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Legacy of the Good Friday Agreement


The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed 25 years ago today, successfully bringing an end to much of the political violence of The Troubles, the release of political prisoners, and restoring a regional government for the North at Stormont. However, economic deprivation and societal division are still widespread throughout the Six Counties, police harassment of republicans continues, and the British have not committed to terms of granting a unity referendum. As there are different viewpoints on the legacy of the GFA, to mark this anniversary, we have published below four perspectives on the GFA, and we invite our readers to tell us their thoughts.

The following was written by Fr. James Joyce, SJ, of Fordham University:

Most of the people who are joining groups currently flirting with a return to violence in the north of Ireland have no memory of what it was like prior to the GFA. Scraping brains off the footpath so a body could be intact for burial, identifying the body of a young friend who had been tortured laying on a metal bedframe touch with live electric wires, seeing a young man who got in the wrong taxi lying with his head crushed by cinderblocks. 

Cars were on their horns on the Lower Falls celebrating the Agreement. Folks had been anxious listening to the news. Why the delay? It seemed that what was immediately needed was already agreed. For a few days – not realizing that Good Friday would be the day to announce it – finally hearing that it was selected as the date by some participants because it was the anniversary of the last time Ireland was united – Brian Boru had won the Battle of Clontarf (and was mortally wounded) on Good Friday in 1014. 

The main conclusions were with regard to elections. Agreement that political unity could be effected at sometime, with votes held north and south. And, secondly, that an assembly would be elected with all sorts of rules and conditions to try to assure that ”people on the ground” were represented.

Fr. Des Wilson, a priest and community organizer, well respected by people affected by the injustice and violence, noted that this might be the first time that decisions could be made by people themselves rather than be carried out “over their heads.” And also: “You don’t make peace by talking to the people you already agree with, but with those you don’t.”

Cultural “parity of esteem” was easily agreed with not everyone knowing quite what that meant. But it ignited a freedom around the use of the Irish language that still proudly grows in strength.

But, far and away, the greatest personal reasons for the celebrations were the early release of prisoners, home to their families with great joy, rather than long, long sentences in British and Irish jails. It was a convoluted journey, but Senator George Mitchell certainly deserves tribute for how far he was able to guide the process. A few seemingly small, but actually significant, interactions occurred fairly early on.

When Mitchell was asked by a Loyalist delegate: ”And what’s your religion?” He answered “Christian.” Then asked whether he was Protestant or a Roman Catholic he answered simply “No.” A little education occurred when folks discovered what the Maronite Rite was. 

At one point, Mitchell asked delegates to take their wallets out of their pockets or purses. He asked who had photos of their children that they carried with them. If they were willing to show them, he asked them to do so. But whether or not they chose to reveal them, he asked “What dreams do you have for your sons and daughters?” Many teared up and poured out their hearts.” A real start for talks. 

There thus emerged a greater awareness that those “who dug with the other foot” had genuinely suffered from personal terrible experience of the deaths of family and friends. Somehow Irish people seem to recognize and respect suffering.

Perhaps ironically, a quote painted on numerous walls in Belfast is one from the Troubles of a century ago. “The ultimate victory belongs not to those who inflict the most suffering, but to those who endure the most.”

The following was written by John Crawley, author of “The Yank: My life as a former US Marine in the Irish Republican Army”:

One of the greatest crimes in the current political climate is to be perceived as opposing the British pacification strategy known as the Irish Peace Process. Few republicans oppose peace, but we are entitled, indeed duty bound, to be critical of a process that cannot lead to the objectives republicans fought for so long and sacrificed so much to achieve.

The Good Friday Agreement is a snare and a delusion. It enmeshes us in a web of terms and conditions regarding Irish unity that only Britain can interpret and adjudicate. It invites the delusion Britain legislation will pave the way to a national democracy within an All-Ireland republic. A political outcome Britain has strenuously rejected throughout its entire involvement in Ireland.

We must challenge the false narrative that the republican struggle was simply about ending partition. There was no partition in 1916 when the Irish Republic was proclaimed in arms.

Neither was there partition when the United Irishmen was formed in 1791. Unity for the Protestant founders of Irish republicanism meant national unity across the sectarian divide.

That’s what it should continue to mean. Not geographical unity in exchange for enduring internal divisions that can only act to Britain’s benefit.

The 1916 Proclamation called for us to be … ‘oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’ The signatories were not claiming those differences did not exist, nor were they saying they could be dismissed as irrelevant. They were saying that those differences should not be used to shape the political architecture of Ireland.

In contrast, those who support the Good Friday Agreement are determined that those differences will be permanently embedded in our national fabric. That unionists will remain forever in Ireland but not of it. Wolfe Tone believed that British rule in Ireland was irreformable and that sectarianism could never be addressed by the system which promoted and maintained it. Republicans believe that still.

A republican voice must once again be heard. A collective voice that echoes the republican ideals of the United Irishmen. A voice that remembers who we are and what we represent – the breaking of the connection with England and the establishment of the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and ratified by the First Dáil in 1919.

The following was contributed by Ciaran Quinn, Sinn Fein North American Representative:

The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the longest period of conflict in Irish history. The agreement was endorsed by referendums – in the north, 71% voted in favor and in the South, the consequential constitutional amendment was supported by 94%. The agreement was and remains the will of the vast majority of people across Ireland. There would have been no agreement without Irish America.

Twenty-five years on and the agreement endures. It has delivered a generation of relative peace, while society North and South has changed and is changing.

The agreement was not a settlement to the constitutional question of partition or of Irish Unity. It is a peaceful and democratic pathway to unity via referendums. It placed the future in the hands of all the people that share the island.

The principles enshrined in the first section of the agreement remain as relevant today as a generation ago. They define the future with a commitment to peaceful means, politics free from threat, respect, reconciliation, and equal rights and treatment, Society has changed since the agreement was signed. In the South, the old political certainties are gone. For over one hundred years Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael controlled both government and opposition. They now serve in government together with one shared objective – to keep Sinn Féin out.

Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the South. Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin President, is the first woman and first member of the party to lead the official opposition in the history of the state.

In May last year, Sinn Féin topped the polls in the North. Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill became the First Minister (elect). The first Catholic and first non-Unionist to hold that position in a state that was designed to be Protestant and Unionist. Today the North is a shared space.

The Good Friday Agreement changed the course of history, replacing conflict with peaceful progress.

The Democratic Unionist Party has blocked government formation and the British government believes that it can unilaterally rewrite the agreements, break international law, and continue to cover up its actions during the conflict. The US has acted to hold those opposed to progress and to the agreements to account.

The transformational potential of the Agreement has yet to be realized. A growing number are looking beyond the present and see Irish Unity as the future. The Good Friday Agreement provides the pathway to unity, the challenge is for us to complete that journey.

The following is an excerpt of an article contributed by Tomás Coisdealbhla from irishfreedom.net:

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 was the third in a series of five agreements entered into by the British and Irish governments, political parties and paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland to end the escalating armed conflict. The first was the Sunningdale Agreement in December of 1973, followed by the Hillsborough Agreement in November of 1985, the Good Friday Agreement in April of 1998, the St. Andrews Agreement in October of 2006, and finally the New Decade New Approach Agreement in January of 2020. As the UK and Republic of Ireland were then both members of the EU, having signed a number of international treaties already, the task left for the GFA negotiators was confined to bilateral and intercommunity relations, security, governance, and the mollification of paramilitary and political leaders in Northern Ireland.

The first strand of the GFA resulted in a treaty between the British and Irish governments, the second strand resulted in an agreement between the British and Irish governments and political parties and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. EU institutions and laws provided the matrix on which the GFA was negotiated and the backstop for the ensuing agreement.

The inter-government treaty codified the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom when the Irish government relinquished its constitutional claim to the territory of Northern Ireland. In a reciprocal gesture, the British government agreed to abide by the result of a border poll in Northern Ireland when and if a majority voted to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. What precipitates that vote is up to the British government to decide.

The second strand of the agreement between the British and Irish governments, political parties and paramilitary groups involved the ending of hostilities and the establishment of a government for Northern Ireland consisting of a legislative assembly and a power-sharing executive committee.

In order to facilitate the signing of the agreement, the wording was deliberately ambiguous in addressing contentious issues such as paramilitary decommissioning, police reform and the normalization of a fractured society beset by bigotry and official malfeasance.

When the agreement was eventually signed, Seamus Mallon, Deputy Leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and deputy First Minister of the new executive committee referred to the GFA as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. That 1973 agreement lasted only months.

As the new Northern Ireland government was to be the backbone of the GFA, its success in governing would go a long way in proving Northern Ireland’s viability as a political and economic entity. It was assumed that with a strong and dependable government in place, outstanding issues such as policing, paramilitary decommissioning and societal normalization would be sorted out peacefully and affably.

That was not to be. Within eighteen months the new government collapsed, resulting in the resumption of direct control of government affairs in Northern Ireland by the British government. The government has collapsed a number of times since.

Despite new power-sharing procedures, the government again collapsed in January of 2017 and remained so through January of 2022. After four months back in session it went belly-up again in May of 2022 and has not returned as of yet. In the meantime, the Northern Ireland Civil Service is in charge of governance.

Based on the dismal performance of the Northern Ireland government it would be hard to view the GFA as a success. Apart from the government nonperformance, the present-day Brexit debacle clearly shows that the GFA is a side show whose fate depends on ongoing negotiations between the European Union, the UK and Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland. It very well may be that the GFA has run its course with little left to offer as current events have overtaken its relevance as a stabilizing or unifying force. Even if it survives what will be its purpose?

Instead of promoting the GFA as the solution to the armed conflict in the partitionist state of Northern Ireland, it should have been viewed as a step in the path to Irish reunification. Reunification would restore Ireland to its natural state of oneness and, in so doing, mitigate the fallout from Brexit and pave the way for a new era of peace and prosperity for all of Ireland.

Published with thanks to all our contributors. Beannachtaí na Cásca oraibh!

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