Metaconflict and international human rights law in dealing with Northern Ireland’s past

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
242 Downloads (Pure)


In many post-conflict societies, political actors battle to ensure the dominancy of their preferred narratives of the causes of and responsibilities for past violence. They wage these conflicts about the conflict to instrumentalise narratives of the past to serve their contemporary political aims, but in doing so, they contribute to the endurance of societal divisions which can have destructive effects on the promotion of reconciliation and political stability. Metaconflicts can be particularly heated with respect to the design and implementation of measures to deliver victims’ rights to truth, justice, and reparations as it is through these processes that competing and complex communal narratives of the past are exposed and challenged. This article interrogates how metaconflicts shape political actors’ engagement with or resistance to international legal obligations to investigate and prosecute past violations. The approaches of Northern Ireland’s Unionist political parties and Unionist aligned organisations to the United Kingdom’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights are used as a case study. Through, theoretical informed qualitative analysis of publicly available submissions made by these groups to an official consultation and parliamentary inquiries during 2018, this article identified four strategies used by Unionists to resist approaches to dealing with the past that they view as contrary to their interests. On this basis, the article argues that these actors understand law as a means to construct and provide official recognition for communally resonant moral and social categories and norms, and that thus legal principles such as the equality of the law, non-discrimination, and independence within the criminal justice process are viewed as secondary to political concerns. It concludes to reduce the metaconflict’s destructive effects requires all parties to recognise the need for political generosity and compromise and to develop more substantive engagement with the principles of universality and equality underpinning international human rights law.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-38
Number of pages34
JournalCambridge International Law Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jun 2019

Bibliographical note

This is a peer review journal. This article was not peer reviewed as it is the published version of the 2019 annual lecture of the Cambridge International Law Journal and the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at Cambridge University.


  • metaconflict
  • Northern Ireland
  • Unionists
  • duty to investigate
  • balance in prosecutorial decisions
  • statutes of limitation
  • transitional justice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Metaconflict and international human rights law in dealing with Northern Ireland’s past'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this