Backchannel Diplomacy #2: Irish Peace Process

Over 20-years bachchannel diplomacy, conflict groups and backchannel diplomacy in Irish Peace Process that puts an end to all of this!

In my previous article, we talked about the definition, advantages and disadvantages of backchannel diplomacy. In this article, we will talk about the effects of this type of diplomacy on the Irish Peace Process, one of the most important diplomacy meetings in history. So, rather than examining historical process between the two parts; over a period of twenty years back-channel process will be considered since back-channel communication was a key component of the Ireland Peace Process.

So let's get started!

Northern Ireland Peace Process

Violent clashes in Northern Ireland, which began in 1969 and continued until the mid-1990s, cost over 3,500 people’s lives[1]. With this exceptional post-war Western Europe situation, the IRA and the political party Sinn Fein aimed to reunite Ireland as an independent republic wishing to bring an end to British sovereignty. The unionist and paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland opposed this movement, trying to stick to the United Kingdom, and some groups launched violent acts against the IRA[2].

The conflict finally ended in 1998 by negotiation. The negotiation between the British government and the IRA is structured with many important political relations. It was also influenced by the actions of important players like trade unionists, the Irish government and loyal paramilitaries. In the Irish process, back-channel negotiation is based on Brendan Duddy's mediation in the 1970s between the President of Sinn Fein, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, and Michael Oatley who is a Secret Intelligence Service officer[3]. In 1975, the communication between the two sides moved to a new dimension with many secret meetings between British and Republican representatives. Talks resumed in order to end the Republicans' hunger strike, where some convicted prisoners died in 1980. By 1990, the starting conditions for the negotiations were revised[4]. In 1993, a secret ceasefire proposal was submitted to the British government by IRA. During this entire period of conflict, many back-channel communications were observed between the two sides. With the truce of IRA in 1994, more than 20 years of communication between the British government and Sinn Fein were exposed. Thus, an important progress has been made on the cooperation and peace negotiations between the British government and Sinn Fein[5].

What were the effects of back-channel communication in this case, and how did the parties overcome such a deep-rooted and fervent dispute?

According to Niall Ó Dochartaigh, throughout the peace process, one of the most important causes of the ceasefire was the long-term “cooperative contact”[6]. Long-term dialogue has increased the relationship between both parties and created a trust. From my point of view, this is particularly important in deep-rooted conflicts since the parties can have clear ideas about each other's intent and reliability. One of the reasons why the parties have long-term cooperative contact is that same person has mediated between the two parties for more than 20 years. Thus, mediator has built trust by developing strong relationships with the both parties. Regarding this, Putnam states "Interpersonal relationships not only enhanced trust between opponents, but these efforts made it possible to build a foundation of mutuality on which both sides could stand, even when the negotiators rotated"[7]. The parties' trust to the mediator is reflected in the negotiations, leading to a more moderate path. This is especially important in back-channel communication through mediator because as Pruitt notes, “One of the principal dangers in back-channel communication is that information may be distorted by intermediaries”[8].

Back-channel negotiations are likely to reduce or eliminate uncertainties. However, both parties must establish the legitimacy of this channel and demonstrate that they will fulfil their commitments because communication through this channel prompts parties to see concrete evidence. Otherwise, the parties may not choose a compromise. This situation also occurred in the Ireland Peace Process. In the early 1970s, the reason why the British authorities refused negotiation process was because they thought the other party would not fulfil their promises. Afterwards, with mutual return of criminals and prisoners in 1974, a sense of trust began to develop between the two parties[9]. In other words, it is an important part of back-channelling that the parties show their wishes and sincerity in the process of negotiation. Also back-channel negotiation does not allow the dialogue between parties to be shaped by the audience. This was observed in the Ireland Peace Process, especially in 1975, when mediator transferred the information received from one party's leader directly to the other.

Between the 1980s-90s, the process had continued through negotiation between the two sides having two different intermediaries who are the leaders of a moderate nationalist party in Northern Ireland, John Hume and some other officials from Ireland side.[10] They were like the rings in the middle of an important chain. While John Hume reported the information and requests he received from Sinn Fein's leader to the other party, he was also in dialogue with other officials. This well-organized dialogue ended with Stortmont negotiations between 1997-98 resulting in the Good Friday Agreement, an important development of the Northern Ireland Peace Process[11].

During back-channel communication, it is known that the public is aware of some talks, but it is possible to evaluate these conversations on this channel since it is one of the features of back-channel communication that intermediaries deliver messages from one end to the other. In addition, at the same time, there were at least two other back-channel negotiations available between the two parties[12]. The presence of intermediaries made the leaders in conflict feel more secure and minimized the political danger between Gerry Adams and John Major. Two leaders continued their communication through various intermediaries. Besides, according to Pruitt, intermediaries during back-channelling generally encourage both parties to follow peaceful paths and are pro-solution[13]. They try to make the parties understand each other and agree. Also, when back-channel ends, intermediaries suddenly disappear, as in Stortmont negotiations when Gerry Adams spoke directly with British government officials[14]. Of course, it is essential for intermediaries being a good secret keeper. For example, Catholic priest who convinced Hume and Adams to negotiate each other, Father Alec Reid was so reliable that he never mentioned about the process until after inking Good Friday Agreement[15].

Thanks to secrecy and bypassing spoilers, both parties understood the reliability of back-channelling over time. Thus, information about their negotiations through this channel was not leaked. Although details of the talks between 1990-1993 were leaked later[16], the parties complied with the principle of secrecy throughout the channel. This was a crucial step for parties to have solidarity. Besides, secret talks between the IRA and British government have reduced audience influence, thereby reducing bargaining power of the parties. The leaders continued their anger for the other party in their speeches to the public. While Gerry Adams was holding secret talks with the British government, on the other hand, his discourse to the public was hostile and the IRA continued his severe actions[17].

As a result, increasing the exchange of information, reducing uncertainties and providing mutual trust through back-channel diplomacy has resulted for these two parties, which could not openly follow a negotiation path. In addition, back-channel negotiations between the IRA and British government helped the two sides to run a joint project. Although trust and cooperation between them was not very strong, this was an important step towards peace for the parties because they were able to negotiate a secret ceasefire in 1993 through this channel. Moreover, the leaders of the parties felt more confident thanks to secret conduct of the speeches. This provided them a political cover and preferred to speak instead of avoiding or fighting the enemy. This has been observed in many leaders performing back-channel communication such as Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, especially the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams[18]. Although this channel ended in 1993, it provided an important ground for the subsequent talks[19]. These new conditions thanks to back-channelling were important for the two parties that had been in conflict for a long time.

Back-channel negotiations can be launched to support front-channel and lay the groundwork. This is especially important for the parties in conflict. Regarding the Irish case, Wanis-St. John states "Reciprocal demands for disarming the Irish Republican Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were frequently heard in discussions about peace negotiations in Northern Ireland"[20]. Thus, the parties discussed the preconditions with back-channelling and overcome the obstacles. Also, having multiple channels may be reparative for the process in case of any misunderstanding or mistreatment. For example, during the negotiation, it was possible to have a serious problem between the two parties as a result of the leakage of some information in 1990-93. However, this did not have a major impact on the peace process since the parties were also using different channels through John Hume and Father Reid[21]. As a result, all unique characteristics of the back-channel negotiation have contributed to the peace process between the two parties.

In my opinion, there is an essential cycle in back-channel communication because secrecy is the most important element and it ensures cooperation between the parties, thereby gaining mutual trust. As a result of this mutual trust, cooperation increases more and uncertainties decrease. The parties and mediators meet on a common ground and act for the same purpose. On the other hand, I liken the back-channel negotiation to a chain and its features to the links of that chain. The more securely the rings come together, the greater the effect of the chain. However, if one or more rings are damaged, the chain will not work and even parts will be scattered around. Just like in the case of the chain, in cases such as disruption of secrecy, erupting of spoilers or failure of the mediator may break the negotiation phase and even parties may engage in more violent conflicts. Although back-channel diplomacy has its risks, the issues used in back-channel often occur in the options between using back-channel or no negotiation, rather than between front-channel or back-channel use. Therefore, it is much more logical for the parties to negotiate through this channel rather than choose the way of conflict. Besides, the contribution of using back-channel to the front-channel should not be overlooked as in the case of Ireland Peace Process.

However, at this point, I ask myself how much ethical it is because back-channel communication is hidden and ignores some groups. Here, the diplomatic historian Harold Nicolson gives an answer. According to him, secrecy is necessary, but there is a difference between conducting secrecy during negotiations and conducting a secret foreign policy. While the first is necessary in some cases, the second is not used for democratic purposes and is carried out against the public[22]. So, the question that should be asked is how much and what kind of secrecy instead of the morality of secrecy.

In addition, some of the risks of this channel may pose a question mark in the minds. However, in my opinion, these problems can be resolved or minimized by taking some precautions. For instance, problems emerging from secrecy can be resolved by the parties continuing their negotiations through more than one channel at the same time or by having reliable and professional intermediaries. On the other side, involvement of the public in the process during final stages of the talks can also be an effective solution in this regard. Thus, while the both parties will benefit from many advantages of back-channelling; as the phrase is, they will also throw the others a bone to satisfy them. According to Pruitt, this was one of the most beautiful aspects of the 1997-98 Irish case, because two separate civil society groups -the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and Northern Ireland Labor- took part in this case, thereby costing outcome to the masses[23]. Thus, even the fact that these groups were in the process caused the backchannel to take nine years, it was important for the two sides to reach the result.

Consequently, the effort, perseverance, prolonged dialogue and effective back-channel use in the Irish Peace Process led to the end of the messy conflict between the parties.


[1] Dochartaigh, N. O. Negotiated deradicalization in the Irish peace process. Retrieved May 15, 2020

[2] Dochartaigh, N. O. (2011). Together in the Middle: Back-Channel Negotiation in the Irish Peace Process. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dochartaigh, N. O. (2011). Together in the Middle: Back-Channel Negotiation in the Irish Peace Process. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pruitt, D. G. (2006, October 3). Back channel communication in the settlement of conflict. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pruitt, D. G. (2006, October 3). Back channel communication in the settlement of conflict. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Dochartaigh, N. O. (2011). Together in the Middle: Back-Channel Negotiation in the Irish Peace Process. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[17] Pruitt, D. G. (2006, October 3). Back channel communication in the settlement of conflict. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[18] Pruitt, D. G. (2006, October 3). Back channel communication in the settlement of conflict. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[19] Dochartaigh, N. O. (2011). Together in the Middle: Back-Channel Negotiation in the Irish Peace Process. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[20] Pruitt, D. G. (2006, October 3). Back channel communication in the settlement of conflict. Retrieved May 14, 2020

[21] Ibid.

[22] Jones, P. (2018, January 10). Ethical Dilemmas of Back-Channel Diplomacy: Necessary Secrecy or a Secret Foreign Policy? Retrieved May 16, 2020

[23] Pruitt, D. G. (2006, October 3). Back channel communication in the settlement of conflict. Retrieved May 14, 2020