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Northern Ireland peace process strong enough to survive

Photograph of Dr Paul MitchellFears that Northern Ireland is on the brink of being plunged back into the violence of 'the Troubles' are misplaced according to Dr Paul Mitchell (pictured) from LSE's Department of Government. In a short interview for the LSE website he explains that the recent killings of two soldiers and a police officer have taken place in a radically different context to that which existed before the peace process began in 1994 with the first IRA ceasefire.

Today the nationalist Sinn Fein and the unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) jointly lead the Northern Ireland Executive which is responsible for the governance of the province. Northern Ireland has arrived at this point via peaks of violence in the 1970s and 1980s which saw elements of the two communities in conflict over the question of the country's status as part of the United Kingdom and the issue of discrimination against Catholics.

Describing the path towards peace to date Dr Mitchell said: 'In1998 there was a largely unanticipated breakthrough in multi-party negotiations whereby most of the major parties agreed to the terms of what became known as the Belfast Agreement. But this power sharing agreement actually only got up and running for short periods of time. It was stymied by failures to resolve the key issue of the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons until 2007, and the associated failure of the UK government to implement the key findings of the independent 'Patten report' into reform of policing.

'Then, also in 2007, the party political landscape in Northern Ireland was transformed. The ostensibly more extreme parties - the DUP and Sinn Fein - replaced the moderate parties and became the most popular parties in their respective communities.

'At the time commentators said, understandably, that this was a disaster because it would make the negotiation of an inclusive power sharing agreement extremely difficult. But, counter intuitively, often in these conflicts you need these more extreme parties that can bring the support of their members with them and deliver a deal.

'The fact that both parties felt electorally secure in their own communities meant they were in a position to negotiate. The DUP had historically said that it would not lead a Northern Ireland government with Sinn Fein. But the options for the DUP were either to extract some significant compromises from Sinn Fein or refuse to share power and face the consequences of that - which essentially would have been ever more direct rule by London and Dublin.'

Crucially the DUP did decide to negotiate and demanded that Sinn Fein sign up to the 'rule of law' and recognise the Northern Ireland Police Force. Alongside this the British Government had gradually agreed to implement most of the key recommendations of the Patten Report, including nationalists concerns about local accountability of the police. This allowed Sinn Fein to recognise the legitimacy of the police and agree join the Northern Ireland Police Board. There are now three Sinn Fein members on the Northern Ireland policing board, in accordance with their proportional entitlement.

Dr Mitchell explained the significance of this: 'Sinn Fein is now part of the policing process and part of the political accountability of the policing process. So this underlines that the terrible killings we've seen are not by the IRA but by splinter groups. It is significant, but no less sad, that Pc Stephen Carroll is the first ever member of the new Northern Ireland Police Force to be killed in the line of duty.'

The political reaction by all parties to the recent killings highlights the sea change that has taken place in Northern Ireland. Dr Mitchell said: 'It's very interesting to see that the DUP is not pointing the finger at Sinn Fein and accusing them of not doing enough to condemn the killings. Instead all parties have decided to defend the power sharing agreement and see these attacks as not just an attack on individuals but as an attack on the peace process.'

Commenting on whether these attacks by the Real and Continuity IRA undermine the authority of the Sinn Fein in speaking for the nationalist community he said: 'I don't think either of these organisations are serious political threats to Sinn Fein.

'The Real IRA split from the Provisional IRA in 1997 in response to the negotiations that led to the power sharing agreement. They still seek the original republican agenda of complete British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. They have no realistic strategy to achieve this aim'.

'The Continuity IRA was founded in 1986 as a result of Sinn Fein deciding that it would take seats in the Dublin parliament if any of their members were elected. Previously they had abstained from taking any seats.

'I haven't seen any reliable reports to suggest that these organisations have large numbers or much support. But clearly there is at least a short term security emergency because they may have the capacity to carry out other serious acts of violence.'

In response to the question of whether these attacks could destabilise the peace process Dr Mitchell said: 'When you say could something happen, the answer is obviously yes. But I'm hopeful that it won't because the parties in Northern Ireland have shown a lot of determination to stick together. I don't think they are willing to allow the over all peace process to be destabilised by these incidents."

'Power-sharing governments designed to end protracted conflicts are typically beset by all manner of contentious issues. In the past such acts of violence typically led to mutual recrimination and tit-for-tat reprisals. The violence of last week has not had this centrifugal effect. These republican splinter groups, who lack meaningful political support, want to tear the peace process apart. Ironically, what they have done is to reinforce the determination of the democratic parties to do all they can to make a success of the power-sharing arrangements.'

Dr Mitchell's research interests include the extent to which protracted conflicts can be managed or resolved by inclusive power sharing agreements.

A recent related paper is 'Extremist Outbidding is Not Inevitable in Ethnic Party Systems: Tribune Parties in Northern Ireland', written by Paul Mitchell, Geoffrey Evans and Brendan O'Leary. This will be published in the journal Political Studies in June 2009.

For further information please contact:
Sue Windebank, LSE press office
T: 020 7849 4624
E: s.windebank@lse.ac.uk

13 March 2009