Mediation Lesson from Northern Ireland Peace Process: Finding Core Principles is the First and Primary Task

Belfast, Northern Ireland (photo by Grant Swanson)

By Donald L. Swanson

Several years after the end of World War I, Winston Churchill penned these words about Northern Ireland:

“The whole map of Europe has changed, but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

Fermanagh and Tyrone are two counties in Northern Ireland that stand as symbols of strife that raged there for centuries.

Ancient Irish History

The distance between Ireland and Scotland is, at their closest point, only thirteen miles; so the Irish Sea has served, across eons of time, as an effective means of communication and transportation between the two islands, rather than a barrier. Consequently, ethnic and cultural and trade connections between Northern Ireland and Scotland are of ancient origin and are extensive. [See, e.g., this online source.]

In 1601, English efforts at conquest (in what is now Northern Ireland) succeeded, and many of the Gaelic chieftains from the area chose voluntary exile. As a result, large parts of northern Ireland were declared forfeit by the English crown and planted with Scots and English settlers. [Id.]

After World War I

In 1920, while World War I wound down elsewhere, the Irish War of Independence raged on. In response, the British government adopted the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that split the island into two separate political entities, with Northern Ireland having a majority Protestant population loyal to the British government. These Protestants wanted to be united with Great Britain, so they became known as “Unionists.” The rest of Ireland retained its Catholic majority and separate governmental status. Catholics throughout the Island opposed its division: hence, they became known as “Nationalists” [Id.]

Terrorism in Ireland

Tony Blair, in his Memoir (Tony Blair, A Journey: My Political Life, at 154-155 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)), describes the terrorism problem in Northern Ireland like this:

  • Terrorism causes chaos, death and hatred of the perpetrators “among the group targeted by them”;
  • The “victim group” comes to regard the perpetrator group, not just the perpetrators, “as responsible”;
  • So . . . “the perpetrator group” then becomes a victim, “and so the ghastly spiral continues”; and
  • “Then ‘the authorities’ intervene,” which is also bloody, with terrorism then turning on them, so that “they too become first victims” and then “perpetrators themselves.”

Terrorism in this area of the world has an ancient history that continued to the present age. Tony Blair explains:

“The hatred had become entrenched and horribly vicious over the centuries.” “Old victories were celebrated with contemporary relevance”; and “the savagery of one side’s actions in history was remembered as defining their present and future character.”

An example is Oliver Cromwell. To the Brits, “Cromwell is an important historical figure”; but to the Irish, “he was a bigot and a butcher.” Amid one of the “interminable” negotiating sessions in Downing Street, Blair recalls, a Unionist leader browsing through a biography of Cromwell took “great delight in flourishing” that book under nose of a Sinn Fein leader.

Nevertheless, Blair observes, we sometimes “forget the brutality of it: the torture; the maiming; the sheer, unadulterated vastness of the hatred.”  For decades, he adds, “such barbaric atavism defined Northern Ireland,” and “now we can only look on with a sense of astonishment.”

Disputes Embedded in The Culture

Moreover, an entire “culture” grew up around the problem. The dispute between Unioinists and Nationalists isn’t simply “a political disagreement” or “a religious difference.” Instead, both sides have “different music, a different way of speaking, a different attitude, a different nature.” And the religious divide between Protestant and Catholic has “cultural” connotations as well. Any “theological dispute had long since been subsumed in the tribal one”:

–Ulstermen of the North “(and it was all very male)” are “men of few words, literal, strongly spoken but polite,” having “a humour all their own and a tendency, not always unfounded, to distrust the world”; and

–The Irish, by contrast, are “gregarious, flamboyant, of many colourful words,” preferring to “talk in generalities rather than particulars” and having “a keen sense” of both “their status as victims” and of “the wider world being more in tune with them than with their victimisers.”

Here’s an example Blair saw, in person, of cultural opposition:

  • “Sinn Fein had invited” Palestinians to Belfast, and “I saw the Palestinian flag displayed” along Nationalist roads of Belfast “to welcome their guests”; and
  • “Next day . . . I saw arrayed along Unionist enclaves the white-and-blue flags of Israel”: “the moment those Palestinian flags went up, Unionist solidarity with Israel was total.”

The Mediation

So . . . any effort at mediating disputes between such parties would appear to be doomed from the outset. How could a mediator even begin to make a dent in negotiations?

–Establishing Core Principles

Tony Blair provides this insight on page 182 of his Memoir:

–“establishing the core principles shapes the process and makes the reconciliation possible.”

He explains the insight like this.  The “heart of any conflict resolution” is “a framework based on” agreed “first principles”:

  • What is the dispute “really about”?
  • “What are we trying to achieve?”
  • “What is the heart of the matter?”

–Overcoming The Difficulty

The difficulty in Northern Ireland is “a basic disagreement”:

  • “one side wanted a united Ireland”; while
  • “the other wanted to remain in the United Kingdom.”

This is “a profound and actually irreconcilable” difference. By contrast, Blair notes, a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis provides a basis for reconciliation in the Middle East.

So, “we had to search for principles that would allow peace,” while leaving the irreconcilable issue “open for the future.”

He identifies the “principle of consent” as “the first principle” around which an agreement could-and-would be crafted:

“If a majority of people in Northern Ireland” want “to unite with the South,” unity will exist; but until that happens, Northern Ireland will remain “part of the United Kingdom.”

It was this “principle of consent” that the united-Ireland people, historically, “could not accept” because they believed “consent” should be determined by a majority of the entire island not by a majority in a few northern counties. If such a view continued to hold sway, Blair noted, “peace was impossible.”

–The Basic Question and Answer

So, the question became: “on what basis and on what principles” would all factions accept the principle of consent?

  • The answer is this: “peace in return for power-sharing and equality,” which meant “the IRA war would end” based upon “a government in Northern Ireland” that truly represents “all parts of the community” with a “genuine equality of treatment” for all.
  • The answer “underpinned the formation of the Good Friday Agreement,” which provided “peace in return for power-sharing and equality.” This required, (i) police and court reforms, (ii) Irish language recognition, (iv) acceptance of partition until a majority in Northern Ireland determines otherwise, (v) “fair and equal treatment” for all, and (vi) recognition of aspirations for “a united Ireland.”

Once all parties agreed to the core principle of consent, everything else became a matter of “engineering,” albeit the engineering would be intense, complicated, hard-fought and often malfunctioning.

–A Refernce Point

The core principle of consent provides “an enduring reference point” and “guidance.” It also “traps the parties within it”: once the parties accept the core principle,” an “inconsistent” argument “tells against them.” For example:

  • an “agreed programme for policing” based on equal treatment is inconsistent with “a paramilitary army operating alongside”;
  • “the rationale for the IRA” (i.e., to create a united Ireland without consent of the Northern majority) disintegrates under the principle of consent; and
  • agreeing to “equality of treatment” is inconsistent with a continued opposition to government participation by Sinn Fein members “committed to peace?”


The foregoing provides a fundamental lesson for mediators and for mediating parties. The lesson is this:

–For resolving an intractable dispute, finding core principles around which an agreement can be structured is the first and primary task!

Note: All information and quotations above are from Tony Blair’s Memoir, unless otherwise noted.

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