“Vital” Role of Mediator: Tony Blair and the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Belfast, Northern Ireland (photo by Grant Swanson)

By Donald L. Swanson

“The conflict won’t be resolved by the parties if left to themselves. If it were possible for them to resolve it on their own, they would have done so. Ergo, they need outside help.”

Tony Blair, A Journey: My Political Life, 189, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Chapter 6 of Tony Blair’s memoir is about mediation. It’s about mediating a most-intractable and centuries-old dispute. The Chapter is titled, “Peace in Northern Ireland.”


In his early days serving as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair took on the task of mediating a peace agreement for Northern Ireland. And he succeeded.

It was no small task. The Prime Minister describes the dispute like this:

“There had been centuries of hatred in which religion and disputed territory were mixed in an evil chemistry” characterized by “bitter and brutal conflict” that defied “numerous attempts at peace,” all of which resulted in “repeated failure.”

Tony Blair’s announcement, “prior to the 1997 election,” of his determination to “give peace a go in Northern Ireland” met with “derision.” Efforts toward peace by the prior Prime Minister “had just collapsed in renewed terrorism.” But there had, nonetheless, been some progress:

–“clandestine negotiations with the IRA” had resulted in some “elements that could go to make up an agreement”;

–though prior peace efforts “had not held,” there was a “stirring in the undergrowth of the Republican movement”; and

–“It was about time” for further efforts.

Unrealistic Views

Tony Blair observed that all disputing factions were unrealistic in their views of the opposition:

–“One of the most extraordinary aspects of the entire tragedy” is that that any faction thought it “was going to be a winner.” For example:

How could the IRA possibly believe that “a nation as proud as Britain could be bombed out of Northern Ireland,” when a majority of Northern Ireland residents “regarded themselves as citizens of the United Kingdom”;

How could the British government possibly believe that “Irish nationalism was containable without paradigm change in the treatment of Irish Catholics”; and

How could the Unionists possibly believe that “they could ever refuse to share power” with Catholic Nationalists, who were the island’s majority and wanted a united Ireland?

–As is true in “countless” disputes. “the unreasonable drives out reason” by “the use of unreason.” Here’s how it happens: “those who do not hate, who want peace, who are prepared to countenance ‘forgive and forget’ (or at least ‘forget’),”

become “slowly whittled down in number,

seem “unrealistic, even unpatriotic to other members of their group,” and

are consumed by the “snares and delusions” of the “unreasonable minority.”


Tony Blair uses as an illustration his later efforts at mediating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He says that Palestinians think Israel wants “to swallow them up.” Israelis deny the swallow-up idea and illustrate their point like this:

A guy who owns a Rottweiler goes into a bar and says, “Who owns the Chihuahua dog outside?”
“I do,” says someone.
“Then help me,” the man says, “because your chihuahua’s killing my Rottweiler.”
“That’s ridiculous,” says the chihuahua’s owner, “how can a Chihuahua kill a Rottweiler?”
The man replies: “He’s stuck in his throat.”’

Israelis will sincerely say, “Of course I want peace.” But Palestinians don’t see any sincerity “about creating a Palestinian state.” And Israeli’s believe Palestinians don’t want peace, saying: “We got out of Gaza, we took our settlers with us, and we got Hamas and rockets.”

Palestinians view Israelis similarly. And the result is that militant members of Hamas have become the “best friends” of “one-state” Israelis by providing a justification for a continued hard line.

Mediator’s Role and A Graphic Example

Tony Blair explains how intractable problems need a mediator’s “vital” intervention. He explains that a mediator brings the following to the settlement process:

–much of the “ingenuity” that’s needed for the settlement process;

–reassurance and persuasion toward each disputing party of the “other’s good faith”;

–action “as a buffer” and a “messenger” between the disputing parties; and

–help to “define issues” and to identify “turning points.”

The Northern Ireland peace process offers “a graphic example” of the important function a mediator provides. Here’s the story.

The peace process had “two distinct phases.”

–Creative Ambiguity Phase

The first phase is “creative ambiguity.” In this phase the parties hold “very entrenched positions” and move “slowly, warily (and occasionally not at all).” This phase seemed to culminate with a Good Friday Agreement—but that wasn’t the end of the first phase.

The day after the Agreement, no one “seriously thought” the IRA “were going to disband”: instead, they would “wait to see if the Unionists delivered their side of the bargain” and “hold the use of force in reserve.”

Creative ambiguity involves some fudging and inconsistencies. For example:

–The IRA had a balancing act to perform. They “had their history, even quasi-theology, to uphold as a revolutionary movement” and needed to “honour their dead and imprisoned”; but they also “had to conform to the language of a peace agreement they couldn’t be sure would be implemented.” They were “trying to convince Unionists, without destabilizing their own internal politics.”

–The IRA was both “a paramilitary force fighting the British” and “a para-police force in Republican areas”: they would “knee-cap drug dealers and beat up rapists.” None of this “was going to stop overnight,” and none of it “could possibly be reconciled with the rule of law” required by the Good Friday Agreement.

Creative ambiguity served the peace process well for a time: “terrorism stopped,” “bombs stopped,” British soldiers were not being killed, and police officers were not being “assassinated.” But such was not the same as having “normal processes of law and order” ruling Northern Ireland.

–Acts of Completion Phase

The second phase is “acts of completion.” A final turning point out of the first phase and into the acts of completion phase came in “the murder of Robert McCartney.” McCartney tried to defend a friend “who was being beaten up in a bar by IRA men.” Those men “dragged McCartney outside and stabbed him to death.” His family “refused to be silenced” and “campaigned for his murderers to be brought to justice.”

Such events “brought to the forefront” an essential decision for the IRA to make: continued violence or compliance with the Agreement. “And here’s where” the mediator provides assistance. Tony Blair explains one of his assisting actions, as mediator, like this:

–“I went to Belfast” to make a speech, which “came to be known as the ‘acts of completion’ speech.” In that speech he said:

“Creative ambiguity was our friend in the initial phase; it allowed us to get the caravan moving; it helped us round the myriad impasses in the first stages”;

But creative ambiguity “is no longer our friend; it is what is holding us back”;

Until “it is absolutely clear that violence in whatever form will be given up for good – and if it is, power will be shared – then we can’t make further progress”; and

“In place of ‘creative ambiguity’ there now had to be ‘acts of completion’ to demonstrate beyond doubt that the past was behind us.”

–“From then on, my constant refrain” to IRA leaders “was that the IRA no longer served any purpose but that of sustaining” their opponents’ opposition. IRA actions were preventing the very thing they wanted most, “namely power-sharing.”

These events helped the parties move out of “creative ambiguity” and into “acts of completion.”


Tony Blair’s “vital” role as mediator helped shape and enable the peace process in Northern Ireland–from beginning to end. In the beginning, it helped move the parties toward a negotiated deal. And in the end, it help to identify and define continuing-violence as an impediment to peace and to persuade the parties of their need to end the impediment.

Such a role is “vital” because it comes “from a third party” instead of “the main players” who have a history of failure.

** If you find this article of value, please feel free to share. If you’d like to discuss, let me know.

One thought on ““Vital” Role of Mediator: Tony Blair and the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Add yours

  1. Fascinating. Tony Blair deserves enormous credit for moving his country into and through peacemaking in Northern Ireland. He wasn’t, however, the mediator–that was US former Sen. George Mitchell.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: