|The Architects of the Agreement|
Following the General Election a few days ago (as of writing) to bolster her minority government Theresa May has planned to enter a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP is a hard-right Northern Irish party which wishes to make abortions illegal, wishes to reimpose the death penalty, is virulently homophobic, believe that evolution is not real, and are climate change deniers just to name some of their views. More importantly many people have questioned the safety of the Good Friday Agreement with their main opponents, Sinn Féin, also saying this. What is the Good Friday Agreement though? This is what we shall discuss today.
(For time's sake this history of the Troubles will be simplified to give a broad outline)
|British soldiers looking at a burnt out building in Belfast during the Troubles|
The Good Friday Agreement brought an end, or at least the beginning of the end, to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Actually defining the Troubles is quite difficult and I could write a huge post just on where we should put the origin of the Troubles. For simplicity we shall place the Troubles in the bracket of 1968 to 1998 and go over the short term origins of the Troubles. In 1922 the Irish Free State became independent (to an extent) from the United Kingdom. Like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa it still had the British monarch as Head of State. In 1949 Ireland became fully independent when it became a republic. In the run up to independence war had actually broken out over the northern provinces. Sectarianism had been a major issue in Ireland since the seventeenth century and the northern provinces were largely Protestant while the south was Catholic. Many Protestants opposed independence as they did not wished to be ruled by a Catholic majority (and if they did want independence it was to be under Protestant rule in Belfast over Catholic rule in Dublin). A compromise was made: the south would be free while the north remained part of the UK but with Home Rule. No one liked this. Southerners wanted all of the island, northerners wanted no independence (or independence under Belfast), and the British neither wanted independence or Home Rule. In 1937 Articles 2 and 3 were added to the Irish Constitution claiming sovereignty over the north (called Ulster) while in Ulster the political structure was organized to ensure that the sizable Catholic minority were kept in check. Of course, for time constraints this is a simplification. Irish politics in the early twentieth century will make the upcoming Brexit negotiations look simple.
Forwarding to 1968 an Irish civil rights movement sprang up. In the USA we had African-Americans, women, and Native Americans fighting for rights, South Africa the anti-apartheid struggle, in France the student uprisings, in Czechoslovakia the Prague Spring, in Australia the Australian Aboriginal civil rights movement as well as hundreds of other movements. In 1967 left-wing Protestants and Catholics formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) to end injustices in Northern Ireland. Thanks to Home Rule Northern Ireland could make its own laws so as a result it was the last place in the UK to not have universal suffrage. To vote you had to own property which adversely affected students, Catholics, and poor Protestants. Furthermore, the NICRA wished to challenge various forms of discrimination in Northern Ireland including: gerrymandering, police brutality, and no welfare. As all these issues affected Catholics the most the NICRA soon became a vehicle for Catholic civil rights. In 1968 a march in Derry, sometimes referred to as Londonderry, led to clashes between Catholics and Protestants (with the help of the Royal Ulster Constabulary) in 'the Battle of the Bogside' where a young boy was killed and a Catholic street was burned down. The British army was called in to end the violence. However, this marked a breaking point for the nationalists. The republican Irish Republic Army (IRA) fractured into the Provisional IRA, who favored direct paramilitary action to defend Catholics, and the Official IRA, who favored left-wing coalition between Protestants and Catholics. Meanwhile, Protestant paramilitary groups like Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) started to become prominent. The Troubles had begun.
I could write an entire post on the rest of the Troubles in detail but I shall give a few snapshots. From 1968 there was a three way war between republican paramilitaries, like the Provisional IRA, the unionist paramilitaries, like the UVF, and the British/Irish/Northern Irish governments. Throughout the Troubles the British sometimes aided the unionists while the Irish sometimes aided the republicans. One of the key figures who forged the opposition to the Catholic civil rights movement was Ian Paisley who in 1971 formed the DUP which became heavily associated with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) formed in the same year. In 1970 the republican Sinn Féin split and the dominant branch (which became the main party) became associated with the Provisional IRA. In 1972 a march by the NICRA in Derry against the army's policy of internment to combat the increasing violence between the paramilitaries (which also affected Catholics more with 90% of those interned being Catholic) turned violent. The army shot 28 unarmed protesters, killing fourteen where eight were aged between 17 and 20. This became known as Bloody Sunday. In 1973 the Sunningdale Agreement tried to create a power-sharing government to bring peace to Northern Ireland but it broke down by a strike organized by Ian Paisley. After Sunningdale failed peace seemed to be a distant memory. Heavy-handed actions by the army and police, the aggressive rhetoric by politicians, and the violence between paramilitaries polarized Northern Ireland. Ireland and Britain themselves also came under fire by the paramilitaries with republicans bombing Britain (almost killing Margaret Thatcher in 1984) and unionists bombing Ireland. In 1981 ten interned republicans led by Bobby Sands went on hunger strike to protest the internment policy but were left to starve to death. There was both a domestic and international outcry following this and Sands became a martyr.
In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was made. This gave Ireland consultative role in governing Northern Ireland. Paisley responded harshly against this and there was an increased loyalist violence as a result. One group associates with the DUP, Ulster Resistance, even imported weapons from apartheid South Africa fearing a 'sell-out'. In the late 1980s and early 1990s some of the most infamous attacks on civilians took place. Most of who died during the Troubles were civilians but by this time period the attacks became more prominent by both unionists and republicans. One famous one was the Warrington bomb attacks in Warrington, England in February and March 1993 by republicans which killed two young children. This attack was the inspiration for the hit song by The Cranberries 'Zombie'. A year later the Provisional IRA called for a ceasefire. Key figures in Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, wished for peace and so did many others in Ulster, Ireland and Britain. By calling for a ceasefire Adams and McGuinness allowed the unionist militias to also call a ceasefire. In 1996 when Sinn Féin was initially barred from negotiations before the IRA disarmed the ceasefire was almost destroyed by the IRA's bombing of Canary Warf. However, in 1997 Labour under Tony Blair won the election and the new prime minister decided to allow Sinn Féin into negotiations.
The Good Friday Agreement was to be formalized by the British and Irish governments as well as the key Northern Irish parties: Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Ulster Democratic Party, Labour Coalition, Alliance Party, Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, the Progressive Unionist Party, and the Ulster Unionist Party. The only one not there was the DUP who virulently opposed the entire peace talks and tried to fight it all the way. There was much backstairs debates in order to get the agreement passed. If you can I would highly recommend reading Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland by Tony Blair's Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell who was integral for the British in forging the agreement. Although biased to himself and Blair it does give an interesting insight to some of the dealings done to bring peace; such as Powell having to meet with UDA leaders to fund community projects in their areas.
The agreement was made of two documents: a British-Irish one and a Multi-party one. The agreement acknowledged that a majority in Northern Ireland wished to remain in the UK while also acknowledging that many wished to be united with Ireland, and both these views were seen as being legitimate by both governments. It was agreed that Northern Ireland would remain British until a majority in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland wanted unification which would then be implemented immediately. Also agreed was that all Northern Irish citizens could be Irish citizens and there was nothing to stop Irish citizens from living freely in the north. Britain agreed to repeal the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which created Northern Ireland while Ireland repealed Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution claiming sovereignty over the north. It was agreed to create the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive as well as North/South and British/Northern Irish institutions. A power-sharing initiative was to be put in place, equality and human rights were to be fully implemented and recognized (including linguistic diversity), and paramilitaries were to be decommissioned. Finally two referendums were to be held, one in the North and one in the Republic, to accept the agreement. On April 10 1998 the agreements were signed. Despite opposition from the DUP and a break away faction of the IRA calling itself the Real IRA which bombed Omagh both referendums accepted the agreement. In the Republic of Ireland 94.39% voted yes and in Northern Ireland 71.1% voted yes as well. The agreements became law in 1999 and in 2006 the St Andrews Agreement finalized the last outlying issues not settled in 1998.
Why the DUP coalition could jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement
Brexit polarized Northern Ireland with both the DUP and Sinn Féin doing well in the most recent elections representing opposing views on Brexit (Sinn Féin opposing Brexit while the DUP was in favor of it). The DUP is still a very polarizing party in Northern Ireland. Although discussions are still going on about the coalition Theresa May's coalition could very likely throw the Good Friday Agreement into jeopardy. Although they agreed to power-sharing in the St Andrews Agreement they are still ardent unionists. Important to remember as well following the Brexit result Gerry Adams has stated a referendum on Northern Ireland's sovereignty could be in the works. By granting the DUP a chance to form a government in Westminster May has placed the unionists firmly above the nationalists in a system where you are not supposed to do that. Although bias Powell in his book goes into great detail about how the smallest of points of the Good Friday Agreement took days if not months to agree on. In her quest to cling onto power May has disregarded this entire peace agreement. Will this cause the Troubles v.2? At this moment in time I would say no but there is a chance that we may see a return of the Troubles.
Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland by Colin Powell
-Northern Ireland's '68: Civil Rights, Global Revolt and the Origins of the Troubles by Simon Prince
-The Northern Ireland Question: The Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement edited by Brian Barton and Patrick Roche
-Ireland: 1798-1998 by Alvin Jackson
-Northern Ireland since 1945 by Sabine Wichert