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The Good Friday Agreement, 18 years later

The Good Friday — or Belfast Agreement — signed on April 10, 1998, by the British and Irish governments and eight political parties or groupings from Northern Ireland, was designed to end “the troubles” that had taken more than 3,500 lives in that province since 1969.

Another 30,000 had been injured, and thousands more sent to prison for terrorist offences.

The agreement contained proposals for a Northern Ireland Assembly with a power-sharing executive, and new cross-border institutions with the Republic of Ireland.

Dublin also agreed to drop its constitutional claim to the six of Ulster’s nine counties that had formed Northern Ireland in 1922, and remained part of the United Kingdom rather than joining the new Irish Free State.

Referendums were held on May 22, 1998 in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In the north, voters were asked to ratify the deal. In the south, they were asked to approve a change to the constitution of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, the “yes” vote was 71.12 per cent, while in the Irish Republic it reached 94.39 per cent.

The agreement set out a complex series of provisions relating to a number of areas, including the status and system of government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom; the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

No one party would be able to control the assembly. Decisions would have to be taken on the basis of parallel consent, requiring the endorsement of a majority of parties representing Catholic nationalists and a majority of those of Protestant Unionists.

The agreement stipulated that Ireland would not become one united country without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland, and that the people had the right to call themselves either Irish or British.

Elections to a new Northern Irish 108-member assembly at Stormont followed.

Ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Executive are allocated to parties with significant representation in the Assembly. The first minister and deputy first minister are nominated by the largest and second largest parties respectively and act as chairmen of the executive.

There has also been a devolution of justice and policing powers, to make them more neutral, for example, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had been almost entirely Protestant and pro-Unionist, was incorporated into the new Northern Ireland Police Service, now with Catholic officers as well, in 2001.

At first the more extreme Catholic and Protestant parties had been wary of the agreement, but by 1997 the militant Democratic Unionist Party (Protestant) had entered a historic power-sharing government with Sinn Féin, an arm of the Irish Republican Army.

The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, became first minister, with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy.

The current government is headed by Arlene Foster, of the Democratic Unionists, which won 38 seats in the 2011 election, with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, as deputy first minister. The next is May 5.

How has the Good Friday Agreement worked out from the Irish point of view? Fairly well, according to Dr. Ray Bassett, the Irish ambassador to Canada since 2010, who was closely involved with the negotiations.

An experienced diplomat, he has worked extensively on Anglo-Irish Relations, and shared his thoughts at a lecture at UPEI on April 11.

When negotiations first began, he said, “many felt that the divisions between Catholics and Protestants were irreconcilable.”

But after decades of conflict, the economy was wrecked. So paramilitaries on both sides were looking for a way to end the violence.

The talks continued even while extremist groups engaged in sporadic violence, so that “rejectionists” would not have a “veto.”

Bassett admitted that Northern Ireland remains a divided society, but violence is greatly diminished. The Good Friday Agreement was designed in order “to manage differences,” and in that sense has been a success.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.


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