In Depth

Good Friday Agreement: what is it and is it at risk?

Sinn Fein’s rise amid Northern Ireland Protocol row is a ‘critical moment’ for nation

Twenty-four years after Northern Ireland and Ireland resoundingly backed the Good Friday Agreement in a referendum, there are warnings that it might be in danger.

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.

The terms of the agreement

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, 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, 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 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 works by keeping Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, has upset unionists as they say it effectively puts a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the Irish Sea.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned it will “destroy the Good Friday Agreement”. Writing in the The Telegraph earlier this month, Lord Trimble, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Good Friday Agreement, also sounded warning, saying it “grieves” him that “the arrangements which I and others gave so much to achieve are in danger of collapsing, as a result of the imposition of the Northern Ireland Protocol”. 

The Times reported last week that Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, also accused the UK of taking the Good Friday agreement “for granted”. After Foreign Secretary Liz Truss proposed to unilaterally revoke parts of the protocol, Pelosi warned that the US “cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement” if the UK chose to undermine the Good Friday agreement.

After Sinn Féin won the most seats at the Northern Ireland Assembly election earlier this month, Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen's University Belfast, said the political institutions of the nation were under more threat than at any time in 24 years.

Calling the election a “critical moment”, she told Reuters that whatever happens next would be a “real test of the commitment of the British government and unionists [to] the accommodation made in the Good Friday Agreement”.

Hayward said the “prospects for stability” relied heavily on whether the British government carefully upholds the “letter and spirit” of the Good Friday Agreement or focused on the protocol.

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