Politics and Peace in Northern Ireland by David Mitchell – Book Review & Launch 5 November

davidmitchellWhile the Northern Ireland peace process is considered an outstanding success internationally, those who observe its politics day by day know that it hasn’t all been ‘happily ever after.’ Yes, we’re all grateful that violence has by and large ceased. But the implementation of the 1998 peace agreement has been fraught and 17 years on, many citizens have grown apathetic about politics.

A new book by David Mitchell, assistant professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, Politics and Peace in Northern Ireland: Political Parties and the Implementation of the 1998 Agreement (Manchester University Press, 2015), analyses the factors that have gotten the political parties – and consequently our politics – where they are today.

It is the first book that I am aware of that so clearly and comprehensively dissects the evolving policies of the five largest parties, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches. It also explores how changing political structures contributed to the rise of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.

The book will be launched at No Alibis on Botanic Avenue in Belfast on Thursday 5 November, 5.30-6.30 pm, with remarks by Paul Arthur, Professor Emeritus in Politics, Ulster University. That sounds like a perfect warm-up for Slugger’s Big Politics Quiz later that evening – 8 pm at the Black Box.

The book, which unfortunately has an academic price tag of £75, will be available for less than half the retail price at the launch.

The main scholarly contribution of Politics and Peace in Northern Ireland is using ‘security dilemma’ theory from the field of International Relations to analyse the actions of Northern Ireland’s political parties, post-Agreement. Security dilemma theory is normally applied to violent inter or intra-state conflicts, rather than post-violence intra-state conflicts. So Mitchell’s use of the theory here is not only convincing, but also innovative. His prose is also remarkably clear of academic jargon, making even the theoretical chapter accessible to a popular audience.

For Mitchell, a security dilemma is ‘a situation in which an actor’s efforts to increase its security actually cause it greater insecurity because its actions, perceived as threatening, provoke counter-measures’ (p. 11). Drawing on the work of Booth and Wheeler, Mitchell utilises three ‘logics of insecurity’ or ‘ways of thinking about’ political uncertainty on the part of key political actors: 1) fatalist – insecurity can never be escaped; 2) mitigator – insecurity can be ameliorated by not eliminated; and 3) transcender – society can become what it wants to be (p. 13).

Mitchell applies these logics to the actions of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance in a measured and nuanced way, devoting a chapter to each party. So while one might assume Alliance could be labelled a transcender, there have been situations when this has not always been the case. The logics each party has employed have shifted over time depending on the context and how much power each party has been able to leverage at key junctures.

For example, this is how Mitchell summarises the DUP’s actions (p. 164):

The 1998 Agreement precipitated a sustained and vigorous DUP campaign to exploit and enlarge the fears of unionists for their future, with the explicit purpose of draining support from the UUP. In this, the DUP drew strength from the ongoing subversive activity of its Other, republicans, and the traditional unionist predilection towards pessimism, both of which made unionists receptive to the DUP’s claims that its perennial warnings against compromise were correct. However, once the UUP was defeated, hunger for power combined with the undeniable changes within republicanism, plus a Paisley epiphany, led the DUP to agree to enter government with Sinn Féin. Fatalist logic gave way to the mitigator logic of accommodation.

Mitchell’s theoretical chapter also identifies six features of Northern Ireland’s ‘post-conflict security dilemma’, which are examined in more depth in the chapters dealing with each of the five largest political parties (p. 48-50):

  • The post-settlement security dilemma is less intense.
  • The agreement document itself is a critical factor.
  • The injunction to disarm, rather than the increased military capacity of the other side, is the greater cause of fear and insecurity.
  • Although actual violence may be at an end, the legacy of violence is a significant cause of inter-group antagonism.
  • Identity issues are likely to be particularly conspicuous in inter-group tensions.
  • The third-party intervener is a crucial factor in how, or whether, a spiral of tension unfolds.

I was particularly interested in Mitchell’s use of the security dilemma in his discussion of identity and the flags protests in chapters on the DUP and UUP. This analysis helps the reader to understand how these disturbances did not just come out of the blue, but were linked to a cycle of fear and insecurity that was never fully broken after the Agreement.

Mitchell also explores how the DUP and Sinn Féin overtook the UUP and SDLP as the largest parties within their ethnic bases, noting how some scholars have argued that it was primarily the ‘consociational’ structures of the Agreement itself which favoured ‘extreme’ parties. Mitchell tries to temper that argument by pointing to the internal weaknesses of the UUP and SDLP, the superior organising capacities of the DUP and Sinn Féin, and the evidence that the DUP and Sinn Féin themselves even took on the more moderate language and policies of their rivals.

The book is also distinctive for including a sustained analysis of the Alliance Party, which is often left out of or only briefly noted in other scholarly work on Northern Ireland.

Because Alliance has been a pro-Agreement party it is easy to underestimate the party’s discontent with the ‘two communities’ logic of the Agreement and its misgivings about how the deal could institutionalise sectarianism. Mitchell disagrees with Alliance’s strong claim of institutionalised sectarianism, arguing that the ‘liberal, non-communal dimensions of the Agreement’ such as STV voting, d’Hondt, human rights protections, and the duties of impartiality placed on ministers are ‘underappreciated’ (p. 181).

Mitchell also shows how some of Alliance’s community relations policies even ended up in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s Together: Building a United Community document, with Alliance accusing OFMDFM of ‘stealing its ideas’ – while at the same time not going far enough (p. 185).

Finally, Mitchell claims that the flags protests, which were often directed at the Alliance Party, did not seem to damage the party as the period saw ‘a sharp increase in new members’ and arguing that, ‘The party’s decisive role and the repercussions it bore as a result arguably belied the notion that it was a bland or ineffectual option for voters, lending a degree of street credibility that had been lacking’ (p. 191). (It would have been helpful if Mitchell had here provided figures of how many people had joined the party due to or after the flags protest.)

When teaching on Master’s courses about Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland, I often tell international students that they may arrive in Northern Ireland thinking that it has been a success story, but after taking the class, they may be as cynical as the local students. Mitchell’s book, detailing as it does the difficulties of implementation where a ‘security dilemma’ continues to operate, goes some way towards explaining why such cynicism remains.

But Mitchell’s conclusion is more optimistic than might be expected. While acknowledging the difficulties and the ‘pall of negativity that has descended on the Northern Irish political scene, particularly since the flag protests’ (p. 199), these are among the book’s final words (p. 200):

The difficulties of implementing the Agreement were not inevitable, but neither were they surprising after decades of violence that left few families untouched. Now, it is reasonable to judge, based on the fact that previous ‘insurmountable’ issues have been surmounted, plus the prevailing favourable conditions, that the political challenges that remain will be overcome and, moreover, a common identification among the people of Northern Ireland can and will gather strength.

I would have liked to have seen further reflection on how the political parties themselves might become more aware of or attuned to ‘transcending’ the security dilemma – because in some ways it seems to me that parties like the DUP and Sinn Féin benefit from preserving it.

But all in all, Mitchell’s book is an informative and valuable contribution to scholarship which should also appeal to those outside of academia who are interested in the politics of the region.

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