The Good Friday Agreement, which ended the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, a period of civil war, insurgency, assassinations and bombings, was signed on 10 April 1998, 25 years ago. That anniversary is being celebrated by visits by President Biden, King Charles III, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, under whose leaderships the Agreement was negotiated.
Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, amidst conquests, occupation, dispossession, exploitation, suppression and deprivation, the Irish resisted British rule, the most damning consequences of which were many, including: the Catholic/Protestant divide, created when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, imposing Protestantism through the Church of England, over its refusal to give him permission to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, who he later beheaded; and the Irish famine of 1845-1851 in which an estimated 2 million people died. Irish dairy products and wheat harvests were exported by British diktat to Britain while hundreds of thousands in Ireland were suffering from hunger.
The inevitable rise of Irish nationalism led to the victory of the Sinn Fein party in 1919 which declared the independence of the Irish Republic. The Irish War of Independence followed between 1919 and 1921. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 establsihed the Irish Free in southern Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 had partitioned Ireland into north and south. Northern Ireland was created in 1921 with a unionist, or protestant majority, who wanted to remain in the United Kingdom, and a significant Catholic nationalist minority that demanded a united Ireland.
The minority Catholic population of Northern Ireland was subject to discrimination in housing, education, employment and in other areas. It was deprived of fair electoral representation by the abolition of the proportional representation system of voting and imposition of the first post the post system in the 1920s. Electoral boundaries were manipulated to benefit the Protestant majority. Efforts by Catholic representatives to effect change by peaceful means in the 1960s were violently suppressed. This gave rise to the Provisional Irish Republican Army whose initial objective was the defence of the Catholic community, but escalated into virtual civil war as the oppression by the Northern Ireland government intensified. British troops were sent to ‘protect’ the Catholic community but soon became embroiled in the war on the side of the Protestant-led Northern Ireland Government.
The violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, which spread to England by way of bombings, commenced in 1968 and ended in 1998 in the Good Friday Agreement negotiated under then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Aherne. The negotiations were mediated by Senator George Mitchell with the strong support of President Bill Clinton. At the end of the day just over 3,500 persons were killed, 1,870 of whom were civilians.
The Good Friday Agreement consists of two parts – a multi-party agreement between the Northern Ireland political parties and an agreement between the British and Irish governments. The multi-party agreement consists of a declaration of principles, including: Northern Ireland being a part of the UK; a choice of British or Irish citizenship or both; recognition that a majority wishes Northern Ireland to remain a part of the UK while a significant minority wishes Northern Ireland to be a part of Ireland and both views are legitimate; the status of Northern Ireland cannot change unless the majority express those wishes in a referendum.
The structure of the Executive is based on a consociational model developed by political scientist Arend Lijphart, with additional features. At the heart of this arrangement is executive power sharing. It consists of two chief executives in a devolved Northern Assembly – a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister with equal powers who cannot be removed by the Assembly but only by impeachment. They require the support of fifty percent of the Nationalists and fifty percent of the Unionists as well as fifty percent of the Assembly. This is an incentive to nominate candidates acceptable to both sides.
Members of the executive are selected according to the d’Hondt rule which means that parties get the right to nominate Ministers according to their respective strength in seats. Ministers enjoy executive powers and can operate without collective responsibility except where a programme has been agreed. There is no prescribed method of arriving at agreement but where the executive and First and Deputy First Ministers agree, the Assembly does as well.
The Good Friday Agreement has ended violence and even though sporadic violence still occurs occasionally. While the communities are still segregated, the relationship between Catholics and Protestants has improved considerably. The functioning of the Executive has been suspended from time to time over various disputes. The longest has been at the current time over the implementation of border demarcation due to Brexit. Significantly also, for the first time last year, the traditional Irish nationalist parties won more seats than the traditionalist unionist parties. Before the Good Friday Agreement, this would have led to violent confrontations. However, the results have been accepted the unionist parties. This was inconceivable 25 years ago when unionist and nationalist parties joined in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement amidst murderous distrust. A demand for trust before agreement would have prolonged the violence. The Good Friday Agreement converted distrust into trust.