Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Manchester University Press
ISBN 9780719090837

Reviewed by Cillian McGrattan

Cillian McGrattan lectures in Politics at Ulster University.

This valuable and timely book by the political historian Eamonn O’Kane circles around the incongruities, disconnections and unintended consequences that constituted the stuff of the Northern Irish peace process. Because these nuances are often arcane or unsolvable, they tend to be excised from journalistic accounts of the period. The clarity that O’Kane brings to the intricacies of issues such as decommissioning, electoral transformations or Brexit means that his text represents a high-water mark in the burgeoning historiography of the peace process.

An example of O’Kane’s treatment of complexity with clarity is in his eschewing of a simplistic dating of the peace process, which, he argues, ‘did not so much “begin” as emerge’ in the late 1980s and early 1990s (p. 5). He navigates this otherwise tricky chronological problem by focusing instead on the key political actors and groupings in his opening chapter—an exposition that is itself something of a tour de force in this difficult and contested terrain.

The book marshals a wide range of evidence, focusing in particular on newspaper reports and more recent interview and oral testimony material. O’Kane has an eye for the revealing quote. For instance, he references the British diplomat Sir John Chilcot by way of explaining how by the mid-1990s the momentum of the political talks had been such as to change the negotiating environment from one based on the centrist parties to one in which Sinn Féin was increasingly central:

‘[Things] had gone too far forward really. Too much progress had been made. The only game in town was to get the real result, which was peace, however imperfect and perhaps not permanent but nonetheless to get it and, with that, some kind of political settlement’ (p. 31).

The book follows a largely chronological structure. The first four chapters deal in turn with the origins of the peace process, the various political talks in the 1990s, the negotiation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the implementation of the Agreement until 2003. The period in which the devolved Assembly was repeatedly placed into ‘cold storage’ (primarily owing to the reluctance of republicans to decommission arms and Ulster unionists’ loss of faith in the institutions) until the 2017 collapse is the focus of one specific chapter. This seems a logical and reasonable way to order the material, but it gives way to a particular narrative emphasis in which the peace process is synonymous with the gradual establishment of a leadership cadre within the Provisional republican movement—and the marginalising of dissent from both within and without Sinn Féin and the PIRA.

The danger of this élite-level approach may be that it downplays other important ways in which the peace process has become normalised in the everyday governance of Northern Ireland. These include a demonstrable (though perhaps shallow) liberalisation of the political culture. Opinion survey responses to issues such as abortion reform, for instance, show a more conservative outlook within older cohorts and (interestingly, and perhaps a consequence of the intensely religious colouring of the three mainstream education systems in Northern Ireland) the under-24-year-olds. Yet reform in this area and other comparable ones, such as equal marriage, has occurred over the past half-decade. This may not, of course, be a direct consequence of the types of high-level, detailed discussions mapped by O’Kane, but the women’s and gay rights movements have benefited indirectly from the opening of political space and opportunity afforded by the peace process and the demilitarisation of society.

Arguably, those types of socio-cultural change cannot be understood in the absence of the political and historical changes that O’Kane so clearly contextualises. And, as mentioned, it is that very clarity that makes the book essential reading above the myriad journalistic accounts of the period. An example is that of legacy policy direction. For O’Kane, ‘the approach to dealing with the past has largely been that all strands need to be implemented at the same time (to avoid any group securing the changes they wish to see but managing to block those they do not support)’ (p. 219). In comparison, the conclusions of Brian Rowan’s recent book are woefully underthought: ‘Are we going to build the future on top of an unresolved past? … This conversation needs creative thinkers, imaginative pens, new ideas inside a new script. It needs outside help’ (Political Purgatory: the battle to save Stormont and the play for a new Ireland (Merrion Press, 2021), pp 204–5). O’Kane’s prognosis is more reserved but, ultimately, more sensible: ‘If a period of sustained and successful government can be achieved in Northern Ireland, it may be the case that a cooperative political atmosphere may lead to a breakthrough [on legacy issues]’ (p. 220). This conclusion is in line with O’Kane’s central argument that the peace process was ‘more the result of ad hoc decision-making than the implementation of a detailed plan’ (p. 225). Although the realist may say that such a history would imply that things can always get worse, O’Kane’s text points towards a more hopeful note: ‘The glass is at least half full’ (ibid.).


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