Image of the european union and the NI peace process book

The European Union and the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Published: 2 November 2020
Author: Giada Laganà

Giada Lagana, Cardiff University, discusses her new book 'The European Union and the Northern Ireland Peace Process'. In this blog, Giada provides an overview of the book and explores the role of the EU in the Northern Ireland peace process, as well as its role more generally in peace building, and the impact of Brexit for Northern Ireland. 

It is very common to read articles, commentaries, and policy reports describing the role of the European Union (EU) in the Northern Ireland peace process that exclusively address events, rather than processes. The problem with taking an a-historical view - or of not paying enough attention to history - is that we do not yet fully understood the roots and evolution of the EU peacebuilding intervention in Northern Ireland. It is understandable that policymakers, practitioners, journalists, and academics must react to contemporary problems. They are faced with immediate issues - such as for example the Brexit process - that demands a solution. Still, if the immediacy of events can demand our attention, we should not forget that events are the result of processes. Hence, a timeline that merely reports events (such as the signature of a peace accord or a ceasefire) and does not record the trends in the society, polity, or institutional developments, risks missing the wider picture.

My book, The European Union and the Northern Ireland Peace Process raises many similar questions to those articles, commentaries, and policy reports. However, it approaches them from a more detailed historical and theoretical analysis than hitherto available. My aim was to provide an account of the genesis of the EU’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process; one that discusses how the EU contributed to transforming the region from a site of violent, ethno-national conflict, to a site of peacebuilding and conflict amelioration. One that describes how the EU attempted to enhance the re-emergence, restructuring, and strategic reorientation of politics from conflict to peace, from a perspective that combined theoretical elements of metagovernance with a specific peacebuilding viewpoint. This approach can also be related to a wider academic literature that highlights the complex and often unpredictable political changes produced by the implementation of EU peacebuilding efforts in areas of conflict.

I overcame the flawed and partial nature of the published sources available on the topic by analysing never-before-seen archival documents. These sources allow the book to offer an original and unique narrative on the story. The use of triangulation between archives and practices of oral history to complement archival sources, and to fill the gaps and address the weaknesses often featuring in archival research, produced sharp theoretical conclusions relating to EU peacebuilding. Multiple viewpoints allowed for greater accuracy and the analysis behind this book considered different kinds of data bearing on the same phenomenon, in a way that was never done before.

The majority of the original archival sources I analysed are held at the Historical Archives of the European Parliament, the UK National Archives, and the Personal Archives of the former EU Commission President, Jacques Delors. Furthermore, in the course of the research, I had access to a set of very particular sources: the private archives of Hugh Logue (former vice-chairman of the North Derry Civil Rights Association; SDLP Assemblyman; Special adviser to the Office of First and Deputy First Minister from 1998 to 2002; and Senior Official of the European Commission) and Roberto Speciale (Former head of the EU Committee on Regional Policy). Both interviewees decided spontaneously to share their private sources with me. I then had access to copies of reports and special notes made by the 1994 Northern Ireland Task Force, in preparation for what would become the EU programme, PEACE I. I could see draft speeches, including instructions given to Commission members on how to publicly address Northern Ireland issues (e.g. the importance of using non-contentious phrases such as ‘aggravated social and cultural disaffection’; ‘package to be accountable, democratic and inclusive’, and to avoid by any means the use of the sentence ‘ex-offenders’), and even on how to structure the seating arrangements at formal events or dinners with Northern Ireland representatives.   

Image from Hugh Logue's archive. Back row from left to right: Howard Mc Nally (EU Commission); Robert Ramsey (European Parliament); Hugh Logue (EU Commission). Front row, left to right: James Nicholson MEP; John Hume MEP; Dr Ian Paisley MEP.

The main accomplishment in gathering these archives and oral history was the creation of a specific narrative, chronologically organised, where material conditions and discourses intertwined. The research apparatus and the structure of my book are consequently inevitably entangled with the succession of experiences in the history of the EU peacebuilding practices in Northern Ireland. The book considers the entanglements between spaces, documents, and subjects - both material and textual - where interviews were fundamental to fill the gaps and to illuminate the documentary evidence (or to produce more evidence). Through this triangular experience, I have created an archive of my own, which I hope can gradually become part of the wider body of knowledge on EU peacebuilding.

The role of the EU in the Northern Ireland peace process

What has frequently been theoretically and empirically argued - with some notable exceptions - is that the most visible aspect of the EU involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process was the financial support. While all actors and communities recognised and welcomed the EU’s economic commitment, the political dimension of engagement with the EU has been defined as ‘subtle’, because it did not visibly extend to a superficial level of public engagement. Instead, contrary to popular opinion, in my book I argue that such subtlety was one of the most important hallmarks of the EU’s strategy of peacebuilding to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict.

Subtlety was essential for the EU’s role to be tolerated by the United Kingdom (UK) and the Irish governments and by the unionist community. The EU’s approach was aimed at co-existing with differing political perspectives, permitting a functional and pragmatic engagement with EU programmes and resources from the bottom-up, and was eventually filtered through the devolved power-sharing institutions and North-South bodies after 1998. The overall objective of this strategy was to achieve a strategic peace and facilitate political change through civil society and local authority. The experience of Northern Ireland becomes, therefore, representative of an innovative approach on the part of the EU to support a European region in transition, not only from conflict to peace, but also from centralised to decentralised status. Through economic aid, and by providing actors and policymakers from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the UK with a neutral arena in which to foster dialogue and positive cooperation, the EU was able to improve Anglo-Irish relations, cross-border cooperation, economic and industrial regeneration, and, through metagovernance arrangements, it empowered marginalised voices to move towards peace and reconciliation.

The approach was far from being perfect and, in my book, I closely examined all the issues that emerged over the years. In sum, they appeared to be the product of the fact that, whilst the Community subscribed to a more comprehensive peacebuilding approach on the theoretical level, it seemed to struggle to fully apply this toolbox and its substantial resources coherently. Hence, numerous political actors, in Northern Ireland but around the world as well, have called for a more defined EU peacebuilding strategy to delineate and prioritise the Union’s objective and to improve the coordination and effectiveness of its instruments across peacebuilding activities.

Consequently, in the conclusion, I explain how the empirical example of Northern Ireland presents a number of positive hallmarks which could be effectively generalised. Taken all together, they could constitute a preliminary blueprint for a potentially successful EU peacebuilding strategy. For example, one of the major strengths of the PEACE package was the clarity of its objective. Every single one of the PEACE programmes dealt with specific and contextualised issues, such as economic regeneration, reconciliation, education, and memory. These objectives were raised from the bottom-up and the PEACE sub-projects received funding accordingly.

The same clarity should be made more evident in general EU peacebuilding strategies. This would facilitate vertical and horizontal cooperation among the member states, reinforcing the strategic role of the Community as a peacebuilder around the world. In particular, I think that the case of the EU’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process shows that any attempt to develop a strategic paradigm of peacebuilding must remember that its roots lie in the lives and the consent of real people and societies who have the capacity to make choices within their own context and aspire to their own objectives. To maintain its integrity, any EU approach to peacebuilding on their behalf must be able to offer a form of strategic peace that is rhetorically defensible across the range of platforms.

Far from pursuing a utopian agenda, my book offers a realistic and pragmatic terrain, based on a historical analysis and never-before-seen archival sources, into which EU peacebuilding must evolve as it practically responds to the problems that have emerged in the current worldwide political context. At the same time, this investigation matters because the 23 June 2016 referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the EU was a watershed moment in the history of Northern Ireland. It marked a turning point in the history of relations between the region and the EU. Most importantly, Brexit brought the topic to the centre of current political and scholarly debates with academics questioning the profound implications that the UK’s decision to leave the EU could have for Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland as a whole. Scholars argue that while the ultimate impact will depend on the shape and detail of any new relationship negotiated between the UK and the EU, Brexit can affect nearly all aspects of North-South and British-Irish relations. If some changes appear relatively minor, others raise serious political difficulties for Northern Ireland. Brexit also highlighted a series of unanswered questions: How will the UK withdrawal from the EU disrupt Northern Ireland’s political and economic situation? If the EU has been essential to building peace in Northern Ireland how will Brexit affect the peace process? These, and many other questions, have yet to be answered.

The European Union and the Northern Ireland Peace Process was published by Palgrave in October 2020. 

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