Northern Ireland after 1998: is the four nations approach useful?

Northern Ireland after 1998: is the four nations approach useful?

MA student Eamonn McNamara (Australian National University) argues a four nations approach can be useful in understanding political and social changes in post-1998 Northern Ireland.

At first, a four nations approach to Northern Ireland after the ‘Troubles’ may seem problematic. Surveys from 2001 onwards suggest that identity in Northern Ireland was skewed between being ‘Northern Irish’ ‘Irish’ and ‘British,’ with the later two growing in prominence in the 21st century.[1] Furthermore, the development of the Northern Irish Assembly indicated a political power change from Westminster to Stormont in 2000. In these ways, Northern Ireland appeared to be transitioning away from the rest of the four nations and focused on developing its own distinctive identity. In other ways, the state was highly interconnected and influenced by the four nations. I argue that a four nations approach can help us better understand Northern Ireland after the Troubles, and that this approach can yield interesting considerations of its political and social developments after 1998.

The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of 1998 signalled not only an end to the violence of the Troubles, but a new era in relations between the four nations. This was most clearly expressed in the British–Irish Council, a body with representatives from the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, as well as the devolved assemblies of Scotland and Wales. The council was not only an expression of the connectedness of the four nations, but the role that all four nations could have in resolving issues in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Northern Irish Assembly was not created in a vacuum, and came into existence shortly after the introduction of the Scottish and Welsh assemblies from 1998-9. Further research may help to explain the success of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, in comparison to the Northern Irish assembly, which was suspended from 2002-7.

On a cultural level, the flying of flags in Northern Ireland reflected Northern Irish affiliations with other nations of the British Isles. The link between Northern Ireland and Scotland was demonstrated when loyalists and unionists believed the union to be under threat. The 2013 decision to only fly the union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days should also be noted. The strong response by the loyalist and unionist communities, especially a perception that this act sidelined ‘Britishness’ in Northern Ireland, is important. Loyalist protestors received financial and personal support from both Scotland and England, and there were also protests in both Glasgow and Liverpool. In early 2013, Northern Irish loyalists protested in Scotland against Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, who they believed threatened the union.

Indeed, the Northern Irish response to the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum confirmed that historic links between Northern Ireland and Scotland remained strong well into the 21st century. There was a widespread fear that, if Scotland left the union, Northern Ireland would surely follow. This fear prompted the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, as well as lodges from England, to travel to Scotland in support of the ‘No’ campaign.[2] The success of the ‘No’ campaign led nationalists in Northern Ireland to reflect on the Scottish example. Alasdair McDonnell of the Social and Democratic Labour party noted that ‘The Scottish National Party has shown how independence campaigns should be fought’.[3] Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Orange Lodge of Ireland, claimed that ‘Our family of nations, and the unmistakable bond we all share, remains unbroken and we look forward to Scotland remaining British for many generations to come’.[4] It is worthwhile noting that the Scottish referendum impacted political thought in Northern Ireland, both nationalist and unionist. The flag protests and referendum campaign confirmed that while Northern Ireland was in many ways developing its own sense of nationhood, it was still affected by developments in other nations, especially Scotland.   

Other aspects of the history of Northern Ireland after 1998 also reveal the usefulness of the four nations approach. The relationship between England and Ireland was recently revitalized by the 2011 visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland. The Queen’s use of the Irish language in the opening of her speech at Dublin Castle was a symbolic gesture of the desire for goodwill between England and Ireland, particularly after the Troubles. The Queen specifically mentioned that ‘it is almost exactly 13 years since the overwhelming majority of people in Ireland and Northern Ireland voted in favour of the agreement signed on Good Friday 1998, paving the way for Northern Ireland to become the exciting and inspirational place that it is today’.[5] The handshake between the Queen and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness also represented warmer Anglo-Irish relations. Improved Anglo-Irish relations were greatly influenced by changes in Northern Ireland, and vice versa. Symbolic gestures between nationalists and unionists, such as McGuinness’ handshake, categorised better relations between these two nations in the 21st century.

Since 1998, Northern Ireland has been moving in a direction of increasing autonomy, especially considering the success of the Northern Irish Assembly’s first full term from 2007-11. It is tempting to view Northern Ireland as increasingly removed from the four nations. However, strong links between Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as changes in Anglo-Irish relations indicate that a four nations approach can be very useful in understanding the political and social changes in Northern Ireland after 1998.




[4] ibid


Eamonn McNamara completed a BA(hons.) at the Australian National University in 2014 and is now pursuing a Master of Philosophy at ANU on the topic ‘Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, 1998-2007’.


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