Good Friday Agreement at 25: how did it happen and is it at risk?

5 min read

Monday marks 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended the sectarian violence and political conflict in Northern Ireland, known as “The Troubles”, which had claimed thousands of lives over the previous 30 years.

Ahead of the anniversary, former US president Bill Clinton, who helped broker the agreement, has warned that the Good Friday Agreement cannot be taken for granted, saying it was miraculous that the deal wasn’t destroyed by Brexit.

He said Britain’s departure from the EU had undermined the foundations of the 1998 accord that led to peace and self-rule in Northern Ireland. “The idea that it weathered Brexit is a miracle,” he told RTE, “because Brexit was aimed right at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, even if not intentionally.” 

The former president also urged both sides to find a way to resolve their differences and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to return to power sharing at Stormont. 

What was the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement prepared the ground for a devolved power-sharing model in a new 108-member Northern Irish assembly. Under its rules, no one party would be able to control the assembly, in an attempt to solve the longstanding religious tensions between Protestants, who make up the majority of the population of Northern Ireland, and Catholics.

It also created institutions linking Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland and Westminster, and laid out proposals for decommissioning paramilitary weapons and releasing paramilitary prisoners.

The deal was put to the vote across Ireland – and both Blair, who was then prime minister, and the Irish government knew it needed to earn significant support to be credible.

Ian Paisley’s DUP was the only major party to oppose the deal, fearing it would threaten Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain. Despite this, on 23 May 1998, the BBC reported that the referendum “returned a resounding ‘yes’ vote”. It was backed by 71% of people in Northern Ireland and 94% of those in the Irish Republic. Blair declared that it was “another giant stride along the path to peace, hope and the future”.

First elections to the new assembly were held in June 1998, with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour taking the largest share of the vote, followed by the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP and the nationalist Sinn Fein. 

The new executive model proved problematic and distrust between the parties led to the assembly being suspended several times. From 2002 until 8 May 2007, when the St Andrews Agreement was signed, Northern Ireland was once again directly ruled from Westminster.

Stalemate at Stormont

In January 2017, the power-sharing assembly collapsed due to the departure of deputy first minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, who resigned in protest at the DUP’s handling of a botched energy scheme. An election was held two months later, but Sinn Fein refused to rejoin the assembly without significant concessions from the DUP, notably making Irish an official language of Northern Ireland, something the DUP categorically ruled out.

Despite the best efforts of the UK Government, Bill Clinton and even the offer of help from then-president Donald Trump, both sides remained at loggerheads. Government departments ran a bare-bones service, as a result of Stormont civil servants and Westminster’s Northern Ireland ministers taking a greater decision-making role than normal. The stalemate ended in January 2020, just before the UK left the European Union.

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement

Although the Good Friday Agreement does not outline specific border arrangements between the two nations, it does enshrine “cross-border co-operation” as a key principle. Avoiding a hard land border once the UK left the EU was therefore a priority for all sides.

The UK and the EU signed the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the Brexit withdrawal because they agreed that protecting the Good Friday Agreement was an “absolute priority”, reported the BBC

However, the protocol, which was designed to work by keeping Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, immediately upset unionists who said it effectively put a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the Irish Sea.

The Windsor Framework

In a bid to resolve these problems, in February Rishi Sunak agreed a new Brexit deal with the EU to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has become known as the “Windsor Framework”.

This new deal establishes that most goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be exempt from customs and regulatory checks, provided they are certified as not meant for the EU market.

The framework was voted through by 515 votes to 29, despite a rebellion from some Tory MPs and “a backlash from members of the Democratic Unionist Party”, Sky News said. Labour backed the deal.

Despite the new agreement, the DUP has rebuffed all appeals to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, including those from Bill Clinton. “I think we should say, ‘Look, there’s something to work with here’,” he said. “The party that’s getting the most votes now [Sinn Fein] doesn’t want to jam you, they want to work with you to resolve these things.”

What next?

US President Joe Biden will pay a five-day visit to both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic next week to mark the 25th anniversary of the accord.

While details are still being resolved, Biden is scheduled to begin his trip on 11 April with an overnight stay at Hillsborough Castle, outside Belfast, before visiting the Stormont parliament, at the invitation of its caretaker speaker, Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin.

That “could prove controversial”, said Politico, “given that, barring a diplomatic miracle, the Northern Ireland Assembly and its cross-community government – a core achievement of the 1998 agreement – won’t be functioning” due to the DUP’s “long-running boycott”. 

But it may also be fitting. Northern Ireland’s relationship with both the EU and the rest of the UK is “destined to be bespoke, challenging and awkward – juggling a project about borders, Brexit, with an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” said BBC political editor Chris Mason. “While many in Northern Ireland are comfortable with that, some unionists will probably never be.”