Darren Murphy

Understanding the causal mechanisms generating cross-community ratification of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in the May 1998 referendum.

Supervisors: Professor Nicholas Wheeler and Dr George Kyris

For 25 years, despite the many challenges to its implementation, the Belfast Good Friday Agreement has ensured that sectarian shootings, bombings and paramilitary style attacks, once so common in parts of Northern Ireland, have become rarities. The power of the Agreement is the authority gained from its ratification in the May 1998 referendum, and the majorities secured for it amongst both Irish nationalists and Irish unionists.

Ratification referendums are increasingly used to gain popular legitimacy and durability for negotiated peace agreements ending conflicts. In the 21st Century however, three out of five ratification referendums have rejected the negotiated peace agreement. Understanding why peace agreements succeed or fail to achieve public support – the causes and causal mechanisms triggering these outcomes – is vital to fully appreciate the dynamics of peace-making.

Despite the costs and consequences inherent in intrasocietal conflicts, some peace agreement-ratification referendums get defeated whilst others gain public endorsement. Adopting a critical realist research paradigm, this study investigates causal mechanisms as the key to providing a causal explanation for these outcomes, shifting the focus from the observable event – the peace referendum result - to the unobservable causal mechanisms which trigger it.

This qualitative research project uses theory-building process-tracing to analyse two similar peace agreement-ratification referendum cases: the Northern Ireland peace process (1993-8) and the Colombian peace process (2012-6). Both cases were exclusively intrasocietal conflicts, with negotiated peace agreements put by their national governments to ratification referendums, framed on the ballot paper as an uncomplicated yes/no vote on the entire agreement, with undisputed results, where the outcomes were markedly different.

Existing scholarship identifies a range of explanatory factors for individual, country-specific peace referendum results, and typical influences on citizens’ voting behaviour. There is, however, insufficient scholarship examining the interrelationship between these factors and positing a plausible casual mechanism for peace referendum outcomes. This research will construct a theorised causal mechanism for the interaction of voters’ trust/distrust, agreement comprehension, perceptions of fairness, feelings of victimhood, and political predisposition toward the peace agreement as triggers for the outcome of the agreement-ratification referendum.

The research aims to identify plausible causal mechanisms in the two cases and proffer cross-case causal observations potentially of relevance to other peace processes. The thesis will extend understanding of the nature of the contextual political challenges to ratification in referendums on peace agreements. It will identify the factors generating voter attitudes towards peace agreements and the causal mechanisms which trigger specific voting behaviour in peace agreement-ratification referendums.  


I spent eight years as a special adviser in Tony Blair’s government: firstly, as special adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; then to Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, 1999-2003, during the period of intense NHS reform; and finally, as political communications adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. I helped to plan and deliver three successful general election campaigns: in Tynemouth in 1997 and nationally, in 2001 and 2005. Since leaving government, I have been a political consultant advising heads of state and government, party and political leaders, public service reformers and regulators in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia on public attitudes, political strategy, elections, campaigns and strategic communications. 

Research interests

  • Conflict resolution
  • Referendums
  • Peace processes


  • BA (Hons) Politics and History at University of Newcastle Upon Tyne
  • MSc Global Cooperation and Security at University of Birmingham

Teaching responsiblities 

  • Post-graduate Teaching Assistant

Contact details:

Email: DXM945@student.bham.ac.uk
Social Media: Twitter: @MrDarrenMurphy