Foreign Policy Essay

How Conflicts (Don’t) End

By Richard English
Sunday, May 27, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: May 22, 2018, marked the twentieth anniversary of referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that laid the groundwork for one of the most celebrated peace accords in the modern erathe so-called "Good Friday" agreement that ended Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland and transformed the Provisional Irish Republican Army from terrorist group to political party. Richard English of Queens University Belfast reflects on this historic movement, drawing sober lessons on the limits of the peace and how to think about peace agreements in general.


From Israel to Iran to Syria to Afghanistan to Colombia and beyond, there exists a tension between appropriately engaging with a conflict and genuinely trying to end it. For national security and legal policymakers, this tension demands profound reflection now more than ever. It is essential to think historically about such matters. Short-termism and amnesia will hamper clear-sighted understanding, and will prevent realistic responses.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, a deal which helped to resolve the worst elements of the Northern Ireland Troubles. During that post-1960s conflict, just over 3,600 people were killed in a three-way fighting over the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state and its membership of the United Kingdom. Irish republicans (such as the Irish Republican Army or IRA) used violence to try to compel the British state to withdraw from Northern Ireland and establish instead a united and independent Ireland; pro-state loyalists (such as the Ulster Defence Association or UDA) used violence to try to ensure Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the UK; and UK state forces tried to contain the violence of these overwhelmingly Catholic/Irish/republican and Protestant/British/loyalist paramilitary groups. The 1998 deal offered the basis for this violence to end. Northern Ireland would (until a majority there decided otherwise) remain part of the UK; the two communities would engage in political power-sharing; there would be north-south and east-west relationships to guarantee fair treatment for both communities; and there were extensive reforms promised in order to make Northern Ireland more comfortable for Irish nationalists as well as for the pro-British political majority.

As we reflect on the agreement’s twentieth anniversary this year, it is worth thinking about four hard-headed realities and consider their applicability to current conflicts.

First, the peace process was hardly inevitable, or even widely expected. Had we been discussing peace processes in the early 1990s, the orthodoxy would have been that the Israel-Palestine process was the more likely one to succeed, while such compromise and progress simply could not be expected in Northern Ireland.

The genuine take-away from the 1998 Northern Ireland deal is that the political future is unpredictable. On the day of the April 1998 Belfast Agreement, the IRA and Sinn Fein did not in fact endorse it; nor did their unionist opponents in Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). That Sinn Fein and the DUP would, by 2018, have become the two dominant parties in Northern Ireland politics, and the ones that must ensure the Good Friday Agreement functions in political practice, was anything but inevitable. And yet here we are. This outcome suggests that rigid predictions of inevitable futures—whether in Israel, Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, and whether pessimistic or hopeful—should probably be treated with the skepticism that is warranted by historical reflection.

This is both good news and bad news. It means that in some cases, such as Colombia, peace processes that seem promising might easily go off the rails. But in others, like Syria, negotiations might unexpectedly take root.

Second, it is vital to recognize why the 1990s peace in Northern Ireland was actually reached. It was not because of reconciliation (which remains elusive in a very divided society, even twenty years later); nor was it because the UK government had recently begun to talk with its IRA enemies (a habit which had been longstanding, in fact); nor was it because of IRA or unionist or British victory (despite various claims to the contrary).

Peace emerged because the violent actors on all sides (most decisively, the IRA) recognized that their violence was not producing the victory they had expected, but rather an enduring and largely fruitless stalemate. For the IRA, this was partly because of the UK state’s increasing ability to infiltrate its ranks, and to contain its lethal capacity. The stalemate was not one of equal power or outcome. The UK state was and is far stronger than its opponents in Northern Ireland, and the current political arrangements are far short of what the IRA sought. But the main actors’ recognition of the ultimate inefficacy of violence produced the basis for a sullen compromise. Though the Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998, this recognition—and the anniversary of the deal’s success—dates to May 22, when majorities in Ireland, North and South, endorsed the agreement in simultaneous referendums.

For a conflict to have a chance of ending, majorities have to be dissuaded of the efficacy of violence. Meaningful talks with terrorist or other non-state violent actors are only really possible once the leaderships of such groups have themselves been persuaded of this reality.

Third, even in Northern Ireland (arguably the most celebrated of contemporary peace processes) the conflict did not actually end. It has diminished, saving and transforming very many lives. But the security and legal realms remain ones of conflict and, regrettably, also of violent threat. Republican paramilitary attacks on police officers and prison officers have continued, as with the fatal attack on prison officer Adrian Ismay in March 2016.

In more disastrously violent conflicts than the Northern Ireland Troubles, this represents an even more vital point. Conflict resolution tends to be a form of conflict management. It is no less important for that.

Fourth, the timelines here are sobering. I remember one New York-based IRA interviewee telling me, when I asked him about the origins of his involvement in the Irish struggle, that things had really begun in the 12th Century. Long futures and painfully slow progress are the essence of making peace.

The cycle of short-term successes preferred in political life exist in difficult tension with what is really required: a realistic sense of how slow even successful peace processes are likely to be. It took over a decade between the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire and the 2005 formal end of their violent campaign, and even decades after the 1994 ceasefires there remain paramilitary groups and dissident threats.

The Troubles, and other conflicts like it, are not resolved quickly or clearly. That is perhaps the most significant thing to recall when we reflect on the unpredictability, the real causes, the limitations, and the appropriate frameworks for approaching conflicts that, in a very literal sense, are unlikely in practice to end.