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Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Giada Lagana, Cardiff University

Over the past twenty years, Northern Ireland has achieved significant improvements in the economic life and wellbeing of its people. In 2016, unemployment was at record lows, employment at an all-time high, and the economy was undergoing the process of rebalancing to become led more by the private sector. Political violence had finally dissipated, and tensions generally lowered between the nationalist and unionist communities. ‘Only’ the Irish language, legacy issues, flags and symbols continued to be a thorn in the side of a never-fully-implemented peace process.

At the time of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA), a movement grew on the other side of the Irish Sea: a scepticism of the European Union (EU), bubbling up among voters on both ends of the political spectrum, but embraced in particular by the conservative hard right. As populist, nationalist parties grew in strength across Europe and much of the globe, this scepticism culminated in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Unfortunately, few of the hardline politicians who advocated Brexit seemed to consider the consequences their push to ‘take back control’ would have on the delicate peace in Northern Ireland or, for that matter, on the cohesion of the United Kingdom (UK) itself.

In the more than four years since the referendum, the matter of Northern Ireland has presented a unique and treacherous stumbling block to any agreement between the British government and the EU on the terms of the withdrawal. A fundamental question seems to remain unanswered: how would the UK ‘take back control’ without hardening the Irish border, thereby endangering the GFA and upsetting one side or the other of the sectarian divide? Deep reflections on the fact that the Irish border represents the core of the identity conflict in Northern Ireland have rarely been addressed from the bottom-up, except by the EU and by the EU PEACE programmes. Nonetheless, the significance of the economic and political contributions of the EU to the Northern Ireland peace process is still only marginally known.

On 9 November 2020, as part of the week-long ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, I have organised a panel discussion on precisely this issue. Its objective is to explore how the role of the EU has been much more significant in the peace process than has ever been suggested. The roundtable discussion will bring together academic experts and peace practitioners that, through their unique perspective and experiences, will focus theoretically and empirically on the wide range of instruments and resources the EU deployed in promoting a sustainable and strategic peace in the region.

Dr Mary C. Murphy (University College Cork) and Prof Cathal McCall (Queen’s University, Belfast) will provide an overview of the political context and of the meanings and practices of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. Changes in goals, relational cross-border spaces, and participating actors involved in EU peacebuilding activities, implied a shift in focus from the high-politics to bottom-up processes. Patrick Colgan, an Irish diplomat with a long career in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland and Colombia and former Chief

Executive of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), will shed light on the policies of the EU in encouraging the coming together of people and processes, who would have not normally have come together or travel in the same direction, in the Northern Irish context. Avila Kilmurray, who amongst an impressive history of grassroots work was also the Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland - overseeing the implementation of PEACE funding to political ex-prisoners - will elaborate on the practical work of bringing people together to realise a horizon of possible measures to reduce violence and advance cross-community reconciliation. David Bolton, a trauma researcher, writer, practitioner and founding director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation, will outline the different facets that needed to be addressed in the Northern Ireland infrastructure of peace. The EU re-oriented its PEACE initiatives in order to adapt fully to the complex and shifting material, geopolitical, economic, and cultural reality of the region, but seems to have left out the mental health dimension. Dr Laurence McKeown, who is a former IRA volunteer, a project participant under PEACE I and PEACE II and a project director under PEACE III and PEACE IV, will guide us into the depth of transformation from conflict to peace experienced by the agents of change.

The final reflections will examine the disruptive power of Brexit and COVID-19 on the peace process. What are the consequences of these new and dramatic circumstances, in which the concept of ‘being together’ has a new negative and dangerous meaning? One that has never been experienced before. In particular, this webinar will reflect, from a more abstract perspective, on how the EU’s influence on the peace process in Northern Ireland can serve as an instructive case with regards to general patterns of international and EU peacebuilding. The EU’s peacebuilding framework does not yet represent a coherent intellectual project, as it relies mostly on existing liberal peacebuilding approaches affiliated with restoring security, strengthening the rule of law, supporting democratic processes, delivering humanitarian assistance, and supporting economic recovery. We argue that the case of Northern Ireland offers an example of how the EU’s peace support operations should not only be studied through the lens of liberal peacebuilding, but instead should be seen as self-mirroring the internal institutional dynamics of the community, in parallel with the hierarchical governance integration and the consolidation of politics within member-states.

The panel discussion, 'Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland: Theoretical and Practical perspectives' will take place between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm (GMT) on 9 November 2020. Further information and registration here.

Giada Lagana is a Research Associate in the School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University

Image courtesy of ( © Copyright Joseph Mischyshyn

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