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Explainer: What is the Good Friday Agreement?

The 20th anniversary of the landmark deal is being marked – here’s what’s in it.

Good Friday Agreement Loyalist supporters of the Good Friday Agreement cheer UUP leader David Trimble as he makes his way into a party meeting in the Europa Hotel in Belfast. Source: Leon Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

THE 20th ANNIVERSARY of the Good Friday Agreement is being marked at the moment.

Events have already taken place in Washington and New York, and you’ll likely hear much more about the historic 1998 peace deal in the coming weeks. Former US President Bill Clinton and ex-senator George Mitchell, the US envoy who helped broker the agreement, are expected to accept the Freedom of Belfast at an event in the city on 10 April (the actual date of the deal, Easter being a moveable feast).

The Good Friday Agreement, which set out a blueprint for peace in Northern Ireland, has been in the headlines quite a bit in the last few years as preservation of the deal has been top of the agenda for the Irish government in the Brexit negotiations.

If you need a quick primer on how the deal was agreed and what’s actually covered in it, read on…

Who was involved?

The British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in the North – including Sinn Féin, the SDLP and David Trimble’s UUP, which was the main force in mainstream unionism at the time. Smaller parties representing the loyalist paramilitaries were also involved in the discussions leading up to the agreement. Ian Paisley’s DUP did not take part in the final talks.

How did the talks come about?

Efforts to bring about power-sharing in the North in the 1970s, based on the so-called Sunningdale Agreement had failed. In the 1980s, the unionists were left reeling as the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald, gave Dublin a say in the affairs of the North for the first time. Later, SDLP leader John Hume began talks with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. That was followed in 1993 by the Downing Street declaration between John Major and Albert Reynolds, which signalled that republicans and loyalists could attend talks on the future of the North if paramilitary groups handed over their arms.

00102291_102291John Major and Albert Reynolds outside Downing StreetSource: Rollingnews.ie

The IRA declared a ceasefire the following year, as did the loyalists – but as political efforts continued, the IRA recommenced their armed attacks with large scale bombings in London and Manchester. In 1997, Tony Blair took over from John Major as British Prime Minister and declared that Sinn Fein could have a place at the negotiating table on condition of an IRA ceasefire.

What happened at the start of 1998?

Multi-party talks had been established in the summer of 1996. By September of 1997, in the wake of the second IRA ceasefire, Sinn Féin and representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries were allowed back to the talks table. A series of problems threatened to throw the entire process off track before Easter – including the exclusion of the UDP and Sinn Féin from negotiations after it was determined that the UFF and IRA had carried out further killings. By the end of March, both parties were again back at the talks but George Mitchell, frustrated by the lack of progress, said a deadline was imperative if a deal was to be finally reached. He set that deadline as midnight on 9 April.

How was the deal agreed?

Mitchell presented a draft document to the parties and the representatives of the Dublin and London governments on Monday 6 April. Unionists rejected it, prompting Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair to fly in, in the hope of rescuing the agreement and getting it over the line in time.

Accounts of various main players recall that no-one got very much sleep in the days that followed, as the parties and the governments lurched from crisis to crisis, holed up in the decaying surroundings of the 1970s-era Castle Buildings.

As one problem was solved, another would open up. Even after the deadline passed, there was one final breakdown to address – as it looked like the Ulster Unionist Party were about to pull out. Trimble, after telling Blair his party couldn’t tolerate so many concessions to republicans, was given a side-letter by the British giving him reassurances on banning Sinn Féin from the power-sharing government if the IRA did not start decommissioning.

Bill Clinton was credited with making several key interventions, phoning main players like Trimble and Adams as he was briefed on developments overnight.

Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Jonathan Powell, who served as Tony Blair’s chief of staff and played a major role in the peace efforts, recalled how, on Good Friday morning, the parties were stunned that they’d actually accomplished a deal:

The plenary was a low-key affair at which all the party leaders assented to the agreement except for Adams, who said he was very positive but had to consult with his party conference. There was no applause, just stunned silence. Tony and Bertie left before the votes of thanks and mutual congratulations so that they could be the first out to explain the agreement to the media before the other party leaders tried to put their spin on it.

RTÉ’s TV reports from that evening showed jubilant scenes – as players from all sides realised that they may finally have achieved an agreement that would secure the fragile peace.

Source: Wax Museum Plus/YouTube

What was in it?

You can read the entire thing online if you like (it won’t take too much of your time, interestingly it’s only 35 pages long). In short, it included plans for a new power-sharing northern assembly that would ensure both communities were represented at the highest levels. This would include a First Minister who, based on the demographics of the six counties, was certain to be a unionist, and a Deputy First Minister who would be a nationalist – but it would essentially be a joint role.

Cross-border North-South institutions would also be set up, alongside the ‘east-west’ British-Irish Council (including representatives from the Isle of Man Government and the Channel Islands, in addition to members from the UK and Ireland). As part of the deal, the Republic also agreed it would drop its constitutional claim to the North.

The deal included controversial provisions for the release of paramilitary prisoners, and proposals for dealing with decommissioning and the future of policing.

The ‘principal of consent’ was central. Essentially, this affirms the legitimacy of aspiring towards a united Ireland while recognising the current wish of the majority to remain in the UK.

The agreement states:

… it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT 51655_90539699 SDLP leader John Hume arrives for the final day of the talks in Castle Buildings. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Authors David McKittrick and David McVea give this straightforward explanation of the landmark deal in their book ‘Making Sense of the Troubles’:

The accord addressed the republican preoccupation with self-determination butcrucially it defined consent as requiring that the people of Northern Ireland would decide whether it stayed in Britain or joined a united Ireland. It provided for a rewriting of Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution to remove what unionists regarded as the objectionable claim to the territory of Northern Ireland. It provided for a new 108-member Belfast assembly, to which Westminster would devolve full power over areas such as education, health and agriculture, including the right to make new laws. London would retain responsibility for matters such as defence and law and order, though it promised to consider devolving security powers at a later stage.

00051646_51646 Minister of State Liz O'Donnell of the Progressive Democrats alongside RTÉ's Brian Dobson. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

What happened next?

The agreement still had to be put to referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the political leaders who had backed the deal spent the following months convincing voters to back it. Paisley’s DUP said his party aimed to achieve a 40% ‘no’ vote in the North, which would mean it had failed to gain majority unionist support. On the republican side, dissidents split off from the Provisional IRA to form the Real IRA.

The referendums were eventually passed on 22 May, by 71% in the North and 94% in the Republic. Turnout was high across the island. It was the first all-island vote since the election of 1918. David Trimble and Seamus Mallon were elected as First and Deputy First Ministers later that summer.

Good Friday Agreement Source: RollingNews.ie

In August the largest single atrocity of The Troubles took place as Real IRA bombs in Omagh killed 29 people and two unborn twins. The attack did not, however, derail the peace process. Clinton visited the following month to help bolster efforts to establish a working political system. The first prisoners were released later that year, and the first demolition of security installments and checkpoints began.

Of course, it took many more years before issues like policing and decommissioning of weapons could be dealt with to the satisfaction of both sides. The most stable period of power-sharing began in May 2007 when the DUP’s Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness assumed office as first and deputy first minister.

Here is a link to the Good Friday Agreement.

Read: European Commission president: ‘Good Friday Agreement must be preserved in all its dimensions’ >

Read: ‘Behind the masks’: New digital archive documents Northern Ireland’s history >

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