Lost in the Shuffle: Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement Twenty Years On

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in Belfast on 10th April 1998. The agreement ended a thirty-year, sectarian civil-war between a majority-Catholic Nationalist community supportive of a United Ireland and the majority-Protestant Unionist community who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom and the British state. Despite ending the conflict in which 3,532 people died, the milestone diplomatic agreement is threatened by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

The Troubles’ inception is rooted historically in how the British ignored the 1918 Irish referendum in which the population overwhelmingly voted for independence. Lloyd George’s government opted instead for partitioning six counties with a majority Protestant population and a desire to remain in the to create a state founded on Anglican superiority. The systematic discrimination that the minority-Catholic population faced in the newly-founded state of Northern Ireland from 1922 onwards eventually culminated in a civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Demands were met with a violent backlash from the unionist community who perceived demands for equality as an attack on unionist culture. The formation of paramilitary organisations and the involvement of the British state escalated into a thirty-year guerrilla conflict until it was ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.

A faded mural referencing “The Troubles”, Belfast.

By committing all parties to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community” and the British government agreeing to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into the law of Northern Ireland, the pact ended the conflict. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were the only major political organisation that did not support it and attempted to block its implementation.

Despite ushering in the longest period of peace in Northern Ireland’s history, there is recent contention surrounding the Good Friday Agreement resulting from Britain’s exit from the European Union. Theresa May’s portrayal of Brexit as the central issue in the 2017 general election resulted in a hung parliament, forcing the Tory party to form a minority government with the DUP. Not only did such an arrangement come at great expense to the taxpayer – £1 billion for the votes of 10 MPs in parliament. By entering such an arrangement, Theresa May seems to have violated the role of the British government as defined in the Good Friday Agreement, namely maintaining ‘rigorous impartiality’ in relation to both nationalist and unionist communities as co-guarantors of the agreement with the Irish government.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish President Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement, 10th April 1998. Credit: BBC News

Considering Arlene Foster’s comments this week regarding Brexit negotiations that the Good Friday Agreement ‘is not sacrosanct’, it is apparent why there is worry surrounding the threat of the agreement being undermined. It should be remembered that the DUP leader left the Ulster Unionist Party in 1998 over their support for the agreement. It is inconceivable how the UK government’s insistence on leaving the Customs Union can result in anything other than a hard-border between the North and the Republic of Ireland. It has been suggested that such a move, supported by both Brexiteers in the Cabinet and DUP, threatens to undermine the peace created by the Good Friday Agreement itself. The creation of infrastructure along the border will be perceived by dissident Republicans as symbolically unacceptable. The IRA border campaign of the 50s and 60s was premised on the notion such infrastructure would be built and preserved.

A commitment to the continued protection of the agreement and the peace it ensured would be a particularly apt celebration on its 20th anniversary. However, the Government must recognize that when they voted to leave the EU, few considered voting to drag the North of Ireland back into the Civil War of the past.

Austin O’Neil