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Case Study: Northern Ireland and The Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement of 1998


When Ireland was partitioned and the South effectively became independent, Northern Ireland was given a devolved Parliament to control most areas of policy. The Stormont Parliament first met in 1921.[amazon_link asins=’178537205X’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’britresources-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’0a385b8d-17c6-446b-a52b-cff956b69785′]

The Protestant Ulster Unionist Party dominated Stormont and policies discriminated against Catholics in areas such as housing and jobs. Protests started in the 1960s. It became sectarian conflict between the Catholic and Protest and communities. The Stormont Government refused to hand over control of law and order to the British Government.

In 1972 the Conservative Government dissolved Stormont and Direct Rule from London controlled Northern Ireland. What followed, particularly under the IRA, was heavy and often indiscriminate violence within Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

A chance to restore Stormont

A slow change in political attitude within both communities provided the opportunity for Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to broker the agreement, that would come to be known as the Good Friday Agreement, because it was reached on Good Friday, 10 April 1998.

Shortly before the agreement was announced Blair said

“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do.”

The talks leading up to the Agreement dealt with issues that had caused conflict during the previous 30 years. But there was still some caution on 10 April, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said there was still a huge gap of distrust between nationalists and unionists.

“It must be bridged on the basis of equality. We are here reaching out the hand of friendship,” he said.

The role of Mo Mowlam

Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam was Northern Ireland Secretary in 1998 for Her Majesty’s Government.

She had a no nonsense approach reportedly telling Ian Paisley to ‘f*** off’ and warned Gerry Adams if he didn’t get on and do something she would head-butt him. Many credited her with pushing the process along when little progress was being made.

“Everyone has got to give a little. No-one is going to get 100% of what they want. If everybody is willing to accept some change, we can do it,” on the eve of the agreement.

Unafraid of confrontation, Mowlam took a major political risk by going inside the Maze prison to talk to prisoners in a bid to restart the peace process.

“I didn’t negotiate, I didn’t do a deal. If you want progress, you ain’t going to get it if you don’t have talks.”

Despite the standing ovations, plaudits and contribution to the Agreement, Ulster Unionists lost faith in Mowlam shortly after. Peter Mandleson replaced her in 1999. Mowlam sadly died in 2005.

Senator George Mitchell – a crucial figure

Mitchell is seen as a crucial figure in 1998 but he’d actually been appointed in late 1995 to be special adviser to President Bill Clinton on the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Mitchell spent five years crossing the Atlantic to mediate the parties concerned.[amazon_link asins=’1510447679′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’britresources-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’077edc35-3960-496e-b4e9-9370d458c1eb’]

As things turned in 1998 he had a vital role between the parties. His work culminated in the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) of 1998 and, ultimately, the decommissioning of the Irish Republican Army. In 1999 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the UNESCO Peace Prize, and an honorary knighthood in the Order of the British Empire.

“Violence or the threat of violence will not solve the problems of Northern Ireland. The only way forward to peace, political stability and reconciliation is through democratic means,” said Mitchell.

The Northern Ireland Act, 1998

The Northern Ireland Act, 1998 cemented the provisions set out under the Belfast Agreement and a new Stormont Parliament was created.

It was designed to have ministers from both communities, created some joint institutions with the Irish Republic. On the constitutional question of whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or become part of a united Ireland, it was agreed that there would be no change without the consent of the majority. This is called the ‘principle of consent’.

This Act repealed the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which partitioned Ireland. The new law now stated that:

‘Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll … But if the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland.’

The new Northern Ireland Assembly saw people elected under a proportional voting system so that both communities were fairly represented, a Government run by a power-sharing Executive so that all parties achieving a significant vote would be included, and cross-border cooperation with the Irish Republic.

There were also proposals on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, the future of policing in Northern Ireland and the early release of paramilitary prisoners.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have to have support from a majority of Nationalist and Unionist members of the Assembly. The Assembly controls most domestic areas such as education, agriculture, employment, housing and health.

Putting it to their parties and to the people

The Democratic Unionist Party, under Ian Paisley campaigned for a No vote. Some members of parliament joined them from the Ulster Unionist Party who did not support their leader David Trimble.

On 22 May 1998 a referendum was held in Northern Ireland to ratify the Good Friday Agreement. On the same day a referendum was held in the Republic of Ireland asking the Irish people to agree to the 19th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland and sharing political institutions with the north.

In Northern Ireland, 676,966 people voted in favour of the deal, while 274,879 voted against. The ‘yes’ vote was 71.12%. Turnout was a record 81.10%.

In the Republic of Ireland the recorded ‘yes’ vote was 94.39%, with 1,442,583 people voting in favour and 85,748 voting against.

In their words

“This is the result we have worked for and wanted… it’s another giant stride along the path to peace, hope and the future.” – Prime Minister Tony Blair

“Three to one have supported the referendum. That is a resounding victory for all the people of Northern Ireland.” – Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland Secretary

“It is quite clear that a majority of unionists – not as big a majority of unionists as I would have liked – but a clear majority – have endorsed this agreement. We have taken an important step forward.” David Trimble – Ulster Unionist Party leader.

A difficult start

The Good Friday Agreement came into force in December 1998. Tensions came putting into practice new arrangements on decommissioning paramilitary weapons, policing and the annual marches.

Attacks continued from dissidents such as the Real IRA who opposed the peace agreement. The most shocking was a bomb in Omagh, which killed over twenty people who were just out shopping.