The Good Friday Agreement is twenty years old next week on 10 April. But even as that anniversary arrives there is no sign of devolved rule from Stormont returning in the near to medium future. Even worse, a hard-core of Conservative Party eurosceptics – mindful of the inherent contradictions in keeping a “frictionless” or “soft” Northern Ireland Border and leaving the EU – have been stepping up their assaults on the Agreement- Explainer.
Given that a generation of voters has been born and come to adulthood in the time since the Agreement was signed, here is a refresher on just what that internationally binding treaty, endorsed by the EU and the US, actually means.
The Agreement, of course, has its roots in the Sunningdale power sharing Agreement of the 1970s – former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon actually called the GFA “Sunningdale for slow learners”, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the 1993 Downing Street Declaration. In 2007 the St Andrew’s Agreement amended some of the original rules on power sharing, effectively dividing the spoils between the two biggest single parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein as opposed to including ALL Stormont parties proportionately.
In 1998 the British and Irish governments, most of the political parties in the North – including Sinn Féin, the SDLP, David Trimble’s UUP and smaller parties representing the loyalist paramilitaries were involved in the discussions leading up to the agreement. Ian Paisley’s DUP did not take part in the final talks but, as previously mentioned, took part in power sharing after the St Andrews Agreement nine years later. The Sunningdale Agreement, which comprised a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive and a cross-border Council of Ireland was signed at SunningdalePark located in Sunningdale, Berkshire, on 9 December 1973.
But the following year, 1974, Unionist and Loyalist strikes and protests across Northern Ireland – led by the Reverend Ian Paisley – soon put paid to it as the British government lost its nerve. In 1985 then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo Irish Agreement which formalised consultations between London and Dublin on Northern Ireland matters, much to the fury of Unionists and some of her own Tory Party, including one of her most trusted allies Ian Gow (later murdered by the IRA).
Mrs Thatcher herself later told party members she felt she had been misled about the Agreement and gave them the impression she wanted to disown it.
Nevertheless, the Agreement – with its detailed structure of contacts between British and Irish civil servants and diplomats – helped both governments weather a series of political rows arising from atrocities that might otherwise have done severe damage to relations between both countries.
After John Major succeeded Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990 he wasted no time in encouraging progress on Northern Ireland, first with Taoiseach Charlie Haughey and then with his successor Albert Reynolds. Major and Reynolds made much of the personal friendship they struck when they were both Finance ministers, often working through the night at EU meetings.
It was a period of behind the scenes contacts and secret talks between British agents and the IRA, SDLP leader John Hume’s own contacts with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and generational change across Ireland.
In 1993 Albert Reynold and John Major sowed the seeds for the Agreement that was to come five years later with their Downing Street Declaration and, more immediately, the all-important, historic 1994 IRA ceasefire followed by the Loyalist ceasefires.
It is often forgotten that the IRA, impatient with the lack of progress and Sinn Fein’s exclusion from talks, ended its ceasefire and scaled up its terrorist attacks in the UK, notably in Manchester, Warrington and London.
In 1997 Tony Blair won his landslide general election victory and succeeded John Major as Prime Minister with the freedom to say that Sinn Fein could now have a place at the negotiating table on condition the IRA foreswear violence once and for all.
Multi-party talks were established in the summer of 1996 and by September 1997, and the second IRA ceasefire, Sinn Féin and representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries were invited to the talks table. But as Easter approached the UDP and Sinn Féin were barred from the negotiations following further UFF and IRA murders but by the end of March, both parties were again back at the talks.
Former US Senator George Mitchell, who had drafted the principles governing the negotiations, and who was chairing the talks said a deadline was imperative if a deal was to be finally reached and set the deadline at midnight 9 April. He presented a draft document to the parties and 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.
Bertie Ahern only left the ensuing talks at the grim 1970s-built Castle Buildings once, to attend his mother’s funeral in Dublin.
After the deadline passed the then UUP leader David Trimble told Tony Blair he was going to pull his party out because of too many concessions to the IRA and other terror groups. Blair gave him a side-letter by offering him reassurances that Sinn Féin would be banned from the power-sharing government if the IRA did not decommission.
US President Bill Clinton made several key interventions, phoning David Trimble and Gerry Adams to offer further reassurances and pledge the good will of the US should agreement be reached. Eventually, in a low-key atmosphere – with all of the principal parties pretty sleep deprived – all party leaders, except Gerry Adams, formally gave their support to the 35-page agreement.
The SF president made positive remarks but said he had to refer back to a specially convened party conference. This agreement created a First Minister and a so-called Deputy First Minister – although they were intended to be joint roles. It set up cross-border North-South institutions 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).
Ireland’s constitutional claim on the North, Article 2 and 3, would be dropped. 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. Paramilitary prisoners would be released, weapons decommissioned and policing reformed. 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.
The agreement would be put to referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic – the referendums were eventually passed on 22 May, by 71 per cent in Northern Ireland and 94 per cent in the Republic in 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.
In August the largest single atrocity of The Troubles occurred in Omagh claiming the lives of 29 people and two unborn twins.
US President Bill Clinton visited Ireland the following month in a hugely high profile show of support, prisoners were released later that year, and the first demolition of security instalments and checkpoints began.
The most stable period of power-sharing – almost a decade long – began in May 2007 when the DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness assumed office as first and deputy first minister – they got on so well they were often referred to as the Chuckle Brothers.
Mr McGuinness continued in office with Dr Paisley’s successors Peter Robinson – weathering political crises and scandals – and Arlene Foster. But it was Mrs Foster’s leadership, and a scandal over renewable heating grants for businesses, which prompted Mr McGuinness to pull the plug on Stormont just months before his death last year.