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Models of civil society and their implications for the Northern Ireland peace process

2004, Farrington, Christopher

A number of authors have argued that civil society was important in bringing about political change in Northern Ireland in 1998. Through the Opsahl Commission in 1992 and the ‘Yes’ Campaign in 1998, civil society offered new challenges to the established political parties, enabled a level of public participation and ownership of the peace talks and eased the path to a negotiated settlement. This empirical observation was coupled with the literature on ethnic conflict, which stressed the importance of ‘bottom-up’ peace building, giving civil society a potentially strong role in a post-Agreement Northern Ireland. However, this did not seem to have been realised and this working paper asks why this might be the case. It argues that civil society has to be conceived as a wider phenomenon, in that it performs a multitude of roles in relation to conflict resolution, governance, support structures for institutions and democracy in general. The paper then further argues that the 1998 Agreement fundamentally changed the context in which civil society operated and the apparent subsequent decline in civil society activity was merely a shift in focus.