In his memoir, the former world leader highlights lessons from the peace process in Northern Ireland. One of the world’s most famous negotiators, Tony Blair, offers 10 principles to guide diplomats in international conflict resolution.
Upon his election as Prime Minister of Great Britain back in May 1997, Tony Blair made peace negotiations in Northern Ireland his first order of business, he recounts in his memoir, A Journey: My Political Life (Knopf, 2010).
For centuries, Northern Ireland had been divided by a bloody conflict between mostly Protestant British Unionists who sought to keep the North part of the United Kingdom and the mostly Catholic Irish Republicans who wanted the North to unite with the Republic of Ireland. As the South of Ireland raced ahead of the North economically and culturally, Blair had come to view the conflict, known as the Troubles, as “ridiculously old-fashioned.”
Peace talks conducted over the next year culminated in a marathon four-day negotiating session in April 1998. After seesawing between agreement and impasse, the conflict’s major players signed on to the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement, which called in part for the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the creation of a power-sharing body known as the Northern Ireland Executive.
It took nine more years of careful negotiation before the Executive was up and running. Blair walked away from the exhausting experience of brokering peace in Northern Ireland with a set of 10 core “principles of resolution,” outlined in A Journey, that he believes can be generally applied to all conflicts with famous negotiators and beyond.
1. Agree on a common framework.
At the heart of the Troubles was a seemingly irreconcilable question, Blair writes: whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or join the Irish state by uniting with the South. Because they were fundamentally deadlocked on this issue, the task of the two sides instead was to agree on a framework for the discussion based on agreed-upon principles.
As the peace talks began, Blair promoted a “principle of consent” that would keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom unless the majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens voted for the unification of Ireland.
The Irish Republicans would agree to abide by this principle only in exchange for power sharing—that is, they would put down their weapons in exchange for a Northern Ireland government that fairly represented both Catholics and Protestants. The principle offered “a valid design concept” that all the parties accepted as a foundation for the difficult talks that followed, according to Blair.
This type of common framework not only serves to guide parties in conflict but also effectively “traps” them into behaving consistently, writes Blair. For instance, if parties have agreed on a policing program based on equal treatment, one side cannot argue persuasively that a paramilitary army is also needed.
2. Grip the conflict relentlessly.
Blair attributes the lasting success of the Good Friday Agreement to the negotiators’ viselike grip on the implementation of the many issues under dispute. A resolution must be gripped and focused on “continually. Inexhaustibly. Relentlessly. Day by day by day by day,” writes Blair.
As an example, the agreement to decommission paramilitary weapons turned complicated during the implementation phase. To ensure that the weapons of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were indeed “put beyond use,” prominent international statesmen, including Nobel Peace Prize–winner Martti Ahtisaari were taken around the Irish countryside to examine weapons dumps.
Each aspect of the Good Friday Agreement required and received this type of persistent focus, according to Blair.
By contrast, he argues that the Middle East peace process has repeatedly failed because “no one has ever gripped it long enough or firmly enough.”
3. Attend to minor matters.
Mediators of conflict are often frustrated to hear disputants complaining about minor losses while overlooking their larger gains. But Blair advises against making such value judgments.
Because seemingly petty issues typically are symbols of larger, critical issues, they deserve mediators’ full attention.
During the Northern Ireland negotiations, for instance, Blair says he became familiar with the exact location of every single watchtower the British army used in the IRA borderland of South Armagh.
The watchtowers, a surveillance tool of the British army, were a source of contention for the Republicans. Negotiating the removal of the towers had to occur “bit by bit,” says Blair.
“Such small things can be traded,” writes Blair. The process of exchanging small concessions brings parties closer to an agreement but can leave them “in a state of more or less permanent complaint.”
Inevitably, each side comes to believe it has moved the most. Third parties face the task of helping negotiators see the forest instead of the trees.
4. Be creative.
Ingenuity is needed “in abundant supply” to resolve tense conflicts, writes Blair. As an example, he describes how Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley tried to delay a March 2007 deadline for reconstituting the Northern Ireland Executive, a move vehemently opposed by Irish Republican party Sinn Féin’s leader, Gerry Adams.
With the agreement on the verge of collapse, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, proposed that Paisley receive an extra two months in exchange for meeting face-to-face with Adams for the first time. Both sides accepted, and a historic meeting took place—though only after intensive negotiations about where the two sides would sit in the meeting room.
By adding the possibility of an unprecedented meeting to the discussion, Powell deflected attention from the contentious battle over a delay and opened a new opportunity for the parties to find common ground. Adding novel ideas and issues to the table is a powerful form of creativity.
5. Rely on third parties.
Left on their own, parties in conflict are unlikely to resolve their differences, writes Blair.
Outside parties not only bring creativity to the negotiation but also help negotiators identify broader issues and turning points they might otherwise overlook.
As an illustration, Blair describes how the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement stalled in January 2005 after a man named Robert McCartney was stabbed to death outside a bar in
Northern Ireland by members of the IRA. In the midst of the outcry that followed, Blair made a speech calling on the major players to demonstrate they
were ready to move forward with “acts of completion.”
Next, Blair urged Republican leaders to accept that the IRA was a roadblock to the power-sharing they desired. Being one step removed from the conflict, third parties are best equipped to pinpoint such turning points and keep the process moving forward.
6. View resolution as a journey.
Because the two sides in a lingering dispute have difficulty seeing each other’s pain, conflict resolution is best viewed as a journey rather than an event, writes Blair. As a result, negotiators may need to include enough time for parties to air their grievances about the past.
When the Northern Ireland talks began, Blair found that Martin McGuinness, a famous negotiator for Sinn Féin, needed to air his side’s pain and anger over past perceived injustices before he became ready to negotiate substantive issues.
Blair compares the peace process to “a car driving away from a crash.” The passengers, “shaken up,” constantly look back at the wreckage in the rearview mirror even while straining to see the road ahead.
The mediator is faced with persuading each side that the other party’s “faltering steps” reflect past trauma rather than a lack of good faith.
7. Prepare for disruption.
Mere months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the peace in Northern Ireland was shattered by the worst terrorist attack in the history of the Troubles. A bomb detonated in the market town of Omagh, killing 29 people.
All the parties to the conflict condemned the attacks and vowed they would not allow their agreement to be sabotaged.
The “Real IRA,” the group responsible for the bombing, never recovered. “What could have been a turning back,” writes Blair, “was a turning point.”
By contrast, terrorist attacks in the Middle East too often cause governments to “clamp down,” says Blair, alienating peacemakers and terrorists alike.
Rather than viewing violence as a desperate grab for power, famous negotiators interpret it as a sign of the futility of making peace.
Says Blair, even “perfectly respectable and democratic elements” are likely to accuse their parties of selling out when they reach an agreement. Wise negotiators redouble their efforts when hard-liners attempt to sabotage a negotiation.
8. Capitalize on leadership.
Over the course of a long conflict, parties inevitably develop partisan ideologies that color their view of everything that follows, according to Blair. Holding on to firmly established positions during peace negotiations is the easiest path to follow.
But because the process requires political risks, leaders must let go of their established ideologies.
Fortunately for Blair, most of the major players in the Northern Ireland conflict had become so desperate for peace that they were willing to broaden their viewpoints. As an example, DUP leader Ian Paisley had a reputation as the “spoiler” of the Unionists for his resistance to an accommodation over the years. During the peace process, however, Paisley emerged as his party’s lead negotiator and ended up working tirelessly to close the deal. Blair attributes Paisley’s evolution to two factors: a sense of impending mortality following a debilitating illness and a realization that the public wanted him to make peace.
When strong leaders on all sides are willing to roll up their sleeves and cooperate, the odds of reaching agreement multiply exponentially.
9. Seize on external change.
If a conflict is deeply entrenched, famous negotiators can seize on powerful external forces to shake up the status quo. The economic and cultural boom that the South of Ireland began to enjoy in the 1980s offered a sharp contrast to the conflict in the North. Once, the South had been viewed as backward; by the mid-1990s, the North was.
No longer a “unifying symbol of Irish identity,” the dispute became “a painful and unwelcome reminder of Ireland’s past,” writes Blair. The desire to catch up with their southern neighbor became a powerful catalyst for the people of Northern Ireland to seek peace. Negotiators who are looking for an end to a protracted conflict would be wise to capitalize on such external shifts.
10. Never give up.
Beyond “gripping” the conflict, parties must refuse to accept defeat. If a problem cannot be solved in the present, Blair urges, manage it until it can be solved. “A peace process never stands still—it goes forward or back,” he writes.
On May 8, 2007, nine years after the Good Friday Agreement, Blair stood by, “a trifle dumbfounded,” as people who once had wanted to kill one another exchanged pleasantries and were sworn into the new Executive government of Northern Ireland, preparing to work side by side to solve shared problems. The remarkable achievement serves as a model to anyone who feels trapped in a seemingly unsolvable conflict.
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Adapted from “Tony Blair’s 10 Principles of Conflict Resolution,” first published in the February 2011 issue of Negotiation.
Originally published in 2014.