So why did the guns fall silent? How interplay, not stalemate, explains the Northern Ireland peace process

Jonathan Tonge, Peter Shirlow, James McAuley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


The precise rationale for, and timing of, the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s and beyond, which developed after more than two decades of conflict, has yet to be fully explained. It has been a common assumption that it arose from a stalemate involving the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the 'regular' pro-state forces of the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary and the 'irregular/ultra' pro-state loyalist paramilitary groups of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Under this interpretation, military/paramilitary deadlock led to ripeness for peace, amid reappraisals by all parties to the conflict of the utility of violence accompanied by reinterpretations of earlier political orthodoxies. The IRA could not remove the British sovereign claim to Northern Ireland; British forces could not militarily defeat the IRA and loyalists and republicans were engaged in a futile inter-communal sectarian war. This stalemate thesis has obvious attraction in explaining why a seemingly intractable war finally subsided, but is less convincing when subject to empirical testing among republican and loyalist participants in the conflict. This article moves away from 'top-down' generalist narratives of the onset of peace, which tend to argue the stalemate thesis, to assess 'bottom-up' interpretations from the actual combatants as to why they ceased fighting. It suggests an asymmetry, rather than mutuality, of perception that there was 'military' cessation by the armed non-state groups, with neither republican nor loyalist interpretations grounded in notions of stalemate. The article concludes by urging a wider consideration of the important and persistent interplay of the military and political in conflicts such as Northern Ireland.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalIrish Political Studies
Issue number1
Early online date11 Jan 2011
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2011


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