Northern Ireland: A ‘Peace Process’ or a ‘Process of Peace’? Learning Points for the EU

“Political negotiations need a societal climate that is conducive to peace. Society is like a greenhouse; a peace process is like a plant that grows in the greenhouse. The climatic conditions must become right and must be kept right”


Between 1995 and 2013 the European Commission undertook three successive funding programmes in support of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland. With a population of 2.28 million within their catchment area, the peace programmes disbursed €2billion in support of 22,000 community-based projects over the past 18 years.  A fourth EU peace programme is being ne gotiated for the period 2013-20.

From 1992 – 2008, I was Director of Mediation Northern Ireland, an organization that received a number of EU grant awards. I was invited to Brussels on 31 January, 2013, to a conference that reflected on the usefulness of EU financial support to the peace process in Ireland.  I was moved to make the following observations with the European Union’s evolving contribution to international peacebuilding in mind.


1.  In a conflicted society there is a difference between a ‘Peace Process’ and the ‘process of peace’. Between 1974-94, successive British Governments engaged in seven serious efforts to reach a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, in the body of society, in response to violence and disorder and the collapse of the Unionist-led government and parliament in Belfast in 1972, citizens spent years organising themselves and engaging in numerous micro initiatives aimed at expressing their desire for peace.

With hindsight, it seems as if the British and Irish Governments and more than one generation of political and civic leaders in Northern Ireland needed to learn many lessons about how not to build peace before they developed deeper insights about how to do it right.

A conflicted society may need a series of peace initiatives to fail before it becomes possible for a definitive initiative to take on board the wisdom gained from mistakes.

The so-called ‘Peace Process’ took hold in December, 1993, when the British and Irish Governments signed a ‘Joint Declaration’ that laid out conditions for the start of formal peace negotiations. In my view, the Peace Process went on from 1993 – 2007. It featured years of negotiations that, at times, exacerbated insecurities among sections of the population and made the emergent peace seem quite fragile. This Peace Process produced a new constitutional framework in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. After a further series of setbacks and breakdowns, a second deal – the St. Andrew’s Agreement of 2006 – finally enabled the establishment of a more stable, multi-party administration in May, 2007.  An additional component, regarding Justice and Policing, was added with the Hillsborough Agreement in 2010.

With hindsight, it is possible to make a number of observations about the evolution of peace in Northern Ireland, observations that should have resonances elsewhere.

  • Peacebuilding involves a transition from the impulse of the human heart that is sickened by violence and division to the evolution of strategic thinking and the development of methodology.
  • An effective peace process must be inclusive. A way must be found to include all parties to the conflict.
  • Political negotiations need a societal climate that is conducive to peace. Society is like a greenhouse; a peace process is like a plant that grows in the greenhouse. The climatic conditions must become right and must be kept right.
  • During the time of a peace process there is much work to be done in the body of society to maintain conditions that are favourable to negotiations by political leaders.
  • After a political deal is struck, there is much work to be done to help people on the ground to live with the implications of the compromises reached by leaders. This is a reflection on current difficulties in Northern Ireland: the implications of a peace settlement negotiated by leadership elites are now unfolding on the ground. There is an onus on leaders to explain that political compromise leads to necessary change in the body of society.
  • In Northern Ireland the policy framework known as ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ (CSI) is now the key strategic ground upon which the implications of the political settlement are given operational effect in the lives of the people. The ‘process of peace’ began years before the Peace Process and will continue for years after it. This process of peace requires the cultivation of new civic norms: partnership in place of dominance; integration in place of segregation; pluralism in place of sectarianism.

2.  The Northern Ireland peace process benefited from political consensus between London, Dublin, Washington and Brussels. Peace initiatives across the world require wider political consensus among key regional and global players.

3.  Peace Mediation and Peace Settlements do not deliver definitive peace. They subsequently require years of development work in the body of society. The EU’s contribution to the grounding of peace in Northern Ireland is set to last at least 25 years. The Northern Ireland experience suggests that assistance for development work in support of peace processes must be sustained over a long term; in some cases, across generations.

4.  The international norms of ‘peace architecture’ are visible in the Northern Ireland peace process:

  • The primacy of democracy.
  • Agreed law and order.
  • Economic development.
  • Social Progress (regarding housing; health; education; community cohesion and cultural diversity).
  • Transitional Justice measures.
  • International Human Rights benchmarks.
  • Repair/maintenance of the infra-structure (water; sewage; electricity; roads; communications).
  • Institutional reform.
  • Re-integration of ex-combatants.
  • Care of victims.
  • Anti-corruption measures.

On this last point, it is important to acknowledge that violence breeds corruption. Corruption is woven into the fabric of conflicted societies and will endure unless deliberate, courageous and sustained efforts are made to unravel it.

5.  In Northern Ireland, the administration of EU peace funding has involved the application of stringent financial management by funding bodies and high standards of governance within recipient organizations; community-based NGOs have struggled to meet these requirements. Many NGOs have developed out of a healthy desire by ordinary citizens to do something practical to help their situation. Many people have become activists in an attempt to respond positively to their own experience of victimhood or exposure to local need. Therefore, many NGOs are led or governed by people who have not been ‘professionally trained’ for such work; rather, they have been ‘experientially formed.’

Yet, the EU has demanded high standards of governance and management. On the one hand, this rightly reflects the EU’s need to ensure that funding is used appropriately and effectively and, indeed, to guard against corruption. On the other hand, the EU has been unrealistic in its expectations of the professional competence of many community-based NGOs in Northern Ireland. The provision of training for governance has been an inadequate response. A number of NGOs and small self-help groups have been discouraged by the exacting demands of EU funding.

The EU needs to fund professional mentors who can accompany NGOs over a sustained period of time, assisting them to meet required standards of financial management and helping to embed a culture of good governance in the body of society.

6.  Within Northern Ireland some commentators and activists have repeatedly expressed scepticism about EU financial support sometimes being unethical or a waste of money. Some have been critical of EU funding of projects associated with paramilitary organizations guilty of human rights violations. Some have raised concerns about the creation of a so-called ‘peace industry’ which, to critics, has achieved little beyond keeping project workers in jobs.  In my own view, I agree that there has been wastage and, indeed, money spent on questionable projects. However, in the overall scheme of things, the good achieved by EU peace funding has outweighed its shortcomings. More typically, funds have been used for good and worthwhile work.

7. The Northern Ireland peace process failed to address the need to deal with the legacy of decades of violent conflict: the emotional and relational impact of violence and division; the insidious, long-term effects of trauma; the needs of victims regarding recognition and acknowledgement; the dangers inherent in unresolved historical narratives implanting the ground of the future with the seeds of enduring division and potential conflict.  While the Peace Process is over, the process of peace continues to suffer the consequences of this particular failing.

8. EU funding of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland has helped establish a template for similar funding programmes in other regions of the 27 member states where ethnic conflict remains unresolved.

9. As the EU develops its role in mediation and peacebuilding in conflicted situations across the world, it is possible to discern something of its emerging character as a global actor for peace. Like the USA, the EU has ‘clout’ as a diplomatic player and mediator. However, while the USA’s clout is based upon a combination of its economic power and its military might, perhaps the EU’s clout will be seen as distinctly different: while it will continue to develop a military dimension, its major contribution should be based upon its economic power and its potential to support social and economic development in support of partnership within conflicted societies.

10. With regard to building capacity within Northern Ireland, my particular contribution was to build a cadre of indigenous mediators, many of whom have played seminal roles in support of the Peace Process and are active now in regard to the cross-generational process of peace.

I would observe the following strategic tasks for indigenous mediators:

  • conflict intervention.
  • building good relations.
  • promoting social partnership.
  • attending to the wider regional context beyond one’s own borders.
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