In Depth

What is the Good Friday Agreement - and is it at risk?

Landmark peace accord could be in danger if a no-deal Brexit brings a hard border back to Ireland

Angela Merkel has reassured Ireland that Germany will do all it can to ensure that Brexit does not threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland.

On a visit to Dublin, the German Chancellor attended a roundtable discussion with local people from both sides of the Irish border to hear about the impact of a return to a hard border in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Speaking afterwards, Merkel said that listening to those affected had reinforced her commitment to take all possible steps to avoid a return to the former division.

“A heavy death toll has been paid here in the Troubles,” she said. “What I have heard here will encourage me further to explore ways and means to continue to explore this peaceful coexistence.”

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar is one of many who believe that the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to decades of conflict between republican and loyalist factions, are incompatible with border controls

The Taoiseach has said there are “difficulties in protecting both the Single Market and the Good Friday peace agreement while preventing a hard Irish border”, says the BBC

Despite encouraging words from Westminster, Dublin and Brussels, how those difficulties will be resolved remains unclear.

So what is the Good Friday Agreement - and is it in danger?

What is the Good Friday Agreement?

Also known as the Belfast Agreement, this complex accord laid out how Northern Ireland would be governed. It was signed on 10 April 1998 and sought to put an end to 30 years of the Troubles. Largely, it succeeded but now faces fresh challenges that will test it to the limit.

What were the terms?

The 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, as well as 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, the agreement secured the support of 71% of voters in Northern Ireland and 94% in the Republic.

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.

What about now?

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January 2017, when 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 in March, 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 has categorically ruled out.

Despite the best efforts of the UK Government, former US president Bill Clinton, who was instrumental in brokering the original Good Friday Agreement, and even the offer of help from Donald Trump, both sides remain at loggerheads.

Government departments have continued to run 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.

However, many fear that Northern Ireland currently does not have the infrastructure to cope with the fallout of no-deal Brexit without a return to direct rule, the BBC reports. 

Theresa May has admitted that implementing a no-deal Brexit in Northern Ireland in its present state would “require some form of direct application of powers here from Westminster”.

How would a hard border affect the GFA?

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.

Katy Hayward, reader in sociology at Queen's University Belfast, told the BBC that the current frictionless border is seen by both communities as a “bellwether” of peaceful relations.

“Avoiding a hard border has been put at the heart of this process as a priority for both the UK and EU because they recognise the symbolism of the current openness of the border,” she said.

Speaking last year on the 20th anniversary of the GFA, George Mitchell, who as US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland chaired the talks, warned that a perfect storm of direct rule and a hard border could lead to “serious trouble” in community relations.

A physical division between the nations could mean that “stereotyping resumes, demonisation resumes and people turn inward”, with tensions further exacerbated by the power vacuum at Stormont, he said.

In addition, Westminster Brexiteers are “wilfully ignorant” if they imagine that “the nationalist population in border areas would tolerate cameras and electronic devices used to monitor the border where it cuts through their fields and villages”, writes The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. 

“If customs are sent they will need police to protect them and the police in turn will need the army. We will be back to a militarised frontier,” he says.

A report published in February by Irish senator Mark Daly and Unesco chairmen Professors Pat Dolan and Mark Brennan was clear that the issue of a resurgence of sectarianism was a question of “when” rather than “if” in the event of a hard border. 

“There will be a return to violence in Northern Ireland in the event of the installation of infrastructure, custom checks and security on the Irish border,” they wrote, adding: “The only issue is the scale of the violence.”


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