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An Outline of the Main Political 'Solutions'

[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [CONFLICT_BACKGROUND]

Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

This DRAFT (v1) OUTLINE will be completed during the coming months. When completed this section will provide 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 heavily 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 also consult the CAIN Bibliography.

A range of 'solutions' to the political problems of Northern Ireland have been advanced since the constitutional question reemerged 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, whereas others have been advocated with varying degrees of vigour at different times.

Integration with Britain

Definition: 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 should not be treated any differently from any other part of the United Kingdom (UK). There are a number of slightly different options of integration proposed by various groupings within unionism.

Full (Institution) Integration
This section of opinion includes those who want the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom to be confirmed and for it to be legally as much a part of the Union as, say, Scotland. For those proposing this solution the aim is to make Northern Ireland indistinguishable from any other region in the UK. Some go as far as to argue that Northern Ireland should be treated as if it were part of England rather than on a similar footing to Scotland or Wales.

Electoral Integration
There is a section of opinion that argues that if the main political parties in Britain were to organise and campaign in Northern Ireland many of the divisions between the two communities would disappear. The argument is based on the assumption that constitutional differences would be replaced by differences based on class or other aspects of 'normal' British politics. The Campaign for Equal Citizenship (CEC) is the main pressure group arguing for this type of approach. The Conservative Party in recent years was persuaded to support the setting up of a constituency branch in North Down. However, on the few occasions that Conservative candidates have stood for election their support has been very low.

Direct Rule (De facto Integration)
The present system of Direct Rule from Westminster is a form of de facto integration. The system was introduced as a temporary arrangement until a political settlement could be agreed between the main political parties. Since 1972 there have been many policy initiatives which have brought Northern Ireland more into line with, for example, United Kingdom legislation. Integrationalists argue that Direct Rule should be made permanent.

Devolved Government

Definition: The government of the Northern Ireland state by a local administration with its own legislative powers.

For much of the period of 'the Troubles' the British Government has favoured a system of local government with legislative powers which are devolved from Westminster. However the British Government has more recently explicitly said that it would not stand in the way of any political settlement which has wide cross-community agreement. Devolution is also favoured by a significant section of Unionist opinion. They would view a devolved government as a safeguard against any future Westminster government trying to impose a solution which might lead to a United Ireland. There are a number of different versions of devolved government advocated.

Return to Simple Majority Rule
There is a small number of people who would like to see a return to the system of government, based on majority rule, which managed Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972. Advocates of this position are mainly to be found among members and supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) but also in the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). This proposal is totally rejected by nationalists and most commentators feel there is little possibility of such an outcome.

Majority Rule with 'safeguards'
There is a group, called 'reformist devolutionists' by McGarry and O'Leary (1995), who would like to deal with some of the criticism of the old Stormont Government by including "a Bill of Rights, proportional representation, and a role for minority parties in the committee system of any future devolved assembly" (McGarry and O'Leary; 1995 p94). The group supporting this approach are to be found in the UUP and the DUP. There is little support among nationalist parties for this proposal.

There is some support for devolved government which includes power-sharing. This approach would involve unionists and nationalists sharing executive and legislative power in a new assembly. Support for this approach is to be found among the members and supporters of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) and to a lesser extent among the UUP.

Power-sharing with an Irish Dimension
This approach would mean that the Irish Government would have a significant role to play in a devolved power-sharing administration. In 1974 such a scheme was tried when a power-sharing executive took office at Stormont which had agreed on the setting up of a Council of Ireland and a North/South Commission. The experiment was short-lived and the administration collapsed following the Ulster Workers' Council Strike in May 1974. The main support for such a solution is to be found among the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Independent Northern Ireland

Definition: 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 is advocated by the New Ulster Political Research Group (NUPRG). One of the main question marks over this proposal is whether or not Northern Ireland would be a economically viable unit. Opponents also question the degree of support for such an outcome.


Definition: The division of the current Northern Ireland state 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 25 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 straightest 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 Authority

Definition: 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 is the de facto situation under the Anglo-Irish Agreement. 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 Ireland

Definition: The reunification of the 32 counties of the island of Ireland (Northern Ireland and 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 are very 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 current Peace Process 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.

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