The Good Friday Agreement, the historic accord which brought a system for lasting peace in Ireland, is 20 years old today, Tuesday, 10 April. Good Friday 1998 was this date in the Christian calendar.
The agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement for the location of its signing, aimed at bringing an end to the longstanding period of violence called “The Troubles” in which thousands died. Its purpose was to bring peace to Northern Ireland, between the unionists, seeking to remain part of the United Kingdom and nationalists, who campaign for a united Ireland.
Twenty years on, as leading actors including former British prime minister Tony Blair, US president Bill Clinton and peace talks chairman George Mitchell gathered in Belfast to mark the date, assessment of the Agreement’s success remains mixed. And the factor nobody expected in 1998 – the UK’s departure from the EU, Brexit – has thrown an extra complication into the relationship between the two entities on the island of Ireland.
“Do not squander your hard-earned peace,” the former U.S. president told a commemorative meeting.
The death toll of the Troubles has nearly disappeared; many “cross-border bodies” have broadened the relationship between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland remains suspended, and sectarian tensions, although subsided, remain.
Leading Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote that while the British-Irish part of the treaty is robust, “the internal arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland are patently not working.” This, he wrote “has given both Sinn Féin and the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] a veto, not just over policies, but over the very existence of the assembly and the executive.”
What is the GFA?
The agreement is made up of two inter-related documents. The Multi-Party Agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly and its relationship with the Republic of Ireland. It decreed that no single party would be able to control the assembly, in an attempt to solve the longstanding religious tensions between Protestants, who make up the majority of the population of Northern Ireland, and Catholics. It also, among other issues, paved the way for a new police force in the Province.
Second, the British-Irish Agreement which laid down the nature of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The main provisions included a power-sharing model for the Northern Ireland assembly, institutions linking this assembly with the Irish parliament (Oireachtas) in Dublin and the British Parliament in Westminster.
The agreement also listed proposals for decommissioning paramilitary weapons and releasing paramilitary prisoners. This agreement was then put to a referendum, securing the support of 71 percent of voters in Northern Ireland and 94 per cent in the Republic.
The end of a line of agreements
The Good Friday Agreement can be seen as a culmination of previous treaties, including the Sunningdale and Anglo-Irish Agreements, to come to a workable relationship between the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.
The longevity and sustainability of the agreement are two factors that set it apart. At the signing of the agreement in 1998, Prime Minister (at the time) Tony Blair said, famously: “A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.”
Recalling his speech in a recent interview published in the Belfast Telegraph, Blair said “I reflect on it with a mixture of pride because I think it’s quite a good phrase and embarrassment, because, obviously, having just said ‘Now is not the time for soundbites’, I gave one.”
‘Political violence in Northern Ireland, it is now less in an entire year than it was in a day in the mid-1970s’ – Deaglán de Bréadún
Through forming a close relationship with the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern, Blair is often credited with much of the success of peace process . Ahern, a strong supporter of the idea of a United Ireland, came to power in Ireland at the same time as Blair did in Britain. When he speaks of that week in April 1998, he recalls that he had to fly from Dublin to Belfast for last-minute meetings, back to Dublin for his mother’s funeral, then back to Belfast for more anguished meetings. But the parties met George Mitchell’s deadline of April 10.
However, before crunch time, opposing NI party leaders John Hume and David Trimble, played instrumental roles in the negotiations. For their labours they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Additionally, Senator George Mitchell, sent by President Clinton to preside over the talks, spent five difficult years as chairman and facilitator between the two sides. Many feel that the agreement would never have happened without that US push.
The immediate consequences of the Agreement included bringing an end to the Troubles, and significantly decreasing the intensity of violence. According to journalist Deaglán de Bréadún, the reduction in violence is the Agreement’s main yield. “At the level of political violence in Northern Ireland, it is now less in an entire year than it was in a day in the mid-1970s. There are still occasional incidents by Republicans who don’t agree with the peace process, but these are very limited in scope. Just to be back in Belfast and to know that there aren’t bombings and shootings going on, and not see soldiers patrolling the street is a big change in itself,” he told WikiTribune.
De Bréadún, author of The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, added that this had helped the society, its people and the economy in general. “Tourism in Belfast is booming- they are building new hotels and maybe about 2000 more beds for tourists and certainly it is a whole new climate, which has also been very good for the economy. It’s a completely different environment and that is mainly due to the agreement,” he said.
Validity and success
Yet, despite its comprehensive nature, the GFA was not perfect. Time and again, the devolved assembly has faced problems including a lengthy suspension in the early 2000s.
Since January 2017, once again, the assembly has been closed due to a split between Sinn-Féin and the Democratic Unionists Party (DUP), the two largest parties in the assembly, nominally over the status of the Irish language, which is protected in the GFA. “In the political arena, the politics are in a bad shape, as the power-sharing executive is not sitting and it hasn’t been sitting for a year. The fact that there is little or no violence means that the lack of an executive is not as serious as it would have been ten or fifteen years ago – but it is still a pity. It’s strange that an issue like the status of the Irish language, which would have been thought was relatively uncontentious, it is very strange that there can’t be an agreement about that,” De Bréadún told WikiTribune.
The UK’s vote for Brexit in 2016 was a new test for the GFA, (Bloomberg) as it guaranteed freedom of movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Trimble, one of the architects of the GFA, told Irish radio that Brexit should not pose a challenge to the Agreement.
Additionally, questions of a reunification of Ireland are being raised. Recent electoral success of Sinn-Féin party (read Deaglán’s piece for WikiTribune here) and comments by Irish politicians added expectation.
Demographic change happening in the Northern Ireland is one factor which needs more emphasis, according to De Bréadún. “The Catholic population looks like it will be bigger from the Protestant population within a very short time. There have been some estimates for that to happen by 2021, but I think that’s too soon – however, it does look like it’s inevitable.”