill, W. 1934. History of the First World War. London: Cassell.

Coleman, J. 1971. "The dynamics of conflict." In Marx, 1971.

Coser, L.A. 1956. The Functions of Social Conflict. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Darby, J. 1976. Conflict in Northern Ireland. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan.

Marx, G. (ed.). 1971. Racial Conflict. Boston: Little, Brown.

McGarry, J., and B. O'Leary (eds). 1990. The Future of Northern Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rose, R. 1976. Northern Ireland: A Time for Change. London: Macmillan.

Shibutani, T., and K. Kwan, "Changes in life conditions conducive to interracial conflict." In Marx, 1971.

Stewart, A.T.Q. 1977. The Narrow Ground. London: Faber and Faber.

Townshend, P. 1983. Political Violence in Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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