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Introduction. Le conflit nord-irlandais (1969-2007) : vers une paix inachevée ?

Introduction. The Northern Irish Conflict (1969-2007): Will Peace Be Achieved At Last?
Philippe Brillet and Fabrice Mourlon

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  • 1 Ann Marie Gray et al, Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, N° 6, Belfast: CRC, November 2023. (...)

1In 2023, the twenty fifth anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was an opportunity to examine to what extent Northern Ireland has been able to overcome the antagonisms that had divided its society and had found a violent expression during the period known as the Troubles. The sixth edition of the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report,1 commissioned by the Community Relations Council to provide an independent assessment of peacebuilding over the period between October 2018 and May 2023, identified the instability of the devolved institutions as one of the main stumbling blocks in the ‘normalisation’ of political, social and economic life in Northern Ireland. This was noted to be due to the consociational nature of their procedures, which have made it difficult for the political parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, to share power since the rise in their support among voters in the mid-2000s. The vote on Brexit in 2016 further destabilized the fragile institutions, as the constitutional position of the region was perceived as being threatened. Despite the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework, supposed to maintain the negotiated peace arrangements in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the 2022 elections were not able to return a stable devolved government and assembly until 2024, as thorny questions such as how to deal with the legacy of the conflict, or how to conceive the possible reunification of Ireland, strongly opposed the main political parties.

2While economic indicators such as the growth in employment seem to indicate progress, the longstanding issues of high levels of public spending, the underdevelopment of economic activity, and absence of social and public policy due to the regular suspension of institutions have had a serious impact on everyday life in Northern Ireland. The province experienced a rise in pockets of poverty, especially in working-class areas, where the peace dividends are yet to be seen. These factors also reinforce spatial segregation in urban centres, and the continuing segregated education system maintains the fragmentation of society.

  • 2 ibid, p 14

3This is not to say that Northern Ireland is not experiencing changes. On the contrary, the polarized political landscape is being challenged by the rise in new political allegiances, e.g. the success of the Alliance Party as a third force in the last elections. It is also being challenged by new concerns concerning the inclusion of minority ethnic groups or LGBT people, and by the displacement of violence from sectarian targeting to racially-motivated hate crimes, as well as by the growth in cases of domestic abuse and sexual offences. Moreover, a generational gap is evidenced by the new attitude to the future among the young population: ‘The NI Youth Forum (2023) found their most pressing concerns to be climate change, mental health, education and human rights, with a very small number citing Brexit and the Troubles’2.

4In France, the twenty fifth anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is an opportunity for academia to examine or re-examine the thorny and often-discarded question of the conflict in Northern Ireland, by putting it on the syllabus of the prestigious competitive exam of the Agrégation for future teachers (and, hopefully, some researchers). In 1989, this question figured on the syllabus for the first time and, since then, the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain has been considered twice, through the following topics: the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-51) for the 2015 and 2016 sessions of the exam and the Home Rule question (1870-1914) for the 2019 and 2020 sessions of the exam. This year’s topic, entitled « Le conflit nord-irlandais : vers une paix inachevée ? (1969-2007) » logically follows on from the reflections on Anglo-Irish tensions initiated in 2015. In addition, while the 1989 session of the exam interrogated the ongoing conflict and its possible solutions, the current session considers the post-conflict situation while looking back at the events. The study of the incomplete resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict is also a timely occasion to reflect on other war-ridden and divided regions of the world.

5The timeframe chosen for this study starts with the social unrest of 1969 - although previous events of the late 1960s loom in the background - and ends with the return of the devolved institutions in 2007. The conflict is defined as multifactorial, and the view of the post-conflict period concentrates on the fragile peace and political uncertainties brought about by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. While acknowledging the various interpretations and representations of the conflict in historiography and in the media, its nature and its developments are defined by endogenous and exogenous factors that explain the political and social strategies and dynamics put in place.

6Three periods are considered, in order to analyse the main events and actors: the phase of militarization from 1969 to 1972, the dynamics of possible solutions and the peace process, from 1973 to 1998, and, lastly, the fragile post-conflict period from 1998 to 2007. A more thematic approach is also adopted so as to examine the role of various stakeholders, such as the nationalist and unionist political parties, the republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the British and Irish governments. Particular attention is given to definitions of identities and their representations in material culture within communities in Northern Ireland, as well as to forms of spatial and educational segregation and demographic change. The role of civil society, and the importance of class and gender issues, account for the development of cross-community initiatives but can also help explain the fragmentation of political and social forces.

7The present issue of the Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique proposes contributions to these debates by French academics.

8Two articles focus on the early period of the conflict and analyse the impact of government policies in tackling the various forms of grievances and protests. Joana Etchart examines how citizens’ grievances put forward by civil rights groups or members of the opposition parties in Stormont in the late 1960s were addressed through the development of public policies aimed at facilitating community relations in 1969. Drawing on the work of Deborah Stone who considers “causal stories” as the source of development of public policy agendas, she explains how political and social demands for reforms were addressed by community relations policies that denied governmental responsibility in the upsurge of the conflict and called rather for a change in people’s behaviour and attitudes. The debate around the birth of community relations mirrors the tensions between the internal and external interpretations of the conflict developed by McGarry and O’Leary. While Etchart sheds light on one aspect of the origin of the conflict, Louise Gerbier focuses on the mechanisms that led to the surge of violence in 1971-72. She contends that the introduction of internment and the use of “five techniques” to interrogate detainees actually led to a normalization of violence. Her analysis is based on the experience of violence by republican prisoners and the political and judicial implications of the repressive measures put in place by the government.

9Elisa Helal-Brenner and Yann Bevant (1) interrogate two aspects of the republican movement. Bevant traces the evolution and transformation of republicanism in the 1980s from a ‘messianic’ doctrine entrenched in a specific interpretation of the conflict towards a more pragmatic and inclusive approach based on the politicization of the movement. He then posits that Brexit brings the border issue back to the centre of the Irish national question. Helal-Brenner looks at the role of gender in the republican movement and sheds light on the often-silenced voices of women as members of the IRA and Cumann na mBan. She explores their motivations for joining these paramilitary groups and their actions within those groups to highlight the tensions between continuity and dissidence regarding the nationalist struggle.

10Marie-Violaine Louvet’s and Yann Bevant’s (2) contributions adopt a comparative perspective to examine colonial interpretations and representation of the conflict. These comparisons with other divided and conflictual societies are part of a large body of literature initiated in the 1990s which seeks to examine common features, in order to better define the nature of the specificity of Northern Ireland. By importing the Israel-Palestine conflict in Northern Ireland, nationalists and unionists respective positions of transnational solidarity with the Palestinian or the Israeli causes are to be understo*od as a symbolic projection of the Northern Irish situation, which questions the effectiveness of the peace process. Bevant considers the common constitutional features of New Caledonia and Northern Ireland, raising the issues of State allegiances connected to a colonial past and cultural identifications with one particular nation in the wake of the referenda on self-determination pushed forward in both countries.

11Finally, Wesley Hutchinson deals with the cultural expression of the Ulster-Scots language in the long-term perspective, while debunking its perceived inscription in the sole Protestant and unionist traditions, pointing out that in fact cross-over and exchanges with the Catholic and nationalist community have existed for the past hundred and fifty years.

12These seven contributions aim at providing a more nuanced explanation of aspects of the conflict in Northern Ireland, in order to challenge established political and ideological interpretations.

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Notes

1 Ann Marie Gray et al, Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, N° 6, Belfast: CRC, November 2023. https://www.community-relations.org.uk/publications/northern-ireland-peace-monitoring-report (accessed on 4 May 2024)

2 ibid, p 14

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References

Electronic reference

Philippe Brillet and Fabrice Mourlon, “Introduction. Le conflit nord-irlandais (1969-2007) : vers une paix inachevée ?”Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXIX-2 | 2024, Online since 10 May 2024, connection on 18 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/11853

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About the authors

Philippe Brillet

Philippe Brillet, docteur en médecine et en géographie, agrégé d’anglais, est professeur de civilisation des Iles Britanniques et de la Caraïbe anglophone à l’Université de Tours et membre du Bureau du Conseil Franco-Britannique. Ses travaux portent sur la géographie de la santé, la géographie culturelle et la géopolitique, tant en République d’Irlande qu’au Royaume-Uni, et dans une moindre mesure sur la culture des deux grandes Antilles anglophones : la Jamaïque, et Trinidad et Tobago.

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Fabrice Mourlon

Fabrice Mourlon est professeur de civilisation britannique et irlandaise à l’université Sorbonne Nouvelle à Paris. Après avoir travaillé sur l’aide aux victimes du conflit nord-irlandais, il a analysé les témoignages de survivants dans L’urgence de dire : l’Irlande du Nord après le conflit (Oxford, P. Lang, 2018). Il s’intéresse aussi aux partis politiques minoritaires en Irlande du Nord, comme le Parti communiste et le mouvement anarchiste, ainsi qu’aux pratiques artistiques.

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