Brief analysis of the peace process in Northern Ireland – Lessons for Sri Lanka

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein visited Sri Lanka last year to share with the peace seekers in Colombo and the Tamil Tigers in Kilinochchi their experience in converting the ceasefire into the peace process with political objectives agreed jointly with other political parties in Northern Ireland. The striking difference he noticed first in Sri Lanka’s case was the exclusion of many stakeholders in the peace talks on the grounds they were not parties directly involved in the armed conflict. In Northern Ireland, the search for a just and widely acceptable political settlement of the internal conflict was not exclusive, restricted only to the violent antagonists. The reason for the LTTE to exclude other Tamil parties and significantly the Muslims is obvious. The Tamil rebels were not seeking a settlement within undivided Sri Lanka, whereas the others were keen on settling the ethnic problem via a practical power-sharing arrangement within one unified State. The rebels were not seeking a solution to the ethnic problem. On the other side, the constant power struggle between the two main political parties ruled out direct involvement of the main opposition party in the peace/political process. Moreover, unlike in Northern Ireland the people in Sri Lanka had no say in the process.

Dr. Kim Howells, [Pic.] British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs who visited Sri Lanka February 13-15, citing Britain’s experience in transforming the violent conflict in Northern Ireland into a credible peace process, conveyed Britain’s willingness to play “a bigger role” in Sri Lanka’s peace process. He said: “We in Britain have some experience of resolving conflict, in Northern Ireland. That province is now at peace. It took about 30 years to get to that point. We learned the hard way that security measures will only get you so far and eventually you must – if you wish to move towards a lasting peace – be willing to address the underlying causes of the conflict.” It is true there are some similarities between the two conflicts but are the conditions similar given the contrasting outlook of the people and the lust for power of the leaders in Sri Lanka? The concern over the suffering people with no prospect of military victory was a major factor that influenced the antagonists in Northern Ireland to stop fighting and seek a negotiated political settlement. In Sri Lanka, despite the intense suffering of the people this feeling has not dawned.

Background information

The population of Northern Ireland was estimated as being 1,710,300 on 30 June 2004. In the 2001 census, 53.1% of the Northern Irish population were Protestant, (Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist and other Protestant denominations), 43.8% of the population were Roman Catholic, 0.4% Other and 2.7% none. Now, (40%) define themselves as Unionist, 22% as Nationalist and 35% as neither. According to a 2005 opinion poll, 58% express long term preference of the maintenance of Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom, while 23% express a preference for membership of a united Ireland. This discrepancy is explained by the overwhelming preference among Protestants to remain a part of the UK (85%), while Catholic preferences are spread across a number of solutions to the constitutional question including remaining a part of the UK (25%), a united Ireland (50%), Northern Ireland becoming an independent state (9%), and “don’t know” (14%). It is estimated, in general 54% of Northern Ireland voters vote for Pro-Unionist parties, 42% vote for Pro-Nationalist parties and 4% vote “other”. Opinion polls consistently show that the election results are not necessarily an indication of the electorate’s stance regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Total population of Republic of Ireland as per the Census 28 April 2002 is 3,917,336. Thus the total population of Ireland (North and South) is about 5.6 million.

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 split the island into two separate political units, a predominantly Catholic south and a predominantly Protestant north. The south subsequently cut all ties with Britain, becoming the independent Republic of Ireland in 1949. The six counties of Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom. It is this political division along with centuries of religious animosity that lies at the heart of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Most of Northern Ireland’s minority Catholic population, mistrustful of the Protestant majority preferred to belong to a single, united Ireland. Most of its Protestants, on the other hand, were determined to remain a part of the UK. The two communities still remain deeply suspicious of each other. It is this legacy of antagonism and mistrust that should be dismantled for stability and lasting peace. The US and British governments expect the peace process to build mutual trust, understanding and co-operation between the two communities.

Between 1966 and 1999 a total of 3,636 people were killed and 36,000 injured as the conflict spread beyond Northern Ireland’s borders onto the British mainland. Most of the victims were innocent civilians. In Sri Lanka, the death toll since 1983 has reached nearly 70,000 and is rising daily. Several thousands are in the missing category. No one seems to know the exact number of the casualties from the violent conflict that intensified after the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom.

Sinn Fein and IRA

Sinn Fein is the political party that has its roots in the Irish Republican party with the same name established a century ago (founded in 1905) with the objective to end British rule in Ireland. The party now also referred to as Provisional Sinn Fein has changed a lot from the earlier formations. It has now shifted from republicanism to socialism and renounced violence in 1972. It is organized hierarchically into branches with district and regional executives throughout Ireland. At national level the Standing Committee (with eight members), which meets at least once a month oversees the day-to-day running of Sinn Fein. It is the only political party to have seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly (24 seats out of 108) and the Parliament in the Republic of Ireland (5 seats out of 166). It has also 5 seats (out of 646) in the British Parliament (House of Commons in Westminster) but because of the refusal to take the oath of allegiance to the British monarchy the elected members did not take their seats in the House. Although Sinn Fein is generally considered as the political front of the IRA (Irish Republican Army, also known as Provisional IRA), both have not publicly announced this link. Some members of Sinn Fein have also been members of the IRA. Each advocates a United Ireland (merger of South and North) and avowedly socialist values with nationalist slant. Thus, their political objectives are similar.

Under the presidency of Gerry Adams (from November 1983) Sinn Fein sought to explore wider political engagement through political agitation and ‘threat of violence’. It became the voice of the northern nationalists who considered IRA violence as the means of forcing an end to British rule and institutionalized discrimination against the minority group. The British government legalized Sinn Fein in 1974 along with the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force opposed to the Republicans/nationalists. With the IRA continuing its violent campaign, the Sinn Fein failed to win the support of the majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland. Most Catholics voted for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) under Gerry Fitt and later John Hume, who played a key role in creating the peace process via the widely known Hume-Adams dialogue. The successive Prime Ministers of the Republic of Ireland from Charles Haughey to Bertie Ahern by maintaining close contacts with their British counterparts and Sinn Fein leadership also helped to initiate and sustain the peace process. Sinn Fein succeeded in gaining the support of the majority of the nationalist community (mostly Catholics) only in 2004, six years after the Good Friday Agreement (aka Belfast Agreement). The main reason for the Sinn Fein leadership to seek peace through political settlement based on sharing power with the arch rival the Unionists was the realization that a decisive military breakthrough was unlikely and that the violent stalemate would continue. The British intelligence successes and the war weariness of the people also influenced the reassessment of the earlier inflexible position.

Sinn Fein’s commitment to lasting peace based on a negotiated settlement also embraces the principles of democracy, justice, freedom and equality. It is also known to have a vision for the wellbeing of the society beyond the present conflict. It is for the unity of the people in an egalitarian society, redistribution of wealth, well-being of the aged, advancement of youth, liberation of women and protection of children. It sought to construct the peace process with honesty and integrity reaching out and embracing everyone on the basis of equality. It wanted a peace agreement that would earn the allegiance and respect of all sections of the Irish people.

Sinn Fein‘s peace strategy was supported by the IRA which also after some delay ended its armed campaign. It is interesting Gerry Adams became the leader of Sinn Fein on the plank of his opposition to ceasefires which later became central to his approach to political settlement. It is also important to note that initially the IRA ceasefire was subject to the proviso that the outfit would retain its capability to return to violence at short notice. The multi-party negotiations began in 1994 without Sinn Fein. IRA declared ceasefire in the autumn of that year but it was not observed strictly. The then British Conservative government asked for the decommissioning of their weapons for Sinn Fein to be admitted to the talks. But this was not insisted by the next Labour government headed by Tony Blair, who let Sinn Fein in on the basis of the ceasefire.

Despite some initial setbacks, Sinn Fein continued to back the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which it reached with the other parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments following the multi-party negotiations in Belfast. A small faction opposed to the peace process calling themselves the Real IRA tried to continue the violent campaign but there was little backing from the war-weary people. The US administration also played a key role in the realization of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. There were obstacles to the realization of the final objective of the Agreement because of the Unionists’ demanding Sinn Fein terminates all connections with the IRA; the Independent Monitoring Commission established to monitor paramilitary and terrorist activities in Northern Ireland held Sinn Fein also responsible for some violent actions of the IRA.

At the last Assembly elections, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Paisley replaced the Ulster Unionist Party led by David Trimble (present leader is Reg Empey) as the leading political party. The DUP refused to share power with Sinn Fein (dual majority is required under the Good Friday Agreement) without a visible evidence of the full completion of the decommissioning of IRA weapons. On September 2, 2006 Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein declared that his party would not participate in a shadowy assembly at Stormont but would take part in negotiations aimed at restoring a power-sharing government within Northern Ireland. The decision taken at the party conference on 28 January 2007 to end the boycott of the Northern Ireland Police service removed one more obstacle to sharing power with the Unionists. What is worth noting is that despite the road blocks that emerged at various times, no party in Northern Ireland has been keen on going back to the nightmarish days.

1998 Good Friday Agreement

Since 1997 a fragile ceasefire has held among the main paramilitary groups. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell was the chairman of the all-party peace talks that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He said after the signing of the treaty: “This agreement proves that democracy works and in its wake we can say to the men of violence and those who disdain democracy: Your way is not the way.” The Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, laid the grounds for the political process to begin as specified, offering the best hope of a lasting settlement to the violence that tormented the people well over a generation.

The following are the main provisions of the Agreement:

– The principle that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland should be determined by the majority vote of its citizens.

– Commitment by all parties to “exclusively peaceful and democratic means”.

– The establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly with devolved legislative powers.

– Introduction of the cross-community principle for any major decision taken by the Assembly.

– Creation of a ‘power-sharing’ Northern Ireland Executive, using the D’Hondt method to allocate Ministries proportionally to the main parties.

– Creation of a North-South Ministerial Council and North-South Implementation Bodies to bring about cross-border cooperation in policy and programmes on a number of issues.

– Creation of a British-Irish Inter-governmental Conference (replacing the former English-Irish Conference, established by the Anglo-Irish Agreement), which gives a consulting role to the Irish Republic concerning matters not devolved.

– Establishment of a British-Irish Council composed of representatives from the governments of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man, to discuss areas of common concern.

– Conditional early release within two years of paramilitary prisoners belonging to organisations observing a ceasefire.

– Establishment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

– A two year target for decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

– The repealing of the Government of Ireland 1920 Act by the British Parliament.

– The abolition of the Republic’s territorial claim to Northern Ireland via the modification Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution.

– New legislation for Northern Ireland on policing, human rights and equality.

– Normalisation of security measures, e.g. closure of redundant army bases.

– Police reform, undertaken by the Patten Commission (1998–1999).

– Equality of social, economic and cultural rights of all ethnic communities: e.g. official recognition of the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages as equal to English.

In the Republic of Ireland, the electorate voted upon the Nineteenth Amendment. This amendment permitted the state to comply with the Good Friday Agreement and also provided for the removal of the ‘territorial claim’ contained in Articles 2 and 3. In the \Northern Ireland referendum with turnout of 81%, 71% voted for the Good Friday Agreement while 29% against it. In a separate referendum in the Republic of Ireland the turnout was 56%. A high 94% voted ‘Yes’ and 6% ‘No’ to the Agreement.

The new Northern Ireland Assembly has 108 members and 14-member executive body in which both Catholic and Protestant political representatives sit together in government. The Assembly and Executive were established in December 1999 on the understanding that decommissioning would begin immediately, but were suspended within two months due to lack of progress in decommissioning. These were re-established in May 2000 as IRA eventually started decommissioning.

Aside from the decommissioning issue, ongoing paramilitary activity (albeit relatively low level compared to the past) by the IRA — e.g. arms importations, “punishment beatings”, intelligence-gathering and rioting — and loyalist paramilitaries was also a stumbling block. The overall result of these problems was to damage confidence among unionists in the Agreement, which was exploited by the anti-Agreement DUP which eventually defeated the pro-Agreement UUP in the 2003 Assembly election. The UUP had already resigned from the power-sharing Executive in 2002 following arrests of Sinn Fein personnel on charges of gathering intelligence for use by terrorists. (These charges were eventually dropped in 2005 on the controversial grounds that pursuit would not be “in the public interest”. In 2004, negotiations were held between the two governments, the DUP, and Sinn Fein on an agreement to reestablish the institutions. These talks failed, but a document detailing changes to the Belfast Agreement, known as the ‘Comprehensive Agreement’ was published by the British and Irish governments.

The Good Friday Agreement transformed the politics of Northern Ireland and inward investment started to come into the region. The British military presence in Northern Ireland was scaled down and the main paramilitary groups were observing the ceasefire. But splinter factions such as the republican Real IRA and loyalist Red Hand Commandos failed to call a ceasefire. There was an uneasy peace. However, the general feeling among the parties promoting the peace process was that “the Agreement is merely the first tentative step on a long road to a complete and lasting cessation of hostilities”.

Despite the setbacks, there has been the determination among all parties to make the peace last. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a 1999 speech to the House of Commons: “I accept that this is often and has to be an imperfect process and an imperfect peace, but it is better than no process and no peace at all.”

On 26 September 2005, it was announced that the IRA had completely decommissioned its arsenal of weapons and “put them beyond use”. Nonetheless, many unionists, most notably the hard-line DUP were sceptical and agreement on how to restore the power-sharing assembly turned out to be difficult. The Northern Ireland Assembly, elected on 26 November 2003, was dissolved on 30 January 2007. Elections to the Assembly will take place on 7 March 2007.

IRA statement

The IRA in a long-awaited statement said, it would follow a democratic path ending more than 30 years of violence. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the move was a “courageous and confident initiative” and that the moment must be seized. Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was a “step of unparalleled magnitude”. “It is what we have striven for and worked for throughout the eight years since the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. In a joint communiqué the British and Irish governments welcomed the statement and said if the IRA’s words “are borne out by actions, it will be a momentous and historic development”.

The IRA made its decision after an internal debate prompted by Gerry Adams’ call to pursue its goals exclusively through politics. The statement said: “Verified acts of completion will provide a context in which we will expect all parties to work towards the full operation of the political institutions, including the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive, and the North-South structures, at the earliest practicable date.”

The main points in the statement are:

– All IRA units ordered to dump arms.

– Members ordered to pursue objectives through exclusively peaceful means.

– Arms to be put beyond use as soon as possible and two church witnesses to verify this.

– Honest and forthright consultation process.

– Strong support for Sinn Fein’s peace strategy.

– There is now an alternative way to achieve the goal on united Ireland and volunteers must not engage in any other activities towards this goal.

It is to be noted that the statement did not say the goal of united Ireland for which the violent struggle was conducted over three decades was being abandoned.


In September 1997, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was established by treaty between the British and Irish Governments to oversee the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Legislative provisions in force in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland ensure immunity from prosecution in the case of individuals handling illegal arms for the purpose of decommissioning them.

All groups committed to total disarmament confirmed their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the IICD. Although the consensus was to achieve the decommissioning of all arms with paramilitaries within 2 years of the referendum in May 1998 this target was missed.

The first act of decommissioning under the scheme was witnessed by the IICD in December 1998, when it reported that the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) had decommissioned a quantity of arms. The IICD witnessed four acts of decommissioning by the IRA. In October 2001, the IICD reported that it had witnessed an event, which it regarded as significant, in which a quantity of arms had been put beyond use. In 2002, the IICD reported that it had witnessed an event in which the IRA leadership had put a varied and substantial quantity of ammunition, arms and explosive material beyond use. In October 2003, the IICD witnessed the third act of IRA decommissioning, which saw arms of light, medium and heavy ordnance and associated munitions put beyond use.

In September 2005 the IICD reported that it and independent witnesses had “determined that the IRA has met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation”. The subsequent IICD report of February 2006 reaffirmed this assessment. In accordance with the Governments’ Scheme and Regulations, the IICD on completion of its task is expected to present an inventory of the arms decommissioned to the two Governments.

Lessons for Sri Lanka

There are useful lessons from the Northern Ireland experience for both the SL Government and the LTTE. The dissimilarities between the LTTE and Sinn Fein – IRA partnership are important to understand why the ‘Peace Talks’ between the GoSL and LTTE failed. The ways the two emerged, the organizational structures, the links with the concerned people and the functional methods are different. Moreover, the top leaders’ beliefs, stances, visions, approach to real peace, political thinking and concerns for the suffering people directly affected by the violence have little in common. The relationships with concerned governments (in the case of Sinn Fein – the British, Irish and American governments; in the case of LTTE, which the leadership claims to be a politico-military organization – the Sri Lankan government, Indian government and the Co-Chairs comprising the US, EU, Japan and Norway) are also markedly different. From the historical, regional and religious-cultural angles, India’s position can be compared with that of the Republic of Ireland in the resolution of the internal conflicts in their close neighbours. Unfortunately, India is reluctant to play a similar role.

Bipartisan support for dealing with national issues, as in the case of the problem concerning Northern Ireland, a constituent territory of the United Kingdom has eluded Sri Lanka for several decades. This feature essential for the political, social, cultural and economic advancement of the island Nation is not part of the country’s political culture. Adversarial politics has been the dominant feature because of the importance given to gaining or retaining the power to rule. National interest has been equated with that of the ruling party. Great Britain tried to bring about the vital bipartisan support to settle the ethnic problem in the late 1990’s through the now forgotten ‘Fox Agreement’ between the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe but it turned out to be a futile effort. President’s move to amend the constitution for devolving powers to the regions was ruined by the Opposition party. The commitment to political settlement through power sharing between the unionists (majority group) and nationalists (minority group) in the new Executive body established after the Good Friday agreement, the political will to make it functional, the honesty, determination and courage of all participants in the challenging effort are worth following. No party tried to deceive others by giving false promises or excuses.

The TNA, as LTTE’s proxy in the Parliament is not an independent party in the democratic mainstream. Nor it is the political wing of the LTTE. In other words it is not like Sinn Fein whose leaders as representatives of the Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland were involved in the negotiation that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. The TNA is subservient to the LTTE voicing the views and concerns of the latter in the Parliament and soliciting the support of foreign missions in Colombo for the ongoing ‘liberation struggle’. The TNA team visited New Delhi twice last year to meet with the Indian Prime Minister and other senior officials not on their own volition. They succeeded only during the second visit that gave much irritation to the Sinhalese ‘patriots’.

On February 3, the President asked the LTTE to renounce violence and return to the negotiating table. In his Independence commemoration Day address on February 4, he urged “all democratic forces to place the motherland before one’s family, race, religion or political party in the national agenda. From this platform, I also wish to make this appeal to the TNA represented in parliament, who have so far not entered into a dialogue or understanding with us. It is only by joining with us that the innocent Tamil people of the north can be liberated from terrorist intimidation and the misdeeds of violence; and the north could be emancipated. If you are anguished in fear and anxiety; and lack in human freedom, however much democratic the political ideology you claim to follow, I must state in all honesty that none of you are free men.” Ironically, the ‘Tamil people’ are useful for both sides to continue their separate campaigns!

The LTTE military spokesman I. Illanthirayan on February 6 dismissed President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement on the achievement of peace, at the Independence Day function held at the Galle Face Green, Colombo, as of no importance to the LTTE. He also said that the LTTE’s stance would remain the same despite its activities being restricted in the east. To quote: “This is a freedom struggle. Our stance will not change and we will continue to struggle for the rights of the Tamils despite being restricted in the east.” Although he did not elaborate on the ‘rights’, this is understood to be the right to self-determination and the related creation of independent Tamil state under the control of the LTTE.

The premature call by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the LTTE to lay down their weapons and return to the negotiating table can be viewed in many ways. Soon after winning the November 2005 Presidential election, he announced his readiness to talk directly with the elusive LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Former President Premadasa, despite his cash and weapon donations during 1989-1990 failed to build trust and win the co-operation of the LTTE leader. Many conciliatory moves during 2002 –early 2005 (immediately after the 2004 Tsunami) to win confidence also failed. It is difficult to say whether the President genuinely feels he could undo the Gordian knot or the intention is to isolate further the Tamil Tigers, taking advantage of the label put on the LTTE as a ‘terrorists’ outfit by some powerful countries.

In a recent interview ‘The Tamizhan Express’ (India) had with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was asked: “Do you still stand by your offer to hold direct talks with Prabhakaran? Gen. Sarath Fonseka has said that the Sri Lanka Army would turn to the North after neutralizing the LTTE in the East”. He replied: “As to the first part of your question my answer is yes. My commitment to find a negotiated political solution remains uncompromised. With regard to the ongoing military operations, I want to categorically mention that these are defensive military operations and I wish to reiterate my unwavering commitment to devolve maximum possible powers to the regions, taking into account the aspiration of all communities. I also wish to point out that the LTTE is not the sole representative of the Tamil people. They have continuously eliminated all other Tamil parties, Tamil leaders, intellectuals and politicians who presented an alternative view, so there is no democracy or pluralism within the LTTE nor does it tolerate these values outside it (the LTTE). Tamils are the most affected by this. In fact, statistics will demonstrate that it is the LTTE that has killed more Tamils. I am committed to finding a negotiated political settlement which will satisfy the aspirations of all Sri Lankans.”

There are some matters in his reply that need clarification. First, if the phrase ‘negotiated political settlement’ means negotiating with the LTTE how could this be justified having said that “the LTTE is not the sole representative of the Tamil people”? Also, there is another important question. What is the main subject for discussion? Is it the set of proposals agreed by the APC based on the recommendation of the APRC, which is yet to decide on it, though the recommendations of the Expert Panel in the majority and minority reports have been integrated in the report of the APRC Chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana? Or is it the autonomy demanded by the LTTE that will be discussed first with the view to reach a compromise? Will the system proposed by the LTTE for ending the conflict be submitted to the APC for consideration? It is the SLFP, led currently by the President of Sri Lanka that has not submitted the devolution proposals to the APRC. The motive of setting up the APC, APRC and Advisory Committee knowing well that consensus is impossible is now being questioned by the realists. There is the feeling that the process was not intended for ‘negotiated political settlement’ albeit the repeated assertion that the government is committed to it but to buy time.

It is not only the LTTE but also the Sri Lankan Government that is yet to realize the folly of their approach to their separate goals. Negotiation has little relevance in the prevailing military and political conditions in Sri Lanka. It is just to deceive those who believe in this approach not realizing the obstacles. It will make sense once these are removed voluntarily. Finally, the LTTE could learn from the IRA statement on decommissioning that the militant Irish republicans did not abandon their political goal. They said it will be achieved by other non-violent means.

Connected Article: Why the LTTE will not negotiate for political settlement?

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam – Tamil week March 4-10, 2007.

[The writer is former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning.]

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