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Northern Irish House of Parliament

25 years on: Looking back at the Good Friday Agreement

Image: Parliament Buildings in Belfast, Northern Ireland | KarlM Photography / Shutterstock.com

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, one of the great turning points in the modern history of the United Kingdom. But just what was it, and why was it so significant?

The bloody before

By the time the Good Friday Agreement came about, both Northern Ireland and England had endured years of violence – a brutal, blood-soaked era known universally as ‘the Troubles’.

The partition of Ireland back in the 1920s resulted in the creation of the self-governing Irish Free State (forerunner of the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. When it came to important issues like jobs, housing and political representation, the largely Catholic nationalist/republican population of Northern Ireland had long felt discriminated against by the largely Protestant unionist/loyalist population.

In the 1960s, many young republicans consciously emulated the Civil Rights Movement underway in the United States, embarking on marches and other forms of protest. This caused pushback by unionists, many of whom saw the civil rights campaign as a front for Irish republicanism (the desire by nationalists to cast off British rule and create a united Ireland).

The late 1960s saw violent clashes break out between the republicans and the unionists, leading to British troops being deployed to Northern Ireland. This is regarded as the start of the Troubles, which over the following decades saw lethal battles play out between paramilitary groups such as the Provisional IRA (on the republican side) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (on the unionist side).

Terrorist bombings were also carried out in both Northern Ireland and England, and the body counts included militants, politicians, soldiers and civilians alike. There were also attempts by the IRA to assassinate prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

The Downing Street Declaration

Behind-the-scenes negotiations had been held between various factions on either side of the sectarian divide in the 80s and early 90s. A turning point came on 15th December 1993, when John Major and Albert Reynolds, Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, issued the Downing Street Declaration.

The Declaration emphasised their nations’ determination to ‘overcome the legacy of history’ and ‘heal the divisions which have resulted’. Major asserted that the British government had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’, and that the people of Ireland had the right to determine whether or not they wanted to unite the ‘North and South’.

The Declaration signalled a new thaw in relations between opposing factions. The following year, both the IRA and unionist paramilitary forces agreed to a ceasefire. Albert Reynolds even publicly shook hands with Gerry Adams, who was president of Sinn Fein, the political party widely regarded as the public face of the IRA.

Hostilities resume

The thaw was not to last. Republican forces balked at the British government’s insistence that the IRA had to fully disarm before Sinn Finn could be allowed to join peace talks. To the IRA, this was tantamount to surrendering before negotiations had even begun. Gerry Adams warned that the issue could overturn the ceasefire, and that’s exactly what happened.

On 9th February 1996, the IRA released a statement saying that they were to resume militant activities, blaming the British government and unionist leaders for acting in ‘bad faith’ and ‘squandering this unprecedented opportunity to resolve the conflict’.

That same night, a bomb was detonated in London’s Docklands. Although a warning was given, two members of the public were killed. According to one police officer, the enormous explosion turned the area into a ‘scene of utter devastation… like a scene from the apocalypse.’

On 15th June, the IRA attacked Manchester in what was the biggest bomb explosion since World War II. Thanks to advance warnings, nobody was killed, but the detonation caused hundreds of injuries and hundreds of millions of pounds in damage.

The Good Friday Agreement

The next major turning point came in May 1997, when the UK general election ushered in a new government under new prime minister Tony Blair. He indicated that Sinn Fein could be included in official discussions, and Sinn Fein later called on the IRA to commit to a new ceasefire. This happened on 19th July, paving the way for Sinn Fein to join peace talks.

These talks, which featured key organisations from republican and unionist sides, led to the historic Good Friday Agreement. Signed on 10th April 1998, and given the seal of approval by public referendums, the Agreement created a new devolved government in Northern Ireland that represented republican and unionist sides in a power-sharing structure.

Under the terms of the Agreement, the Republic of Ireland formally relinquished territorial claims over Northern Ireland, while the UK formally agreed to allow Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland if such a decision was democratically decided. The various parties also pledged to use their influence to ensure paramilitary groups were disarmed.

The aftermath of the Agreement

Dissident groups opposed to the peace process continued to carry out acts of violence – the most devastating example being the Omagh car bombing, which was committed by republican splinter group the Real IRA on 15th August 1998 and claimed 29 lives.

However, despite the best efforts of the dissidents, the Good Friday Agreement provided the lasting framework for a new era of relative peace after so many years of anguish and frustration.

Two of the key architects of the Agreement, unionist David Trimble and republican John Hume, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, reflecting the scale of their achievement, which continues to be felt today.