Good Friday Agreement, 25 years later

Brendan O’Leary of the School of Arts & Sciences looks back at the deal that brought peace to Northern Ireland.

Former prime minister Sir Tony Blair and then taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday agreement 25 years ago.
Then-U.K. prime minister Tony Blair (left) and then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998.   (Image: Press Association via AP Images)

April 10 marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland and ended decades of violence known as “The Troubles.” Political scientist Brendan O’Leary of the School of Arts & Sciences looks back at the peace agreement and shares his thoughts on what the future holds.

What made this date the right time to get the Good Friday Agreement signed? Why did the agreement happen when it did, rather than sooner or later?

The two sovereign governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, along with Sen. George Mitchell, the American chairman of the talks, agreed on a hard deadline for April 9, but the final stages of consensus-making dragged a little longer, so the agreement is dated April 10, 1998, which happened to be a Good Friday. As events unfolded, I was booked for an all-nighter on BBC World Service TV and predicted the agreement would be called the Good Friday Agreement, even though the conflict was fundamentally a national and ethnic conflict rather than one among antagonistic sects of Christians. 

The negotiations began in 1985, when the U.K. and Irish governments signed and ratified the Anglo-Irish Agreement, granting the Government of Ireland, for the first time, a consultative role in the political management of Northern Ireland in an inter-governmental conference. That was accompanied by a pledge to reduce Ireland’s role to the extent that a power-sharing autonomy agreement could be accepted in Northern Ireland by its two principal communities. 

The ‘Brooke-Mayhew’ talks began in 1991, including all the parties in Northern Ireland that were not using violence. These talks were named after two Conservative secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke and Patrick Mayhew. They had accepted the proposal of John Hume, then the leader of the moderate Irish nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). He argued that the talks should be conducted in three strands: one addressing political relations within Northern Ireland, another addressing relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and, lastly, the east-west strand would cover relationships between the two sovereign governments of the U.K. and Ireland and other possible relationships among all the entities in what the English call ‘the British Isles.’ If successful, the talks were to be ratified in a double referendum to be held in both parts of the island on the same day. Hume’s idea was that an ‘agreed Ireland’ would be an act of joint Irish self-determination that would heal the wounds created by the unilateral partition of the island by the British government in 1920. These talks were not successful, but they were brought to a soft landing: a suspension of proceedings, without deep acrimony. Elements of the final agreement had been sketched in embryo.

Meanwhile, it became clear that a parallel peace process might succeed. Since 1986 Sinn Féin leaders, who supported the IRA’s armed campaign to force the British government to leave the island, had been in separate private conversations with the Government of Ireland, authorized intelligence agents of the British government, and with Hume to bring an end to violence. These numerous channels concluded in the Hume-Adams proposals.

The Irish and U.K. governments successfully negotiated a Declaration for Peace announced in late 1993. The Declaration named a set of principles which the two sovereign governments pledged themselves to uphold and committed themselves to inclusive all-party talks to which Sinn Féin and the micro-loyalist parties would be invited, respecting whatever mandate they might win in future elections. They would not be required to denounce the past use of violence but were obliged to accept a set of nonviolent democratic principles for future negotiation and conduct. 

From 1994 to 1996 efforts were made to meld the talks process and the peace process, materially aided by the IRA’s ceasefire of August 1994, followed by a reciprocal loyalist ceasefire in October. Progress then stalled. There were breakdowns in the ceasefires, but the two sovereign governments produced a roadmap for a political settlement, the Framework Documents, which they presented to the political parties. It anticipated much of the final agreement.

The political talks were revived when a new Labour government defeated the Conservatives in May 1997, and a new Irish government, led by the Fianna Fáil party, took office in Dublin in June of the same year. They successfully extracted a renewed IRA cease-fire and agreed to park the questions related to disarmament in a parallel track in the negotiations. The talks were agonizingly slow between the fall of 1997 and the spring of 1998 but patiently chaired by U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and his Canadian and Finnish colleagues. Eventually, on a cold April morning, with specks of snow in the air, the negotiators came out to address the media. In official U.K. legalese it is now known as the Belfast Agreement, but it is in fact two agreements, a treaty between the two sovereign governments and a constitutional settlement, a multiparty agreement to which the sovereigns attached their names. Neutrals call it the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which is a mouthful, and neglects the fact that the Agreement was made in many places, including Dublin, London, and Washington, D.C. I tried to get it called the British Irish Agreement, after the treaty, and to reflect its character as a power-sharing agreement among historically antagonistic nations, but I failed. The Good Friday Agreement has become its name for everyone, except some hardline unionists and the U.K. government.

What were some of the major accomplishments of the agreement, and in what ways did it fall short?

The major accomplishment is that it set in train a successful peace process. Levels of lethal violence have been radically reduced since 1999. Arguably thousands are alive today who would not have been had the negotiations ended in failure.

The second accomplishment was the establishment of a novel set of institutions: a power-sharing arrangement within Northern Ireland, an interministerial conference across the island empowered in limited functional domains, and two east-west institutions, the British-Irish intergovernmental conference and the British Irish Council.

The most successful policy reforms were the reform of the administration of justice—Northern Ireland now has a balanced judiciary which treats the texts of the agreement like a constitution—and the reform of the police: the Royal Ulster Constabulary was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. 

Most of the alleged failings of the agreement are not owed to its content, in my view, but to lack of good-faith implementation. So far, however, the parties always return to the equilibrium of what they agreed in 1998, with minor modifications.

How has Brexit challenged this agreement and what’s your prediction for the agreement going forward?

Brexit endangered the agreement for two reasons. It threatened the restoration of a hard border on the island, complete with customs posts and regulatory checks, road closures and remilitarization through ‘securitization.’  And the Conservatives seemed dead-set on ending their commitments to all sorts of rights—they talked about a British Bill of Rights—the Bill of Rights pledged in the Good Friday Agreement has yet to be completed. 

The first possibility was quickly evident to all. When making the Good Friday Agreement, the U.K. and Ireland had both presumed their joint membership of the European Union. That meant that no border functions needed to be performed if the Good Friday Agreement delivered peace. The prospect of the U.K. leaving the European Single Market and the Customs Union suggested an inevitable resurrection of a hard border. With U.S. support the EU and the Government of Ireland eventually agreed a special arrangement for Northern Ireland; it remains in the EU single market while the U.K.’s customs border is applied at ports and airports between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, thereby avoiding any need to modify the borderless island. The Protocol, marginally tweaked, looks likely to stabilize. 

What is not known is whether the current leading unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), will agree to work with the institutions. We will likely know in May after local government elections are held in Northern Ireland and the DUP tests the willingness of its base to accept the new arrangements. According to both the Protocol and the so-called Windsor Agreement, the Good Friday Agreement is protected in ‘all its parts’ and in ‘all its dimensions.’ We shall see whether that pledge can be maintained. 

What’s the most important thing to understand about the Good Friday Agreement, 25 years after it was signed?

That seemingly intractable violent conflict can be addressed through inclusive negotiations—including ‘talking to terrorists’—and that agreements can be delivered that survive legitimation tests in popular referendums. And that the range of institutional repertoires for channeling conflict is much wider than many commonly imagine. Lastly, politics never ends. People will go on reinterpreting and attempting to renegotiate the agreement; there are no final settlements. 

Brendan O’Leary is the Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. O’Leary was a political advisor to the British Labour Shadow Cabinet on Northern Ireland in 1987-1988 and 1996-1997, advising the late Kevin McNamara and the late Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam, shadow Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. He also advised Irish, British, and American ministers and officials, and the Irish-American Morrison delegation during the Northern Ireland peace process, appeared as an expert witness before the U.S. Congress, and was a guest at the White House in 1994, 1995 and 1998. His work with John McGarry on police reform was singled out in the press for influencing the independent commission on police reform in Northern Ireland which reported in 1999 (the Patten Commission).