A Long Peace

by | Mar 27, 2007

In 2003, I wrote ‘A Long Peace’, a pamphlet on Northern Ireland with Unionist politician Trevor Ringland and nationalist writer Mick Fealty (founder of Slugger O’Toole). At the time we wrote that:

British and Irish governments are braced for a scenario where the DUP and Sinn Fein eventually emerge as Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties. Should this happen, a titanic ‘battle of the bottom lines’ will ensue.

That battle ended yesterday, it seems, as the DUP’s Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams sat next to each other for the first time, and then agreed to serve together in government. Four years ago, we were optimistic that this might happen (other commentators were sure that the marginalisation of moderate politicians was a sign of impending disaster). We used to the Prisoner’s Dilemma to model what we thought might be going on:

In a Prisoner’s Dilemma, two players are locked together in a game where, on each move, they choose either to ‘cooperate’ with each other or to ‘defect’ – a selfish and hostile act. If one defects and the other cooperates, then the former is highly rewarded and the latter gets nothing (the sucker’s payoff). If both defect, stalemate results and each receives very little (which is better than nothing). If both cooperate, they each receive a middle reward. ‘Although there is mutual benefit if you both cooperate,’ Robert Axelrod explains in his account of the game, ‘as an individual player, it is rational for you to defect if you think the other player will cooperate (you get a high reward) and to defect if you think the other player will defect (you at least get a low reward). That is the dilemma.’ Mapping Northern Ireland’s politics onto the Prisoner’s Dilemma is straightforward. The big prize for unionists is the unqualified and unchallenged maintenance of the Union; for nationalists, the chance to move unchallenged to a similarly unqualified united Ireland. But these outcomes are mutually exclusive and can be achieved only if one side pursues its goal ruthlessly while the other acquiesces totally, receiving only the sucker’s payoff. When both sides pursue their objective without regard for the other, stalemate ensues and both sides suffer. Cooperation may seem a good idea to outsiders, but is harder to achieve when actually playing the game. Each side is anxious about being exploited if the other seems strong, and faces the temptation to take unilateral advantage if the other seems weak.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is common in real life, so in the early 1980s Axelrod tried to find out how one should react when faced with an ambiguous adversary. His methodology was simple. He invited all-comers to write a computer programme describing the best strategy they could devise for playing the game. He then ran a series of tournaments where each strategy was played a great number of times against each of the others. Surprisingly, one of the simplest strategies emerged victorious in each tournament and has proved almost impossible to improve since. Called tit for tat, it is based on the principle of reciprocity. tit for tat is, initially at least, a ‘nice’ rule, in that it cooperates on the first move and continues to do so if its opponent is also nice. tit for tat balances its kindly qualities with a policy of immediate ‘retaliation’, responding with an ongoing string of defections once its opponent has defected for the first time. Crucially, tit for tat is equally swift at ‘forgiveness’. As soon as its opponent apologises by resuming cooperation, it cooperates in return. ‘While it pays to be nice, it also pays to be retaliatory,’ Axelrod comments. ‘tit for tat combines these desirable properties. It is nice, forgiving, and retaliatory; it is never the first to defect; it forgives an isolated defection after a single response; but it is always incited by a defection no matter how good the interaction has been so far.’ Less successful strategies were either too nasty, too easy to exploit, or too slow to forgive. Strategies, of whatever sophistication, that relied on predicting an opponent’s move were also unsuccessful. This included ‘sneaky’ strategies that defected only occasionally, when they believed they could extract maximum gain for minimum pain. ‘When a single defection can set off a long string of recriminations and counter-recriminations, both sides suffer … Without their realizing it, many [sneaky] rules actually wound up punishing themselves.’

The success of tit for tat provides a number of illuminating lessons for unionist strategists. The first lesson is to enlarge the shadow of the future. ‘What makes it possible for cooperation to emerge,’ writes Axelrod, ‘is the fact that players might meet again. This possibility means that the choices made today not only determine the outcome of this move, but can also influence the later choice of players. The future can therefore cast a shadow back upon the present and thereby affect the current situation.’ In Northern Ireland, the shadow of the future is strengthened by the permanence demography gives to the constitutional position. It also relies on both communities accepting, at a profound level, that the other is here to stay. It is undermined by fantasies of resettlement (in the 1980s, Sinn Féin recommended relocation grants for those unable to accept a united Ireland) and of flight (Conor Cruise O’Brien suggests that ‘almost subliminally’ what he calls the ‘Scottish option’ is creeping up on the unionist middle classes). Conversion fantasies are more subtle, but just as dangerous. Gerry Adams, for example, has suggested loyalists should stop ‘trying to work out some kind of obscure notion of Irish Protestant culture’ and embrace Irishness. Some unionists believe nationalists will change their minds, given a little more effective persuasion. Such notions should be subverted by a simple restatement of the truth. People cannot be reprogrammed or driven away. There are two communities: a large Protestant one; and a Catholic one only slightly smaller. Both are staying put. The defeat of one by the other is neither possible nor desirable. Northern Ireland’s dilemma has no end point. The two communities must continue to live together, even though this is unlikely ever to feel perfectly comfortable for either side.

The second lesson is a direct consequence of the first: keep friends close, enemies closer. Inside the system, the logic of cooperation is strong and will tend to overwhelm and regulate destructive elements. Hunger striker Bobby Sands ran in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election to intensify conflict and foment unrest. But his actions only served to draw Sinn Féin into ‘normal’ politics with unforeseen speed. ‘Within one year of the hunger strikes ending,’ recalls Mitchel McLaughlin, ‘the party was contesting elections. Martin McGuiness was the Sinn Féin candidate from Derry and I was his election agent – neither of us had ever voted in our lives.’ Importantly, it is not friendly contact that is important, but any contact. The Belfast Agreement was signed even though direct dialogue between Sinn Féin and the UUP was confined to an ‘occasional brief exchange in the toilets.’ Progress towards peace, meanwhile, has been made harder by the tiresome pretence that the IRA is not a direct part of the negotiations. As Paul Bew puts it, ‘The IRA has not signed up to the Good Friday Agreement and that is the key to the problem.’ Within the system, you do not have to like your enemies, simply be prepared to deal with them. This lesson is especially important for the debate on policing. However painful the changes to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, unionist strategists should focus on an overriding goal: the social obligation of all citizens to bear responsibility for Northern Ireland’s policing. Without a state monopoly of policing, the state can establish no monopoly of force. Without a monopoly of force, its legitimacy is always in question. Again the logic is simple: bind people into the system and the system becomes stronger as a result.

The third lesson is judge actions, not words. tit for tat employs true recipricocity, a strategy that blends ‘niceness’, ‘retaliation’ and ‘forgiveness’ in a straightforward, successful and comprehensible way. The successful operation of tit fot tat relies on one good habit above all: the ability to respond to your opponent’s actions, not his words or, still worse, your suspicion as to what his underlying motivations may be. Words not backed by actions are meaningless, not least because players who judge words are as likely to judge too pessimistically as too optimistically (‘unlike chess, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is not safe to assume the other players are out to get you,’ Axelrod warns). Opponents frequently speak in code and may well be tempted to lie, but actions speak for themselves and cannot be deceiving. A punishment beating is an unmistakable breach of social norms, an unquestionable breach of cooperation, an action that drowns out all weaselling to the contrary. An arms cache deserves, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, to be taken somewhat less seriously than breaches of the ceasefire, however minor. Although illegal, it holds only the potential for violence, a promise that may or may not be fulfilled; while arms put ‘beyond use’ can easily be replaced. Finally, the suspicion that an ex-terrorist has not truly repented is a dangerous distraction. The strategist must face a hard truth: an opponent is not what he was, or what he thinks, but what he does.

The fourth lesson follows from the third: avoid envy at all costs. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is not a zero-sum game, where one player’s gain is necessarily the other’s loss. To the contrary, if total victory for one side is impossible, there are only two outcomes: both sides do well, or both sides do poorly. As a result, comparisons are deceptive. ‘Asking how well you are doing compared to how well the other player is doing is not a good standard unless your goal is to destroy the other player,’ Axelrod advises. Most commentators will recognise how corrosive a force envy currently is in the unionist body politic. Working class Protestants contrast their plight with the supposed success of their Catholic neighbours. Protestant community leaders are convinced that nationalist groups have preferential access to funds. Unionist politicians treat every nationalist (let alone republican) gain as a unionist loss, and are convinced their opponents have a whole range of illicit advantages. But envy makes sense only if unionists wish to follow Gore Vidal’s advice: ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’ If not, they need to insist that the fate of unionist causes and of Protestant communities has absolute rather than relative importance. The relevant question is not ‘are we doing better than the other side?’ but ‘could we be doing better than we are now?’

The final lesson underscores all the others. It is to transform the game by increasing the rewards for cooperation. You enlarge the shadow of the future by creating an expectation that the future will be better than the present. Success helps keep both friends and enemies close and encourages all participants to judge the system through actions rather than words. And the more people are winning, the easier it becomes to avoid envy. Obedient to this lesson, nationalist strategists are attempting to transcend the situation Northern Ireland finds itself in by making the lure of a united Ireland ever more irresistible. The injunction to increase rewards should impel unionists to attempt a similar transformation. How attractive – not in prospect, but in fact – can they make the Union? It is helpful to keep in mind the ‘parity referendum’. Are unionists relying on in-built advantage? Or are they winning arguments through proof rather than assertion? In other words, are they really winning?

At the time Republican politicians hated the Long Peace, but Unionists were slightly more generous. Ian Paisley: “Aye, it wasn’t bad, I suppose. Well, what I mean is that it didn’t make my heckles rise! If you know what I mean?”


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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