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The Frontiers of Legal Analysis: Reframing the Transition in Northern Ireland

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British constitutional legal discourse is structurally limited in its capacity to capture the complexity of the Good Friday Agreement. Rather than assessing the Agreement in narrow devolutionary terms, it should be seen as a hybrid domestic and international law instrument, making an important contribution to accepted international law norms in relation to self-determination. The Agreement transforms and partly transcends the Northern Ireland conflict by substituting political contestation for violent conflict, and by defining the modalities of conducting that contestation. This analysis complements classical international law perspectives, and opens up the application of legal discourses associated with ‘transitional justice’ to the legal and political transformation in Northern Ireland. These discourses focus on the problem of reconciling the demands of peace with the imperatives of justice. The Agreement sits squarely in this terrain with its provisions on ‘dealing with the past’ and ‘institutional legacies’. The insights gained here challenge orthodox thinking about conflict-management and the ongoing political process.
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Keywords: Good Friday Agreement; Northern Ireland; conflict management; consociationalism; constitutionalism; human rights; institutional transformation; policing; self-determination; transitional justice; truth commissions

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2003-05-01

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