Twenty-five years on: The legacy of the Good Friday Agreement

Politicians and experts reflect on the deal credited with ending 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

IRA prisoner Martina Anderson, centre, gives her mother a warm welcome after being released from prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday November 10, 1998. Anderson and fellow prisoner Ella O'Dwyer, right, were serving life sentences and were the last female IRA prisoners to be released under the terms of the Good Friday Peace agreement. They bring the total of terrorist prisoners released to over 200. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
IRA prisoner Martina Anderson gets a warm welcome from her mother after being released from prison in Belfast on November 10, 1998 [File: Peter Morrison/AP]

Each time Derry-born Brian McGilloway made the drive “down south” as a child, he and his family would cross a military border 10km (six miles) from their house.

The soldiers would ask everyone to get out of the car and explain the purpose of their trip.

The same process would be repeated on the way back.

When the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) came into effect, McGilloway said, military installations at the border disappeared, in some instances overnight.

The political deal, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was signed on April 10, 1998, by the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s major political parties, including Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

FILE- In this file photo dated Friday, April 10, 1998, posing together after signing the Good Friday Agreement, with right to left, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, after they signed the agreement for peace in Northern Ireland. Many of the central architects gathered in Northern Ireland Tuesday April 10, 2018, to mark its 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement peace accord which ended three decades of sectarian violence. (AP Photo)
From left, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, US Senator and mediator George Mitchell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair after signing the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998 [File: AP]

Before the agreement, the people of Northern Ireland lived through a period known as the Troubles, a sectarian conflict that began in the late 1960s between the overwhelmingly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who wanted the region to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the overwhelmingly Catholic nationalists, or republicans, who wished to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. In 1969, the British army was deployed to counter the uprising.

By the end of the Troubles, more than 3,200 people had been killed and about 42,000 wounded.

Although earlier efforts had been made to bring peace to Northern Ireland, the GFA was the first document that was accepted by both communities.

Niall Ó Dochartaigh, an author and professor at the University of Galway, said because loyalist paramilitary groups supported the agreement, “both the British and Irish governments knew that the GFA would be upheld”.

Furthermore, because the GFA also “included Sinn Fein and, therefore, the republican movement, it brought an end to the IRA’s campaign and, in turn, the loyalist campaign”, Ó Dochartaigh said.

These paramilitary groups also agreed to maintain their ceasefires and carry out “total disarmament”.

The only major party that opposed the deal was the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has since become Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party.

The DUP opposed, in particular, the provision for the early release of prisoners who had committed violence during the Troubles, which was one of Sinn Fein’s demands.

“We were also concerned that those still connected with violence could gain access to power,” DUP politician Peter James Weir said, referring to IRA members who had become active within Sinn Fein.

The GFA stated, however, that “those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office”.

Persisting divisions

The agreement is credited with bringing an end to the violence by most paramilitary groups. It was, however, viewed very differently by nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland.

In a referendum put to voters, about 95 percent of Catholics voted in favour of the GFA, “the overwhelming majority of what was then a minority community”, Ó Dochartaigh said. “Support in the Protestant community, meanwhile, was split 50/50.”

Anthony McIntyre, a former member of the Provisional IRA, was one of few nationalists who opposed the GFA.

He saw it as “an acceptance by the Republican movement of the British state position in the North of Ireland”, which is a term used by nationalists to refer to Northern Ireland.

“While I agreed with the peace, I did not agree with the process,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The peace process was not a peaceful process as the IRA continued to kill and maim people, including its critics,” he said.

Four months after the GFA was signed, 29 people were killed in a car bombing carried out by dissident republicans in the town of Omagh in County Tyrone. It was the highest death toll from a paramilitary attack in Northern Ireland.

Independent research conducted in 2018 found that there had been 158 security-related deaths since the GFA was signed while, by comparison, a total of 470 people were killed within the space of a year at the height of the violence in 1972.

Most Sinn Fein members share the view of Sinn Fein MP Rose Conway-Walsh that “reaching the GFA was a pivotal point. We [Sinn Fein] saw it as an opportunity to create peace across the island of Ireland”.

While the GFA acknowledged that most citizens in Northern Ireland at that time wished to remain part of the UK, it also included the principle of consent: that a united Ireland could come about if a majority of people on both sides of the island wanted it.

Two referendums on the GFA took place on May 22, 1998.

The vote held in Northern Ireland was on accepting the GFA, while a referendum in the Republic of Ireland was to amend the country’s constitution to relinquish its claim over Northern Ireland, thereby acknowledging this new principle of consent.

In Northern Ireland, 71 percent of people voted yes – voter turnout was 81 percent – while 95 percent cast yes ballots in the Republic, where turnout was 56 percent.

Once it was approved, the GFA created three new sets of political institutions, also called the three strands.

The first was a democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, which was established through a new constitution. It guaranteed power sharing between the unionist and republican communities.

The second strand put in place cross-border institutions between both parts of Ireland and the third between the islands of Britain and Ireland. The last two sets of institutions are aimed at promoting cooperation and dealing with points of contention.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structure has broken down and left it without a government in Belfast several times throughout its history.

When this happens, Northern Ireland is ruled principally from Westminster with some input from Dublin and only deals with “urgent” matters.

Brexit impact

The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union has had a destabilising effect on Northern Ireland, rekindling debates on the status of the Irish border, which was arguably the most contested issue at the heart of the Troubles.

The GFA took away the hard border that McGilloway recalled, but Brexit threatened to reinstate it because while the Republic of Ireland remained an EU member, the UK was leaving the bloc and creating its own customs, immigration and other border regulations.

The issue has left Northern Ireland without a government since February 3, 2022, when members of the DUP resigned over their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol. That agreement aimed to avoid implementing a hard border on the island of Ireland by effectively putting a customs border in the Irish Sea.

Unionists see this arrangement as an attempt to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

After the GFA came into effect, the border between North and South almost ceased to exist because both Ireland and the UK were part of the EU common market.

Furthermore, the GFA called for “the removal of security installations”, and neither the republic nor Northern Ireland put up any signs at the border to indicate a different jurisdiction.

McGilloway explained that the GFA allowed for the “fluidity” of political allegiances.

“During the violence, there was a sense of tribalism,” he said. “The GFA removed that by stating that you could be Irish, British or both. As time went on, we almost forgot that the border was there in a practical sense.”

“The GFA filled me with hope and expectation,” McGilloway said. “However, the Brexit vote made me feel sick as it restored the psychological border … Because Brexit is ultimately about borders, it was always going to lead to debates about old borders, like the Irish border.”

The GFA’s 25th anniversary comes at a strange time as Northern Ireland is without a government for the sixth time since its assembly was established in 1998 in Belfast.

Every time the first strand collapses, relations between North and South, the second strand, are also affected. This has led some people to question whether the agreement is the best option for Northern Ireland moving forward while others insist that it simply needs to be implemented in full.

In January, RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, conducted a poll that revealed 95 percent of nationalists and 35 percent of unionists would vote yes on the GFA if a referendum were held today.

“One of our major concerns is that the GFA hasn’t been fully implemented, in particular, regarding the area of human rights,” Conway-Walsh said. “The GFA is a living document that belongs to all the people on the island, so we must use [the 25th anniversary] to renew our efforts to ensure its full implementation.”

The DUP, meanwhile, seems less concerned about the 25th anniversary.

“We had concerns with the GFA at the time,” Weir said. “I think those concerns are still valid even though some of them have become historic in their nature, but overall, we are focused on finding solutions that everyone in Northern Ireland can be comfortable with.”

Interestingly enough, an issue that has managed to unite Sinn Fein and the DUP is their aversion to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

Both believe it would deny the right for inquests and justice for families of victims of violence during the Troubles while protecting the perpetrators.

The two parties, though, remain on opposite ends of an old issue, Irish unification, and it could take centre stage in the years to come.

Just a little more than two years after Brexit came into force on January 31, 2020, Catholics outnumbered Protestants for the first time in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein won a landmark election victory. For the first time, a nationalist party won the most seats in the National Assembly, and Sinn Fein’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, demanded a referendum on Irish unification take place within five years.

One of the biggest ironies is that, had it not been for Brexit, Northern Ireland may well have been content with remaining part of the UK.

However, like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum to remain within the European Union, meaning “Irish unity has been hastened by the Tory government’s actions,” Conway-Walsh said.

In a way, the Irish will have Brexit and the UK to thank if unification eventually happens, and it will have been achieved within the spirit of the GFA, using peaceful rather than violent means.

Source: Al Jazeera