The article is written by Tejaswini Kaushal, a student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. This article seeks to explain the historical, political, and sociological aspects of the Good Friday Agreement as well as its contemporary relevance.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
A set of agreements known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), officially known as the Belfast Agreement, was signed on April 10, 1998, and they largely put an end to the bloodshed of the political war that had been raging in Northern Ireland. This political conflict, raging since the late 1960s, was called “The Troubles”. It was a significant advancement in the 1990s Northern Ireland peace process. It consists of the British-Irish Agreement between the governments of Great Britain and Ireland and the Multi-Party Agreement, which was reached by the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland. The agreement serves as the foundation for the current devolved administration in Northern Ireland. To put the agreement into force, the people of both jurisdictions ratified it by a referendum.
The agreement placed a high priority on issues of sovereignty, administration, inequality, military organisations, justice, and surveillance. It also rebuilt self-government in Northern Ireland based on ‘power sharing’.
History of the Good Friday Agreement
Many of the island’s counties were still a part of the United Kingdom when the Irish Free State was created in 1922, in accordance with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. The population of Ireland has split into two major groups progressively afterwards:
- Unionists, also called Loyalists, who were content to stay in the UK
- Nationalists, also known as Republicans, wanted Northern Ireland to become independent from the UK and join the Republic of Ireland.
The majority of Unionists and Nationalists were Protestants. Northern Ireland’s administration at the time of its division was primarily Unionist. Protestants outnumbered Catholics in Northern Ireland back then.
The subsequent decades in Northern Ireland were characterised by disputes and tensions between those who supported the union with Britain and those who supported unification with the Republic of Ireland, which occasionally descended into bloodshed.
By the middle of the 1960s, Protestants in Northern Ireland had a demographic advantage that allowed them to control governmental institutions. At times, these authorities were exploited in ways that hurt the Roman Catholic minority there. The British government sent troops to help put an end to the urban violence when a vigorous civil rights movement formed in the late 1960s and incidences of community violence followed. Beginning in the early 1990s, there were still bombings, killings, and riots involving Catholics, Protestants, British police, and soldiers. In 1994, a provisional cease-fire was declared, although intermittent fighting persisted. Over 3,500 people lost their lives during the nearly 30-year-long time of conflict, trauma and unrest, dubbed the Troubles.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, there were significant political attempts made to put an end to the war. Ceasefires were announced and were later breached. The deal was reached after lengthy negotiations, complicated suggestions, and difficult concessions. There were several significant contributions. At the time, the leaders of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, respectively, were Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair. George J. Mitchell, a special envoy for the United States, presided over the negotiations.
On April 10, 1998 (Good Friday), representatives of Ireland, several political parties in Northern Ireland, and the British government signed an agreement that called for the creation of three “strands” of administrative links after multiparty negotiations began in June 1996. The first strand called for the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, an elected body in charge of the majority of local issues. The second was an institutional framework enabling the governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland to work together across borders on a variety of subjects. The third demanded that the British and Irish governments continue their discussions.
The accord was put to the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland in a vote that was jointly conducted there on May 22, 1998. The goal of the referendum in Northern Ireland was to endorse the multiparty negotiations’ agreement. The British-Irish Agreement was approved in the Republic of Ireland referendum, which made it easier to modify Ireland’s Constitution to reflect the Agreement. This was the first all-Ireland vote since 1918.
Both sides of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of the accord in these referendums. 56% of voters in the Republic cast ballots, and 94% of them supported the constitutional amendment. In Northern Ireland, 81% of voters participated in the election, and 71% supported the deal. Almost all Catholics who cast ballots supported the deal, as opposed to 57% of Protestants. However, the significant gap in support between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland (only 52% of Protestants supported the accord compared to 96% of Catholics) suggested that efforts to end sectarian violence would be challenging. The ensuing challenges in retaining the power-sharing executive are explained in part by the brittleness of cross-community support for some provisions of the agreement.
The most severe symptom of the split appeared in August 1998, when the Real IRA, a breakaway faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), bombed Omagh and murdered 29 people. Additionally, the Northern Ireland Executive, a division of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was supposed to comprise two ministers from Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA, was delayed due to the IRA’s refusal to decommission its weapons.
On December 2, 1999, new agreements between Ireland and Northern Ireland and between Ireland and the United Kingdom came into effect, and the Republic of Ireland amended its constitution to remove its territorial claims to the entire island of Ireland.
The agreement was reached between eight political parties or groups from Northern Ireland and the governments of Great Britain and Ireland. Three parties stood for unionism:
- The Ulster Unionist Party
- The Progressive Unionist Party, and
- The Ulster Democratic Party
Two were roughly categorised as nationalists:
- Sinn Féin, (affiliated with the Irish Republican Army), and
- The Social Democratic and Labour Party.
Two additional Assembly parties, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and the cross-community Alliance Party, existed apart from these competing traditions. The Labour Coalition was another organisation. The normalisation of Northern Ireland and the decommissioning of paramilitaries were among the most notable of these.
Structure of the Good Friday Agreement
The following two inter-related and co-dependent documents, both of which were approved in Belfast on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, make up the agreement:
- The Multi-Party Agreement: A multi-party accord signed by the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland.
- The British–Irish Agreement: An international agreement between the governments of Ireland and Britain.
The agreement had a complicated collection of terms pertaining to several topics, such as:
- Strand 1: The status of the political system of Northern Ireland.
- Strand 2: The connection between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
- Strand 3: The connection between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The British and Irish governments have a deal called the British-Irish Agreement. The Multi-Party Agreement included a commitment to the different institutions. Additionally, it outlines the shared stance on the present and future situation of Northern Ireland between the two administrations.
The British-Irish Agreement stipulates that both governments:
- “The principle of self-determination” was acknowledged, i.e., it provided legitimacy to whatever decision the people of Northern Ireland made over whether to remain a member of the United Kingdom or join a united Ireland.
- Acknowledged that a united Ireland can only be approved by the entire Irish island’s population if the majority of people agree on both sides of the Irish border.
- Acknowledged that the majority of Northern Ireland’s population wished to continue to be a member of the United Kingdom, despite the wishes of a sizable portion of Northern Ireland’s population for a united Ireland.
- Dedicated to formulating the required laws if the requirements for a unified Ireland were satisfied.
- Dedicated to treating all citizens of Northern Ireland fairly and impartially, regardless of the decisions they make.
- Fully respecting their civil and political rights as well as the social and cultural customs of both communities.
- Acknowledged that all people born in Northern Ireland had the freedom to choose whether to identify as Irish, British, or both and to have dual citizenship if they so desired. No matter how Northern Ireland’s status changes, this right will remain in effect.
The Agreement mandated alterations to both British law and the Irish Constitution. The Irish Constitution had a territorial claim to Northern Ireland prior to the Agreement. While the Irish people have a strong desire to unify the island, the new rules voted by referendum say that such changes may only be made with the permission of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions on the island. In accordance with the terms of the Agreement, adjustments were also made to reflect everyone born in Northern Ireland’s citizenship rights.
The Northern Ireland Act of 1998, which was passed by the British government, codified the right to self-determination and abolished the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which first divided the island of Ireland. When it looks likely that a majority of the populace will support a united Ireland, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is required to convene a referendum on the matter. If the referendum is unsuccessful, it will be at least 7 years before another attempt is made. The different institutions outlined in the Multi-Party Agreement have legal support thanks to the Northern Ireland Act of 1998.
The Irish Government, the British Government, and the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland have signed the Multi-Party Agreement. It then goes on to offer the framework for different political institutions while outlining the support of the signing parties to the principles of the British-Irish Agreement. There are three threads to it:
- Strand 1: Democratic Institutions in Northern Ireland
- Strand 2: North-South institutions
- Strand 3: British-Irish institutions
Strand 1: Democratic Institutions in Northern Ireland
Strand 1 focused on Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions and created two significant institutions:
- Northern Ireland Assembly
- Northern Ireland Executive
A devolved legislature for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly, requires cross-community votes for some significant issues. The D’Hondt method is used to divide up ministerial posts among the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, a power-sharing body.
The major institutions of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland are the Assembly and the Executive. The 90 members of the Legislative Assembly make up the democratically elected Assembly (MLAs). It is located in Stormont. The Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) method is used to elect MLAs. Initially, there were 108 members, with 6 MLAs for each constituency. But there are currently just 5 MLAs for each. Some Assembly votes need backing from many communities, thus either:
- A majority of designated nationalists and unionists (50%) must vote in favour, or
- 40% of recognised nationalists and designated unionists, who make up 60% of the electorate, vote in favour.
A First Minister, a Deputy First Minister, and up to 10 additional ministers make up the Executive. It is made up of individuals chosen by the Assembly, to which it must answer. The party with the most MLAs nominates the first minister, while the party with the second-most MLAs nominates the deputy first minister. The other ministers are assigned using a mechanism that assigns rights to ministerial jobs depending on the number of seats won by political parties (the D’Hondt method), while the Minister for Justice is chosen using the cross-community support procedure. The Good Friday Agreement establishes a code of behaviour for ministers, which they must always abide by. Health, agriculture, finance, education, infrastructure, and justice are all subject to legislative and executive action.
Strand 2: North-South institutions
The “north-south” concerns and institutions that should be established between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were the focus of strand 2. A North South Ministerial Council was established by the Good Friday Agreement so that ministers from Ireland and Northern Ireland could address issues that affected the entire island. The Ministerial Council meets in a variety of ways. It can convene as a full body with representatives from both jurisdictions’ ministries or on a smaller scale with just the ministers in charge of a certain policy area.
These institutions are:
- Ministerial North-South Council
- Inter-Parliamentary North-South Association
- Consultative North-South Forum
The North/South Ministerial Council consists of ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland. In twelve domains of shared interest, it was founded “to develop consultation, cooperation, and action.” These 12 domains then further get divided into two groups of six domains each. One comprises six domains where the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland create joint policies, but these are carried out independently in each jurisdiction, and the other six domains where they do so while using institutions that are common to the whole of Ireland. The Ministerial Council has decided on common policies for six domains, which must subsequently be implemented independently in each jurisdiction. These include education, agriculture, environment, tourism, health, and transport. Joint implementation organisations that function on an island-by-island basis exist in six other domains consisting of waterways, food safety, trade and business development, special EU programs, language (consisting of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster Scots Agency), as well as Foyle, Carlingford, and Irish Lights. Additionally, the North-South Agreement further states that the different “institutional and constitutional arrangements” within are “interlocking and interdependent.”
As part of the Agreement, the recently established Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish National Parliament (the Oireachtas) consented to the idea of establishing a joint parliamentary forum composed of equal numbers of representatives from both institutions. This forum was established as the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association in October 2012. The Inter-Parliamentary Association was established to promote communication between MLAs from Northern Ireland and members of the Irish Seanad and Dáil Eireann.
The political parties in Northern Ireland that supported the agreement were also asked to take into consideration the creation of an independent consultative forum made up of members chosen by the two administrations and representing civil society and with expertise in social, cultural, economic, and other issues. The North/South Consultative Forum’s general framework was agreed upon in 2002, and the Northern Ireland Executive decided in 2006 that it would support the forum’s creation.
Strand 3: British-Irish institutions
The Good Friday Agreement also mandated the creation of new British and Irish entities to encourage cooperation in areas of shared interest. Strand 3 focused on “east-west” concerns and the establishment of institutions between Ireland and Britain (as well as the Crown dependencies). Which are:
- Intergovernmental Conference between Britain and Ireland
- UK-Irish Council
- An extended British-Irish Interparliamentary Body
These were built on existing bodies that were already in use. It was decided that the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council and the Intergovernmental Conference established under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement would be replaced by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC). BIIGC was established “to promote bilateral cooperation at all levels on all matters of mutual interest within the competence of the UK and Irish Governments”. Irish and British ministers were present at the BIIGC. To encourage cooperation at all levels between the two governments, the conference takes the form of periodic meetings between the British and Irish ministers. The Government of Ireland may express opinions and make recommendations on issues that are not devolved to Northern Ireland. Both countries agreed that all conference decisions would be reached by consensus and that they would work hard to address any differences.
Ministerial representatives from the British and Irish governments, the devolved governments of the UK (Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), as well as the Crown dependencies, make up the British-Irish Council.
The most recent meeting was held at Farmleigh House, Dublin on March 23, 2022. Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney TD spoke on behalf of the Irish government. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, The Rt Hon Brandon Lewis CBE MP, and the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, The Rt Hon Conor Burns MP, were on hand to represent the Government of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland respectively.
It was proposed that the current British-Irish inter-parliamentary body be expanded upon under the agreement. The group exclusively included lawmakers from the British and Irish Parliaments before the accord. The agreement called for its expansion in 2001 to include representatives from all of the British-Irish Council’s members.
The agreement describes these institutional arrangements as being “interlocking and interdependent.” Being a member of the North/South Ministerial Council is described as “one of the essential responsibilities attaching to relevant posts” in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North/South Ministerial Council are specifically stated to be “so closely interrelated that the success of each depends on that of the other.”
Other domains covered by the agreement
The European Convention on Human Rights, which had not yet been codified in Ireland or the UK, received additional attention as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. Both nations later created human rights commissions, such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the predecessor to the present-day Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and enacted the Convention into domestic law.
The Good Friday Agreement’s signatories reaffirmed their dedication to the already underway process of dismantling weapons. In an effort to restore normalcy to society, the British Government also pledged to reduce the number of military personnel and their involvement in Northern Ireland. Various security installations were removed as part of this exercise.
Additionally, a nonpartisan commission was established to provide a report on the policing policies in Northern Ireland. Both the British and the Irish governments agreed, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, to the early release of a large number of detainees related to the Troubles, provided that the organisations to which they belonged continued to observe a ceasefire.
Status of Northern Ireland
The agreement acknowledged:
- That the majority of the people of North Ireland wanted to stay in the United Kingdom.
- That the majority of people on the island wanted to create a united Ireland.
The Irish Government acknowledged that both of these points of view are valid. In a legally binding international agreement for the first time, Northern Ireland was established to be a component of the United Kingdom. The agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland on the future of Northern Ireland left the question of its future sovereignty unresolved.
It was agreed that Northern Ireland would continue to be a part of the United Kingdom until a majority of its residents, as well as those of the Republic of Ireland, desired differently. In such cases, the governments of Great Britain and Ireland would have “a binding responsibility” to carry out that decision.
The Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which partitioned Ireland and proclaimed a territorial claim over the entirety of Ireland, was repealed by the British Parliament as a component of the agreement. The people of the Republic of Ireland amended Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland, which affirmed a territorial claim over Northern Ireland.
Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC)
Following the signing of a global agreement on November 25, 2003, the Irish and British governments created the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The Agreement stipulated the establishment of a novel independent agency to oversee and document the fulfilment of obligations linked to the process of security normalisation and the cessation of paramilitary action in Northern Ireland.
The IMC was founded in January 2004 with the following objectives:
- to keep an eye on and report on paramilitary activity (as required by Article 4 of the Agreement),
- to keep an eye on the British government’s efforts to normalise security in the North (as per Article 5 of the Agreement), and
- to take into account allegations that NI Assembly members are not committed to nonviolence or have broken their oath of office (as per Article 6 of the Agreement).
The IMC acknowledged that the process of security normalisation had finished in its reports to both governments. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which is noteworthy, affirmed that the paramilitary organisations that were dedicated to the peace process had stopped their terrorist activities and decommissioned their weapons, according to the IMC report.
The IMC was disbanded by ministerial order on March 30, 2011, after delivering its 26th and final report on March 12, 2011.
Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD)
The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was founded in 1997 to supervise the decommissioning of paramilitary organisations’ weapons.
The IICD successfully oversaw the decommissioning of the weapons of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and affiliated factions. The immunities related to the IICD’s activities were permitted to expire in February 2010. These exemptions allowed the IICD to work with paramilitary organisations to decommission weapons without having to worry about the involvement of those groups’ members being prosecuted. The government formally asked the IICD for a final report in April 2010 with the intention of abolishing the organisation later that month.
In March 2011, the IICD provided the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office with its final report. The IICD was later abolished on March 30, 2011, by Ministerial Order.
Equality and human rights
A commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights, and the religious liberties of everyone in the community” was stated in the agreement. The multi-party agreement acknowledged “the importance of respect, understanding, and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity“, particularly with regard to the Irish language, Ulster Scots, and the languages of Northern Ireland’s other ethnic minorities, which “all are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.”
Creating legal requirements for Northern Ireland’s public authorities to carry out their duties “with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity was set as a particular priority” was seen to be of particular importance by the British government. The British government agreed to create a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland legislation. The Irish government pledged to create an Irish Human Rights Commission and take “steps to further the protection of human rights in its jurisdiction“.
Many rights-based measures, such as a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, have not yet been completely implemented. On December 10, 2008, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission gave recommendations to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The process of enacting a Bill of Rights, however, has persistently lagged. The Agreement acknowledged multiple identities and varying political objectives.
Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
The British-Irish Agreement’s commencement orders took effect on December 2, 1999, officially transferring authority to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the North/South Ministerial Council, and the British-Irish Council. This marked the end of direct control from Westminster in Northern Ireland. The British-Irish Agreement stipulates in Article 4(2) that the two governments must notify one another in writing when all conditions for the British-Irish Agreement’s entry into force have been met.
The proclamation officially modifying Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution was signed shortly after the event. The British-Irish Agreement had come into effect at the time (including certain supplementary agreements concerning the Belfast Agreement).
With the understanding that decommissioning would start right away, the Assembly and Executive were eventually established in December 1999. However, due to a lack of progress, they were suspended after two months. They were then reinstated in May 2000 as the Provisional IRA’s decommissioning process finally got underway. There are other problems than decommissioning, such as continued paramilitary activities.
The cumulative impact of these issues diminished unionist trust in the accord, which was stated by the DUP, which was against the agreement. In the 2003 Assembly election, the DUP finally defeated the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which supported the agreement.
A deal to restore the institutions was negotiated in 2004 between the two administrations, the DUP, and Sinn Féin. Despite the failure of these negotiations, the governments still produced a paper outlining modifications to the Belfast Agreement, which they dubbed the “Comprehensive Agreement”. The Provisional Irish Republican Army’s inventory of weaponry has been fully deactivated and only the Loyalist Volunteer Force had deactivated any weapons among the loyalist paramilitaries. The St Andrews Agreement was reached after more discussions in October 2006. It laid out a roadmap to complete devolution of policing and justice as well as a reliable power-sharing framework, which was released in 2006. The Independent Decommissioning Body declared in 2005 that the IRA had been decommissioned. A power-sharing executive was once more constituted in May 2007 to oversee devolved concerns in Northern Ireland. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin served as the second Northern Ireland Executive’s deputy first minister, with Ian Paisley of the DUP serving as the first minister. The Northern Ireland Assembly was given policing and judicial responsibilities when the Hillsborough Agreement was signed in 2010, and it officially started operating later that year. It also contained a deal on divisive parades, which had long-running disputes amongst groups.
The Northern Ireland Executive parties and the British and Irish governments had discussions in 2014 that led to the Stormont House Agreement, which was signed in December of that year. The Stormont House Agreement intends to promote both economic regeneration and racial reconciliation in Northern Ireland while addressing a wide range of political, social, and societal challenges. In order to do this, both the Government and the British Government made a number of financial obligations. A new institutional structure for addressing the past is also to be established under the Stormont House Agreement.
After 10 weeks of negotiations led by the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, ‘A Fresh Start – The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan’ was approved in November 2015. The Stormont House Agreement was mostly implemented under the terms of the Fresh Start Agreement, but it also addressed the legacy and ongoing effects of paramilitarism.
Unfortunately, during the timeframe of the Fresh Start negotiations, an agreement could not be reached on how to carry out the Stormont House Agreement’s clauses that dealt with the consequences of the past.
The Stormont devolved government disintegrated on January 9, 2017, as required by the Agreement if a new leader is not named. The DUP and Sinn Féin won the most seats in the election, which was called by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This triggered a countdown of negotiations between the two leaders before the devolved government could be reinstated. The Executive was reinstated in January 2020. The Good Friday Agreement’s institutions were still not functioning sustainably in 2017 after the power-sharing Executive fell apart, and neither the Assembly nor the Executive convened for three years.
Belfast agreement versus Sunningdale agreement
- The Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 may have been all that was offered in the Belfast Agreement, i.e., the Good Friday Agreement as well since Seamus Mallon described it as “Sunningdale for slow learners.” As expressed by Mallon, there are major variations between the two agreements, both in terms of substance and the events surrounding their development, execution and administration.
- Political scientists like Richard Wilford and Stefan Wolff have disputed this claim. He contends that the main issues left out by Sunningdale, like appreciation of both national identities, the concept of self-determination, intergovernmental cooperation, and the legal procedures to facilitate power-sharing, are addressed by the Belfast Agreement. Stefan Wolff notes the following parallels and variations between the topics covered in the two accords, including the following:
- Number of signatories
- Reform of the policing system
- Consent principle
- Bill of Rights
- Abandonment of violence
- Security co-operation
- The institutional role of the Republic of Ireland
- Cross-border cooperation
- Intergovernmental cooperation
- Devolution of powers
- Recognition of both identities
- Inter-island cooperation
The last three bases of differentiation are applicable to the Belfast agreement but not to the Sunningdale agreement.
- According to writer Tommy McKearney, a former IRA member, the fundamental difference is the British government’s desire to broker a holistic agreement that includes both the IRA and the most hardline unionists. The legal author, Austen Morgan lists two restrictions on the right to self-determination. First, the UK and Irish governments must come to an international agreement before any land may be ceded from one state to another. Second, the people of Northern Ireland require the support of the citizens of Ireland, their neighbouring state, as well as the Irish government to bring about a united Ireland. Morgan further noted that the 1998 deal and the ensuing British law did specifically envisage the prospect of a united Ireland, unlike the Sunningdale-designed Ireland Act of 1949 and the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973.
Good Friday Agreement’s impact on the UK
The constitutional text of the UK and Ireland, according to legal analyst David Allen Green, is “of more everyday relevance than hallowed texts like, say, the Magna Carta of 1215 or the 1689 Bill of Rights“.
The Good Friday Agreement has de facto been incorporated into the British Constitution since it restricts the British government on a number of legal issues in Northern Ireland. The Agreement necessitated the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 since it requires the government to embody the European Convention on Human Rights in legislation and gives inhabitants of Northern Ireland access to the European Court of Human Rights. Therefore, the Agreement played a crucial role in avoiding the repeal of that Act and its replacement with the promised British Bill of Rights.
In R (Miller) v. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (2017), it opined that the Agreement indicated that the approval of Northern Ireland’s voters was necessary to leave the European Union since the Agreement refers to the UK and the Republic of Ireland as “partners in the European Union“. The UK Supreme Court unanimously concluded that this was not the case, yet the Agreement nonetheless had a significant impact on how Brexit turned out.
The EU created a position paper outlining its worries over the Good Friday Agreement during the talks on Britain’s anticipated 2019 separation from the European Union. Several concerns were mentioned in the report, such as avoiding a hard border, North-South cooperation, citizenship, and the Common Travel Area. After Brexit, anyone born in Northern Ireland and eligible for Irish citizenship will be allowed to keep their EU citizenship. To go to the second round of Brexit negotiations, the UK was required by the European Union’s negotiating guidelines to persuade the other EU members that these issues had been addressed.
The UK Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, agreed to protect the Agreement in its entirety and to maintain full alignment with the Internal Market and Customs Union rules with the acknowledgement that “the United Kingdom would maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.” This clause was a component of a UK-EU agreement that the British parliament three times rejected. Boris Johnson, Theresa May’s replacement, demanded that the “Irish backstop” be taken out of the divorce deal. The agreement that Johnson negotiated on October 17, 2019, replaces the Irish backstop with the new Northern Ireland Protocol.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the House of Commons that the British government intended to break international law in a “specific and limited way” by implementing new power and influence in September 2020, during ongoing negotiations with the EU over future trade agreements. In December 2020, the bill was passed without the contentious sections.
Some Brexit backers have criticised the British government for building a commercial border between the island of Ireland and Britain or near the Ireland sea. They claim that customs and other controls have been placed on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland in order to prevent a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland. They also claim that Northern Ireland is still included in the EU Single Market and Customs Union for many purposes, but is subject to a regulatory framework over which it has no control.
Loyalist organisations announced in March 2021 that they were provisionally withdrawing their support for the deal. The Loyalist Communities Council advised unionists to continue their democratic and peaceable resistance to the protocol.
Criticisms of the Good Friday Agreement
The Agreement was a political tool used to address the fragmented politics of a divided community and to support the conclusion of a war. Conflict, politics, and society are three domains where advancement is intertwined. There was a desire for the division to lessen. It has to some extent in society, though advancement is currently in jeopardy. It is less so in politics.
Devolved power-sharing governance was not the only topic covered by the Agreement, but it has received the most attention. The institutions had issues right away. It wasn’t until late 1999 that a power-sharing government was constituted. It failed in late 2002 due to unionist opposition to working with Sinn Féin while the IRA remained active. There has also been a political downward spiral since January 2020, which has resulted in a sharp polarisation of opinion in Northern Ireland. With few outspoken supporters in the political sphere, the spirit of cooperation that was formerly prominent in politics and occasionally gained votes is wilting.
The following issues have been seen to be the major drawbacks of the agreement:
- Respect issues
Numerous underlying conflicts regarding British and Irish identities are summed succinctly by the word “respect”. Nationalism peaked in Ireland always, until recently, when it seemed as though nationalism was on the decline. Nevertheless, recent election results indicate the opposite is true. However, very few Unionist leaders, as well as the British government most recently, have argued for parity of respect.
Similarly, Unionists frequently allege that Sinn Féin disregards the validity of Northern Ireland’s existing status as a member of the United Kingdom, which was created in the Agreement. The absence of its MPs from Westminster results in the absence of a nationalist voice. The party even shies away from using the name ‘Northern Ireland’. The lack of trust that results from the commitment of both major parties to the Agreement is what fuels the polarisation of opinion.
- Narrow vision
Despite the efforts of many, a political culture mostly centred on the past has always influenced how the Agreement institutions function, without much creation of any vision for the future of Northern Ireland.
Indeed, there hasn’t been much interest in debating, much less addressing, and challenging matters of public policy and the safeguards offered by the constitutional framework frequently brought the institutions to a standstill.
Even though it is largely supported, the goal of reducing sectarianism and forging a “shared future” has only been half-heartedly pursued in Northern Ireland, where the economy is still weak and highly dependent on Treasury transfers and where social issues are severe.
- Ineffective power-sharing structure
The power-sharing administration produced fewer results than it could have and frequently came to be seen as a tedious process to both insiders and outsiders. Although seldom proven, persistent rumours of improper behaviour, if not outright corruption, contributed to the institutions’ poor public image, which was far from the optimism of the Agreement’s early years.
Politics, therefore, became a niche activity from which a large portion of the general public, particularly younger people, felt alienated—possibly even more so than elsewhere. With notable exceptions, civil society remained silent because of a common dread of upsetting the political establishment.
- Inconsiderate authorities
In the past, the British and Irish governments consistently intervened in politics, occasionally with assistance from the US. For numerous decades, this was a top focus for London’s and Dublin’s various administrations. Naturally, there was a reversal after devolution in favour of allowing Northern Ireland’s leaders to settle their own conflicts.
Recently, the British government seems to have paid little attention to Northern Ireland’s political unrest. Its stance could be a reflection of attitudes in Britain, where support for the Northern Ireland connection has never been particularly strong. Nationalists now more than ever view the British administration as biassed and partisan. It faces further difficulties cooperating with the Irish government, the alliance that has fostered political advancement.
The New Decade, New Approach agreement, which offers a well-balanced package to make Northern Ireland’s politics and government more open, responsible, stable, and inclusive, was offered to the Northern Ireland political parties by the British and Irish governments on January 9, 2020.
The power-sharing Executive and Assembly were reinstated on January 11, 2020, with participation from all five of Northern Ireland’s major political parties, in accordance with the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
The Government, along with the British Government, issued a number of financial and other obligations related to the proposed deal. As part of its commitments, the Irish government has agreed to work with the North South Ministerial Council to advance initiatives that will benefit citizens of the entire island, such as enhancing connectivity between the North and South and making investments in border communities and the region’s North West.
The government is eager to work with the British Government to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement’s entire promise of peace, relationships, and reconciliation is fulfilled, especially through the East/West institutions of the Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement was a significant advancement in the 1990s Northern Ireland peace process. This multilateral agreement, consisting of the British-Irish Agreement between the governments of Great Britain and Ireland and the Multi-Party Agreement, which was reached by the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland, has been revolutionary to a certain extent. Over the past 30 years, the peace process has been effective in putting an end to the Troubles. Despite the crucial role it played in putting an end to the protracted battle, it has not been able to fully solve the issue. There have been several repercussions and criticism of the agreement as well. Despite being intended to ensure long-term peace in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement appears to have fallen short of its goal.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
What is the Good Friday Agreement?
A set of agreements known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), sometimes known as the Belfast Agreement, were signed on April 10, 1998, and they largely put an end to The Troubles.
What are the Troubles?
The Troubles are the political war that had been raging in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s.
What is the structure of the agreement?
The agreement consists of two inter-related and co-dependent documents i.e. the Multi-Party Agreement and the British–Irish Agreement. The agreement had a complicated collection of terms pertaining to several topics divided into three strands.
What are the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement?
- Strand 1: The status of the political system of Northern Ireland
- Strand 2: the connection between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
- Strand 3: the connection between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
What is the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC)?
The Agreement stipulated the establishment of a new, independent agency to oversee and document the fulfilment of obligations linked to the cessation of paramilitary action and the process of security normalisation in Northern Ireland.
What is the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD)?
The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was founded in 1997 to supervise the decommissioning of paramilitary organisations’ weapons.
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