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Honourable deceptions: the choreography of the Northern Ireland peace process
Tony Blair’s ‘dishonourable deception’ over Iraq has cast a shadow over his ‘honourable deceptions’ to bring peace to Northern Ireland. The former Labour Prime Minister (1997-2007) and architect of the Good Friday Agreement defended political deception in the chapter on Northern Ireland in his memoirs, A Journey(2010). Politicians,
‘… are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done. … Without operating with some subtlety at this level, the job would be well-nigh impossible’ (p. 186).
The vital role of the political or ‘theatrical’ arts of politics – including the use of deception – in bringing peace is the ‘inconvenient truth’ of the Northern Irish peace process.
Populist Idealism contrasts the ‘corrupt elite’ with the ‘pure people’. Politicians are malevolent liars because ‘a straight talking honest politics’ is possible and will be effective in delivering peace. This moralising perspective dominates British and Irish political culture inhibiting the messy moral compromises that have been essential in achieving an uneasy peace.
Left Realists reject the Populist Idealists’ ‘morality tale’ account of politics. They draw on classical realism, to argue that deception and hypocrisy are inevitable in politics, just as they are in social life. All politicians deceive. Sometimes they’re right to deceive and sometimes they’re wrong. The problem is to decide what is an honourable deception and what is a dishonourable one.
A theatrical metaphor can be used to draw back the curtain on the political drama and explore the good and bad reasons for deception.
The polarisation of Northern Irish politics led political actors to use deception in order to bring contrasting audiences towards accommodation. Nationalists want a united Ireland. Unionists want to strengthen the Union. When the IRA declared their ceasefire at midnight on 31stAugust 1994 it was difficult to see what possible accommodation could be achieved. Opinion polls and voting behaviour suggested that after twenty-five years of violence, including approximately 3,700 deaths, Northern Ireland was more polarised than ever.
Republicans celebrated the IRA ceasefire 1994 as a ‘victory’, causing consternation among unionists and suspicions that ‘perfidious Albion’ was selling out the Union. Loyalists paramilitaries declared their ceasefire six weeks later, but mainstream unionist politicians were reluctant to negotiate with republicans until the IRA had begun to decommission.
Political polarisation and deep suspicions explain why important negotiations in the peace process were held ‘behind the scenes’. For example, the British government feared a violent loyalist reaction if it was publicly seen to be talking to the IRA. In the early 1990s loyalist violence was escalating and killing more people than the IRA.
In 1990, the British government and republicans wanted to explore the possibility of a negotiated peace. Secret ‘contacts’ were initiated. ‘Front stage’ the IRA was bombing Downing Street (1991), the City of London (1992, 1993) and Warrington (1993), killing two young boys, Jonathan Ball (3) and Tim Parry (12).‘Back stage’, republicans were engaging in contacts with the British government.
Front stage, John Major, the Conservative Prime Minister (1990-97) denounced the IRA and their violent campaign.On 1stNovember 1993 the Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, told parliament that he was not talking to the IRA and the thought turned his stomach. Four weeks later the British government’s ‘back channel’ talks were revealed.
John Major claimed that his intention was to deny ‘face-to-face’ talks rather than a ‘link’. After he had left office, the Prime Minister made a more convincing argument to the Belfast Telegraph, ‘When I was certain that someone was genuinely seeking a peace I’d have spoken to Beelzebub, if it would have delivered peace, because that was my objective’.
The Good Friday Agreement 10 April 1998 was choreographed in order to maximise its support among unionist and nationalist audiences. The British and Irish governments asked George Mitchell, the US Senator who chaired the negotiations, to use deception and present their document as his own best guess of where agreement lay. Mitchell agreed but knew that this document was too ‘nationalist’ to be acceptable to unionists. This created a ‘crisis’ in the talks which was the cue for Tony Blair, the Labour Prime and the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern, to make their dramatic entrance to the negotiations.
The final negotiations were choreographed so that each leading actor could present the final deal as a ‘victory’ for their community. The Agreement was ‘constructively ambiguous’, deliberately scripted to be presented in different ways to different audiences. The unionists were told that the ‘Belfast Agreement’ would strengthen the Union, Nationalists that the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ was a staging post to a united Ireland.
During the subsequent referendum campaign on the Agreement, on 22 May 1998, Tony Blair deceived the audience on the implications of the deal. He claimed that the Agreement meant that until there was IRA decommissioning paramilitary prisoners would not be released and Sinn Féin would not sit in government. The referendum was subsequently passed by an overwhelming majority of nationalists but by a bare majority of unionists.
Within 2 weeks of the referendum a bill was published, and legislation then went through the House of Commons to start the release of paramilitary prisoners, which began in September 1998. In December 1999, Sinn Féin sat in government without any IRA decommissioning.
During the peace process political actors from all sides, have used a range of political or ‘theatrical’ skills which have been effective in achieving an accommodation. In British and Irish political culture the peace is welcomed but the means by which this has been achieved have either been ignored or else condemned as ‘dirty politics’. Such a political culture inhibits the appreciation of the ‘theatrical skills’ and the messy moral compromises that have been so successful in bringing an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland.
Professor Paul Dixon is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process: In Defence of Politics(Palgrave October 2018) and Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace(Palgrave 2008, 2ndedition). firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Nicki Dugan Pogue