The Long Good Friday - Belfast's uneasy peace
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
On April 10th 1998 The Good Friday Agreement signalled the beginning of the end of three decades of turbulent times in Northern Ireland
The Good Friday Agreement, or sometimes referred to as The Belfast Agreement sets out the blueprint for peace in Northern Ireland after thirty years of conflict, often referred to in rather classic British understatement as "The Troubles". Divisions between broadly Protestant and Catholic communities that wanted to remain part of Britain or rejoin Ireland respectively, exploded into horrendous bloody conflict. The British Army, originally sent in to protect Catholic communities from Unionist brutality, became a target for the campaign for reunification. The conflict saw frequent vigilante executions and torture, horrendous clashes with soldiers and paramilitary bombing campaigns not only in Belfast but on mainland Britain as well. It was a blight that cost thousands of lives, many millions of pounds and held Belfast back from development. There is, therefore, plenty of attention being paid to the agreement currently as the twentieth anniversary is celebrated in the teeth of doubts cast by deadlock on power sharing and uncertainty caused by Brexit negotiations.
The Agreement had two strands, one between the Irish and British Governments and the other between the vast majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland. The foundations were laid with the 1993 Downing Street Declaration between John Major and Albert Reynolds (Then leaders of Britain and Ireland) which set out a framework for talks if paramilitary groups handed over weapons. Bombing campaigns and violence erupted out of an uneasy calm as political talks continued. Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 before confirming Sinn Fein could return to the table once more if the IRA declared a ceasefire.
US envoy, Senator George Mitchell chaired the talks which had been ongoing since the Summer 1996 and exhausted over lack of progress set a deadline of Midnight April 9th 1998 to break the deadlock. A draft document was presented to the political parties in Northern Ireland on April 6th and was rejected by the Unionists. This led to Tony Blair and Irish leader Bertie Ahern flying in to help close the deal.
Those involved speak of very little sleep in those critical days, with phone call interventions from American President Bill Clinton and even 12th hour assurances from the British Government to the Unionist representatives that Sinn Fienn could not participate in power sharing governance without the IRA decommissioning weapons.
The improbable and historic Agreement that sealed the possibility for a fragile peace in Northern Ireland is only thirty five pages long and available online. The document sets out the terms for an effective power sharing agreement between the two divided communities in Northern Ireland, with a leader and a deputy leader taken from either side of the divide in what amounted to a joint leadership role. Cross border institutions were created, widespread institutional changes were set out to policing and the vital concession from The Republic of Ireland to drop the constitutional claim to the North.
Principles for decommissioning weapons and the release of prisoners are stipulated alongside careful wording that recognised the majority population desire to remain as part of the United Kingdom with the aspiration of the significant percentage of the population who wish to see a united Ireland. It states that it is "for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland."
There was muted joy at the announcement of the agreement, but it still had to pass the test of a referendum either side of the border. Despite the DUP aiming for a 40% no vote confirming a failure to garner majority support from the Unionist community and the IRA splintering, with the Real IRA forming in opposition to the agreement, the deal was passed in the first vote across the entire island since 1918.
As the summer came to a close, the Real IRA committed the greatest single atrocity of the troubles killing 29 people and two unborn twins in the bombing of Omagh. The horror did not undo the progress that had been made. The communities held firm and Northern Ireland enjoyed a prolonged period of peace with former ardent foes sharing governance together.
The commemorative events, speeches and ceremonies will feel curiously hollow this week, as the Belfast Stormont Hall has been unoccupied for over a year in a terse stalemate that has emerged in Northern Irish politics. A collapse that was precipitated by policies related to language. The decision to name the Fisheries protection vessel from Banríon Uladh to Queen of Ulster, announced cutbacks to grants for college places created an air of division that became untenable with the scandal of squandered public money on a renewable heating scheme. The scheme had been administered under Arlene Foster as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Sinn Fienn politicians felt she should resign, the problem being, that she had since risen to be First Minister. Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy and under the terms of the power sharing arrangement, no Northern Ireland Executive could be formed.
Tensions escalated as did the rhetoric and a further round of elections left the two principle parties with just one seat difference between them. No agreement to return to power has been found as of yet.
This stand off has been further exacerbated by Brexit. The soft border between the two territories is now seemingly under threat as even former Senator George Mitchell himself has stated alarm that peace seems to be being used as a bargaining chip in the complicated Brexit negotiations. With Ireland still part of the EU, and Northern Ireland destined to leave along with the rest of the UK, the meandering line across the green rolling meadows represents the only land border between the EU and Britain.
Many observers say the Good friday peace requires close cooperation between the Republic and Northern Ireland to maintain the tentative trust and growing confidence between riven communities. All parties are being constantly encouraged to recognise the special circumstances of the region, but with Brexit being a political negotiation without precedent, no one is really sure as to how things will emerge.
A further layer of complication, if one is needed, comes as the British Government, led by Theresa May, failed to achieve a clear majority in the 2017 General Election and have had to rely upon a good will agreement with the Northern Ireland Unionist party, the DUP, to maintain power. This arrangement has led to criticism that the British Government has found itself with one hand tied behind it's back, being held to ransom by one side in a divided region for which mistrust has, for so long, played a defining factor.
Northern Irish politics are a complicated quagmire for those unfamiliar with the territory, it seems, even those who have navigated the gullies and currents with confidence and awareness for so long are now finding their knowledge tested to the limit.