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Book Review
Last Updated: 07/29/2003
Peace by Pieces

Mari Fitzduff, Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Process in Northern Ireland, United Nations University Press & INCORE 2002, pp.233 ISBN 92-808-1078-2

The major strength of this short book is its clear and detailed description of seemingly every nook and cranny that has to be dealt with to establish the conditions for peace and to maintain it. In a way it is strangely dispassionate account given the heat and passion that the violent conflict in Northern Ireland has generated. On the other hand, what screams from the page is the balance, understanding and compromise that is vital for every aspect of peace-making including the putting pen to paper. Along with the dispassionate account is also the near absence of any airy fairy theoretical nonsense: no Foucault, no class war theories, no state theory. Thus while Beyond Conflict gets close to being a “how-to” book, yet, at the same time, it is crammed with good sense and benefits from a mass of experience on the author’s part. Anyone who wants to know the ground rules for conflict resolution would do well to start here.

While she warns towards the end that despair is one of the biggest enemies, the real starting point is to know that change is possible and violence can come to an end and healing can happen. On the other hand change does not come easy: it comes from literally thousands of interventions. These interventions occur at Track 1 and Track 2 political levels, that is formal interventions at the highest political levels and informal political talks at all levels. Truces, ceasefires, peace and maintaining peace can only happen if work takes place simultaneously at all levels of the community, through all available institutions, through the creation of new physical space, through education, through police reform, through talk and more talk, through breaking down the barriers that prevent talk, through short term measures that also take account of medium and long term perspectives, through building a genuine democratic society not mere democratic institutions and so on almost endlessly.

            Professor Fitzduff, who works in Belfast and has suffered through the troubles day by day and year by year, is fond of the jigsaw simile and of the insistence that the key is peace by pieces. Nothing comes all at once or by itself. There is despair, contradictions and failure but the hard won peace in Northern Ireland now stands out as a major success story.  That is because of the work done by thousands, many risking their lives and some of whom are no longer alive to tell the story.

It would be good to pick out some key factors that did bring peace, but in the context of this book it is hard to identify even three or four that might stand alone because of the range of acts, activities and events that have to go together to constitute change for the better. Nevertheless, some key points do cry out for mention. Apart from the insistence that work must take place continuously everywhere in society, polity and economy, it is possible to dwell on some notable points.

  • The peace process can only take place when both sides are fully aware that neither can win. This is pretty depressing in that many years of fighting it would seem must precede peace.
  • The policing of society is crucial in that the police must represent society as a whole: the police have to be a truly democratic institution representing society as a whole; it has to be a “service” and has to be supported by the population as a whole.
  • The men of violence have to have their energies redirected, preferably into democratic politics.
  • Talking is crucial at all levels, formally, informally, openly, secretly. It is now established that the British government talked secretly for many years to the IRA paramilitaries.
  • One of the few theories to which the author subscribes is so-called “ripeness” theory. The terms of agreement in 1974 were not much different from those arrived at in 1998: the time was simply not “ripe” in 1974. The struggle had to play itself out.  

However, this last point about ripeness brings this reviewer to one of the few points of omission. It has always been the case that the British Government has agreed that Northern Ireland will remain within the UK if the democratic vote seeks that end. But the demographic changes in Northern Ireland have for some time begun to indicate that while there was a substantial majority voting to stay in the UK in the 1960s, the increase of the Republican vote through demographic change means that at some future stage, maybe half a generation, a plebiscite vote would take Northern Ireland into the Republic. This future “threat” to the current Protestant Loyalist majority is not discussed.


Another omission is the effect on British opinion of Republican mainland[i] targeting, which certainly had multifarious effects, not the least of which was to create a “war weary” British public, and to spur on a number of politicians who sought to make their reputations by attempting to solve a seemingly intractable violent conflict.


Finally, in the quick run through of causes of the conflict at the beginning of the book, the author clearly and rightly identifies the dominance of the Loyalists over the large Catholic minority lacking human rights and privilege as the key cause of the conflict. On the other hand, being a bit airy fairy myself, I would like to have seen a discussion of “Irishness”. After all, the Loyalists are also Irish. Do we distinguish between GB Shaw, JM Synge, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett? They are all Irish, whether Prod or Taig. Of the several violent attempts by the Irish to gain their freedom from the British mentioned by the author, one of the more famous, that of the United Irishmen, was led by the Protestant Wolfe Tone in 1798, who cheated the gallows by committing suicide, much to the chagrin of the Catholics among his following. The point is simply that the Loyalists also regard themselves as Irish as well as British.


However, these omissions are all perfectly reasonable given the purpose of Beyond Violence. This world needs clear no-nonsense analysis of the complexities of securing a peaceful world. Mari Fitzduff has provided it.


[i] The IRA targeted courts of justice, Downing Street, individual politicians, the City of London, the cities of Manchester and Birmingham, Tower of London, shopping centres and the whole of the British cabinet including the then prime minister. The term mainland, oddly, refers to the neighbouring island of Britain.