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Historicising the Role of the EU in the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Giada Lagana (Cardiff University)

The existing literature, research, and media coverage have always tended to neglect the important role of the European Union (EU) in restoring peace in Northern Ireland. The political dimension of Northern Ireland engagement with the EU has usually been defined as ‘subtle’, because it did not visibly extend to a superficial level of public engagement. My objective, when I started the research that led me the compilation of this book, was to demonstrate that, instead, such subtlety was one of the most important hallmarks of the EU’s strategy of peacebuilding to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict. Indeed, 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 historical analysis of the EU role in the Northern Ireland peace process demonstrates how interests constituted the beginning of the EU peacebuilding strategy. A small number of actors between 1981 and 1988 – led by John Hume – perceived the neutral framework of the EU as a suitable context in which to foster interests and gain additional political and economic support. This initial EU/Northern Ireland policy network had at its core the will to find a solution to end the conflict. The chance to exploit financial or political opportunities to create new functional, cross-border spaces constituted an advantage. Furthermore, the network also saw the chance to enhance its say in the public policymaking processes through EU programmes, or the possibility to destabilise or undermine existing scalar hierarchies that tended to privilege the unionist majority. It was in this context, that the EU produced the first very interesting political analysis of the Northern Ireland conflict. The 1984 Haagerup Report was drawn up by the European Parliament (EP) Political Affairs Committee and named after its rapporteur, Niels Haagerup. Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) in 1985, the EU publicly pledged both economic and political support to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The first EU/Northern Ireland network was mainly composed of Irish and Northern Irish nationalist representatives. Unionists feared that, in this context, their interests would fall behind and wanted to build a counterweight. Their collaborative participation in experiences and debates within the EP is evidence of this spirit. It is also true that unionists’ interests changed over time, in parallel with changes within the two national governments of Ireland and the UK. As asserted by the former MEP Jim Nicholson, unionists learned a number of key lessons from the period of the Haagerup inquiry and the signing of the AIA. Their exclusion from both these experiences significantly influenced their approach to the EU. One lesson was the confirmation that unionists could not depend anymore on a government in London to look after their own interests. They would have to positively engage in the administration of Northern Ireland by themselves and, to obtain the most, this also meant positively engaging with the EU. This change in unionists’ attitude shows how nationalists and unionists adapted their interests on the basis of an observation of the material context, even if they perceived this context through different lenses.

The signing of the 1985 AIA institutionalised a cross-border dimension on the island of Ireland. Cross-border cooperation emerged in Northern Ireland as a result of the EU’s strategic action and with a peacebuilding objective. The outcome provided not just uniform opportunities for both the unionist and the nationalist communities, but also differential opportunities and constraints for different actors at the Irish and UK level. The dialogue, cooperation, and grassroots mechanisms enacted by different actors at the European level, at different times of the conflict and in different places, institutionalised a cross-border, territorial, and functional life in Northern Ireland within which a strategic and sustainable peace would be eventually possible. However, implementing EU cross-border and peacebuilding initiatives (e.g. the PEACE programmes) was a contested process in which actors and national governments with different visions, perceptions, and priorities participated. No one was able to impose their particular version of a peaceful Northern Ireland unconditionally, but the fact that there were benefits for all involved proves how EU peacebuilding initiatives, while never producing perfect outcomes, always formed a compromise between the feasible and the desirable.

The support shown by the Irish and British governments to the re-establishment of executive politics in Northern Ireland and the North-South strand of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) did not demonstrate a clear sense of a shared purpose in peacebuilding, as both governments maintained a hold over the dynamics of the experiments in cross-border governance. This made the ‘hand of the state’ an omnipresent element. Hence, even if, through the bottom-up approach, the EU attempted to empower policy networks to guide the elaboration process of EU peacebuilding initiatives in their desired direction, the Commission’s rule established that the two national governments were ultimately the only recognised legal authority. The fact that the EU always acted through the administrations of the Irish and UK governments posed substantial challenges for civil society action. Typically, these groups and private actors were less experienced in acting on a European scale, were rarely present in the European institutions, and faced difficulties in mobilising across borders. As a consequence, cross-border and peacebuilding networks in Northern Ireland and the border region required years to fully grasp the opportunities provided by the EU. This shows how peacebuilding is an on-going historical practice, that is highly context-specific and changes over time and space.

In conclusion, I believe that the breath of the historical analysis of the EU role in the Northern Ireland peace process demonstrates that the EU performed peacebuilding through observation, investigation, and assumptions on the fact that its role had to remain provisional. This flexible nature served Northern Ireland peacebuilding networks in their work to help peace survive the challenge of time. From the first EP direct election in 1979, when John Hume brought the Northern Ireland conflict to the then European Economic Community (EEC) agenda, successive cross-border and peacebuilding networks that could not directly steer and command policymaking processes could, nevertheless, seek new instruments to shape, steer, and frame peacebuilding initiatives and their governance mechanisms. They reflected upon the context and strived to change the contextual elements to optimise the realisation of their strategies. These activities affected the goal-attainment of different networks in Northern Ireland and changed the context in which EU peacebuilding operated. However, the role of the EU was crucial in all the above described steps and it is essential to consolidate our existing knowledge on it, moving beyond the dominant paradigm which generally views it mainly as providing financial packages.

Giada Lagana is Research Associate at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University and author of “The European Union and the Northern Ireland Peace Process” (Palgrave; 2020)

Image credit: Courtesy of Mr 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). 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.