On Good Friday, on April 10, 1998, the politicians of Northern Ireland stumbled out from the portals of Stormont, the old seat of government, into the breaking daylight. Many of them were not far from tears. All were obviously exhausted by the roller coaster of adrenaline and the lack of sleep they had incurred during the last few days and nights of the talks, as deals were crafted, walkouts were threatened and averted, and the apparently insuperable barriers on decommissioning, prisoner release and other issues were overcome. Both the British and Irish prime ministers had been called upon to provide support in the last few days, and even then-U.S. President Bill Clinton had assisted by encouraging telephone calls. The waiting populace held their breath, alternating between despair and hope.
The hope was justified - the miracle happened, and the Belfast Agreement was reached. After thirty years of a bloody civil war, and over 3,600 deaths,1 Northern Ireland's political parties finally achieved consensus on the principles and, in some cases, the practice necessary to govern a society divided on constitutional, political, and cultural perspectives.
The years that followed were often slow and painful for both communities, as people came to terms with the actuality of the often-contested compromises that they had agreed to. Securing agreement on policing, on the disarmament and demobilization of the paramilitaries, on final prisoner release issues, and on the sharing of power between bitter enemies was to take many more frustrating years. But the main constitutional parameters of the peace remained uncontested and, for the most part, the guns became silent. Life had come back to the darkened streets. Although many of the "peace" walls remained, more and more of the doors that had been fortuitously planned into the walls were opened, and left open for days and weeks on end as the peace began to take hold. Communities that had been ever alert for over twenty-five years of violence began to relax, to believe in a peaceful future for their children, and to believe that the worst was indeed over.
What factors had brought Northern Ireland to this particular turning point? And what were the important lessons that we learned while seeking to build the peace?

Communities Need to Be Prepared for Compromises

It is rarely enough for politicians alone to reach an agreement that is characterized by compromise. Politicians must be assisted by pre-political dialogue among and between communities that can prepare their constituencies for such compromises. Throughout Northern Ireland there were many thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in activities aimed at achieving contact, or shuttle diplomacy, or tough dialogues between the participants to the conflict. Indigenous mediators, many working in a co-partial fashion, i.e., with the facilitation shared by a Unionist and a Nationalist, 2 undertook most of these initiatives, although there were some very useful interventions by people from outside of Northern Ireland and, particularly, by some who came from a Quaker or Mennonite tradition. Some academics also played a key role in such work (Arthur, 1992). Such mediators tried to provide safe and unthreatening opportunities for communities to look at issues of mutual concern such as social issues, or political options, and to increase the trust that could develop between them, and their willingness to look beyond their deeply held political positions to encounter those of the other side. Such discussions meant that when compromises were eventually mooted as part of the agreement, they were not completely shocking to their constituents.
In the years preceding the ceasefires of 1994 and the political agreement of 1998, the numbers involved in such dialogues increased significantly (Fitzduff, 2002). Preceding such dialogues was often what was called Single Identity work (Church and Visser, 2001). This was work undertaken within groups that are either Unionist/Protestant or Nationalist/Catholic and that could address the many divisions within the communities - which were often even more bitter that inter-community issues. Such work was found to be essential to increasing the confidence of a group in terms of its identity and capacity, and thereby increasing its willingness to be flexible.
As well as seeking to lay the ground for compromises, many of these NGO initiatives were also aimed at taking the prerogative for political discussion from the sole ownership of the politicians. In 1992, a major cross-community program, called Initiative 92 (Pollak, 1993), spent over a year asking local communities, and other interested bodies and individuals, to express their views about ways forward for the future for Northern Ireland on a political, economic and social level. Although condemned by most politicians (who initially saw it as irrelevant or threatening, and only reluctantly gave submissions towards the end of the process), the initiative was a significant success in achieving its objective of stimulating discussion. It received over five hundred submissions from people and groups in Northern Ireland, many of whom had never had a chance to make such submissions before, and many who had developed their submissions on a cross-community basis. The initiative held public workshops all across Northern Ireland, in village and church halls, at which various contributors were given an opportunity to expand on their ideas. The submissions were eventually contained in a huge ideas book for Northern Ireland called the Opsahl Report (Pollak, 1993). Many of these ideas were to prove fruitful in eventually generating the Agreement.

The Challenge to Churches

Church membership and attendance in Ireland, both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, are the highest in Western Europe and the churches are still very important centers of social and leisure activity, particularly in rural areas where church attendance numbers are at their highest. For much of the conflict, however, with a few honorable exceptions, such as the Quakers and individuals from some of the other churches, churches have either denied that addressing the conflict was their business, or have given a religious endorsement to political and cultural allegiances.
It has therefore been very difficult for the churches to put much emphasis on cross-community people-to-people reconciliation work. And in many cases churches, and their congregations, have deliberately blocked such work3. However, under pressure from many within civil society, this gradually began to change and, since 1990, there has been a large increase in the number of church-based organizations concentrating on improving trust within and between communities.

Northern Ireland: Often-contested compromises

Increasingly, local churches have begun to play an important part in facilitating tolerance through activities such as shared social action, shared Bible study groups, inter-denominational worship, joint services and demonstrations following murders, participation in cross-community justice groups, setting up inter-denominational clergy groups and inviting clergy of other denominations to preach in their churches. Training for student and incumbent clergy to prepare them to deal with such issues, and to help them in developing and improving community relations is now being undertaken by all the major churches under the auspices of a variety of church- based reconciliation groups such as Corrymeela, a reconciliation group set up in the 1960s to foster dialogue between the churches. However, research shows that there is still a very long way to go in ensuring a positive role for the churches (Morrow, 2001) in helping to ameliorate sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland.

Getting the Business Community Involved

Although late in coming to the assistance of the peace process, the involvement of the business community in the early 1990s was extremely helpful (Nelson, 2001). Whereas before they had been content to complain about the effect of the violence on business from the sidelines, the business community now began to coalesce with the trade unions to see if a more strategic approach could be put into place which would put pressure on both republican and loyalist paramilitaries to end their campaign, and on politicians to make an agreement. They began to pressurize the politicians saying, while their business was the making of profits, the business of politicians was do politics. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, the Confederation of British Industry, and all the major trade unions joined together and, while taking no stance on any political option, began to publicly urge the need for very serious and successful political negotiation. In addition, they involved themselves in dialogue with all the political parties, including Sinn Fein, even before the ceasefires were announced in 1994. Their influence was very salutary, particularly on the Unionist political parties, that began to feel the need to respond to the pressure from them to enter into serious and productive political dialogue.

Politicizing the Paramilitaries

Another aspect that was helpful was the gradual involvement of many Sinn Fein representatives in the governance of their towns, following their decision in the early 1980s to commit themselves to the "bomb and ballot strategy." All representatives who were elected were subsequently required to sign a vote committing themselves not to using or supporting violence while in office. Following their uptake of council seats, the amount of Irish Republican Army (IRA) violence in their areas decreased. Obviously, having responsibility for the running and development of a town did not sit easily with a parallel support for its destruction through explosives! It is also believed that Sinn Fein's increasing confidence in using the regular democratic process of district councils has increased its capacity to move away from the need to use paramilitary violence (Bean, 1994).
After the Belfast Agreement, many who had been deemed to be active within the IRA were incorporated into the political activities of Sinn Fein. Such incorporation eventually saw a major IRA figure such as Martin McGuinness as the new minister for Education. Although such moves were repugnant to many Unionists, and Nationalists who had not supported the IRA, they were deemed by many observers to be a safety factor in insuring the success of the Agreement. Similarly, as the momentum of the ceasefires increased, loyalist figures also began to involve themselves more significantly in politics, standing for the 1998 elections, and eventually gaining two seats in the Assembly.
Recognizing that paramilitaries needed to be able to gain recognition through politics, immediately after the ceasefire of 1994, an NGO group called the Politics Education Group, took it upon themselves to find funding for and to develop a process of political education, primarily with those who had previously been committed to violence to achieve their aims. For several years the group helped sustain the inculcation of previously violent groups into the arts and science of politics, e.g., seeking election, running candidates, successfully securing votes, and developing political strategies for their political parties, some of which were just being newly formed as an adjunct to the paramilitary organizations. In addition, NGOs were significantly involved in developing programs which could assist the integration of political prisoners back into their own communities, and helping them with seeking employment and training for such on the basis that the more successfully they were reintegrated into their communities, and their families, the safer the ceasefires would be.

Improving Community-Security Force Interface

By the time the Belfast Agreement was reached, Northern Ireland had a police force of approximately twelve thousand, which was three times the size of its normal counterpart in the United Kingdom. It also had army presence that averaged about eighteen thousand personnel. While without doubt the success of such security personnel in preventing and containing violence through surveillance activities, intelligence gathering, and the successful conviction of paramilitaries was a significant factor in moderating the level of violence, it was also obvious that the tactics that they sometimes employed in trying to secure the peace became a problematic of the conflict itself, and a propaganda tool for the recruits of new paramilitarists to the cause.
The main source of irritation and resentment about the security forces was often the quality of the interface between them and the public, when conducting, for example, vehicle checkpoints, foot patrols, or house searches (Hamilton et al, 1995). The number of such interactions taking place was estimated to be about forty thousand per day during the 1980s and early 1990s. The most widespread complaint about such interactions was that of rudeness by the security forces, followed by concern about their use of abusive and sectarian language, very frequent street searches, prolonged car searches, aggressive house and body searches and interference with nationalist emblems and symbols. Beatings and scuffles were sometimes reported, particularly between young men and the security forces. Sometimes death threats were made, either against the person being searched or against a relative, and threats were made to pass on information to loyalists, which was a practice that actually was proved to have happened in some cases. Attempts to harass or blackmail people into giving information were also a source for frequent complaint (CAJ, 1992).
By the early 1990s, after a great deal of challenge from various NGOs, both sections of the security forces began to address this problem much more seriously. The Community Relations Council and other NGO conflict resolution bodies, such as Mediation Network, and the Peace and Reconciliation Group in Derry/Londonderry did work with the security forces to ensure that the interface itself did not continue to be a problem in fuelling resentment and diminishing cooperation with the security forces, thus prolonging a solution. As a result of such work, both the police and the army took steps to increase the quality of their recruits, and both sections of the security forces intensified their training to include a much greater emphasis on social skills and interaction work. The army also introduced very strict rules governing the expected quality of soldiers' interactions on the streets, with strict disciplinary measures if these were transgressed. Such strategies, often undertaken in tandem with inputs and training from the NGOs, significantly decreased the aggression and hostility generated by the security forces, and enabled a more positive context for talks about political solutions.

Building Doors into the Walls

There are over twenty "Peace Lines" in Belfast. Many were built of concrete and chain links as supposedly temporary structures demanded by the communities to separate Catholic and Protestant areas at time of intercommunal violence. Some of the walls are over a kilometer long and around six meters high. The more modern ones, euphemistically known as "environmental barriers," have been made less obtrusive with fancy brickwork, or railings and sensitive planting of trees and shrubs, but they divide communities in Belfast just the same as the corrugated iron and barbed wire barricades previously did. Such walls often serve as an attractor of violence. The areas separated by the peace lines are often characterized by poverty and unemployment, and projects addressing such commonalities have been successfully used to counter the ghettoizing factor of the walls. One such project addressing such joint needs and divisions is the Interface Project. This is an integrated community development/community relations project that has been set up by NGOs along the nineteen interface areas of Belfast, where violence has been at its highest. Through this project, following several years of single-identity work which addressed issues of common social problems with both communities, local skilled mediators eventually succeeded in bringing together community development groups to look at ways in which they could together address the need to break down the emotional and physical walls that separated them. This project, and others along the interface, which were eventually to include many ex-prisoners as they returned to their communities, was to provide a fertile space for dialogue between paramilitaries and communities in the years preceding the Agreement, and even to the development of new small political parties that were to play a seminal role in the brokering of the 1998 Agreement (O'Halloran and McIntyre, 1999). The doors that were fortuitously built into many of these walls now remain almost continuously open, testifying to the increasingly peaceful context within the towns and cities of Northern Ireland.
Believing That All Can Change

"It makes absolutely no sense to be funding groups that are undertaking projects that appear to oppose each other," said the BBC TV interviewer to me. "You are funding the Orange Order 4 that is fundamentally opposed to a United Ireland, and you are funding the Pat Finucane Center that is totally opposed to retaining the link with Britain." Our Annual reports in CRC were often greeted with just such an uproar (CRC, 1990-1998). Particularly scrutinized were the funding allocations to NGOs that were decided upon each year by our committees. One of the most challenged of our ideas was that allocations were made on the basis of the questioning processes that groups were offering to undertake on issues of human rights, history, traditions, either within their own communities, or, often at a later stage, with each other. It takes tremendous will and hope to undertake the nurturing and funding of such processes, particularly with people who appear to be wedded to hostilities and violence. However, the experience of Northern Ireland would seem to suggest that there are few organizations or people that are not, at some level, capable of developing positive changes in their approaches to others in the conflict. Yet approaches for evoking such change must be flexible and sensitive to each group and their situation. The evidence from Northern Ireland is that many previously recalcitrant and hostile groups have begun to act as positive change agents with others in facilitating the necessary developments in attitudes and behavior that gradually accrue and contribute to an overall positive shift in the conflict.


The creation of a successful peace process is a frustrating and often frightening task. It can take many years of committed application, and boundary crossing by thousands of people (at which NGOs are often particularly skilled) to begin to accrue success. Gathering the pieces necessary to complete the process of moving from violence to politics can almost at times feel and look like a Sisyphean task, as pieces of success painfully accrued begin to tumble yet again into the abyss. Recognizing that even some of the worst failures of the process can assist the necessary learning that takes us on to more constructive relationships and agreed structures can at times be almost impossible. But the evidence of peace processes elsewhere (Darby, 2000) is that building upon the gradual accrual of the learning achieved, even through the darkest of times, and the maintenance of faith in a possible future where the guns and the bombs are silent, are the key factors in ensuring that a brighter and more peaceful future will dawn for those beleaguered communities now mired in seemingly unending conflict.


Arthur, Paul (1992). "Multiparty Mediation: Northern Ireland As a Case Study," in Herding Cats: The Management of Complex Mediation. Eds. Crocker, Hampson, FO, Aail P. Washington: United States Institute of Peace.

Bardon, Jonathan (1992). A History of Ulster. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.

Bean, Kevin (1994). The New Departure: Recent Developments in Republican Ideology and Structure. Liverpool: University of Liverpool.

Church, C. and A.Visser (2001). Single Identity Work. UNU/INCORE, Northern Ireland.

Committee on the Administration of Justice (1992). Adding Insult to Injury. Belfast: CAJ.

Community Relations Council. Annual Reports 1990-98.

Darby, J. & R. MacGinty (2000). The Management of Peace Processes. London: Macmillan.

Fitzduff, Mari (1996). Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Processes in Northern Ireland. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Hamilton, Andrew (1995). Policing a Divided Society. Center for the Study of Conflict.

Nelson, Jane (2000-1). The Business of Peace: The Private Sector as a Partner in Conflict Prevention and Resolution
By International Alert, Council on Economic Priorities, The Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum

Pollak, Andy (1993). A Citizens Inquiry. The Opsahl Report. Dublin: Lilliput Press.

1 As the population of Northern Ireland is only one-and-a-half million, this figure is the equivalent of over 650,000 deaths in the United States.
2 Unionists are those, mainly Protestant, who want to retain the constitutional link with the United Kingdom. Nationalists are those, mainly Catholic, who want to constitutionally unite with the rest of Ireland, from which they were divided in 1921.
3 In the mid eighties, it was still possible for a Presbyterian clergyman to be forced out of office by his congregation because he crossed the road one Christmas Eve to shake hands with the local Catholic priest, in a very minor gesture of reconciliation. A decade later, he was still receiving threatening letters about his action. And when the first integrated schools were set up, the Catholic Church refused to set up religious support for Catholic children attending such schools.
4 The Orange Order is a Protestant organization whose parading routes are a continual source of tension within Northern Ireland.