(10 April 1998)
An agreement on Northern Ireland which proved the centrepiece of a fragile and often interrupted peace process begun under John Major in 1993. It prescribed a complex system of government for Northern Ireland, which received internal self-government under a First Minister. The members of the Northern Irish government were to receive the support of the Protestant and Catholic deputies, and important legislative decisions were also to be supported by at least 40 per cent of the Catholic and Protestant deputies respectively. The United Kingdom repealed the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which determined the partition of Ireland. In return, the Irish people voted to repeal Article 4 of the Irish Constitution, which determined the eventual unification of Ireland. For the first time, the Republic of Ireland gained a direct say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, through membership of the ‘Council of the Isles’ which would also contain representatives of Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The Good Friday Agreement was approved in Northern Ireland with over 70 per cent of the popular vote, including a majority of both Protestants and Catholics.
The agreement was possible because Tony Blair's clear majority in parliament, and the fewer historic ties between Labour and the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party made Blair appear less biased to the Catholic minority. At the same time, Bill Clinton's acceptance of Gerry Adams strengthened the latter's hand against the IRA, and allowed him to declare a cease-fire while keeping the majority of the IRA behind him.
Unfortunately, some of the most controversial questions were left in the Agreement, notably the question of the decommissioning of arms (largely a Protestant concern) and the reform of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (a Catholic concern). Failure to agree on these issues led to a suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2000 and from 2001. Genuine progress on the decommissioning of arms was only made following the September 11 attacks. As part of the War on Terrorism, the US was in no mood to tolerate the continuation of illicit arms depots by the IRA. Under threat from the withdrawal of US funds, and in order to encourage the resumption of self-rule, Sinn Féin agreed to the destruction of its weapons in 2001, which an independent commission declared to be complete in 2005. The Democratic Unionist Party demanded a dissolution of the IRA, however, thus blocking the resumption of parliamentary self-rule. The Agreement was revived in 2006 by the St Andrews Agreement.
Subjects: contemporary history (post 1945).