How Did the Good Friday Agreement Succeed in Forging Peace in Ireland?

History Hit

5 mins

23 May 2017

For decades violence in Northern Ireland lead to terrorism across the UK that was just as nasty as anything seen of recent at the hands of radical Islamists.

Starting in 1971, what is known as “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland were an era-defining set of clashes between Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Seperatist.

In an attempt to put an end to the conflict and heal the scars of violence, the British, Irish governments and major Northern Irish parties got together in 1998 and hammered out a new deal – the Good Friday Agreement.

Though some violence continues to this day, the region has known increased peace and prosperity since the deal.

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Root causes of  the ‘Troubles’

The roots of the troubles are many and complex – including differences in religion between Catholics and Protestants, and the long history of British invasion and intervention in Ireland.

In the 20th century, as the arm of the British Empire began to relax, Ireland found itself dogged by fighting between those who wanted independence and “Unionists” or “Ulstermen” who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

In 1916 and the early 1920s this exploded into violence as Irishmen pressed for independence after centuries of British rule.

It was still not a simple matter of the conquered rising up against their conquerors. Much of the violence came from Ulstermen in the Protestant North who had a strong desire to remain in the United Kingdom, which would tolerate and support their religion.

As a result, the British government faced a major problem; if they granted independence then the Ulstermen would grow violent, but if they failed to do so then civil war would resume.

In the end the solution agreed upon was to separate Ireland, with the whole island apart from the six counties that had voted against independence being set free.

The six, meanwhile, were all in the Protestant north-east and would become the separate nation/dominion of Northern Ireland.

The divided Island. Image Credit Kajasudhakarababu / Commons.

Divided Ireland

Unfortunately, this seemingly effective solution was still not simple enough, for Northern Ireland still had a substantial Catholic and pro-independence population who voted for the separatist party Sinn Féin.

Though the forty or so years after the creation of Northern Ireland were relatively peaceful, there were rumours of unrest over preferential treatment of Unionists, and Sinn Féin’s military arm the Irish Republican Army (IRA) remained active on both sides of the border.

Up until 1971 their policy had been largely peaceful resistance to continued British involvement in Ireland, but that year they split into two factions, the Provisional and Real IRA, with the former much more committed to violence.

The next year, 1972, was the bloodiest of all, and a full-scale British military presence of 22,000 men and armour was required to try and keep the peace while Unionists and Separatists or Republicans fought each other in vicious urban clashes.

“Bloody Sunday” – a killing of 14 men by British forces, escalated the violence further still. Though these years were the very worst of the Troubles, deaths continued steadily until the first serious attempt at a ceasefire in 1994.

With President Clinton actively involved from across the Atlantic and Sinn Féin’s leader Gerry Adams showing a desire for peace, there was some hope at this stage.

Loyalist banner and graffiti on a building in the Shankill area of Belfast, 1970. Image Credit Fribbler / Commons.

However, atrocities continued, including a bombing of Canary Wharf docklands in London, and the Manchester bombing, which was the largest bomb attack in Britain since World War 2.

The Good Friday agreement

The IRA, however, agreed to a truce once again in 1997 when new Labour British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to allow Sinn Féin access to a series of talks in Belfast, which would attempt to decide the future of Northern Ireland.

There, finally, some terms were hammered out to suit all parties – which was no easy feat.

The main outcome of the “Good Friday Agreement” came in two strands; one – an agreement between all Northern Ireland’s main political parties, and two – an agreement between Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

A mural by Bogside artists depicting those who were killed on Bloody Sunday. Image Credit Vintagekits / Commons.

This meant that the Republic had to accept the North’s status as part of the United Kingdom for the first time ever and accept its right to self-determination.

The latter, meanwhile, created devolved powers for Northern Ireland, giving it a parliament more independent from London, and made the Unionists and the IRA agree to a ceasefire and removal of paramilitary arms.

It was all utopian and historic, though at this stage – in April 1998 – there was no indication that it would work any better than previous attempts to reach a peaceful solution had done.

The first obstacle was running the changes by the people of Northern Ireland via a referendum, with a simultaneous one in the Republic asking whether the people would finally accept the legitimacy of their neighbour.

Thankfully, over 90% voted yes in both, with the results confirmed in the 23rd May.

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Success?

There was one last terrible terrorist attack in Omagh that August, and then the threat began to recede as the terms of the Agreement – and the cautious air of optimism that it had created – took hold.

There have been incidents since, but they have generally been small in scale and isolated, a far cry from the mass-killings of the thirty-five years after 1971.

The centuries-old direct rule from London over Ireland came to an end in December 1999, when the new Northern Ireland Assembly took charge of governing the country from Belfast.

For now, the uneasy truce holds, and Northern Ireland’s economy and tourism industry have enjoyed a great resurgence in recent years, attracted also by the use of its beautiful and now peaceful countryside for the filming of Star Wars and Game of Thrones.

The Good Friday Agreement is a poignant reminder that terrorism and violence can be overcome peacefully, and a ray of hope in our recent history to light the way ahead in times that have become troubled again.

Glendalow, County Wicklow- Ireland now has a thriving tourist industry. Image Credit Stefan Flöper / Commons.