The peace process in Northern Ireland has been widely praised for resolving the longest running post-war conflict in Europe. However, there is often misunderstanding about what happened in Northern Ireland and why. Drawing on a wide range of sources, this book offers an analysis of the origin, development and outcome of the peace process. It argues that the changes that Northern Ireland experienced from the early 1990s can only be understood if they are examined in the context of the time in which they occurred. It challenges some of the criticisms of the peace process that have emerged in recent years and argues these are based on either a misunderstanding of the purpose of the process or on information that was not available to the main actors at the time. The peace process was primarily an attempt to persuade those groups using violence to abandon their armed campaigns, rather than a specific attempt to create a fairer or more just society. The question became how this could be achieved and at what cost? The book charts and explains the ongoing challenges faced by Northern Ireland as it seeks to transition from a conflict to a post-conflict society. It highlights the lack of trust that has been a continuing and, at times, debilitating feature of the region’s politics since 1998. It concludes by considering the extent to which Brexit offers a challenge that might undermine the progress that has been made during Northern Ireland’s ‘messy’ and unpredictable peace process.
This chapter seeks to examine the impact and legacy of the failed Sunningdale initiative on British policy in Northern Ireland. At a superficial level British policy towards the problem oscillated markedly in the 25 years between the Sunningdale and Belfast/Good Friday Agreements. The approach of seeking to build a power-sharing devolved government with a strong Irish dimension proved unattainable in 1974. Over the subsequent years the British appeared to toy with: Irish unity; full integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom; devolution without an Irish dimension (or indeed much power to share); and a variant of joint authority with the Irish government without power-sharing in Northern Ireland, before returning successfully to the Sunningdale model in the late 1990s. This chapter will question the reasons for this oscillating approach. Was it a result of a disillusion with Sunnningdale amongst British policy-makers; a reflection of their pragmatism; a desire to insulate wider British politics from the Irish question; or an indication of a lack of ideological commitment and interest in Northern Ireland in wider British political circles? Drawing on the available archival sources, and interview data from British policymakers, the chapter will argue that it was not slow learning that delayed the ‘return’ to Sunningdale for the British, but the realities of events on the ground in Northern Ireland and the political attitudes of those involved in the conflict. The British were key players in this conflict but their ability to control events and outcomes was severely limited. Sunningdale represented what the British believed would be the most acceptable solution to the problem in 1973, but the conditions were not conducive for almost a quarter of a century.