Good Friday Agreement: 20 years after

Good Friday Agreement: 20 years after

Is peace in danger again?

04/2018  | Reading time: 15 minutes

In the last ten years, political life in Northern Ireland seemed to have stabilised, but the Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016, together with local elections held on 2 March last year, brought back a fluid situation whose consequences are difficult to predict.

A few days ago, on 10 April, the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement were held in Belfast in the presence of Former US President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell. The Belfast Agreement—which is the official name—was agreed upon by the Northern Irish, the British, and the Irish governments and put an end to the preceding thirty years of violence: a period known as “The Troubles.”During his speech at the Queen’s University in Belfast, President Clinton, who also received the Freedom of the City, reiterated that “The Good Friday Agreement is the work of genius that’s applicable if you care at all about preserving democracy.” Furthermore, the American Ex-President recalled that the 1998’s Agreement had been his most successful achievement in foreign policy, and he did not conceal his happiness about having contributed to the peace of his family’s birth land. Yet, following the latest political upheavals—and first and foremost, the Brexit—one can see that peace on this island, which lies on the western fringe of Europe, is threatened again.

The former US president Bill Clinton
Source: Shutterstock

Twenty years past, it is undeniable that the heavy legacy of these thirty years, The Troubles, is still present, and it is still hard to talk about normalisation. Political and social divisions between Catholics and Protestants are still too deep, and segregation is still ongoing. The long period of violence that affected the country left a permanent mark on many families. Surveys from the Office for National Statistics about the six counties of Ulster that form Northern Ireland suggest that suicide rates and alcoholism, which are the highest in the whole UK, are a clear symptom of this legacy. Moreover, some of the former loyalists are either drug dealers or addicts today whose gangs control Belfast’s outskirts and are inclined to cold-blooded executions and score-settling murders.

However, as Clinton restated, “None of these problems is an excuse not to save, strengthen and build on the peace.” In fact, both Belfast and Dublin, as well as London and Brussels, would head for a terrible defeat if this territory were allowed to return to a period of instability and violence.

The Troubles

Even though violence between Protestants and Catholics is a centuries-old story, The Troubles began only in the late Sixties leading to the killing of more than 3,600 persons, mostly civilians. This period turned almost the whole NI’s territory, but also part of the Republic of Ireland’s and British territory, into a theatre of terrorist attacks and armed reprisals.

On one side, Unionist paramilitary groups, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC), were fighting to reaffirm their loyalty—hence the name Loyalists,—and that they belong to the United Kingdom. On the other side, there was the Irish Republican Army (IRA), created in 1919, which tried to reunify the Six Counties with the Republic of Ireland. Besides the armed violence, discriminatory measures were introduced by Unionists against Catholics, who were banned from certain jobs, from house allocation, from voting (since only householders could vote), from joining the police. All these took the country to the brink of civil war.

In the early 1990s, early attempts in a direction of the dialogue were made by Social Democratic and Labour Party’s (SDLP) leader John Hume, who decided to approach Gerry Adams, the leader of the Republican party Sinn Féin (meaning “Ourselves” in Irish). Sinn Féin was the IRA’s political body, but since the militaries refused to disarm, the party was banned from consultations. When the split between the two sides looked absolutely insurmountable, Hume and other political figures decided to put their faith in the mediating role of the United States. It was exactly in this moment that President Clinton offered his contribution to the peace process.

Under the political leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Provisional Sinn Féin adopted a reformist policy, which eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement
Source: Flickr, author: Sinn Féin, licence: CC BY 2.0

Already on 31 August 1994, the IRA agreed on a ceasefire, and a few weeks later, Unionist armed groups did the same. This was obviously welcomed as a success of the peace talks. In fact, this truce would have granted Sinn Féin to be present on the dialogues, and Clinton’s decision to invite Adams to the White House showed Americans’ readiness to accept the party as a real interlocutor. Moreover, in 1995, Senator George Mitchell was named Clinton’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, and through the joint decision between the governments in Dublin and London he was promoted the head of the international commission on disarmament of paramilitary groups.

Despite the reprieve, Unionists refused to have any talks with Sinn Féin unless the IRA had given an assurance that the ceasefire would be permanent. This attitude angered the IRA, so it decided to break the truce. In fact, by February 1996, attacks had started again.

It was no earlier than 1997, after British general elections won by Tony Blair’s Labours, that the peace process got a new momentum. Blair’s determination to start new talks with the parties regardless of who had been present at the peace talks pushed the IRA and the Sinn Féin to soften their attitudes. Republicans realised that if Sinn Féin had not joined the consultations, the terms of a possible agreement might have been unfavourable for their cause. Under these circumstances, the IRA decided to call a second ceasefire. Against this backdrop, on 15 September, all of Northern Ireland’s political parties, except the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and UK Unionist Party (UKUP), sat down for peace talks.

A Loyalist symbol in a loyalist area of Belfast
Source: Shutterstock

A compromise was not easy to achieve, and on 25 March, George Mitchell decided that the process needed to accelerate and urged all parties to reach an agreement by 9 April 1998, Thursday, at the latest. From then on, the talks went into full-time session, and a settlement among the representatives of London and Dublin, and the eight Northern Irish parties, including Sinn Féin, was reached with an astonishing speed. The only party that refused the Agreement was the DUP. Nevertheless, by 5 A.M. of 10 April 1998, the Belfast Agreement was ready.

It proposed a 108-member Assembly for five years, with a power-sharing executive, so that no party could gain full control of the body. The Agreement also created institutions that linked NI to Dublin and Westminster and laid out proposals for decommissioning paramilitary weapons and releasing paramilitary prisoners. Furthermore, the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was reformed, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was created. Finally, the Republic of Ireland agreed to drop its constitutional claim on the Six Counties.

In NI, despite the DUP’s opposition, 71.12% of voters who cast their ballots accepted the terms of the Agreement by means of a referendum. The same happened in the Republic of Ireland, where it was approved by 94.39%. In June, the first elections for renewing the Assembly were hold, and Unionist parties together gained 58 seats from the 108. The Ulster Unionist Party’s (UUP) leader David Trimble became Prime Minister, while, following the power-sharing procedure, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP became Deputy First Minister.

Even though the Good Friday Agreement led NI to a relatively peaceful period, the difficulties of the coexistence between Catholics and Protestants started to became visible again, and London was repeatedly forced to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly. In fact, even though the Good Friday Agreement was successful in stopping the violence, it was not able to stop the intrinsic sectarianism of the parties. By 2003, voting patterns in Northern Ireland had shifted definitively; the electorate moved away from moderate parties such as the UUP and SDLP and embraced the DUP’s and Sinn Féin’s more radical rhetoric. It was only in 2006, by means of the St Andrew’s Agreement, that the power-sharing system was restored and the country returned to normality.

The Parliament House at Stormont on the eastern outskirts of Belfast
Source: Shutterstock

Peace in the Time of Brexit

In the last ten years, political life in Northern Ireland seemed to have stabilised, but the Brexit referendum in 2016 and elections in March 2017 brought back a fluid situation whose consequences are difficult to predict.

The “profound mistake” of the Brexit—as Tony Blair referred to it during the celebrations—renewed divisions in NI. In fact, on 23 June, when 55.78% of the country voted for Remain, 88% of the Catholics wanted to stay, while only the 43% of the Protestants chose the same option. Moreover, a British government analysis speculated that, due to a no deal Brexit that will re-establish a physical border between the two parts of the island and in the absence of Brussels’ significant subsidies, NI’s GDP could be 12% lower in the near future, whereas Eire has managed to become the fastest growing economy in the EU28 again. Obviously, under these circumstances, the Irish Questions could arise anew, leading the country back to instability and animosity between the factions.

As a confirmation of the growing division inside Northern Ireland’s society came the results of the latest elections, following the resignation of the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, who wanted to protest against the scandals on renewable energy incentives that involved First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP, whose father was shot during an IRA attack. Having only one seat less than the DUP after the March elections, Sinn Féin made a long list of requests to the Unionists, where there were not many chances to find a common point about. Divergences between the parties left the country without a working government, and although London always declared itself neutral on the matter, the failure of power sharing may force the Westminster to impose direct rule on Northern Ireland once again.

Beyond these difficulties, there was an unwise decision by Theresa May to link the survival of her government, formed after last June’s snap election, to the support of the ten DUP MPs in Westminster. Thus, after being rejected by voters both about the Brexit (Foster’s Eurosceptic party wanted the Leave to win) and in March’s elections, where for the first time since 1921, Unionists lost their majority, the DUP gained a disproportionate power. In fact, the capacity of Foster’s party to influence May’s decisions about NI has heightened Republicans’ concerns and could put—as Sinn Fein’s leader Gerry Adams had warned—“the Good Friday Agreement at risk.”

New cracks in their relationship?
Source: Shutterstock

Obviously, we have no way of knowing how the future of NI will look like when the Brexit will be implemented, and if parties will be able to find a new arrangement. What we know for sure is that London will have to play an extremely important role and should be ready to every kind of compromises. Despite the fact that the UK, Ireland, and the European Union are confident that a hard border will be avoided, different scenarios cannot be ruled out either.

The most likely one, at least in the short term, will provide for the establishment of a “soft border” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. With this diluted version of the Brexit, Dublin and Belfast will be granted a kind of customs union and limited checks at the borders. Yet, it is worth noting that such a solution could take Belfast from London even farther and would undermine the meaning of the Brexit, which might lead to unpredictable consequences in the other parts of the United Kingdom (namely in Scotland).

Another solution might provide for the introduction of the feared hard border that, although reassuring for die-hard Unionists, would plunge the country again into instability and violence. As Senator Mitchell told on BBC in March, “The real danger is if you reinstate a hard border. You go back to the days where stereotyping resumes, demonization resumes and people turn inward as opposed to outwards and they lose the benefits that come from open borders, open societies and trade.” The revival of hostilities would represent too high a cost for London, both in economic and political terms; a cost that it could not be ready to afford, particularly during the uncertain post-Brexit period.

A road sign with bullet holes by Northern Ireland’s border
Source: Shutterstock

One last hypothesis considers the possibility of Ireland’s reunification by means of a new agreement or by means of a popular referendum. This idea seems to have found a significant support in the last months and many Republican representatives, namely those of Sinn Féin and SDLP, think the time has come to reunite the island. Such a solution would prevent NI’s leaving process and would allow the six counties to remain part of the EU, following East Germany’s precedent.

The idea of a reunited Ireland is not new, but before the reunification, it is necessary to devise a new Agreement with well-defined safeguard measures for the Protestant minority and a much wider autonomy for Ulster. In this sense, a federal government would seem the most working solution. While granting Belfast the supremacy on the widest array of matters, a federal government would also help to avoid an excessive concentration of powers in the central administration, where a Catholic majority could prove to be insensitive to Protestant counties’ peculiarities.

But such a solution would need a strong popular support, and today, it seems still inapplicable. In fact, although a larger share of the population is becoming more sensitive to the topic, it is very hard to imagine how London and the DUP could ever be ready to easily—and peacefully—give up, after hundred years, their privileges that are ensured only in a divided Ireland. In this context, the future of the island is deeply embedded in the will of the Irish people on both sides, who have to try to put aside their divergences and ensure that the word “Trouble” will only belong to the past.

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