Officially known as the Belfast Agreement, this was the historic understanding reached on Good Friday 1998 after talks in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish governments and almost every party in the province. The parties involved were:
The hardline Unionist party led by Ian Paisley, the DUP, did not participate, nor did fringe republican groups such as the IRSP or Republican Sinn Féin.
The talks were the culimination of a tortuous process which began with the IRA's ceasefire in 1994. This ceasefire was broken in 1996, but resumed in 1997, after the election of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Former US Senator George Mitchell was brought in to chair the talks, which involved an elected forum of representatives from each of the parties.
The process was a lengthy one, involving talks in Belfast, Dublin and London, interventions from US President Bill Clinton, and even a trip to South Africa for some of the participants. At one point, Sinn Fein were excluded from the proceedings for a time, following a series of murders by the IRA. At the end of it all, and seemingly against the odds, a complex series of agreements were summarised in a single document, which was signed by all participants, on Good Friday 1998.
The agreement itself is highly complex, but involves the following main points:
- Devolution: Direct rule of Northern Ireland by the British Government was to end, with a locally-elected assembly and executive to take over the running of the province. A series of checks and balances were agreed to ensure that decision-making was shared by both sections of the community (Unionist and Nationalist). Certain functions, such as security, were to be retained by Westminster.
- Reform of Policing: An independent commission was to produce a report on how the police (the RUC) could be reformed to serve all sections of the community (the RUC was 90% protestant).
- Constitutional Change: The Republic of Ireland would vote to remove articles in its constitution which made a territorial claim on Northern Ireland. These would be replaced with articles declaring the right of anybody born on the island of Ireland to be considered either Irish or British.
- Cross-Border bodies: A number of bodies were to be set up to co-operate on matters of mutual interest to Northern Ireland and the Republic. These includes areas such as waterways, tourism etc.
- Council of the Isles: Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the British government would participate with the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales in a new forum, again to deal with matters of mutual interest.
- Release of Prisoners: Prisoners affiliated with paramilitary groups which supported the agreement were to be granted early release, over a two-year period.
- Decommissioning: This crucial issue was fudged to an extent, to ensure that a deal could be done. All parties agreed to "use their influence" to ensure that paramilitary weapons were decommissioned before May 22nd 2000. However, the paramilitaries themselves were not participants in the agreement, so this issue was to remain cloudy, and raise significant difficulties further down the line.
- Equality: A number of arrangements were agreed to ensure "parity of esteem" among all traditions in Northern Ireland.
It was agreed that the document would be put to the people of Ireland, North and South, in simultaneous referenda. All of the parties to the agreement campaigned for its ratification, while the DUP and others urged a "No" vote. In the event, the agreement received overwhelming support in the Republic (over 90%), and a large majority (70%) in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of nationalists in the North supported it, and a smaller majority of unionists.
The timetable for the implementation of the agreement stretched over two years, but two years later it has yet to be fully implemented, largely due to the impasse over decommissioning. At the time of writing, it looks as if the decommissioning issue may finally be getting sorted out, with the IRA agreeing to inspections of its arms dumps, as a "confidence-building" measure.
Although the difficulties over the last two years have made some question the Agreement, the vast majority in Britain and Ireland still see it as an historic event which represents the only hope for a permanent peace in Northern Ireland.