Public Release: 

Northern Ireland political impasse 'no longer such a threat to peace'

Economic & Social Research Council

The peace and political processes in Northern Ireland have become disconnected, according to new research funded by the ESRC.

As a result, the impasse in the political process is no longer seen as automatically jeopardising the province's relative peace, says the study led by Professor Adrian Guelke of Queen's University of Belfast.

Though there are still concerns that the high level of non-lethal violence in Northern Ireland is being disregarded, there has been a sharp fall in political killings.

The study points, in particular, to the importance of the international dimension on the current situation, and says that ordinary people and grassroots groups have been crucial in changing local situations.

In fact, according to Dr Christopher Farrington, of University College, Dublin - a member of the research team and author of the report - in trying to stop violence and deal with the effects of paramilitary feuds, people involved locally frequently see politicians as a hindrance rather than a help.

International opinion inversely affects Republicans as international changes and developments influence their decisions on political strategies, says the study, whereas this is not the case for other political players in the province. However, international opinion is no longer seen as acting in a partisan way, in favour of Republicans and Nationalists.

Republicans have been more sensitive to the events of 9/11 and their aftermath than other political groups. Researchers found broad acceptance, including among Unionists, that the events in New York had narrowed the Republican movement's options, making any return to the Provisional IRA's long war counter-productive and highly improbable.

Recent steps taken by the Republican movement, including announcing the end of the armed struggle and de-commissioning their weapons, underscore this point. The study included in-depth and informal interviews with a wide range of politicians, community group leaders, activists, and members of think-tanks and of the civic forum. Two conferences brought them together with academics to present and discuss the findings.

Professor Guelke said: "We found concern that fixing the political process will not prove sufficient by itself to move Northern Ireland beyond its current cold peace. "This coldness has shown itself in increased social segregation and the political polarisation of the two communities."

Creation of a Northern Ireland free of paramilitary activity is unlikely in the medium term, says the report. One fear expressed was that it might develop into a mafia society because of the paramilitaries' continuing involvement in crime. The Belfast Agreement did not resolve the tensions brought by a shared power approach to government. However, establishing new institutions, such as the Assembly, along with restructuring of the civil service and departments, has changed the context for the various activists and representatives in the wider community.

Along with the setting up of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission, the Belfast Agreement altered the institutional and political environment in a way which affected how local community activists and others could influence the political process.

Professor Guelke said: "Most grassroots action groups interpret their impact at a local and individual level, and do not necessarily see any dialogue between the top-down political process and the bottom-up peace building.

"Largely, they are focussed on social and policy issues, and these were their main concerns during direct rule. The Agreement shifted policy-making to the new institutions in Northern Ireland, and so changed the avenues to political influence which these people had been using for decades."

Researchers found very little evidence that the new structures had been able to reduce communal conflict or respond to new types of violence.

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For further information, contact:
Professor Adrian Guelke on 02890 973658 (office), 02890 322029 (home) or e-mail: a.guelke@qub.ac.uk

Or Alexandra Saxon or Will Godwin at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413122

NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research project 'Interpreting ongoing crises in the Northern Ireland Peace Process' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Professor Guelke is at the School of Politics and International Studies, Queen's University of Belfast, BELFAST BT7 1NN.

2. Methodology: The research included more than 30 semi-structured, in-depth interviews, as well as observer participation and informal interviews with politicians, community group leaders, activists, members of think-tanks and of the civic forum and others. Two conferences were held in which they came together as presenters and participants to disseminate the findings.

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC will invest more than £123million this year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'good'.

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