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16 October 2014
BBC NI - Eyewitness

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Professor Adrian Guelke puts the Northern Ireland peace process into an international context Image of Professor Adrian Guelke

The Northern Irish peace process, launched by the joint declaration of the British and Irish governments in December 1993 and underwritten by the announcement of both Republican and Loyalist paramilitary cease-fires in 1994, owed much to the spirit of the times. Particularly important were the examples of the South African transition culminating in the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of a non-racial South Africa in May 1994, and the Oslo peace process in the Middle East underscored by the handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the lawn of the White House in September 1993.

If violent conflicts as intractable as those in South Africa and Israel/Palestine could be resolved through negotiations, surely - so the argument went - the politicians in Britain and Ireland had a duty to initiate negotiations on the Irish Question. Also important to the peace process in Northern Ireland was the ending of the Cold War, as it was to many other regional conflicts in the world that were resolved during the 1990s. This was despite the fact that unlike, for example, the conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, Northern Ireland had not become an arena of ‘Super-Power’ rivalries. This was because an assumption of the Provisional Irish Republican Army - and a justification for its strategy of a ‘long war’ - was the belief that the British government was determined to maintain a presence in Ireland for strategic and economic reasons. The end of the Cold War made it possible both for the British government to declare that it had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland and for this to be accepted by the Republican movement.

As in the case of other intractable regional conflicts, war-weariness and other domestic factors played a part in encouraging a peace process in Northern Ireland. As in other conflicts too, the process of the implementation of agreements has proved fraught with problems and has been adversely affected by difficulties elsewhere. Thus, the breakdown of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process has been reflected in the symbolic identification of Republicans with the Palestinians and the Loyalists with the Israelis. The assault on America on 11 September 2001, and the war against terrorism to which it gave rise, have also had an effect on peace processes round the world, providing a bleaker backdrop to the pursuit of conflict resolution than post-Cold War optimism in a new world order.

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