25 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement put an end (for the most part) to decades of violence in Northern Ireland, known as the ‘Troubles’, which claimed the lives of over 3,500 people. The root of the bloody conflict was sown in 1921, when the Irish War of Independence between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British army came to an end. The Irish island was divided into two parts: an independent southern part with a Catholic majority, and a northern part, Northern Ireland, where Protestants formed the largest population group, which remained part of the United Kingdom.
The division led to clashes: a significant portion of the Northern Irish population was still Catholic, while Protestants held power. Northern Irish Catholics faced discrimination for years and began to revolt in the late 1960s.
The situation escalated rapidly: paramilitary groups on both sides carried out bombings and shootings. In 1969, the British army even sent troops to Northern Ireland, but they could not quell the violence.
The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, is a complex and comprehensive peace agreement that was reached on April 10, 1998, in Northern Ireland. It consists of several key elements that are essential to its overall framework. These include:
- Power-sharing: The Good Friday Agreement established a power-sharing arrangement that involves the establishment of a devolved government in Northern Ireland, where both Unionists (who generally support remaining part of the United Kingdom) and Nationalists (who generally support Irish reunification) share power. This ensures that both communities have a say in the governance of Northern Ireland.
- Consent: The agreement recognizes that any change in the status of Northern Ireland can only come about with the consent of the majority of its people. This means that any decision to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland must be made through a majority vote of its citizens.
- Equality: The Good Friday Agreement emphasizes the importance of equality and non-discrimination in Northern Ireland, including in areas such as employment, housing, and public services. It seeks to promote a society that is inclusive and respects the rights of all individuals, regardless of their religion, political affiliation, or background.
- Human Rights: The agreement incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into the law of Northern Ireland, ensuring that individuals in the region have access to internationally recognized human rights protections.
- Decommissioning of weapons: The agreement includes provisions for the decommissioning (disarmament) of paramilitary weapons, aimed at reducing the threat of violence and ensuring that political disputes are resolved through peaceful means.
- Cross-border cooperation: The Good Friday Agreement promotes increased cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, recognizing the importance of building positive relations and promoting economic, social, and cultural ties between the two jurisdictions.
- Reconciliation and Victims’ Issues: The agreement recognizes the need for healing and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, as well as the importance of addressing the needs of victims and survivors of the conflict, including through truth and reconciliation processes.
These are some of the essential elements of the Good Friday Agreement, which collectively aim to promote peace, stability, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
After the British intervention, the violence actually intensifies, particularly between the aforementioned IRA – the paramilitary group that seeks to detach Northern Ireland from the UK and achieve a united Ireland – and its counterpart, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The UDA fights for the Protestants who wanted to remain part of the UK.
1972 is considered the worst year of ‘The Troubles’. On January 30 of that year, known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, the British army shoots 28 unarmed demonstrators. Fourteen of them die. Six months later, another nine people are killed due to a series of IRA bombings.
From the 1980s onwards, there is increasing talk of peace. In 1994, this even leads to a ceasefire by the IRA and its loyalist counterparts, the UDA and UVF. However, with little success: the negotiations do not lead to any results, and the ceasefire is quickly violated.
That changes when Tony Blair comes to power in the UK in 1997. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Blair, the peace negotiations gain momentum. Sitting at the table are the British and Irish governments, as well as eight Northern Irish political parties, including Sinn Féin, which was the political arm of the IRA at that time.
On April 10, 1998, Good Friday, after several tense days, an agreement is reached. The Good Friday Agreement (or the Belfast Agreement) is signed. With the agreement, ‘The Troubles’ come to an end.
The Good Friday Agreement brings about significant changes. In the deal, it is established that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK but can join Ireland through a referendum if desired. It is also agreed that there will never be a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, the Northern Irish government is restructured: the administration must consist of both unionists (who wish to remain part of the UK) and republicans (who strive for a united Irish republic). This ensures representation for both groups, aimed at preventing potential conflicts.