Disarming Violence

Disarming Violence: Decommissioning and the Northern Irish Peace Process

Conclusion: Lessons of Decommissioning

Despite numerous setbacks and challenges, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was largely successful, and the Good Friday Agreement survived the issue of disarmament. The process holds several lessons in regards to disarming militants and peace processes more broadly. First, it shows the importance of openness and flexibility during negotiations and implementation of settlements. In comparing the Northern Irish peace process to negotiations in Cyprus a few years later, it becomes clear that the openness of negotiations to the public and the inclusion of major stakeholders and political parties, including those with ties to paramilitaries, greatly aided public confidence and acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement.[1] As ceasefires came and went and political parties like Sinn Fein and the DUP entered and exited talks, the framework of negotiations held firm.

In addition to popular support, the process succeeded due to a new political climate in which the Blair administration was less dependent on loyalist Northern Irish voters and therefore could set aside decommissioning as a prerequisite for talks. At the same time, the IRA realized that their armed campaign had only resulted in a stalemate with the British, and that they could make some progress on issues like police reform through negotiation while they could still use violence as leverage. Thus, not the political moment was right for peace to succeed, but it allowed for the major players to take more flexible stances than they had before.

Decommissioning also worked in part because it gave some leeway and latitude towards the paramilitaries for how they could get rid of their weapons. Importantly, the process was set up so that paramilitaries would feel that they were not surrendering or admitting defeat. Instead of handing their weapons over to the British or Irish governments, they were given to an independent body and allowed to verify how the weapons were disposed of.[2] While the transparency of peace negotiations was important for the broader peace process, secrecy did have a place in decommissioning. Secrecy and anonymity guaranteed that militants would not and could not be tried or convicted for crimes associated with any particular weapon, thereby granting them immunity to encourage them to turn their weapons in. Both loyalist and republican paramilitaries developed a tradition of armed resistance and action in which both sides saw themselves as defenders of their communities.

Finally, political scientists studying conflict termination in civil wars have shown that conflicts that end with peace agreements are less likely to restart than those that end in outright military or government victory.[3] The passing of the Good Friday Agreement by a public referendum and the greatly reduced violence in Northern Ireland in the last two decades suggests that the Troubles have been successfully ended and are unlikely to restart again. The decommissioning of large numbers of paramilitary weapons, combined with other reforms in the Good Friday Agreement, has contributed massively to the enduring peace. In future peace settlements involving non-government paramilitaries, the decommissioning scheme used in Northern Ireland would make for a good basis for disarmament, but careful consideration of the particulars of this case should also be made.

[1]Aramal. “Do peace negotiations shape settlement referendums?” Cooperation and Conquest, Vol. 53, No. 3, (2018), 356-374.

[2] Michael Von Tagen Page. “Arms Decommissioning and the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement.” Security Dialogue, Vol. 29 No. 4 (1998), 409-420.

[3] Joakim Kreutz. “How and When Armed Conflicts End: Introducing the UCDP Conflict Termination Dataset.” Journal of Peace Research, 47(2): 243-250.