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An Introduction To The Good Friday Agreement

An Introduction To The Good Friday Agreement

Some of the most common questions we get about the differences between Ireland and Northern Ireland relate to the Good Friday Agreement.

Ireland had a pretty turbulent 20th century and it was capped off by a landmark agreement that still shapes the status of the island today.

1998’s Good Friday Agreement (mostly) put an end to the violence of The Troubles and set Northern Ireland on a path to becoming the modern and positive-thinking place it is today.

Some quick need-to-knows about the Good Friday Agreement

what was the good friday agreement

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1. It’s generally regarded as the end of ‘The Troubles’

While the Good Friday Agreement didn’t put a total end to the violence (the July 2001 Belfast riots saw some of the worst rioting in years), it was a watershed moment in which the IRA and other assorted paramilitaries put down their weapons and everybody involved focused on bringing peace to the region for good. 

2. It was crafted by the Irish and British governments 

Politicians from all sides and two different countries came together to forge what would become the Good Friday Agreement. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern both worked together on the deal and were signatories, alongside Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam.

3. It says Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but that status could change

While the Good Friday Agreement acknowledged that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom (at the time, anyway), it also said that it knew that a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland.

Therefore, the agreement says that Northern Ireland will stay a part of the UK until a majority says otherwise. 

4. It created the Northern Ireland Assembly

One of the two significant institutions the Good Friday Agreement created was the Northern Ireland Assembly. Part of the Strand 1 section of the agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly is a devolved legislature for Northern Ireland with mandatory cross-community voting on certain big decisions. 

An Introduction To the Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement is difficult to sum up in a handful of paragraphs. However, we’ve aimed to do just that.

Please do keep in mind that the below is a summary of key events and information that should give you a good grasp on what was involved and what it meant for Ireland.

30 years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland

The Troubles

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The first question you’ll probably ask when it comes to analysing an agreement of this magnitude is, why was it needed? Well, sadly, Northern Ireland had descended into a dark place around the end of the 1960s and things only got worse from there. 

When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, six of the island’s northern counties opted to remain part of the United Kingdom largely due to a majority of people living there identifying as Protestants and thus feeling an affinity for Protestant Britain rather than Catholic Ireland. 

Tensions and controversies

For Northern Ireland, the ensuing decades were marked by tensions and controversies – which occasionally spilt over into violence – between unionists who preferred remaining with Britain and nationalists who favoured unification with the Irish Free State (which later became the Republic of Ireland). 

By the late 1960s, this conflict had become more intense and more violent. From the 12th to the 16th of August 1969, political and sectarian violence erupted throughout Northern Ireland and particularly in the city of Derry, due to their perceived discrimination of Catholics in Northern Irish society. 

Battle of the Bogside

The infamous Battle of the Bogside saw three days of rioting and clashes between the largely Protestant police force and thousands of Catholic/nationalist residents, which saw eight people killed and over 750 injured. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning.

Three years later, the events of Bloody Sunday marked what could probably accurately be described as the low point of the entire conflict and the point at which any hope of reconciliation seemed generations away. 

Taking place during a protest march against internment without trial on the afternoon of January 30th 1972, British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians, with 14 eventually succumbing to their wounds.

All of those shot and killed were Catholic, while all of the soldiers were from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, part of the Special Forces Support Group.

Not only was it the worst mass shooting in Northern Irish history, but its after-effects were also seismic and helped to shape the next 25 years. Bloody Sunday drove Catholic and Irish nationalist hostility towards the British Army and worsened relations between the communities of Northern Ireland.

Additionally, support for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) swelled in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, and there was a surge of recruitment into the organisation.

The decade that followed

Things barely improved throughout the rest of the decade and through the 1980s as well. In fact, the 1980s saw two of the most high-profile incidents that went on to become headlines around the world. 

The 1981 Hunger Strikes led to the deaths of 10 republican political prisoners and the virtual martyrdom of Bobby Sands, a man whose image is still revered and reproduced to this day.

Three years later, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was almost assassinated when IRA member Patrick Magee placed a 100-pound time bomb in her hotel during the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton. 

Although Thatcher narrowly escaped the blast, when the bomb exploded in the early hours of the morning, it killed five people connected with the party, including Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, and injured 34 others.

With everyone in Northern Ireland tiring of the endless violence, the dawn of the 1990s saw processes put into place that would eventually bring the Good Friday Agreement into existence. Or at least, the hope that something formal could be arranged to end the conflict.

The Peace Process

The Peace Process Ireland

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Serious political efforts began to attempt to improve the situation in Northern Ireland and complex talks were held between Britain and Ireland throughout the early 1990s, though little of substance was achieved.

However, these amicable talks were more than had been managed through the dark years of the 1970s and 80s. 

The Downing Street Agreement

In December 1993, the Joint Declaration on Peace (also known as the Downing Street Agreement) was issued by British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, which made a number of statements that now reads like a forebearer to the Good Friday Agreement. 

It contained statements such as “The British government would uphold the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide between the Union with Great Britain or a united Ireland” and “Peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence”.

A ceasefire

On 31 August 1994, the IRA declared a ceasefire with loyalist paramilitaries reciprocating six weeks later. Though this didn’t last, it marked an end to major political violence and arguably paved the way towards a lasting ceasefire.

The IRA attacked Britain again with bombs in London and Manchester in 1996, with Sinn Féin blaming the failure of the ceasefire on the British Government’s refusal to begin all-party negotiations until the IRA decommissioned its weapons.

The IRA eventually reinstated their ceasefire in July 1997, as negotiations for the document that became known as the Good Friday Agreement finally began. 

The key points of the Belfast Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement

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Signed on the 10th of April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was a pair of agreements and a landmark moment that effectively ended the violence that had plagued Northern Ireland for decades.

Subject to two referendums across the island of Ireland held the following month (to give consent from the people for the state to sign it), the groundbreaking British–Irish Agreement came into force on the 2nd of December 1999.

The agreement was broken down into three ‘strands’. 

Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement

Strand One was concerned with government and political institutions in Northern Ireland’s Six Counties. First, it re-formed the Northern Ireland Assembly and created a new Northern Ireland Executive.

The new Assembly would be elected with a system of proportional representation and would be given devolved powers by the British parliament. 

Based on the principle of power-sharing, the executive would be led by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister which, despite their titles, would share equal power.

In a show of equality, the two First Ministers would come from Unionist and Nationalist parties and required the support of the general public.

Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement

Strand Two addressed “North-South issues” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The strand created three cross-border bodies: a North-South Ministerial Council, a North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association and a North-South Consultative Forum. 

These bodies encouraged discussion and cooperation between Belfast and Dublin and, while those bodies had no actual law-making power, their recommendations were expected to be adopted by both governments.

Strand Three of the Good Friday Agreement

Strand Three dealt with “East-West issues” between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. It also established three cross-border bodies: an Inter-Governmental Conference, an Inter-Parliamentary Body and a British-Irish Council.

These bodies were created to discuss matters not devolved to Northern Ireland and to try and establish common policies or approaches.

The result

As well as political reforms, the Good Friday Agreement was pivotal in providing practical measures for ending sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

It required signatories to “reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations”. Parties with links to armed groups were encouraged to work towards the decommissioning of “all paramilitary arms within two years”.

With the police having played a part in The Troubles for many years, the agreement also identified a pressing need to reform policing in Northern Ireland. It was decided that an independent review would be conducted to oversee this.

One of the more controversial aspects of the agreement promised early release for prisoners serving time for Troubles-related offences (Brighton bomber Patrick Magee was released in June 1999, for example).

Early releases would be dependent on paramilitary groups maintaining their ceasefire and upholding their commitment to decommissioning.

The releases were a bold gesture designed to win the support of the broader republican and loyalist communities, but politicians and victims’ families had a difficult time accepting the arrangement. 

To be honest, you could probably describe the entire agreement as bold. So, 20 years later, how has it held up?


3,500 people lost their lives during The Troubles and many more could have been added to that number had the Good Friday Agreement not been signed.

It seems like a fairly obvious point to make, but it’s probably the most important legacy of the agreement. Yes, more were to die afterward, but the scale of the violence declined dramatically. 

This is why, even though the power-sharing Assembly has been to certain degrees, dysfunctional and unstable (it’s been suspended twice, for example), the agreement can only be seen as a good thing.

Essentially, it took the heat out of the political conflict and brought large-scale violence to an end.

But though the bloodshed might be over, the agreement wasn’t able to bring the two communities together in any meaningful way to help ease Northern Ireland’s social segregation.

The two main communities in Northern Ireland – for the most part – go to separate schools, live in separate areas, play separate sports and get buried in separate graveyards.

And then Brexit arrived…

Belfast City

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While Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, a slight 52% majority in the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU and this has threatened to cause serious trouble in Northern Ireland, largely surrounding its status within the UK and what will happen with the border with the Republic of Ireland. 

If Brexit undoes the Good Friday Agreement and the undertakings that were entered into by the UK government, then Ireland could feel understandably aggrieved that it stuck by its side of the bargain while the British undermined it on the altar of Brexit.

At the time of writing, it’s hard to predict what will happen next but Brexit certainly hasn’t improved the measures that were implemented by the agreement. 

Overall, however, it’s hard to deny that the Good Friday Agreement has been a resounding success in bringing 30 years of bitter sectarian conflict to an end. And anyone who lived through those dark years will probably tell you the same!

FAQS about the Good Friday Agreement

We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘When was it signed?’ to ‘What does it involve?’.

In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.

What is the agreement of the Good Friday Agreement?

At it’s core, the Belfast Agreement was an agreement of peace in Northern Ireland. Many other elements came with the agreement, but peace is what it sought to achieve.

Did the Troubles end with the Good Friday Agreement?

While the Good Friday Agreement didn’t put a total end to the violence (the July 2001 Belfast riots saw some of the worst rioting in years), it was a watershed moment in which the IRA and other assorted paramilitaries put down their weapons and everybody involved focused on bringing peace to the region for good. 

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