The Mitchell Principles – a fair basis for conflict resolution or an undemocratic and pro-imperialist set of principles?

Diarmuid Breatnach


The discussions prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in what is often termed “the Irish peace process”, were based on six principles and the Agreement itself is also said to be based on them. The Mitchell Principles are named after George Mitchell, a US Senator and mediator in the Irish talks and earlier in the Palestinian talks of 1993.

George Mitchell, USA Senator, creator of the Mitchell Principles
George Mitchell, USA Senator, creator of the Mitchell Principles

The Good Friday Agreement was agreed in 1998 between representatives of Provisional Sinn Féin (and arguably, at the very least by proxy, Provisional IRA also) on the one hand and by representatives of the British Government on the other. Subsequently a referendum in the Irish state gave a big majority for the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of the Irish state, articles which had claimed dominion over the whole of Ireland, and this was taken as a popular endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement. An election in the Northern Ireland statelet gave a narrower majority to parties who endorsed the Good Friday Agreement and this too was taken as an endorsement of the Agreement.

The Mitchell Principles are often hailed by commentators as fair and democratic and as a sound basis for peace talks. This short article sets out to test this claim, to analyse the six Principles from a democratic and anti-imperialist point of view.

1. “The parties agree to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues.

The terms of the first stipulation of the Mitchell Principles, in the circumstances in which the British had imposed a division on the country, in one part of which they had constructed a statelet within which their supporters, the Unionists1, had an inbuilt majority, were not only unfair but intrinsically undemocratic.

Ireland had been considered one entity by the English conquerors at least since the 15th Century. Its partition was not even imagined until the early 20th Century and then only as a response to the nationalist demand for autonomy under Home Rule2, conceded in principle by the British in 1914; allegedly partition was in response to militant unionists rebelling3 against nationalist Home Rule.

The partition of Ireland, in one part of which the unionists would have a voting majority, had first been conceived to keep the historic province of Ulster for the unionists, while the Nationalists could have the other three provinces. However, it was soon realised that Nationalists and Republicans would between them outvote the Unionists and so the boundary was re-drawn to exclude three counties 4 of Ulster’s nine from the proposed Loyalist state. Even within these Six Counties, the unionists were obliged, in order to ensure political control of local authorities, to draw election constituency boundaries in such a way as to ensure that many areas with a Nationalist-Republican majority in their population nevertheless returned Unionist candidates i.

Entitlement to vote based on home occupation and property ownership, coupled with wide-scale housing discrimination against potential nationalist voters (i.e. Catholics) kept local authorities in unionist hands until a fierce campaign for civil rights and a guerilla war forced the removal of these franchise restrictions, after which some local authorities came under nationalist-republican control. However, within the Six Counties overall, demographics continued to ensure a unionist majority.

The wish of the majority of Ireland had been for independence of the whole country and that had been demonstrated not only by centuries of struggle and uprisings but by the guerilla war of 1919-1921 and also by the bourgeois elections of 1919 under British rule, the democratic expression of which the British had firstly ignored and later assaulted by their proscribing the First Dáil (parliament) and the jailing of elected members.

The First Mitchell Principle’s stipulation that the division of the country could only be overcome if a majority of the voters in the Six Counties voted for that proposition is profoundly unfair, in that its effect is that decolonisation and national unification can only be permitted by a majority vote in that part of the country which had artificially been divided from the rest precisely on the basis that the majority of the population there was known to vote Unionist, i.e. for remaining a British colony ii.

Furthermore, the acceptance of such a principle internationally would be disastrous – it would mean that any state could legitimately invade another, annex a part of it by force of arms, ensure through colonisation and other means that a majority voted to remain its colony and then prohibit the colonised from liberating the colony and reunifying the country.

2. “The parties agree to the disarmament of all paramilitary organisations.

This second stipulation might appear at a hurried first glance as fair but in fact it is completely the opposite. It leaves totally out of the equation the largest and most heavily-armed party to the dispute – the British state, with over 177,000 personnel in their armed forces* and over 7,200 armed police in the Six Counties, along with their intelligence services. It was in fact the violence of the armed and sectarian colonial police force which had sparked off the uprising in Derry and Belfast in 1969 and it was in their support that the British armed forces had been sent to the statelet.

The main armed struggle had subsequently been between the Republican organisations and the British Army, with the armed colonial police in second place. The Loyalist paramilitaries were only third in level of struggle with the Republican armed organisations; in addition irrefutable evidence has emerged over the years of collusion between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the colonial police and British Army and indeed points to their actual direction by British intelligence services.

The British state’s armed forces do not even receive a mention in the Mitchell Principles and are left at the disposal of the state unhindered to use in any circumstances as it deems fit. Indeed, the possibility exists that the state would prevent the decolonisation and unification of the country even in the extremely unlikely eventuality that such a proposal received a majority of the votes in the Six Counties; the Mitchell Principles have nothing to say about that.

3. The 3rd Principle, “To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commissionunderlines the first Principle and sketches the structure through which the unfair Second Principle is to be given effect.

4. “To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations.

This fourth principle not only strengthens the unfair Second Principle but leaves the Republicans with no means of bringing about independence and unity beyond a majority vote in favour within the Six Counties where, as observed earlier, an artificial majority militates against this possibility.

The British state, on the other hand, can and does use force and the threat of it to influence not only negotiations but its continued control over its colony of the Six Counties. It used force to achieve the colonisation of the whole country for hundreds of years and when it could no longer continue to do so, it used force to partition the country and to maintain that partition for what is now approaching a century.

The section which calls upon the parties “to oppose any effort by others, to use force” is understood by all not to refer to opposing the use of force by the British state. But not only that, in “opposing any effort by others”, i.e. those who might not be signatories, it commits the signatories to at least morally condemn those who may continue armed activities and possibly even to collaborating with forces of the state against them.

That this stipulation in theory falls equally upon the armed sections of the Loyalists as it does upon the Republicans is immaterial, since as we have seen the Loyalist paramilitaries are not the most significant armed opposition to the Republicans and in fact may be seen mainly as auxiliaries of the British State, its armed forces and its colonial administration. It is the Republicans who are clearly the target of this section and it requires those among them who have signed up to the Principles to denounce armed activities of other Republicans who do not feel bound by the Principles and perhaps even to supply the British state and its armed forces with information about them.

Certainly since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which we are repeatedly informed are based upon the Mitchell Principles, the Republican parties to the Agreement, Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA have publicly condemned other Republicans (“dissidents”) for their continued resistance, have threatened them and at times administered physical punishment5. In addition, one of the Provisionals’ most senior figures, Martin McGuinness, on a number of occasions has publicly called for people to inform on them to the British authorities6.

5. The Fifth Principle, “To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree,strengthens the Fourth.

As we have seen, the “democratic” methods available apply only to an area with boundaries so drawn as to leave the Republicans always outvoted by Unionists; they do not apply to a vote in all 32 Counties of the country (nor even by the population in Britain, which has shown in repeated censi their wish for the British to withdraw from Ireland). The “peaceful methods” are required of the Republicans but not of the British state. The Principles deny the Republicans, in effect, both democratic and military means to achieve decolonisation and reunification.

6. The Sixth Principle “To urge that ‘punishment’ killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions is one which seems, at first glance, to be merely requiring civilized standards of behaviour. However let us examine the situation more carefully.

The state has means of ensuring compliance with its requirements – maintaining its social order, control of property and security. It uses fines, threats of and periods of actual imprisonment as punishments with the intention of ensuring compliance. It administers these through courts, police and prison service, using physical force to carry out court sentences. Unofficially, it also administers beatings, both when attacking demonstrations and on prisoners in their police stations.

Whatever one may think of punishment beatings, they were the equivalent control mechanisms of the Republican armed groups. They did not have recourse to fines and imprisonment.

With regard to “punishment killings”, these were usually carried out, it seems, against people who were proven or thought to be informers to British state forces. Looked at another way, in the absence of the possibility of jailing for espionage harming their security, i.e. the standard punishment of the state, the Republican armed organisations were either beating or killing those assumed to be endangering their security – upon which their very lives depended. The Sixth Principle in effect prohibits the use of any force in order for the Republicans to ensure compliance and their organisation’s security, whilst at the same time permitting the state all of its own panoply in that regard, including the anti-democratic special “anti-terror” laws of the Six Counties.


Adherence to the Mitchell Principles removes the possibility in any foreseeable future of achieving the objectives of the Republicans, national reunification and national independence. In regard to those objectives, the effect of the Principles is to ensure the continuation of the status quo, legitimising the undemocratic partition of the country in 1921 and the continued existence of a British colony in Ireland. In turn, that false legitimisation and continued colonisation perpetuates the unjust invasion of Ireland and its progressive English colonisation nearly a thousand years ago, against which the Irish people have never ceased to struggle for even a generation but which has arrested the political and economic development of the nation and destroyed a significant part of its culture.

The continued colonisation is a brake upon the future develoment of the Irish nation and the continued sectarian and colonial rule within that colony, along with the partition of the country, also retards the development of the Irish working class as a united force able to pursue its own interests.

The Mitchell Principles, all six of them, are colonial and imperialist in effect, profoundly unfair and essentially undemocratic. Any agreement based upon them, such as for example the Good Friday Agreement, cannot help but be imbued with the same qualities.

Lúnasa/ August 2013

Note: A translation of this document into Spanish is available: Los Principios Mitchell – ¿una base justa para la resolución de conflictos? O un conjunto de principios no democráticos y pro-imperialistas?


1 That is those who wished to continue in union with England, as part of the United Kingdom.


2 Home Rule” proposed a kind of autonomy within the British Empire. The country could have its government which could promulgate laws and impose taxes but could not separate from the Empire. There existed already various different types of that arrangement within the Empire. The unionists, the majority of Protestant religion, opposed this in 1913 and threatened armed resistance by their militia, which had received a cargo of almost 25,000 rifles and even some heavy machine guns.

3 The Unionists began to recruit a militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, led by by some politicians and capitalists of the colonial bourgeoisie and of Protestant religion, descendants of British colonists, with the support of the Conservative Party in Britain and of a substantial number of officers of the British Army in Ireland.

4 Dún na nGall (Donegal), an Chábhán (Cavan), Muineachán (Monaghan)

* Figures at the time of writing — the numbers in the British armed forces were even higher at the time the Mitchell Principles were proposed.

5 Including the murder of “Real IRA” member Joseph O’Connor in 2000.

6 The same person said in a television interview years ago that those who give information to the authorities in the Six Counties know the risk and deserve death.



i  After the War of Independence in Ireland (1919-1921), the British decided to divide the country, one part for the nationalists and the other for the unionists.

 Originally, the plan was to give the Unionists the province of Ulster but they realised that the Catholics would be the majority within the province. For that reason, the borders of the Unionist statelet were drawn up to include only six of the nine counties of Ulster (that is the reason that Republicans call the statelet “The Six Counties” and neither “Ulster” nor “Northern Ireland”, as the northernmost part of Ireland is in County Donegal, one of the three Ulster counties that remained with the Irish state after the Treaty of 1921 (to see it, enter “image counties of Ireland” or similar into an Internet search).

But even so, they were obliged to change the electoral boundaries: wherever there would be a “nationalist” majority in votes, they chopped up the district, placing part of the community within one electoral district containing many unionst votes, and the other part in a similar electoral district. This practice is called “gerrymandering”, after the practice of a US politician. For example, the city of Derry, which is nearly totally “Nationalist” or “Catholic”, for many years had a Unionist majority.

They drew up the laws so that only those who had houses could vote and those who had a house in one area and a business in another, could vote in each district (the majority of these would be Unionists). Those who rented local authority housing were entitled to vote, because were it not so, the majority of the unionist working class would have been unable to vote (and the unionist bourgeoisie needed their support).

But as the “nationalist” community was so large, it was necessary that the local authority not give them housing to rent because at the same time that would give them access to the vote. The civil rights campaign which was launched in 1968 was propelled by the protest occupation of a house which the council had allocated to the secretary of a unionist politician. The secretary was single and without children and there were many of the “nationalist” community without housing, living in their parents’ house or having no choice but to emigrate.

That was the reason why the Civil Rights movement demands one could hear in the years 1968, ’69’, ’70 etc. were: “one man, one vote” (yes, I know, it should have been “one person”, yes); “right to housing for all” and “one man, one job” (because of the discrimination in employment). There were other demands too, for example the right to protest, free speech, the right of assembly ….. to understand everything well one could look it up on Google as it is quite a broad theme. Civil rights were conceded finally years later but by that time armed struggle was in full flow.

ii   “Catholics” and “Protestants” were labels of convenience given to the different communities within the colonial British state of the Six Counties, based on the majority religions within each community. The division has little to do with religion nowadays and even historically had more to do with economics and politics. The terms “Nationalist” and “Unionist” were employed by the Republicans during the 1971-1998 war in order to avoid the representation of the conflict as a religious one, as this had been an important aspect of the propaganda of the British state. Obviously, not all in the “nationalist community” were nationalists – some were socialists, communists, anarchists or social democrats. I prefer these terms to the religious ones but I recognise their insufficiency and their tendency to give the nationalist-republicans hegemony over the ideology of the minority community.

 To understand the origins of the different communities and how they operated one needs to look into their history. After the defeat of the resistance of the clan chiefs in the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603), the land of the Irish clans in Ulster was ‘planted’ with colonists from England and Scotland. The plantations were of private origin (by private persons or companies) and also by the Scottish Parliament (through the English state) and by the English Crown. The beneficiaries were mainly the English Anglican Church, land speculators, financial corporations, officers of the English Army and English and Scottish colonists in search of a better life. All colonists were required to be English-speaking and of Protestant faith (the majority of the English colonists were Anglicans, while the majority of the Scottish were Presbyterians). Some big landowners rented out or sub-leased their lands to other colonists and other colonists worked their own land.

So that the plantation would remain loyal to England, huge areas were planted and the new owners were explicitly forbidden to take on Irish tenants and had to import workers from England and Scotland. The intention was to relocate the Irish peasant population to live near the Protestant garrisons and churches, in order the more easily to control them. The colonists were also forbidden to sell land to any Irish person and were obliged to construct defensive works against any possible rebellion or invasion. The work was required to be completed within three years. In this manner, the creation was intended of a new defensible community, composed entirely of loyal British subjects.

 During the English Civil War, the Irish in Ulster rose up in the bloody insurrection of 1641. The repression of the insurrection, its defeat and subsequent “pacification” by Cromwell, leader of the English state, in 1649 was even bloodier still. A new wave of Scottish emigration fleeing the 1696-1698 famine in their country resulted in Presbyterians becoming for the first time the majority religious group in Ulster.

 Naturally, the dispossessed retaliated against the occupants of what had been their lands and also naturally, the colonists defended themselves. The original war of resistance, the following dispossession, the resistance to colonisation and the actions of the colonists were all bloody. In the struggles between the dispossessed and the colonists, and by each group independently against their exploiters, militant societies were formed such as the Defenders (Catholics) and Hearts of Oak and Peep O’Day boys (Protestants).

 Presbyterians, although Protestant colonists of the English state, suffered discrimination. The English Protestant Anglican Church was the “established religion” of the English state and its representation in Ireland was the “Church of Ireland” (which remains its name to the day). Of course, the majority in Ireland were neither of the Presbyterian nor of the Anglican faith but Catholics (although no longer in Ulster, where the Presbyterians had an absolute majority since the 17th Century). Presbyterians, like Catholics, were obliged to pay a tithe (a tenth of their income) for the upkeep of the minority Anglican Church and were not permitted to stand for election to the Irish (colonial) Parliament. Mixed marriages with Anglicans were disapproved of and not permitted with Catholics. Both groups were forbidden for a time to enter Trinity College. The Presbyterians resented paying taxes without electoral representation (one of the complaints of the American colonists, which finally led to their Revolution), the restrictions on their commercial interests and the corruption of the English Crown in Ireland. Republican ideas began to gain dominance among them.

 In 1791 the Society of United Irishmen was formed, led primarily by Presbyterian Republicans and united principally Catholics and Presbyterians with some other faith groups (its principal ideologue, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was an Anglican). In 1798 they rose up in three main uprisings (but not simultaneously) – in the counties of Antrim, Wexford and Mayo. The English were successful in suppressing all three and killed thousands of insurgents, many others were taken prisoner and sent to penal colonies and other thousands, particularly Presbyterians, emigrated to the US or to Canada (joining previous Presbyterian emigrants).

 Repression was ferocious and the Orange Order played a particularly important role in Ulster in the coercion of Presbyterian resistance and, ironically, was successful in establishing loyalty to the English Crown as the dominant ideology in that community.

 Nowadays the majority of Presbyterians in the English colony in the north-east of Ireland has some degree or other of loyalty to the British state and desires to remain within the Union of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The majority of Catholics in the area, after centuries of dispossession and repression by the English, together with decades of discrimination and repression by the Orange Order and by the Northern Ireland state, appear to favour other options, including which many support reunification into an Irish state.


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