A brief history of the Good Friday Agreement

On 10 April 1998, a deal was reached to bring an end to Northern Ireland's Troubles. Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, as the deal became known, historian Alan MacLeod investigates the long road of the peace process which sought to reconcile two different traditions in Ireland – and considers the legacy of the Agreement...

British prime minister Tony Blair (right), US Senator George Mitchell (centre) and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern smiling on 10 April 1998 after signing the Good Friday Agreement – an historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Chung/AFP/Getty Images)

The Good Friday Agreement, reached on 10 April 1998, was a careful balancing act, reflecting the competing demands and aspirations of the different parties to the talks. Yet, despite the widespread euphoria that greeted the deal, this was only a beginning. Implementing the Agreement has been a difficult process, depending on the willingness of the political representatives of Northern Ireland’s two communities to work together. That willingness has frequently been missing.

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The partition of Ireland

The partition of Ireland in 1921 followed more than a century of unrest between Britain and Ireland. Under the Act of Union of 1800 Ireland lost its parliament in Dublin and became governed directly from Westminster. For much of the 19th and into the 20th century, varying states of tension and conflict developed as unionists campaigned for Ireland to remain part of the UK, while nationalists campaigned for either home rule or an independent Irish state. The issue of Irish home rule dominated domestic British politics from 1885 to the start of the First World War.

In April 1916, the Easter Rising shook Dublin, as a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of an Irish Republic and clashed with British troops in the capital. The rising, which resulted in the loss of 450 lives and destroyed much of the centre of Dublin, was ended by the British within a week. However, the public mood shifted decisively when the 15 leaders of the rising were executed by the British authorities in May 1916. The executions and imposition of martial law fuelled public resentment of the British. The next five tumultuous years, including the Irish War of Independence (1919–21), resulted in the end of British rule across most of Ireland.

The Government of Ireland Act, which became law in May 1921, split Ireland. Northern Ireland was formed from the six predominantly unionist counties in the north-east of the island. The remaining 26 predominantly nationalist counties formed the ‘south’, becoming the independent Irish Free State in 1922.

H22 Ruins of the Coliseum Theatre, Henry Street 1916 This theatre was opened in April 1915 and destroyed in the 1916 Easter Rising. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection.). (Photo by Independent News And Media/Getty Images)
Ruins of the Coliseum Theatre, Henry Street, Dublin, destroyed in the 1916 Easter Rising. (Photo by Independent News And Media/Getty Images)

Northern Ireland and the Troubles

For 30 years in the late 20th century, Northern Ireland was wracked by a bloody ethno-nationalist conflict known as ‘the Troubles’, which has left over 3,700 people dead and thousands more injured.

At the heart of the Troubles is the division in Northern Irish society. The majority population in Northern Ireland – the unionist community – identify as British and want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The minority community – the nationalists – want Northern Ireland to be reunited with the rest of Ireland, in an independent Irish Republic. As the nationalist community is predominantly Roman Catholic and the unionist predominantly Protestant, the conflict has often been portrayed as a sectarian one. Certainly, sectarian attacks occurred throughout the Troubles. However, the conflict was a consequence of the competing national identities and aspirations of the two communities occupying Northern Ireland.

As a result, Northern Ireland’s politics did not develop on class lines, as in the rest of the UK. Instead, Northern Ireland’s politics centred on the constitutional question. Following the partition of Ireland, the unionist community generally voted for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which remained in permanent control of Northern Ireland’s devolved government from 1921 until its abolition in 1972. Discrimination against the minority, particularly in housing and employment, led to the growth of a civil rights movement in the 1960s, demanding ‘British rights’ for the nationalist population. However, the civil rights movement was met by a loyalist backlash and violence flared. Finally, in August 1969, the British government was forced to step in and deploy troops in Northern Ireland. They were to remain there until 2007.

Out of the violence, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) re-emerged, and the focus of the conflict shifted from civil rights to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. The IRA dated to back to the Easter Rising and had launched sporadic campaigns since partition directed at trying to achieve Irish unity. Its recent ‘Border Campaign’ (1956–62) had ended in failure and over the course of the 1960s the IRA came to focus more on extreme leftist united front politics rather than militant republicanism. This caused a split in the republican movement in December 1969, from which the Provisional IRA was born. While most nationalists supported the newly formed Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), who sought to achieve Irish unity by political means, there were those in the minority community who supported the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’, attempting to gain Irish unity by force. Unionists fiercely resisted any moves towards a united Ireland. Loyalist paramilitary groups also formed and contributed to the developing violence. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) emerged from 1966, and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and its proxy Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) from the early 1970s.

As the conflict deepened, the death toll rose rapidly. Events like Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972 – in which British troops killed 13 unarmed civilians and injured several more (one of whom later died from his injuries) while taking part in a protest march – acted as a catalyst to the increasingly bitter conflict.

The remains of the 13 people who were shot dead by the British Army in Derry on Bloody Sunday,30/01/1972 at the removal of their remains to the church in Derry on 02/02/1971. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection). (Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)
The coffins of the 13 people who were shot dead by British troops in Derry on Bloody Sunday, 1972. (Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)

The prelude to the peace process

Over the course of the Troubles, British governments attempted to develop political initiatives that sought to end the conflict. Edward Heath’s government (1970–74) developed an ambitious programme, resulting in the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973. This combined a devolved assembly for Northern Ireland, involving power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties, with the creation of a Council of Ireland to institutionalise links between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, this was brought down by a two-week general strike in May 1974, as the unionist population rejected the involvement of the Irish government under the cry that “Dublin is just a Sunningdale away”.

Margaret Thatcher’s government (1979–90) was more modest in ambition, with Mrs Thatcher’s focus on securing cooperation from the Irish government in tackling the IRA. In exchange the Irish government was given the right to put forward its views on Northern Ireland’s affairs. This again infuriated the unionists, who sought to bring the Agreement down.

However, as the 1980s progressed, some significant developments began to reshape the approaches of the participants in the conflict.

Republicans increasingly saw the benefits of combining a political strategy with the armed struggle. Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political counterpart, began contesting elections, and regularly polled between 10 and 15 per cent of the vote. This caused deep concern in both the British and Irish governments and influenced the negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The ‘bullet and ballot box’ strategy caused tensions within the republican movement that had to be carefully managed by Gerry Adams, who became Sinn Féin president in 1983. Experience of the drift to far left politics in the 1960s and the ingrained abstentionism – the refusal to accept the legitimacy of, or to take seats in, political institutions in the Republic, Northern Ireland, or Westminster –  in the republican movement made many suspicious of political engagement.

The IRA had not been defeated and a flow of weapons was reaching Ireland from Libya. Significant IRA attacks continued, such as the attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in the 1984 Brighton Bombing. However, Sinn Féin could achieve electoral legitimacy by contesting elections, for example through Adams’s election as a Westminster MP in 1983. In addition, in 1988 Adams began a series of talks with John Hume, leader of the constitutional nationalist SDLP. While the Hume-Adams talks had no immediate successes, they were influential in steering the British and Irish governments towards the Downing Street Declaration, which would come in 1993.

There was also some movement from the British government. Influenced by Hume, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Brooke, delivered a speech in November 1990 in which he declared that the British government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. Instead it was for the people of Northern Ireland to decide its constitutional future. Coupled with this change in mood music, Brooke also approved the opening of a secret communication channel between MI5 and the republicans.

Brooke also sought to get Northern Ireland’s constitutional parties talking to each other. He proposed that inter-party talks should cover three strands: the first dealing with relationships within Northern Ireland; the second dealing with relations between the two parts of Ireland; and the third dealing with links between the British and Irish governments. The talks began in April 1991, but quickly became bogged down in procedural disagreements. But the three-strand format was to be at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Downing Street Declaration and IRA ceasefire

The peace process picked up momentum in 1993. The British prime minister, John Major, worked closely with the Irish Taoiseach [prime minister], Albert Reynolds, on a joint declaration that was hoped would form the basis of a peace initiative. This resulted in the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993. The declaration recognised the two different traditions in Ireland and stated that peace could only come through reconciling the differences between them. The two governments committed themselves to building that process of reconciliation and creating appropriate political structures to facilitate it.

In parallel to the Downing Street Declaration, Reynolds worked to persuade the IRA to declare a ceasefire. Both Reynolds and Hume were convinced that tying Sinn Féin into a cross-nationalist coalition would show them the benefits of using purely political means. This would involve nationalists in Northern Ireland, the Irish government, and Irish America, and would provide the republicans with access to the highest political levels in Washington.

To show Sinn Féin the benefits of constitutional politics, Reynolds lobbied the US president Bill Clinton to grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States. Clinton agreed, and Adams was granted a 48-hour visa to visit America in February 1994, despite most of Clinton’s senior advisors being against the move, and much to the fury of John Major. The visa was important as part of the wider choreography of peace making. But it did not lead to an immediate IRA ceasefire. Indeed, a month later the IRA demonstrated its continued reach by attacking Heathrow Airport. However, the visit was important as part of the process of debate within the republican movement, and finally, on 31 August 1994, the IRA announced its ceasefire. The ceasefire was followed in October 1994 by a ceasefire called by the loyalist paramilitaries.

However, the ceasefires did not lead directly to all-party talks. Instead, the peace process quickly became bogged down over the question of arms decommissioning – the hand-over, or verified disposal, of weapons. The IRA would not consider anything that could be perceived to be surrender and Sinn Féin argued that decommissioning should be negotiated as part of a process of ‘demilitarisation’. But neither unionist politicians nor the British government would countenance talks with Sinn Féin until decommissioning had taken place. Unionists had been disconcerted by republican celebrations following the announcement of the IRA ceasefire; they were not willing to take Sinn Féin at their word.

In an attempt to break the impasse, the British and Irish governments created an international decommissioning body, chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell. This was part of a ‘twin-track’ approach, with decommissioning to accompany political talks rather than precede them. Mitchell delivered his report in January 1996, setting out six principles that should be endorsed by all parties to the talks. This included a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. Mitchell recommended that all parties should sign up to these principles and that some decommissioning could take place during the talks. However, this was not enough to prevent the slide back to violence. On 9 February 1996, the IRA released a statement announcing the end of its ceasefire. An hour later a massive explosion rocked Canary Wharf, killing two people.

Good Friday

The election of Tony Blair’s Labour government, on 1 May 1997, was transformational. Blair was as committed to the peace process as Major had been, but had the advantage of being able to approach Northern Ireland without the baggage that Major had accumulated over seven years of talks.

The IRA renewed its ceasefire on 20 July 1997, opening the way for Sinn Féin to be included in the inter-party talks that had begun under Mitchell’s chairmanship. The question of decommissioning remained though, and the British and Irish governments sought to fudge the issue rather than allow it to derail the process again. This led to Ian Paisley’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walking out of the talks, never to return. The DUP rejected the notion of making any concessions on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland or negotiating with Sinn Féin, whom they considered terrorists. While deeply unhappy, the more moderate UUP remained in the talks. Given the DUP’s declared desire to break the talks, Mitchell wrote later in his memoirs that their decision to walk out actually helped the process of reaching an agreement. However, it was to have a lasting impact on the politics of Northern Ireland, as the DUP’s opposition to the Good Friday Agreement severely hindered its implementation. Sinn Féin entered the all-party talks on 15 September 1997, having signed-up to the Mitchell Principles.

After marathon negotiations, agreement was finally reached on 10 April 1998. The Good Friday Agreement was a complex balancing act, reflecting the three strands approach. Within Northern Ireland, it created a new devolved assembly for Northern Ireland, with a requirement that executive power had to be shared by parties representing the two communities. In addition, a new North-South Ministerial Council was to be established, institutionalising the link between the two parts of Ireland. The Irish government also committed to amending Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s Constitution, which laid claim to Northern Ireland, to instead reflect an aspiration to Irish unity, through purely democratic means, while recognising the diversity of identities and traditions in Ireland. Finally, a Council of the Isles was to be created, recognising the ‘totality of relationships’ within the British Isles, including representatives of the two governments, and the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Referendums were held in both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland on 22 May 1998. In Northern Ireland 71 per cent of voters backed the Agreement, with 29 per cent voting against. While this was a significant endorsement, an exit poll for the Sunday Times found that 96 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland backed the Agreement, compared to just 55 per cent of unionists.

Making peace work

The Good Friday Agreement was hard won. But it has faced considerable challenges over the 20 years since its signing.

On 15 August 1998, 29 people were killed when dissident republicans exploded a car bomb in Omagh. This represented the largest loss of life in any incident in Northern Ireland since the start of the Troubles. While the Omagh bombing was committed by republicans opposed to the Agreement, it returned the spotlight to the question of decommissioning paramilitary weapons, which the Good Friday Agreement had stated should happen within two years. Unionist anger at the refusal of the IRA to give up its weapons was combined with frustration at the refusal of Sinn Féin to accept the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

David Trimble, Chief Minister for the Northern Ireland Assembly, surveys the damage at the bomb site, 17 August in the northern Irish town of Omagh after a car bomb explosion killed 28 and injured hundreds 15 August. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL VICENTE (Photo credit should read PAUL VICENTE/AFP/Getty Images)
David Trimble, chief minister for the Northern Ireland Assembly, surveys the damage at the bomb site in the northern Irish town of Omagh after dissident republicans exploded a car bomb killing 29 people. (Photo by Paul Vicente/AFP/Getty Images)

Under these circumstances, power-sharing proved impossible to sustain. Meanwhile, voters in each community started to turn away from the moderate parties, and instead support for Sinn Féin and the DUP increased, displacing the SDLP and UUP in the process. For a significant part of the decade following the Good Friday Agreement, devolution was suspended because of the inability of the largest parties from each community to reach agreement on power-sharing. Progress was made on decommissioning, which was confirmed to have been carried out in September 2005, but political agreement remained elusive. Eventually, the British and Irish governments hosted crunch talks at St Andrews in October 2006. There, Sinn Féin finally agreed to accept the PSNI, while the DUP agreed to share power with Sinn Féin. In May 2007, an Executive comprised of the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP and SDLP was finally able to take office. This time, the institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement were to remain in being until the current political crisis led to the collapse of the Executive in January 2017.

Despite the fragility of the institutions created and the continuing bitterness between politicians representing the two communities, the Good Friday Agreement remains an important landmark in Northern Ireland’s history. The Good Friday Agreement was able to bring to an end 30 years of violence, and allows Northern Ireland’s two communities to pursue their contrasting aspirations by purely political means.

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Dr Alan MacLeod is a historian of modern Britain and Ireland and Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leeds. He is the author of International Politics and the Northern Ireland Conflict: The USA, Diplomacy and the Troubles (IB Tauris, 2016).