It has been twenty-five years since one of the most consequential events in modern British history. For almost three decades, Northern Ireland was a battleground. Sectarian violence had exploded between republicans who wanted to see a united Ireland and unionists who wanted to retain Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Successive UK governments had endeavoured to bring about peace, but it was only in 1998, under Tony Blair, that this aim was finally achieved.

An Agreement that Changed Everything

The Good Friday Agreement was a masterpiece in political negotiation, giving concessions to the republicans to make Northern Ireland remaining in the Union slightly more palatable — but not so many concessions that the unionists felt aggrieved. These negotiations were unbelievably tense. Key figures worked through the night on the 9th and 10th of April 1998 to get the deal done. One only needs to read Alastair Campbell’s diaries (Blair’s Director of Communications), to realise the sheer bedlam of those two days. But at the end of it, there was an agreement. And a chance for peace.

So what made the Good Friday Agreement so workable? For starters, the Northern Ireland Assembly was introduced, a devolved parliament that would meet in Stormont, Belfast. To ensure that both communities were appeased, a system of power-sharing was introduced. The First Minister would be chosen from the party that won the highest percentage of the vote, and the Deputy First Minister would be chosen from the party with the second-highest percentage of votes — though both essentially had equal power. Ministerial positions were also allocated proportionally to ensure all decisions would be taken with cross-community support — thereby giving both communities a voice.

The Agreement also recognised the desire of the people of Northern Ireland to run their own affairs. Since 1972, Northern Ireland had been run directly from Westminster due to the Troubles, but home rule was to be resumed. The Assembly was given primary legislative powers in devolved areas such as education, transport and housing; a move that allowed the people of Northern Ireland greater say in issues that directly affected them. This was significant given that in 1997, Northern Irish MPs accounted for just 18 out of the 659 elected MPs in Parliament. If Westminster were to rule on Northern Irish matters, they would have little to no resistance in parliamentary voting.

To appease the republicans, more had to be done to bring Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland closer together. The North-South Ministerial Council, set up as part of the Agreement, had one fundamental aim:

‘To develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland — including through implementation on an all-island and cross-border basis — on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the Administrations, North and South.’

In a nutshell, the Council was set up to coordinate policy between Northern Ireland and the Republic so that it could be applied over the whole island and by both governments. The British-Irish Council, also set up by the Agreement, further assuaged any republican fears that their wish for Irish unity would be completely disregarded by ensuring greater cooperation between the Irish and British governments:

‘In recognition of the Irish Government’s special interest in Northern Ireland and of the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in relation to Northern Ireland, there will be regular and frequent meetings of the [British-Irish Intergovernmental] Conference concerned with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, on which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals.’

This was an extremely important provision. The British government had indicated that it was listening to years of republican grievances about direct rule and working to ensure that all views in Northern Ireland were equally respected. Peace could not have been achieved if one community felt silenced, gagged or marginalised. Concessions and cooperation were the only way to stop the horrific sectarianism that had been rife for the past thirty years.

Republicans also needed assurances, however, that they would not be discriminated against by institutions and individuals. The Agreement promised the ‘complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)’ — something that was achieved with the UK-wide passing of the Human Rights Act in November 1998. Article 14 of the Human Rights Act stated that all the rights in the Act — including freedom of association (for example with Sinn Fein, the leading republican party) and thought — be ‘protected and applied without discrimination,’ to assure the republican community that they could continue to champion their cause. Police were also forced, under the terms of the Agreement, to ‘operate within a clear framework of accountability’ so that trust in the force, which had fallen amongst the republican community, could be restored.

Arguably, the biggest success of the Agreement can be found in this one line:

‘All participants reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations.’

To appreciate this fully, we need to understand the context driving this sentiment: the Troubles. Every day of the year marks the anniversary of someone’s death.

Every. Single. Day.

The largest age group killed between 1969 and 1998 (25 per cent), were those between the ages of 18-23. Bearing this in mind, re-read the above sentence again.

Two words in that sentence are possibly some of the most consequential ever written in the history of the United Kingdom. ‘Total disarmament’ — something that could allow families to breathe again; that allowed parents to begin to stop worrying about their children going into town and never returning. Two words that lifted the storm clouds over Northern Ireland.

‘A New Way Forward’

The Good Friday Agreement brought relative peace to Northern Ireland. Brexit upended things, once again. The Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiated as part of Boris Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal, was marketed with false claims about what it would deliver — chief among which was the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea.

Under the terms of the Protocol, EU checks on goods had to take place at Northern Irish ports to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic — something which would have caused considerable angst in the republican community. That presented a problem: it effectively meant a border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to allow all goods to be checked. Unsurprisingly, the unionist community found the proposed arrangement to be unacceptable as it threatened Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

While divisions still remain between republicans and unionists, Northern Ireland is less politically volatile than before. However, Stormont has been at a standstill as the DUP refuse to take their seats in the Assembly due to the impasse over the Protocol. For peace to be preserved in Northern Ireland, the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement have to keep working. Otherwise, violence could return.

The Windsor Framework, as announced by Prime Minister Sunak, is so far the best ‘way forward.’ Unnecessary bureaucracy on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been scrapped. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) now approves drugs for the whole UK market, while Northern Ireland pharmaceutical and medical technology firms have frictionless access to the EU market. The Stormont Brake allows for the Assembly to raise concerns about any new EU laws that apply to Northern Ireland via a ‘petition of concern’ — something that needs a majority of both unionist and nationalist votes to be successful. In the case of any changes to EU law that affect Northern Ireland, cross-community opposition — and not just opposition from unionists or nationalists — enables it to be blocked, thereby safeguarding the power-sharing structure introduced in the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course, the deal will never be perfect as long as we stay out of the single market and customs union. This is something that Sunak tacitly acknowledged when referencing Northern Ireland’s ‘very special position,’ in that it is part of both the EU single market and the UK market. Still, to honour history, those in power have a duty to make the best of our current situation.

In the words of the Good Friday Agreement:

‘The achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence.’

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