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Keynote Address: Lord David Trimble

01/07/2010

After the morning’s first panel, Lord David Trimble gave a keynote address in which he discussed the Northern Ireland peace process in impressive detail.  Below is a summary, and a full recording of his speech will be available here shortly.

In order to understand Northern Ireland there were two types of grievances, which helped fuel the IRA insurgency: a national question and a social question. The former encompassed the question of whether Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, or join an all-Ireland unitary state. The latter concerned the rights of the minority community (of nationalists) within Northern Ireland – and had been exacerbated by the perception of injustice inflicted on that community by the majority (Unionist) community.

In the early years of the Northern Ireland, the British government’s failure to establish a long-term strategy exacerbated the problems. However, after 1976, the government settled upon a new approach which compromised three strands:

- Efforts to restore security (a key aspect of which was to fight an ideological war) – which brought the IRA to a point in the late 1980s where 4 out of 5 operations were being interdicted by the security forces

- Policies to tackle the nationalist sense of social exclusion (and improve the economic situation by fostering economic development)

- An attempt to construct a political solution agreeable to the parties in Northern Ireland (though there were no informal party talks from 1975-92)
The ultimate consequence of this effort was the establishment in 1998 of an Agreement to end the conflict. Crucial to this were wider shifts in context –particularly at the regional level. This saw the rise of the EU, which both transformed Ireland into a modern western European nation – and helped render obsolete traditional forms of irredentist nationalism. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of that revolutionary project also had an impact on undermining the IRA’s campaign.

In the end, the IRA was forced to accept a peace process, the outcome of which it could not control. By signing up to the Mitchell Principles, Sinn Fein agreed to abide by the results of a process over which they had no veto?

Why did it take so long to get an Agreement –the shape of which was known from the mid-1970s?

- In the end, details mattered – it took time to get the actual format of the Agreement right – an Agreement that safe-guarded the vital core interests of the communities in Northern Ireland

- Leadership proved crucial – there was a “maturing” process within each community until there were people in place prepared to accept the parameters for settlement

- In the end, there had to be an acceptance that victory was not possible – that the representatives of nationalism and Unionism in Northern Ireland were ready to accept an accommodation

Eventually, however, all the pieces were in place – and the result was a settlement that seems destined to last and should secure a peaceable future for Northern Ireland.