An Outline of the Main Political 'Solutions' to the Conflict
[Key_Events] [KEY_ISSUES] [Conflict_Background]
POLITICS: [Menu] [Reading] [Articles] [Government] [Political_Initiatives] [Political_Solutions] [Parties] [Elections] [Polls] [Sources] [Peace_Process]
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change
This page (updated June 2000) provides brief explanations of the main political 'solutions' that have been advocated at various times during 'the Troubles'. The various options are only briefly considered in the following page. This section draws on material written by, among others: Whyte (1990), Rose (1976), Boyle and Hadden (1985), McGarry and O'Leary (1995), O'Malley (1983). The reader should consult the CAIN Bibliography for full citations and other books on this topic.
A range of solutions to the political problems of Northern Ireland have been advanced since the constitutional question re-emerged at the beginning of 'the Troubles'. Some of the solutions have been proposed for the full period of the conflict, some of them only found favour for a relatively short period of time. Each of the possible options has been advocated with varying degrees of vigour at different times.
Integration with BritainDefinition: The government of Northern Ireland by the British Parliament at Westminster.
Those in favour of integration with Britain use the central argument that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom (UK). Devolution of power in Britain has recently led to the establishment of a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales. Prior to devolution the argument used by integrationists was that Northern Ireland should not be treated any differently from any other part of the UK. There are a number of slightly different options of integration proposed by various groupings within unionism.
Full (Institution) Integration
Direct Rule (De facto Integration)
Devolved GovernmentDefinition: The government of the Northern Ireland by a local administration with its own legislative powers.
For much of the period of 'the Troubles' various British governments have favoured a system of local government with legislative powers which are devolved from Westminster. Devolution was also favoured by a significant section of unionist opinion. One of the arguments used in favour of this form of government was that it would act as a safeguard against any future Westminster government trying to impose a solution which might lead to a United Ireland. There were a number of different versions of devolved government advocated.
Return to Simple Majority Rule
Majority Rule with 'safeguards'
Power-sharing with an Irish Dimension
Independent Northern IrelandDefinition: The political independence of Northern Ireland from both Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Those who advocate independence for
Northern Ireland argue that both British and Irish sovereignty
are unacceptable to one or other of the two communities and therefore
it makes sense to consider independence. This approach was advocated
by the New Ulster Political Research Group (NUPRG). One of the
main question marks over this proposal was whether or not Northern
Ireland would be an economically viable unit. Opponents also questioned the degree of support for such an outcome.
RepartitionDefinition: The division of Northern Ireland into two areas, one which would contain a majority of unionists and the other which would contain a majority of nationalists.
Those who argue for repartition begin
with the assumption that it is impossible to reach compromise
between the conflicting aspirations of unionism and nationalism.
In this case one practical solution would be to redraw the border
to divide the two communities. This solution has been advocated
at different times during the past 30 years. Various schemes
have been advanced for the division of the current Northern Ireland
state. A comprehensive defence of this approach and details of
the various options involved can be found in Kennedy (1986).
One of the main criticisms of this solution has to do with deciding
where the new boundary should be drawn. While it is true that
a large proportion of the Catholic population is to be found in
the west and south of the region there are a number of notable
exceptions including Catholic west Belfast. The existence of
pockets of population which find themselves in areas dominated
by the other community means that drawing a line between the two
communities is very difficult. The most straightforward line, for example
along the River Bann, would have the advantage of simplicity in
terms of administration but would mean that significant sections
of both communities would be on the 'wrong' side of the new border.
Any division which tried to be as inclusive as possible would
cause many administrative problems.
Joint AuthorityDefinition: The sharing of the sovereignty of Northern Ireland by Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
A one end of the spectrum this solution
might involve the British and Irish Government signing an agreement,
which would be enshrined in international law, to govern Northern
Ireland on an equal basis. At the other end of the spectrum joint
authority may only entail a sharing of responsibility with the
British Government as the major partner. Some Unionists would
argue that this type of outcome was the de facto situation under
the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and under the Good Friday Agreement (1998). Joint Authority was considered by
the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1972 and was
discussed as part of the New Ireland Forum in 1984. It was also
the subject of a recent book (O'leary, et al., 1993). While the
approach has the advantage of addressing the central problem of
a clash of national and political identities, it is viewed by
unionists as a 'stepping-stone' on the path to a United Ireland
and is thus opposed by them.
United IrelandDefinition: The reunification of the 32 counties of the island of Ireland (the six counties of Northern Ireland and the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland) into a single state.
The majority of nationalists in Northern
Ireland hold a long-term aspiration to see the island of Ireland
reunified. There are two ways in which this aspiration has been
pursued, by consent and by coercion. The final outcome of these
two approaches could involve either a unitary state or a federal
/ confederal state. A United Ireland, in any form, is fiercely
opposed by unionists.
United Ireland by Consent
A majority of those nationalists who
wish to see a United Ireland are only prepared to support this
option if it can be achieved by agreement. The level of expressed
support among the Protestant population for a United Ireland has
declined since the beginning of the present 'Troubles'. Although
the British Government has said that it would bring forward the
enabling legislation if a majority voted for this solution, the
prospects remain slim. Even if the Catholic and nationalist
population increased continually at the present rate, it would
take many decades to achieve a simple majority of the electorate
in favour of a United Ireland.
United Ireland by coercion
Republican paramilitaries, in particular
the Irish Republican Army (IRA), have spent over 25 years trying
to achieve a United Ireland by force of arms. The central strategy
has been to force an end to British rule in Northern Ireland and
then find an accommodation with the unionist population. The
central part played by Sinn Féin (SF) in the peace
process and in the devolved government under the arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement is a recognition that a United Ireland through coercion
is unlikely to be achieved.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
Last modified :