The signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in Northern Ireland’s peace process was supposed to bring an end to the decades-long conflict known as “The Troubles”. However, with the threat level of Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Great Britain being raised from “moderate” to “substantial” in May this year, the success of the GFA must be called into question.
Before examining the legacy of this document, however, some historical context is needed to better understand its principles and aims.
Northern Ireland as a political entity first came into existence in 1921, following the Act of Partition. This act saw Ireland divided in two: 26 counties formed the new Republic of Ireland, while the remaining 6 were to remain part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. This division was largely decided on the demographic divisions of the nation, as Unionists who favoured retention of the Union with Britain were concentrated largely in the North, while Nationalists who desired an independent Ireland were to be found mainly in the South.
For Northern Ireland this meant a new Parliament of Northern Ireland was created, that was intended to deal with the region’s issues. Dominated by Unionists, the Nationalist minority in Northern Ireland lacked a significant political voice, and tensions between the two groups grew. These tensions exploded in the late 1960s after peaceful protests for civil rights turned violent when hard-line Unionists attacked protesters. This in turn sparked the emergence of paramilitary groups on both sides of the political divide, as well as the deployment of the British Army in Northern Ireland.
The conflict between these three groups (“The Troubles”) was to define Northern Ireland throughout the 70s, 80s, and much of the 90s, with attempts at resolving the conflict ultimately failing. The conflict seemed set to continue, until a breakthrough in peace talks in the late 1990s lead to an agreement that finally seemed to bring peace to Northern Ireland- this was the Good Friday Agreement.
Signed in 1998 by the majority of Northern Irish political parties, as well as the British and Irish governments, the Agreement laid out a devolution settlement for Northern Ireland based on the principle of consociationalism. This meant that, unlike the previous Parliament of Northern Ireland established alongside the partition of Ireland, the new Northern Irish Assembly guaranteed enforced equality of representation in public office under a system of proportional representation; those from both Nationalist and Unionist communities would be given a fair opportunity to express their political opinions, as long as they did so peacefully.
Has the GFA truly healed divisions in Northern Ireland, however? Probably not. Since 1998 the Assembly has been suspended by the British government four times, with the most recent suspension lasting five years (2002-2007). This suspension lead to amending of the Good Friday Agreement, as it was not providing a basis for stable government among the main Northern Irish political parties: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Sinn Fein (SF), and the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Furthermore, paramilitary groups did not fully disarm until the late 2000s, with both sides accusing each other of continuing to engage in terrorist activities. Indeed, dissident groups remain active today. In short, the GFA has not allowed Northern Ireland to move on from its past.
This was highlighted most recently in August of last year, when the Assembly entered a crisis over the murder of a former IRA prisoner, Kevin McGuigan, by Republican dissidents. The UUP walked out of government after accusing Sinn Fein of being complicit in the murder, with the DUP threatening to follow. In an attempt to resolve hostilities, a new “Fresh Start” agreement was signed, which offered solutions to the ever present divide between Nationalists and Unionists.
As part of this “Fresh Start” a new official opposition has been created in the Assembly, and following the most recent election, the SDLP and UUP have taken up this role. The idea of an opposition seems to fly in the face of this “Fresh Start”, and indeed the GFA itself. How can cooperation be fostered when the legislature is divided down the middle, with both halves attempting to paint the other in a poor light?
The news is not all grim however. There is evidence the politics of the past is being put aside in favour of new, more progressive voices. In 2016, the Green Party increased its number of seats in the Assembly, while the Socialist People Before Profit Alliance gained two seats; the proportional representation system has allowed for these new voices to be heard. Similarly, the process of removing peace walls in Belfast which serve as a physical reminder of division has begun in earnest.
Ultimately, there is a long way to go to heal the wounds inflicted by the conflict in Northern Ireland. While efforts have been made, the task of building bridges and mending relations will be a long and difficult one. The way forward may not be entirely clear, but I am confident that the people of Northern Ireland can find a way to let go of the bitter memories of the past and open a new chapter in Northern Ireland’s history.