BLOG: The Good Friday Agreement at 20

Eamonn O’Kane is a Reader in Conflict Studies at the University of Wolverhampton.  He is co-author (with Paul Dixon) of Northern Ireland Since 1969 and is currently writing a book on the Peace Process for MUP.

This post was written as part of a series reviewing the GFA for the Political Studies Association's Insight Blog.  The posts can be read at: 

www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/blog 

 

Anniversaries are a time to take stock and the twentieth anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is leading to increased analysis and reflection.  As we move further away from the Troubles period what is striking is how the peace process has not followed the trajectory that many originally believed, and indeed intended, it would.  The original idea was that the GFA would result in a power-sharing government led by the ‘moderates’; the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).  The two parties who had been instrumental in negotiating the Agreement.  However, the failure to secure IRA decommissioning in the years immediately following 1998, along with the unpopularity of issues such as the changes to policing in Northern Ireland and the freeing of prisoners as part of the deal, undermined support for the Agreement within the Unionist community.  This resulted in the UUP being overtaken as the largest party in Northern Ireland by Ian Paisley’s more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which had refused to participate in the GFA negotiations.  During the same period the SDLP saw themselves overtaken as the largest nationalist party by Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA. 

Sinn Féin had refused to take part in the section of the negotiations into what the new devolved government would look like in Northern Ireland claiming they would not support a partitionist structure.  In the post violence phase nationalists were willing to electorally embrace Sinn Féin in a way that they had not been prepared to do whilst the IRA pursued its ‘armed struggle’.   As a result of these electoral changes, securing stable devolved government looked unrealistic around the time of the fifth anniversary with Tony Blair describing the idea of a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin as ‘pie in the sky’. Five years later, at the tenth anniversary, the picture was more optimistic.  The IRA had by then officially declared an end to its campaign, apparently completely decommissioned its weapons and agreed to support the Police Service; the DUP had abandoned its resolution never to share power with Sinn Féin and the region had just witnessed a year of devolved government led by Ian Paisley as First Minister and the former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, as his Deputy.

The new devolved structures, whilst not short of crises, proved resilient and at the time of the fifteenth anniversary in 2013 they remained intact.  The picture now, at the twentieth anniversary, is somewhat different.  Devolution collapsed in January 2017 when Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.  Whilst this may have been the catalyst for the collapse, it has since been dwarfed by the disagreement over the issues of the introduction of an Irish language act, how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles and the question of introducing same sex marriages.  Alongside these crises the question of the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland and the DUP’s confidence and supply deal with the Conservative government at Westminster have further complicated the situation.  At the time of writing it appears that Northern Ireland is likely to be subject to the re-introduction of direct rule on a sustained basis; the exact situation that the GFA was designed to remove.

There are still positive results of the peace process.  The security situation in Northern Ireland has obviously improved significantly.  Although it is a crude indicator, it is worth noting that in the 20 years up to 1998 (1978-1997) an average of over 71 people were killed each year in security related incidents. In the 20 years since 1998 (1998-2017) the average death rate was just over 8 people per year.  If we look for the statistics for the past 10 years (2008-2017) the average is just over two people per year.  But Northern Ireland is still a region blighted by paramilitary activity.  In the past two years (March 2016-February 2018) there have been 53 bombing incidents, 136 paramilitary style assaults (so called ‘punishment beatings’) and 50 non-fatal shootings by paramilitaries; 313 people were arrested under the terrorism Act (although only 34 were subsequently charged). 

At the twentieth anniversary then the situation is in some respects bleaker than recent years due to the fact that the political structures have collapsed and little progress is being made on how they can be restored.  It is also the case that in many respects Northern Ireland has become a more segregated place since the violence ended.  In terms of looking for more optimistic indicators the fall in violence over the past twenty years is obviously a boon, and indeed one of the primary objectives of the peace process was to end the violence.  What happens next is very hard to predict.  A striking aspect of Northern Ireland’s politics in recent decades has been the sporadic pragmatism of the political parties.  The current situation is indeed a worrying impasse but another pragmatic fudge may be found to keep the process going.  Despite all its flaws there are no real obvious alternatives to the structures created under the GFA.  Long-term direct rule is not the preference of any of the main parties in Northern Ireland or the British or Irish governments, so the quest for a way to resolve the current impasse will continue.  As the BBC’s Mark Devenport noted when the last round of talks collapsed in February this year, the ‘process has plenty of commas, but no full stops’. But the parties should be mindful of the fact that when direct rule was introduced in 1972 it was also not the long-term preference of any of the parties or governments; on that occasion, it took over three decades to restore stable devolved government to Northern Ireland.  It’s a fool-hardy person who would predict what the situation will look like on the twenty-fifth anniversary.    

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