Good Friday Agreement: What was the historic peace deal reached in Northern Ireland 20 years ago?

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Belfast Agreement, more commonly known as The Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in Northern Ireland on 10th April 1998. It effectively brought an end to The Troubles, which had raged in the region for thirty years, and established a cross-community consensus for peace and the future direction of the region.

The Troubles

From the late 1960s, Northern Ireland was plunged into a brutal conflict between republicans who wanted the province to become part of a united Ireland and unionists who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom. Republicans and the wider nationalist community are mostly Catholic, while unionists are mostly Protestant.

Violence was largely perpetrated by paramilitary groups on both sides, such as the IRA and the UVF, while others were killed by the British security forces after the army were deployed in the summer of 1969. Of the 3,532 people who died, the majority were civilians, many of whom were killed in random tit-for-tat attacks across the sectarian divide.

For the majority of this thirty year period, Northern Ireland was under direct rule from Westminster.

Talks

After years of failed talks and back channel discussions, progress was slowly made across the 1990s. A dialogue between SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams made moves towards consensus across the nationalist community, while ceasefires announced by the IRA and loyalists in 1994 were also welcomed.

US President Bill Clinton took a keen interest in Northern Ireland and sent a special envoy in the form of senator George Mitchell, who would eventually chair the talks between the parties and groups.

The situation was accelerated after Labour came to power in Britain in 1997 and Tony Blair saw the necessity of including Sinn Féin in the process, although the DUP walked out in protest over the inclusion.

Talks began in September 1997, and in January 1998, Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam made an unprecedented visit to the Maze prison to urge the support of loyalists who were imprisoned for paramilitary activity. Similarly, as the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Féin were responsible for ensuring the support of republican prisoners.

In the final days, both Mr Blair and the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern went to Belfast to join the talks, and the agreement was eventually announced by George Mitchell on the afternoon of 10th April 1998.

The Agreement

The agreement was formally made between the British and Irish governments, and eight political parties of Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. The DUP were the only major political group to oppose it.

The agreement acknowledged the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, reflecting the wish of the majority of citizens. But it also established a principle of consent – that a united Ireland could come about if and when a majority of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland wanted it. In this instance, the British government would be bound to hold a referendum, and honour the result.

Three strands of new institutions were established in the agreement:

  1. A democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly

  2. A North/South Ministerial Council for cross border issues

  3. A British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Governmental Conference

The Northern Ireland Assembly would be elected every five years, and be led by an Executive of ministers, which would require the participation of parties on both sides of the community divide.

Crucially, the agreement committed the parties to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving political issues, to using their influence to bring about the decommissioning of paramilitary groups, and for security arrangements in Northern Ireland to be normalised.

The agreement marked a commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community” and Britain agreed to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into the law of Northern Ireland.

Referendums

The British and Irish governments agreed to hold joint referendums on 22 May 1998. The referendum in Northern Ireland was on accepting the Good Friday Agreement itself (a copy of which was posted to every household) and 71% of people voted Yes.

The referendum in the Republic of Ireland was to amend the country’s constitution to relinquish its claim on Northern Ireland, acknowledging the new principle of consent. An overwhelming 94% of people voted to do so.

What happened next?

The years following 1998 remained turbulent and uncertain, with the Northern Ireland Assembly established, but periodically suspended, largely over concerns about continued paramilitary activity. It took until 2005 for the IRA to decommission, and in 2007 Sinn Féin put their support behind the new policing force, the PSNI.

By this point, the DUP and Sinn Féin had overtaken the UUP and the SDLP as the main unionist and nationalist parties. The St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006 paved the way for the two major parties to enter power sharing together.

The relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, as First and Deputy First Minister, was a sign that Northern Ireland had truly changed. The Presbyterian preacher and the ex-IRA commander were once sworn enemies, but were suddenly working together in the same office and being nicknamed ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ as a result of their good rapport.

For the next decade, Northern Ireland experienced relative political stability due to the power sharing arrangement. The Hillsborough Castle Agreement of 2010 saw powers over police and justice devolved to Northern Ireland, while The Fresh Start Agreement of 2015 saw further settlements on identity issues, as well as welfare reform and finance.

In January 2017 Martin McGuinness resigned his position in protest over a political scandal involving the new First Minister Arlene Foster, thereby collapsing the Executive. He also cited long-term issues in which the DUP were failing to honour the commitments to basic equality laid down in their agreements.

McGuinness died months later, and although a new deal came close to being done in February 2018, talks broke down and power sharing has yet to be restored.