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In 1998, the UK Labour government led by Tony Blair helped to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement, which created a devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. Although previous prime ministers had attempted to secure a peaceful resolution to the issues in the region, the agreement was only concluded in 1998.
What was the Good Friday Agreement anyway, who was important in its creation, and was it successful? Before we learn about all of this, let’s see why we needed the agreement in the first place.
The process where the central government delegates powers to regional governments.
In the United Kingdom, there are devolved governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement aimed to end deep-rooted religious tensions between Catholics and protestants in Northern Ireland. But why did these tensions exist?
The answer lies in British colonisation. In the 1600s, Britain wanted to spread influence to Ireland by setting up plantations, which the British Crown saw as a way of controlling, anglicising, and ‘civilising’ parts of Ireland.
The Irish plantation system was the colonisation, settlement and effective confiscation of Irish lands by English and Scottish emigrants who were ‘planted’ there. These families moved to Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under government sponsorship.
The plantations encouraged the arrival of British and Scottish settlers, who brought the Protestant faith with them. Protestantism was the main religion in England and Scotland after the English Reformation, but the Irish were traditionally Catholic.
|Indigenous Irish people||English and Scottish settlers|
|Main religion: Catholicism||Main religion: Protestantism|
|Loyalty to Ireland||Loyalty to the British Crown|
Think about how these differences would have created tensions between the Irish and the settlers.
In 1534, the Church of England began the English reformation after it broke away from the Pope and Catholicism and became its own entity. The Church of England became increasingly more protestant and eventually, Protestantism became the state religion during the rule of Edward VI.
What happened after the plantation?
Prime Minister John Major (1990–97) and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach (1992–94), drafted a joint declaration intended to provide a framework for a peace initiative.
It’s the Irish Gaelic word for chief or leader and refers to the prime minister and head of government of the Republic of Ireland.
They made their joint declaration public on 15 December 1993. The declaration recognised the differences between the two traditions in Ireland and stated that peace could only be achieved through reconciliation.
Did John Major play an influential role in paving the way to peace? That's still up for debate!
|The joint declaration was an important precursor to the Good Friday Agreement.Major engaged in talks with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in an attempt to work towards a peaceful end to the conflict.||Major was criticised for being lenient to some republican groups. British and Irish historians argue that this was the main reason the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) ceasefire and Major's agreement fell through.|
Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997 and aimed to persuade the IRA to declare another ceasefire. Tony Blair also tried to convince Sinn Féin, a political party that had been associated with the IRA, to hold cross-party talks.
At the same time, Blair had to keep the Unionists happy. This was tricky as both opposing sides viewed any concessions to the other side as unacceptable.
However, Blair managed to engage in productive talks with the sceptical Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.
On Friday 10 April 1998, Tony Blair achieved his goal and managed to get the opposing groups to sign the Good Friday Agreement.
This said, it's important to remember that the peace process had come a long way before Blair's appointment:
The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was signed, as we said, on 10 April 1998. Several of the disputing parties in Northern Ireland, along with Britain and the Republic of Ireland, came to a consensus on the way Northern Ireland should be governed.
By implementing the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland gained a system of devolved government. The agreement also created many new institutions, including the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council, and the British-Irish Council.
The two main parties that joined the Good Friday Agreement were the Social Democratic and Labour Party, led by John Hume, and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), led by David Trimble. The Sinn Féin party (which represented the Irish National army) also contributed to the agreement.
Social Democratic and Labour Party
The Social Democratic and Labour Party is a Northern Irish social-democratic and Irish nationalist political party founded in 1970.
Ulster Unionist Party
The Ulster Unionist Party is a Northern Irish unionist and conservative political party that was founded in 1905.
Sinn Féin is the largest Irish republican political party and has historically been associated with the IRA. It is alleged that the party has members that were direct members of the IRA. However, the party denies this. During the Good Friday Agreement period Sinn Féin was seen as synonymous with the IRA.
The Agreement was put to a referendum in Northern Ireland on 22 May 1998, and over 71% of voters voted in favour of the agreement. This referendum saw around 82% of the voters show up to the polls.
On that same day, the Republic of Ireland also held a referendum. This vote was the Republic of Ireland's contribution to the peace agreement. The Irish government agreed to make amendments to their Constitution, which would allow Northern Ireland to join the Republic if the majority voted in favour of this unification in the future.
This concession was extremely important in brokering the peace agreement as it gave hope to the republicans and nationalists of a one day united Ireland. This referendum saw 94% of the Republic of Ireland's electorate vote in favour of the amendment.
Although the agreement went through, not all of the disputing parties in Northern Ireland agreed with it. For instance, the Democratic Union Party (DUP), which was the second-largest unionist party, opposed the agreement and refused to engage in the agreement talks.
The party's leader, Ian Paisley, left agreement talks because the DUP disagreed with the concessions being made to the IRA. The DUP believed that the IRA was a terrorist organisation and they also refused to make any agreement to amendments to the Northern Irish constitution.
Below are some of the key terms of the agreement:
This was the process of paramilitary disarmament that was agreed upon in the Good Friday Agreement.
The first elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly took place on 25 June 1998, and this set in stone the beginning of a cross-party assembly in Northern Ireland. Following this, the UK Parliament passed the Northern Ireland Act on 19 November 1998 to ensure that the necessary provisions were put in place for the terms of the agreement to be achieved.
This act stipulated that Northern Ireland would remain as part of the United Kingdom until the date that the majority of Northern Ireland voted to form a united Ireland in a referendum.
Northern Ireland Assembly
The Northern Ireland Assembly, often referred to as Stormont, is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. The Assembly has the power to legislate in a wide range of areas not explicitly reserved for the United Kingdom Parliament. It can also appoint the Northern Ireland Executive.
The Northern Ireland Act now allowed British Parliament to devolve power to Northern Ireland and set out to the Assembly which legislation the government still reserved rights to and which matters they devolved.
In summary, this meant that the government laid out what legislation and policy the Northern Ireland Assembly had power over (devolved to the Assembly) and which parts they did not (elected and reserved to British Parliament). It also made clear how exactly decisions and legislation were made under this new form of governance.
The act outlined how a multi-party government was formed, and the process in which a First Minister and Deputy First Minister could be elected, though this was later amended.
The Multi-Party agreement refers to one of the main agreements made in the Good Friday Agreement, which laid out how a devolved, cross-party, power-sharing government would be formed.
The Multi-party agreement is broken into three strands:
The multi-party agreement also dealt with issues of human rights, policing, decommissioning, and the release of prisoners, some of which led to increased controversy later on.
The agreement set out that the main institutions of governance in the now devolved Northern Ireland would be the Assembly and the Executive.
The Assembly is a democratically elected body that consists of 90 members of the legislative assembly (MLA). When the Multi-party agreement first passed this number was 108. On occasion, the assembly requires cross-community support. This means that there has to be a specific percentage of agreement between the unionists and the nationalists.
The Executive is made up of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, and other 10 ministers. This institution answers to the Assembly and mainly consists of members of it. The role of the First Minister is given to the party with the most members in the legislative assembly and the Deputy is given to the party with the second most members.
The Assembly and Executive can make laws and decisions in the areas of health, agriculture, finance, education, infrastructure, and justice.
The Good Friday Agreement saw the first Assembly created on 25 June 1998.
This part of the agreement created a council between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland named the North-South Ministerial Council. This council was created to discuss issues that concern the region as a whole. Many of the policy agreements are in relation to interconnected systems such as the environment, agriculture, education, health, tourism, and transport.
The final strand of the Multi-party agreement pertained to the relationship between Britain and Ireland as a whole. It sought to carve out mutual areas of interest. This agreement created the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council, and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
The Good Friday Agreement has not always been stable. In fact, it almost came undone between February 2000 and August 2001 when decommissioning issues rose to the surface once again.
This issue first arose in February 2000 when the Ulster Unionist Party refused to stay in the Executive if the Sinn Féin party remained reluctant to enforce decommission measures for the IRA.
In 2001, this issue intensified when the IRA refused to decommission on the basis that the British government had gone back on some of the assurances made to the IRA in the Good Friday Agreement. This pertained to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), as the IRA had signed the agreement on the basis that the RUC would be reformed, which they did not believe was happening.
This was further worsened by the fact that the United Kingdom had still not withdrawn troops from Northern Ireland. They actually did not withdraw until 2007.
In July 2001, First Minister, David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, resigned as a result of the IRA's refusal to disarm. This meant that peace in the region had effectively been compromised yet again. However, on 7 August 2001, the IRA finally agreed to destroy their weapons, and peace was restored.
President Joe Biden and the US Congress expressed concerns regarding how Brexit could potentially impact the Good Friday Arrangement. The United States played a key role in pushing for the development of a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and signed off as a Good Friday Agreement guarantor (the other of which was the EU).
A person, organisation, or state that acts as a guarantee of an agreement.
Much of the concern in regards to whether the agreement will hold up after Brexit is in regard to the border between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is now outside of the EU since the 2016 referendum. However, as it stands, the British government has agreed with the EU on how to handle this, and the terms have not been affected.
Although there have been concerns about the stability of the agreement, it has held for over 20 years and shows that a devolved cross-party government was the best way of achieving some form of sustained peace in the region between opposing political groups.
The Good Friday Agreement has not always been stable and almost came undone between February 2000 and August 2001. On 7 August 2001, the IRA finally agreed to destroy their weapons, and peace was restored.
The Good Friday Agreement was a peace deal signed between several disputing parties Northern Ireland, Britain, and the Republic of Ireland. The main focus of the agreement was to create a devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland which helped bring an end to conflict in the region.
10 April 1998
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which later became the largest unionist party, did not support the agreement.
The party's leader, Ian Paisley, left agreement talks on the grounds that the DUP disagreed with the concessions being made for the IRA who they believed to be a terrorist organisation. They further refused to make any agreement to amendments to the Northern Irish Constitution.
How did the British colonisation of Ireland lead to the later tensions in Northern Ireland?
1. Britain's colonising mission in Ireland in the 1600s set in place a system of deep religious tension between the Catholic and Protestant population of Northern Ireland.
2. As Britain attempted to gain a foothold in Ireland they set up plantations. These plantations began to take hold in the Northern region of Ulster in the 17th century. These plantations encouraged the settlement of British and Scottish settlers. Plantations were seen by the British Crown as a way of controlling, anglicising, and 'civilising' parts of Ireland.
Why did the DUP refuse to engage in the Good Friday Agreement talks?
The party's leader Ian Paisley left agreement talks because the DUP disagreed with the concessions being made for the IRA.
The DUP believed that the IRA was a terrorist organisation.
How did John Major pave the way for the Good Friday agreement?
In 1993 Major drafted a joint declaration intended to provide a framework for a peace initiative.
The declaration stated that peace could only be achieved through reconciliation between all opposing groups.
What attempts were made to broker peace before the Good Friday Agreement?
What is a devolved government?
A devolved government is one that transfers power from the central government to regional governments.
How did the Good Friday agreement appease the Unionists and Republicans?
The Irish government agreed to make amendments to their constitution, which would allow Northern Ireland to become unified with the republic if the majority voted in favour of this unification in the future.
Why did the Good Friday Agreement nearly break down in 2000-2001?
The UUP refused to stay in the Executive if the Sinn Féin party, which had close ties with the IRA leader, remained reluctant to put in decommission measures for the IRA.
What is the Good Friday Agreement also referred to as?
The Belfast Agreement
Which group opposed the Good Friday Agreement?
The Democratic Union Party (DUP),
What was decommissioning in the Good Friday Agreement?
This was the process of paramilitary disarmament that was agreed upon in the Good Friday Agreement.
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