A Brief Theoretical and Historical Background

As defined by John Paul Lederach, “conflict transformation is to envision and respond to the ebb and flow of social conflict as life-giving opportunities for creating constructive change process that reduces violence, increase justice in direct interaction and social structures and respond to real-life problems in human relations” (Lederach 2003, p.14). Lederach differentiated between conflict transformation as 1) creating a relationship between the conflicting parties for a long-term process that builds a desired situation instead of a destructive one; and 2) being content-centered aiming to end something undesirable and to reach an agreement on a solution. If this differentiation is used as a point of departure, in Northern Ireland, a conflict transformation process rather than a solution to the conflict was enacted. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 initiated a process towards integration in Northern Ireland, rather than being a final agreement between the parties involved.

The GFA can be described as the starting point for the transformation of more than 800 years of conflict dating back to 1170, when King Henry II of England invaded Ireland, enabling the English to settle in Ireland. Over the centuries, this led to the creation of a Protestant majority in six of the 32 Irish counties, transforming the native Irish Catholic population into a minority. By 1922, the Republic of Ireland was created in the 26 majority-Catholic counties, while the six Protestant-majority counties in Ulster were administered as “Northern Ireland” by the British (Gidron et al.2002, p.47-54). U.S. Senator George Mitchell, one of the main negotiators of the GFA, described it as part of a process in which “every step forward is followed by a step backward” but added that “this has been centuries in the making, it will be years in the changing” (Mallie and McKittrick 2001, p.284). Maybe Mitchell was optimistic when he hoped to resolve in a few years a conflict of centuries, as it took the parties nine years to create the first stable joint government in Northern Ireland in 2007.

Part of the agreement was the creation of a joint national assembly of 108 members governed by a Unionist first minister and Nationalist deputy first minister. Britain devolved the responsibilities of education, health and agriculture to the joint Government of Northern Ireland (www.europal., and the legislative powers were handed to the joint elected assembly. The responsibilities of defense, security and order were kept in British hands until 2010. The GFA also established relations between the Northern Ireland Assembly and Dublin, London, Wales and Scotland and created a joint British-Northern Ireland Council in order to discuss issues of common interest.

Left unresolved in the GFA was the decommissioning of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) weapons; it required another ten weeks of negotiations in 1999, facilitated once again by Mitchell, to reach an agreement on decommissioning with a mechanism of inspection (Ibid., p.264). Finally, the GFA was followed by changes to the Irish Constitution and the British Constitutional Law. Both recognized the democratic right of the majority in Northern Ireland to decide its fate freely (Ibid., p.252).

Description of the Conflict in Northern Ireland

Based on this brief overview, how can the conflict in Northern Ireland be described?

Dr. Timea Spitka of the Hebrew University has proposed four ways to classify the conflict in Northern Ireland: religious, ethnic, political economic, between Ireland and Britain (Spitka 2016, p.103), or colonial (Ibid. p.106).

At first glance, the reason for conflict appears to be religious division between Protestants and Catholics. The Protestants were English colonizers, and the Catholics were the native Irish citizens whose country was invaded by colonizing settlers. However, the two parties have always identified themselves along political rather than religious lines: The British Protestants, who want to unite Northern Ireland with Britain, call themselves “Unionists” or “Loyalists,” while the Irish Catholics who call for uniting the Irish population under one republic call themselves “Nationalists” or “Republicans.” Therefore, the conflict is not primarily religious, but due to the impossibility of uniting either with Ireland or Britain their conflict, it became an ethnic conflict within one society, which calls for a vision beyond segregation to create a process of integration.

Political and economic disparities were enforced in the course of this conflict, as Irish Nationalists were discriminated against under British rule as well as under the Unionists’ majority rule, their lands and houses confiscated throughout 800 years of colonization. Between 1920, when Northern Ireland was created as a separate entity, and the GFA in 1998, the government discriminated against Irish Nationalists in the areas of housing, land ownership and employment. Ninety percent of the police were Unionists who discriminated against the Nationalists and favored their own community. Finally, the electoral system restricted the voting rights to homeowners while restricting the Nationalists’ right to own houses. Borders of counties were changed in order to prevent the Nationalists from achieving a majority of seats in any county. Therefore, the political and the economic discrimination was part of a bigger conflict between two national groups, one dominating and wanting to be part of Britain, and the other subordinated and wanting to be part of Ireland.

Between 1170 and 1922, the conflict was mainly between Britain and Ireland with Britain being the colonizer of the Irish land. In 1922, the Republic of Ireland was officially created after three years war for independence war led by the Republican party Sinn Féin. This war followed the 1920 elections in which Sinn Féin won in the South of Ireland, while the Protestant British majority won the elections in the North. As a result, Britain referred to these six counties as ‘Northern Ireland’. The conflict continued to be between Britain and Ireland both of them claiming ownership of Northern Ireland. As the center of the direct violent conflict moved to confrontations between Unionists and the Nationalists in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Britain continued to disagree until they reached an initial agreement in 1985. After this, the conflict appears as an internal Northern Irish conflict rather than a British-Irish conflict.

While British settlers in the south of Ireland were forced to leave when the indigenous population claimed their right to self-determination and independence, those who settled in Northern Ireland have stayed eight centuries with the support of the British “mother country.” Unlike the end of the French colonization of Algeria, which covered a shorter period (130 years from 1830 to the 1960s), when the French government wanted to evacuate the settlers after the Algerian National Liberation Movement’s military campaign to liberate Algeria escalated, in Northern Ireland, the British never tried to evacuate the British settlers. Instead, Britain gave in to the settlers’ requests and annexed Ireland in 1801. But in the 1970s, Britain started negotiating secretly with the IRA and created a partnership with the Republic of Ireland in combating terrorism through the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement. The treaty stated that the Republic of Ireland recognized the right of the Unionists in Northern Ireland to reject reuniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland (Gidron et al. P.53).

The agreement also expressed a British recognition that Northern Ireland is not a British territory and that cooperation with the Republic of Ireland will be necessary to solve the conflict there. Another component of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was that the Republic accepted the right of the Unionist majority to veto the reuniting of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. It is significant that through the agreement, both Britain and the Irish Republic started to think of Northern Ireland as a separate entity whose people have the right to decide their fate, and that they will neither be united with the Republic of Ireland nor annexed by Britain. In 1993, Britain released the Downing Street Declaration, which stated that it has neither strategic or economic self-interest in Northern Ireland nor any wish to annex it (Mallie and McKittrick,p.123-149). Two years later, the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland released a joint document titled “Framework for the Future,” which described the future of an independent Northern Ireland ( htm). After the GFA, both countries removed the articles about unity with Northern Ireland from their constitutions.

To conclude, Irish history is a case of a colonial project that succeeded in creating a settler majority in a part of another country with the support of a mother country, culminating in the withdrawal of that country’s insistence that settlers return to the mother country. How can this be explained?

An Ethnic Conflict under Transformation

The Good Friday Agreement put an end to all self-determination proposals — the Nationalist one to unite with Ireland, and the Unionist one to unite with Britain. Earlier, in the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had rejected the idea of a confederation between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and also rejected the joint British-Irish rule over Northern Ireland (Mallie and McKittrick, p.52). This rejection was the outcome of the changed positions of Britain and Ireland, which had concluded “that the cost of reconciliation is less than the cost of the continuation of the conflict” (Morrow, 2016). The two sides decided that the parties to the conflict should give up their demands to join either Ireland or Britain, and should initiate a transformative process to integration/reconciliation in Northern Ireland. But the decision faced opposition from those on each side who did not want to give up their historical narrative.

In regard to the two countries’ changed positions, it can be argued that the end of the Cold War played a role in changing the British position about the strategic importance of Northern Ireland to Britain. During the Cold War, the British struggle against the IRA was partially considered part of the struggle against Communism, as the split of the IRA in 1969 led to the establishment of the Marxist Official IRA (with Sinn Féin as its political branch), and the leftist IRA[Irish National Liberation Army]. On the other hand, one can notice a gradual change in the Republic of Ireland’s position towards Northern Ireland throughout the last century. It is noteworthy that in 1920 the Republic in formation stopped fighting for the “liberation” of the six counties of Ulster in the North, maybe to avoid a war with Britain. All the decades after the Republic of Ireland kept using diplomatic means in order to demand the return of Northern Ireland.

Unionists full of fear about the stability and the legitimacy of their presence in Northern Ireland.

There are other factors that might have influenced the position of the Republic of Ireland towards Northern Ireland: Firstly, its membership in the European Community since 1973, with all the economic and the political benefits of this membership including the freedom of movement, made the issue of territorial claims less important. Secondly, movements opposing the socialist Sinn Féin were concerned that Sinn Féin would expand its power to the Republic, bringing the Soviet Union and its allies closer to Europe. In the beginning of the 1980s the Taioseach (prime minister) of Ireland, Dr. Garret FitzGerald was alarmed by the rise of the political force of Sinn Féin, and concluded that the British and the Irish governments needed to act urgently to avoid a complete breakdown of order (Mallie and McKittrick, p.42). Thirdly, after 800 years of conflict, the Republic came to the conclusion that uniting all Ireland is impossible, given that violence did not bring a solution of the conflict nearer. Fourthly, the British recognition of its reliance on the Republic to solve the conflict in Northern Ireland led to bilateral agreements in 1985 and 1995, and finally to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

All in all, the Republic’s cost analysis led it to decide to give up the idea of a United Ireland, on the basis of the benefits gained from EU membership, good relations with Britain, and stability and an end to violence at its borders. The period following the GFA brought even more cooperation with Britain.

International involvement also played an important role. The decision of U.S. President Bill Clinton to intervene to help resolve the conflict was crowned by the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as a mediator between the parties. An International Fund for Ireland was established in 1986 by a joint decision of the British and Irish governments, and the U.S. and a number of EU and other countries donated a significant amount of money to support 5,800 economic development and joint civil society ventures ( After the Good Friday Agreement, the European Union created the Special Support Program for Peace and Reconciliation (Peace 1), with a large budget to facilitate the process towards reconciliation in Northern Ireland. This program is still going on. The budget for Peace 2 (2007-13 was €332 million, while the current Peace 3 phase (2014-20) phase has a budget of €282 million (

These external factors reflected the existence of a united international position that combined the use of political and economic incentives and the U.S. practice of introducing a neutral and unbiased mediator to convince the parties that power-sharing was the only way out.

How the Parties to the Conflict Responded

At the beginning there were seven months of separate negotiations between each party and Mitchell, without the parties to the conflict meeting face-to-face that led to the Good Friday Agreement (Mallie and McKittrick, p.253). Until 2007 there was no stable joint government. Without going into details, it can be said that the results of the internal conflict transformation/reconciliation process in Northern Ireland were the following (as summarized in an unpublished paper by Dr. Duncan Morrow): 1) The parties to the conflict made a reassessment of their national ethnic goals; 2) constitutional reforms were made towards flexible citizenship; 3) political norms based on human rights, consent and self-determination were created; 4) nonviolence and the rule of law in all the political activities were insisted on; 5) joint grassroots activities were developed in order to create positive community relations; and 6) efforts are being made to follow up on the economic and historic injustices and inequalities.

At the same time, gaps still exist in the following areas: 1) The split between the political groups is still going on; 2) the contradiction between the narratives and the continuation of hostilities between the communities and 3) the past crimes were not settled (Duncan Morrow, 2016).


Northern Ireland is a case in which a united international community brought together a colonizer community and an indigenous community who live in the same geographical area into a power-sharing system.

The international community asked the two communities to create a joint transformative reconciliation process towards integration among them on the path of finding a way towards a joint self-determination in the same territory. Both the American and the EU experiences of creating equal citizenship between peoples who have different national and ethnic origins can be seen as a model for that process. But this model is facing challenges these days in the U.S. and Europe, manifested in problems of integration of immigrants, xenophobia, Islamophobia, terrorism and the fear of immigrants, especially from Syria. If this model is facing these problems in the long time stable democracies, then it is obvious that it will face even bigger challenges in a centuries’ segregated society of Northern Ireland. To this day it is still questionable whether the communities there will be able to integrate. But it is beyond all doubt that the example of Northern Ireland still demonstrates that reconciliation is a process of transformation, rather than of just preaching and educating about the other. It demonstrates that even in the case of long-term national enmity, it is possible to create such a process between antagonistic parties. Sandole categorized the Northern Ireland experience as a “relative, ad hoc, and minimalist” peace-building experience that brought a negative peace between the antagonists (Sandole, 2010, p.35), but as a transformative process it might be better than what he described.

Benjamin Gidron et al.( Eds.),Mobilizing for Peace: Conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Dennis J.D.Sandole, Peacebuilding, Polity Press, 2010.
Duncan Morrow, Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, unpublished paper, 2016.
Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, Hodder and Stoughon, 2001.
John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, Good Books, 2003.
Oliver Ramsbotham et al. Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Polity Press, 2008.
Timea Spitka, International intervention, identity, and conflict transformation: Bridges and walls between groups, Routledge, 2016.