After three decades of deadly conflict and almost two years of painstaking peace talks, the historic Good Friday Agreement was reached 20 years ago today.
If it held, it was hoped the new agreement could put an end to “The Troubles” which had blighted Northern Ireland with sustained sectarian violence and spread to mainland Britain in a series of horrific terrorist attacks. Several previous peace attempts had faltered and failed, but this time hopes were high that the agreement would hold.
Officially it was called the Belfast Agreement, but the final day of talks dragged on for more than 17 hours after the deadline for an agreement had passed. That took it into April 10th, 1998, which was also Good Friday and gave the new agreement its informal and somehow more fitting name.
The agreement was hailed as a triumph for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Republic of Ireland’s leader, Bertie Ahern. They had apparently succeeded where all their predecessors had failed, but the deal was far from done. Although the agreement had been reached and drawn up, it still required all sides in the long-running dispute to agree to it and then for it to meet with the approval of the Irish people on both sides of the border.
Even so, hopes were high, with Tony Blair telling reporters the agreement could mark a new beginning in Anglo-Irish relations: “Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last be lifted from our shoulders,” he said. His sentiments were echoed by Bertie Ahern, who said he hoped the new agreement would draw a line under “the bloody past”.
The agreement’s proposals, hammered out over two years of talks, included plans for a new Northern Ireland Assembly with substantially devolved powers. There would also be several new cross-border institutions involving the Irish Republic and a new body linking devolved assemblies across the UK with both London and Dublin.
The difficult job of chairing the talks had fallen to experienced negotiator and former US Senator George Mitchell who, crucially, was trusted by both sides. He paid tribute to all those who had taken part for their willingness to compromise and find common ground.
But there were still doubts over whether the agreement would hold and bring about a lasting peace between the unionists (who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK) and the nationalists (who wanted it to join with the Republican south, independent of any British control).
Gerry Adams, president of nationalist political party Sinn Fein, said there was still a huge gap of mistrust between the two sides: “It must be bridged on the basis of equality. We are here reaching out the hand of friendship,” he said. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble responded by saying: “I see a great opportunity for us to start a healing process.”
The next step was to distribute pamphlets outlining the main points of the Good Friday Agreement to every household in Ireland in readiness for a national referendum in May. It would ask people to vote ‘Yes’ if they backed the Agreement and ‘No’ if they rejected it, leaving the final decision not to the politicians, but to the people. When the result was in, it was a resounding ‘Yes’.
There was no shortage of teething troubles in implementing the Good Friday Agreement over the next few years. Disagreement over arrangements for policing, decommissioning of arms held by paramilitary groups on both sides, and several other issues led to the new Northern Ireland Assembly being suspended several times. But each obstacle was eventually overcome and there was no return to the all-out violence experienced in the worst years of ‘The Troubles’.
In the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, peace and stability have steadily returned to Northern Ireland, with only occasional instances of violence, mostly ascribed to paramilitary splinter groups opposed to the deal. The Northern Ireland Assembly has often negotiated stormy waters, and continues to do so.
Latest challenges include arrangements for post-Brexit border controls between the north and south of Ireland, since the southern Republic of Ireland will remain a member of the EU. But for those who lived through ‘The Troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement has delivered massive improvements.