For three decades interminable violence had devastated the Ulster region, but more specifically, Northern Ireland. Formally known as ‘The Troubles’, the country saw itself in a civil war as paramilitaries murdered civilians, law enforcement officials and even royalty. The status quo was daily patrols of infantry troops, erection of military watchtowers and ‘peace walls’ in Belfast to separate discordant communities. The question of sovereignty is the extant issue that has been the primary catalyst of Irish politics for hundreds of years.
The 1993 ‘Joint Downing Street Declaration’ (see appendixes) of the, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, approached The Troubles with a diplomatic solution, calling for a ceasefire and political dialogue. Both governments asserted themselves as peacekeepers during the negotiations and signed the final agreement as guarantors of its content. However, past failures of reconciliation with the Sunningdale Agreement 1973 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, proved that the different political factions in Northern Ireland would need an extensive agreement to mend the deep-rooted divisions. In the following years, The Belfast Agreement would be born from the mutual recognition that violence was obsolete and would not work to accelerate anyone’s agenda. The Belfast Agreement would be a platform for a comprehensive settlement achieved by incorporating all paramilitaries into the inner political sphere (reference).
The 1996 Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations) Act, an election which would determine parties’ share of delegates for a peace forum (reference), would provide representatives for the coming negotiations from the top ten successful parties. The UUP party won the largest portion of seats and percentage of the vote (24.2%) with their rival nationalist SDLP at 21.7%. As the largest nationalist and unionist parties, they were required to be involved, for a real mandate for the agreement. Despite the DUP’s abandonment of the talks in protest to Sinn Fein’s inclusion, the DUP won 18.8%. However, arguably the most essential of all, was the presence of Sinn Fein who were crucial to ending the violence preceding these talks, as they had a close association with the IRA. Subsequently, these four players are viewed in this paper as being the most significant. This election laid the groundwork for the following negotiations which it was hoped would be the start of a restoration of peace and normality to this region. This election followed the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as the chairman of the talks, who enlisted the six Mitchell Principles that were ground rules for talks to begin (see appendixes).
Main Negotiation Issues
The dominating issues throughout the negotiations were:
§ The Irish constitutional claim to sovereignty in Northern Ireland
§ The power and functions of a new Northern Ireland Assembly
§ The authority and function of a new cross-border North-South Council
§ The extent of cooperation between the British and Irish governments
§ The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police force
§ Paramilitary organisations and their weaponry
§ Paramilitary aligned prisoners.
Preliminary positions to the negotiations
By using a mixture of the manifestos from the 1997 Westminster general election and the 1996 Northern Ireland Forum elections, this has enabled an accurate image of the results each player wished to have post negotiations. Through analysing the original positions of each player and comparing their proposals to the final deal, this can allow an accurate discernment to the goals each player achieved and lost in the negotiations.
See appendices for the central negotiating positions of each player.
Key Elements of the Belfast Agreement
On 10th April 1998 the multi-party Belfast Agreement was signed. In pursuance of evaluating the successes of each player, it is necessary to reflect on the main body of the agreement and then compare with the player’s preliminary positions. The Agreement consisted of three main strands and other smaller provisions, that while minor in their substance, were considerably allegorical. All the provisions mentioned are, at least, in one of the player’s full manifestos.
See appendices for the main body of the agreement.
Player successes post negotiations
Negotiations make for a vehement environment with a great deal at stake, with the multi-party facet only adding to the complexity. In this section, by the comparison of the main body of the Belfast Agreement listed previously, a calculated evaluation of the gains each player subsequently made in these negotiations can be made.
All players in this paper called for better and sustained collaboration between the North and South of the island of Ireland and the UK and Republic of Ireland governments – albeit the extent of collaboration differing. However, it was the SDLP who won the most objectives in the negotiations and called for provisions not declared in the other players’ manifestos. From the repeal of emergency legislation to a bill of rights to be written and introduced, their unique proposals were pandered to and accepted amongst the other players. However, disappointments were felt within their party at the dilution of their campaign promises, especially regarding the involvement of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland (reference). This strand of the agreement proposed a council that had close collaboration, not rule, in Northern Ireland. The decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons was requested by all, apart from Sinn Fein, but with the largest and most active paramilitary groups associated with their party, it should not have been unanticipated. All players in these negotiations gained at least one objective from their election manifestos, but with all their main manifesto pledges met, the SDLP were successful with goals that were not shared by the three other players and dominated in that sense.
Midway through the negotiations, the de facto position that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK was agreed (reference) and that self-determination would be a joint project between the north and south held in separate referendums, including amending articles two and three of the Irish constitution claiming sovereignty over Northern Ireland. As the largest nationalist party SDLP had already obtained the majority vote from the nationalists of Northern Ireland and so in its current form, it was not required to obtain the approval of Sinn Fein. “I’ll get back to you” (reference) is the response Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, gave to journalists when asked whether he accepted the deal as it stood so far. Despite being a long way from any possibility of securing a united Ireland and technically failing in that sense, by appearing to compromise considerably on long fought for and contended issues and, ‘party policy being turned on its head’ (reference), gained considerable gratitude and appreciation from the brokers of agreement – the UK and Irish governments. As a result, it could be argued that it tipped the negotiating balance in their favour on the remaining smaller issues in the agreement somewhat against the UUP.
The amendment of articles two and three of the Irish constitution and remaining part of the UK could be deemed, however, as the most emblematic provisions and the pivotal basis for the Belfast Agreement’s success; it was viewed as an ultimatum by the unionist players that had to be met. After all, the provenance of this conflict and what it all comes down to is sovereignty. Therefore, can it be deemed, that the largest unionist (reference), remaining in the negotiations – the UUP, be the most dominant player? While the extent of collaboration with the Republic of Ireland may have differed across the players, the UUP agreed to some level, so it should not be considered a loss for such a provision, furthermore, it should be seen as a win considering its dilution compared to what the SDLP was aiming for. The DUP, however, rejected any collaboration and only approved of one provision that was in the final draft of the agreement – the amendment of articles two and three of the Irish constitution, disregarding them to even to be considered the most dominant.
Despite Sinn Fein gaining some minimal provisions: the issues of prisoners, the protection of the Irish language and reform of the RUC; the plausibility of Sinn Fein’s united Ireland vision held no weight in the negotiations. Their ultimatums were tipped dramatically forcing them to change their negotiating strategies, walking away with essentially a consolation prize. While the SDLP won many objectives, they were not fulfilled to the extent in which they had initially imagined. On the contrary, the unionist players won the most important objective and what the conflict all stemmed down to; sovereignty. It can be concluded that there was no single dominant player, but the player who got the most out of the negotiations which aligned with their manifestos was the UUP. While acknowledging it was not zero-sum winner takes all, the UUP tended to dominate the negotiations, by ultimately pushing through the main issues on the table: Northern Ireland sovereignty, the extent of collaboration with the Republic of Ireland, the ability to retain British citizenship and the implementation of the PR voting system despite initial objections.
Part B: What approaches could have the subordinate players taken?
Recognising players’ failures
While Sinn Fein won a few of their objectives, it certainly did not bag the biggest package. While the DUP, similarly, not only won few goals but neither managed to dominate. Their objectives were too radical to accommodate and neither would they compromise on them, with their only winning objective conveniently aligning with one of the UUP’s demands. While the UUP won its ultimatums, the remaining issues were taken by Sinn Fein in compensation for agreeing to the sovereignty condition. This can allude to the fact that although Sinn Fein had failed their primary objective, the DUP’s inability to gain any personal objectives – except for one – can be considered a bigger failure.
It was clear from the outset that Sinn Fein’s involvement was imperative to the process, so much so the British and Irish governments were prepared to let the DUP walk away from the negotiation table (in protest of Sinn Fein’s involvement) to ensure Sinn Fein was involved. The IRA – Sinn Fein’s closest associates, after all, was driving the bloody campaign that led to the desperation of peace talks, with Sinn Fein’s abandonment leading to the potential collapse of the talks.
‘Although the loyalists represent only a small minority of the electorate, they are extremely important to the process; their participation puts pressure on all parties to make the talks format work. Without them, the pro-union contingent at the talks lacks “sufficient consensus” to approve a settlement on behalf of the unionist community. Their withdrawal, given the weakness of the other parties, could act as a catalyst for the quick collapse of the talks process.’ (reference)
This palpable fact may have led Sinn Fein to be excessively optimistic – believing the ball would continually be in their court due to the urgency of Sinn Fein’s involvement for the process to work. This ignorance was their downfall after being made to abandon their united Ireland ambition. The credibility of the Sinn Fein party was also particularly damaged by their failure to condemn the Manchester bombing on 5th June 1996. This IRA devastation and others alike, severely undermined their standing in these negotiations, being viewed as inept aggressors’ and not civilised negotiators (reference).
At the forefront of the DUP’s minds was the union and eliminating the dangers that threatened to undermine its integrity. Their stances were too radical; they would not compromise on issues and as a result failed at nearly all their objectives. Being out of the negotiations gave them a huge disadvantage preventing themselves from influencing the decision-making.
‘The DUP are so depressed at their long-term decline in power, even though their ministers now spend money and pass bills – that politics for them is no longer about practical achievements but expressing rage.’ (reference)
The concept – ‘anchoring and insufficient adjustment’, works as a helpful analytical tool to understand the DUP’s objection to working alongside Sinn Fein. Their inability to accept their decline in power and influence believing their exclusion would hinder talks was miscalculated. What started as a protest to hopefully oust Sinn Fein failed and their reluctance to recant and re-join the talks, hindered their negotiation abilities considerably. Public diplomacy as their one channel to the negotiations would not prove enough and only managed to help to secure one of their objectives. (reference)
The SDLP, alike to the UUP, won many objectives they initially campaigned for, but their biggest disappointment was the magnitude of the objectives they pushed through which fell short of their expectations. The involvement of the Republic of Ireland did not go as far as the SDLP wanted it to. ‘Loss aversion’ may have led the SDLP to settle for diluted forms of their objectives, judging that aiming too high may lead to their proposals being sidestepped completely by the unionist players (reference). Using game theory developed by John Nash (reference), the two parts that make up his theory – cooperative and non-cooperative – the non-cooperative element and more specifically, the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, allows an insight into players behaviours when competing against each other. This theory would suggest that it is prudent to adopt actions most beneficial to you, regardless of the position of others. Following this theory, it gives a suitable explanation as to why the SDLP did accept the diluted versions of their objectives, otherwise, they may have lost them completely.
A tactical approach to negotiations is essential to calculate the next move and manipulate the other side into cooperating. One approach is the concept – ‘the illusion of control’, which engineers the pretence that the opposing side is maintaining control when it is merely an illusion. “How am I supposed to do that?” – when you are presented with an undesired proposal, compels the opposing side to see your position and works as ‘forced empathy’ (reference). This approach demands they look at your situation before responding, while simultaneously acts as a mechanism to gather intelligence of the opposing side’s limit and whether you have pushed them as far as they can go. “Because you have to!” – gives the clear indication that you have pushed your opposing side as far as they will go and have gained as much as you can from the table. This could have been especially useful when Sinn Fein was presented with the issue of sovereignty and how their nationalist followers linked to the paramilitaries would react to the news of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK.
The DUP undoubtedly would have performed better if they were in the negotiations directly influencing the terms of the agreement rather than shouting from the sidelines. Additionally, if the DUP made a conversion from positional bargaining to interest-based negotiation it may have been more effective at achieving more objectives. It entails that rather than arguing over the positions, instead, argue over the underlying interests of why each side has this objective (reference). For example, the nationalist demands for the release of prisoners, the DUP should first understand the underlying interests for this demand. It could be considered that releasing prisoners stands as an emblem to the nationalist resistance of British rule. In response, if it is conveyed to Sinn Fein it is in the DUP’s interest for these prisoners to remain incarcerated because they endorse murder in the face of the British state, and an improved compromise could have been reached. Rather than deny that all prisoners be released, instead allow those who did not actively kill and were only associated with the organisation to have reduced sentences or be released on condition of no further paramilitary activity. (provide evidence of concept working)
Subtlety is key in negotiations, to put a point across in measured and skilful ways whilst ensuring the opposing side stays cooperative. To simply say “no” in negotiations increases the chance of the talks failing due to irreconcilable differences. ‘Downward inflexion’ (reference) indicates clearly that there is no movement on something without specifically saying so. This way the opposing side is more likely to continue cooperating, as opposed to getting angry over direct responses like “no”. The SDLP may have made their points of more comprehensive involvement with the Republic of Ireland with the daily running of Northern Ireland. “There’s no other way” or “that’s the way it is” all hint that there is no alternative and specifically in this case, the ending of violence in Northern Ireland unless these measures are taken. (find evidence of SDLP not being tough enough)
Part C: What could have been improved to the overall process?
Flaws in the process and suggested improvements
As with all multi-party talks, the negotiations are considerably complex taking into account the numerous opposing players’ objectives and ‘red lines’. While it may have seemed necessary at the time to include all the political factions in Northern Ireland, or more specifically, the top ten who won the Northern Ireland Forum election; the inclusion of too many players just increases the complexity to come to decisive conclusions. With the difficulties that a multi-party arrangement can create, it may have been wise to have had a different eligibility to enter to have had fewer players and only the major political parties remaining. The threshold, being the top ten, allowed minuscule non-influential political parties entry to the negotiations, giving them a bigger voice than they would otherwise have had in terms of their electoral mandates.
Senator George Mitchell, who was appointed the Chairman of the Northern Ireland peace talks, was embroiled in considerable controversy from the unionist factions of Northern Ireland. They felt that his Irish ancestry failed to make him impartial and that there would be some considerable bias towards the Irish nationalists. DUP’s Ian Paisley claimed he could not be trusted as chairman as, “he is carrying too much American Irish baggage,” in addition to David Trimble doubting his objectivity (reference). Suspicions about the chairman and mediator may have affected the negotiation strategies and communication amongst players.
Despite the UK government’s efforts defending their neutrality, with Tony Blair’s bloody Sunday speech announcing an inquiry; the event remained a watershed moment for many nationalists; ‘more than any other recent event, Bloody Sunday – convinced many nationalists that Britain could never be an impartial peacekeeper, but was instead an occupying force.’ (reference) The Joint Downing Street Declaration too, indicating ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ – is conflicted with the support John Major required in 1996 from the Ulster Unionist Party when he ran a minority government. That alone was a massive conflict of interest leading up to talks, giving the UUP an unfair amount of influence shadowing doubts on any UK government impartiality.
‘David Trimble, who heads the Ulster Unionist Party, has threatened to bring down Mr Major’s Government – which now survives with a one-vote majority – if the Prime Minister fails to make disarmament of the I.R.A. a condition for any negotiation.’ (reference)
There is a lot of constructive ambiguity within the language of the agreement, making it less definitive and open to interpretation. Specifically, relating to the issue of decommissioning, it fails to outline what specific weapons and the precise process by which they are decommissioned. In addition, the decommissioning requirements that led to the peace talks may not have been sufficient enough as ceasefires were repeatedly broken by the IRA regularly delaying the negotiations. Despite Sinn Fein regularly violating the second Mitchell principle on decommissioning to enter negotiations, it was later decided that Sinn Fein could still enter the talks. If the case for decommissioning was made clearer and stricter before any peace talks could begin and was successful, it could have allowed for a smoother and faster movement of talks.
The failures of the Sunningdale and Anglo-Irish agreements worked as reliable markers of how to conduct future agreements, in this instance, the Belfast Agreement. Amongst many factors, an important reason for the failure of the Anglo-Irish agreement was the absence of unionist players within the negotiations and so without their support; it crumbled only months later (reference). Perhaps the mentality behind the UK and Irish governments’ decision to allow ten political parties into the Belfast Agreement negotiations, may have otherwise meant a repeat of the Anglo-Irish agreement collapse. However, allowing the DUP to leave the negotiations and not appearing to have listened to their concerns, meant that the third biggest party in the Northern Ireland Forum election (18.8% of the electorate) was unrepresented. If the initial second Mitchell principle was followed, the DUP may have re-joined the negotiating table and the agreement would have had a bigger mandate after it was finalised.
When speculating on the process for negotiations, one would normally assume a competitive approach, where differences are settled and there is a clear win/lose outcome. What normally involves taking a firm stance and attempts to win as much as possible using tactics such as brinkmanship or bluffing. This is what (reference) would call the Distributive approach (reference); hiding your hard lines and limits all in a ruse to win as most provisions as possible. However, the different approach to this process could have been the Integrative approach. Two parties take on a shared problem and reach an outcome that is beneficial to everyone. In relation to this agreement, for all players to compromise on the involvement of the Republic of Ireland. Instead of it being a fully involved or not at all, to just be involved on issues that effect both parts of the island. This approach enables the players to see each other as partners rather than adversaries. However, it requires each player to be canid of their true objectives and what they want ultimately in the end.