Good Friday Agreement
In its dark days, when bombings and shootings scarred Northern Ireland with depressing inevitability and regularity, the thought of cross-party agreement and peace was fanciful.
Until the mid-90s, Northern Ireland’s divisions, polarised by religion and politics, entrenched with 30 years of bloodshed, showed no signs of healing. Any headway that dialogue had made in the battle to rid the province’s politics of the gun and bomb would be shouted down under the intractable antipathy between militant Republicans and Loyalists, and British and Irish governments failing to open a diplomatic seam that would allow Northern Ireland’s protagonists to become involved in reconciliatory politics.
Distrust and hatred, hardened through years of conflict and sectarian violence, would not shift overnight. Yet, on Good Friday, 1998, as the ink dried on the Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement), there was finally some accord. Both British and Irish Governments signed the Agreement – of the political parties in Northern Ireland, only the Democratic Unionist Party opposed it (Unionists on the whole were highly sceptic, but John Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party managed to secure enough support). When the Agreement was put to the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a May referendum, the ‘yes’ vote was emphatic – over 90 per cent in the South, over 70 in the North. The people wanted peace.
After years of false dawns, cautious optimism was mixed with jubilation as months of political sabre-rattling and intense bargaining brought concessions on all sides, paving the way for a power sharing executive that could allow a peaceful democratic political model to determine Northern Ireland’s future. The key word here is ‘cautious’; talks would eventually stall as a number of impasses reversed some and revised other parts othe Agreement.
Seventeen hours of talks saw the deadline for agreement come and go. But after 30 years of violence, what was a matter of hours? The Good Friday Agreement drafted in concessions from all sides. The core principals demanded a cessation of violence, after which prisoners from both Republican and Loyalist factions would be released. Another central tenet, more controversial, was that of decommissioning. The habit of paramilitary violence was one that died hard, taking years to abate – the very issue of the IRA destroying their stockpiles of assault rifles and plastic explosive was one that nearly derailed the Agreement. The IRA’s arms were the reason for the DUP’s opposition; Sinn Féin, it argued, were still endorsing militarism so long as munitions were available to the IRA. Yet, by the same token, Loyalist paramilitary violence was still visited upon the Catholic population. One of the most tense features of the decommissioning process would prove to be who would blink first, who would be the first to hand over ordnance without giving the allusion of ‘surrender’.
A human rights watchdog was to be set up. There would be legal recognition for the rights for any individual to express their identity, be it British or Irish. Policing would be somewhat revolutionised; for years, nationalists would view the Royal Ulster Constabulary with suspicion – Catholics were a tiny minority in the force, and for Northern Ireland to move on, a more representative police force was needed. The 1920 Government Of Ireland Act was repealed by the British government; and the Irish constitution was amended too. The workings of diplomacy depended on balancing concessions.
The release of prisoners justifiably angered the victims of the thousands who lost their lives in Northern Ireland’s Troubles . Especially as those imprisoned for killings would become involved in mainstream politics. But it ushered in a new era. That power sharing would be halted after the reemergence of the old Ulster demon of mistrust was perhaps inevitable. Yet the Belfast agreement was the blueprint for peace; it brought British and Irish governments together, bringing more pressure on all parties to stay committed to the peace process. And eventually, with its gravitational pull towards contrition from all sides, the peace process and power sharing would be restored, aligning itself with the principals set out on the 10th April 1998.
Ireland and Britain would work together like never before, and on the fault lines of Northern Ireland’s divisions, eventually Loyalist and Republicans would engage each other in debate rather than a gunfight. There would be huge rifts and suspension of the power sharing executive in the years to come, but this was progress, albeit cautious and measured progress.
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