Seamus Mallon famously stated in 1998 that the Belfast Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. Both the Belfast Agreement and the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 adopted the principles of a Northern Ireland executive with an Irish dimension as the basic framework of a viable political solution to the Troubles. Despite these similarities, the Sunningdale agreement collapsed after only a few months, while the Belfast Agreement has normalised political interactions between the Catholic and Protestant communities. The agreements’ vastly differing outcomes have received considerable attention in the field of political science, with numerous academics offering normative theories for the failure of Sunningdale and the success of the Belfast Agreement. Many attribute the success of the 1990s peace process to the creation of consociational political institutions that fully recognised the national and cultural identities of both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. However, these normative approaches fail to account for the conciliation process that was required to incentivise the two communities to invest in the peace process. In contrast to these theories, this paper will adopt a positivist approach to analysing the outcomes of the Sunningdale and Belfast Agreements and will apply the game-theoretic concept of a ‘commitment problem’ to the Troubles. Using Dixit and Nalebuff’s theory of credible commitments, this paper will argue that the 1990s peace process transformed a one-shot game into a repeated game that credibly committed the Catholic and the Protestant communities to a shared political future in Northern Ireland.
How to Cite:
Moran, K., 2012. ‘Sunningdale for Slow Learners’? Negotiating a Credible Commitment to Peace in Northern Ireland. The Public Sphere: Journal of Public Policy, 1(1), pp.54–63.