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The Troubles in Northern Ireland 101: The Good Friday Agreement


The Troubles in Northern Ireland represented 30 years of complex intercommunal, paramilitary and state violence that claimed the lives of thousands and saw entire generations born or raised into conflict. Yet many struggle to understand how and why such a conflict could occur so recently in such a small corner of Western Europe. This 101 series will give a broad overview of the origins and history of the Troubles, the conflicting ethno-national identities that fuelled them, and an analysis of the peace process that brought the violence to an end and what that means for Northern Ireland today.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland 101 is divided into seven different chapters:

As shown in the last chapter, as the Troubles entered their third decade the war-weary people of Northern Ireland were finally beginning to glimpse the possibility of peace. The adoption of the Republican “Ballot Box and Armalite” strategy had seen Sinn Féin begin to take an increasingly prominent role as the PIRA armed campaign began to falter (Mulcahy, 1995). Simultaneously the SDLP had negotiated with the main political parties of the Republic of Ireland’s Dáil Éireann to forge a peaceful joint Nationalist strategy and made the first preliminary moves to include Sinn Féin, who themselves had dropped their longstanding policy of abstentionism in the Republic (Shannon, 1986). Meanwhile, Britain and the Republic of Ireland had made significant steps in cross-border cooperation, and Britain had publicly stated its willingness to negotiate with Sinn Féin if the PIRA ended its armed campaign (Connolly & Doyle, 2018).

Nevertheless, a great many hurdles remained as the conflict entered the 1990s: extensive Loyalist paramilitary violence; a continuing PIRA armed campaign that their dedicated fighters were unwilling to give up; the British government’s longstanding reluctance to be seen negotiating with terrorists; a Unionist population infuriated by the concessions of the Anglo-Irish Agreement; and many communities still trapped in culture and cycle of animosity, mistrust, resentment, and violence. First, this article will show how the local, national, and international contexts changed in the 1990s, allowing the initial groundwork of the 1980s to evolve into a committed Peace Process. Second, it will examine the key provisions of the resulting Good Friday Agreement as a framework for peace, before the final section analysing the ratification of the agreement by referendum in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Figure 1: Le Garsmeur, A. (1985). British soldiers stop drivers in South Armagh – AKA Bandit Country – in December 1985. [Photograph].

Shifting Sands and the Peace Process

Entering the 1990s, Northern Ireland — and the wider world — was a very different place from that in which The Troubles started in the 1960s. As noted in the last chapter, the SDLP — as the face of peaceful Irish Nationalism throughout the Troubles — had made big strides toward the Peace Process by putting forward a united Nationalist strategy in conjunction with the Republic of Ireland (Mansergh, 2018). In doing so, they had helped convince the British government to sign the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, promising an All-Ireland dimension to any Peace Process (Mansergh, 2018). This event provided Irish Nationalism with a solid precondition with which to engage in future negotiations. The successes of this strategy saw the 1988 John Hume-Gerry Adams talks, for the first time bringing SDLP and Sinn Féin to the negotiating table, whereas previously Sinn Féin had been ostracised due to their support for violence (Mansergh, 2018). This groundwork allowed Arnold Reynolds, elected as Irish Taoiseach in 1992, to announce for the first time the intention of the Republic of Ireland government to include Sinn Féin in talks. Sinn Féin had finally been accepted by all the main brokers of Irish Nationalism as having a legitimate political role (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Sinn Féin in turn released its 1992 policy document “Towards a Lasting Peace”, expressing that the Republic of Ireland, whom Sinn Féin had previously shunned as a collaborationist regime complicit in partition, had a central role in the Peace Process (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Electoral Irish Nationalism had begun to make peace with electoral Irish Republicanism.

Meanwhile, the 1991 resignation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — a much-despised hate figure within Republicanism — and her replacement with John Major brought a renewed British commitment to the Peace Process (Mansergh, 2018). Northern Irish Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, had already publicly stated in 1989 a willingness to engage with Sinn Féin if the PIRA ended its armed campaign (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Simultaneously, Brooke went about persuading the SDLP, UUP, DUP and Alliance Party to sit down in a series of talks in 1991 and 1992 alongside representatives of the British and Irish governments. This hoped to bring Unionists who, since the Anglo-Irish Agreement, had refused to engage with any aspect of the growing Peace Process, into negotiations with Irish Nationalists. The existence of the negotiations themselves illustrated to Sinn Féin how continued commitment to armed violence would leave them outside of meaningful discussion (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Ultimately the talks ended in stalemate, with the UUP and DUP refusing to engage in further negotiations until the Republic of Ireland altered their constitution to remove their territorial claim to Northern Ireland, which the ROI stated it would not do until after a settlement was reached.

Figure 2: Unknown. (1993). Sir John Major, former British Prime Minister, and former Taoiseach, the late Albert Reynolds, at the signing of the Downing Street Declaration on December 15, 1993. [Photograph].

Nevertheless, these developments led to the 1993 Downing Street Declaration by John Major and Albert Reynolds (Major & Reynolds, 1993). This was considered a pivotal moment by acting as a public culmination and affirmation of the British and Irish governmental positions towards the Peace Process so far (Reynolds, 2000). First, it reaffirmed the commitment of the British and Irish governments to the right of Northern Ireland to self-determination, in which only a Northern Irish majority could decide to unite with the Republic (Montgomery, 2021). Importantly, it also affirmed a new “Principle of Consent”, in which both the people of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland had the right to decide their own constitutional futures with no external interference (Major & Reynolds, 1993). Thus, for the first time, the right to Self-Determination for the Irish people as a whole was acknowledged, in which all Irish people had an intrinsic stake in the future of Ireland, thereby securing an All-Ireland dimension to the Peace Process (Montgomery, 2021). Next, the Declaration also reiterated Peter Brooke’s 1991 statement that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”, acting as a public acknowledgement of British impartiality on the future of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, in which it would not act to block Irish Unification (Montgomery, 2021). Finally, the Declaration acknowledged the willingness of the British and Irish governments to allow political parties linked with paramilitaries to sit down in talks, so long as they abandoned violence.

For Republican and Loyalist Paramilitaries, the early 1990s was marked by an increasingly bloody series of retaliatory attacks. In particular, the notorious 1993 Shankill Road Bombing, in which the PIRA attempted to bomb a supposed UDA meeting above a fish and chip shop, resulted instead in 8 Protestant civilians killed, sparking off an intense series of Loyalist Paramilitary revenge attacks on Catholic civilians (Paul et al, 2013). This increasing number of ill-conceived PIRA attacks steadily damaged support for the armed campaign which, combined with Sinn Féin’s progress towards recognition as a participant in negotiations, led to those elements of the PIRA committed to continuing violence becoming increasingly side-lined (Hearty, 2014). The desire to secure Sinn Féin a place at the negotiating table ultimately led to the announcement of a PIRA ceasefire in August 1994 civilians (Paul et al, 2013). This was followed by the first-ever meeting incorporating all the main Irish powerbrokers; the SDLP’s John Hume, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, and the Republic of Ireland’s Albert Reynolds (Mansergh, 2018). On this occasion, they publicly reached out to Unionists by stating that they required their participation to bring an end to the Troubles. The Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) — consisting of the leaders of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando — had for its part already toyed with a 10-week ceasefire in 1991 during the inter-party negotiations, in an attempt to legitimise their own position as political powerbrokers (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Both the UVF and UDA, having seen the successes of Sinn Féin, began standing candidates from their own respective political wings in elections to secure a seat at negotiations — with militant Loyalism ironically proving more willing than the electoral Loyalism of the DUP to sit down in talks with their sworn Republican enemies (Mansergh, 2018). For the CLMC, the PIRA ceasefire in August 1994 allowed them to claim they had secured military victory in stopping Republican violence, enabling them to announce their own ceasefire in October 1994 (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Spoiler groups continued to operate, including rouge UVF units and the Continuity IRA (CIRA), who had split from the PIRA in 1986 in opposition to ending abstentionism in the Republic of Ireland (Reed & Edwards, 2011). Nevertheless, for the first time since the Troubles began, all the major paramilitary groups had simultaneously announced a cessation of hostilities (Mansergh, 2018).

Figure 3: PA Images. (1993). The scene at the Shankill Road bombing (PA). [Photograph].

Up to this point, the continued intransigence of the main Unionist parties illustrated just how difficult they had found adaptation to the post-Anglo-Irish Agreement role of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Irish affairs, and worse still, the continued overtures to bring Sinn Féin into political negotiations (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). For Unionists, Republican armed violence was still the ultimate red line that should never be crossed, and they continued to believe that the PIRA could be defeated outright (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). The idea that the British and Irish governments would reach out to Sinn Féin before the PIRA had halted its armed campaign and completely decommissioned its weaponry was considered an ultimate folly and further proof that they did not take Unionist concerns seriously (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Yet, with the Downing Street Declaration, the Nationalist acceptance of Sinn Féin as a political player and the paramilitary ceasefire, the ground was set for negotiations to begin in earnest with or without Unionist representation. This realisation led the new UUP leader David Trimble, elected in 1995, to agree to UUP participation in negotiations in the face of fierce internal criticism (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). The largest Unionist Party was now also sitting at the table. However, Ian Paisleys DUP continued to resist all demands to negotiate with Sinn Féin for as long as the PIRA maintained its weaponry and hence the possibility of reinstating violence.

Northern Ireland did not exist in a vacuum, and the global context by this point had also changed dramatically from the beginning of the Troubles. The end of the Cold War saw the position of the PIRA as a Revolutionary Socialist organisation, combined with the international perception of the conflict as one between Catholic and Protestant, make the Troubles look increasingly anachronistic and out of place in the modern world (Cox, 2018). The Republic of Ireland, for its part, had begun its own process of rapid economic modernisation as the Celtic Tiger, and was furthermore breaking the hold of Catholic conservatism on Irish politics and society, when it legalised divorce via referendum in 1995 (McSweeny, 1998). This Irish prohibition on divorce had been frequently cited by Unionists as an example of the backwardness of the Catholic South and its basic cultural incompatibility with the Protestant North - whilst it´s removal lessened such dramatic claims of cultural difference (Mansergh, 2018). Meanwhile, the Irish American community had largely united around supporting the Peace Process, with romanticised support for the PIRA from some segments of the Irish American community having lost momentum amongst the USA’s own growing experiences with high-profile terrorist bombings (Dumbrell, 2018). Consequently, the United States under President Bill Clinton had taken an increasingly active role as a neutral proponent and facilitator of negotiations (Hazleton, 2000). Meanwhile, the European Union, which had established the Single Market in 1993, had newfound importance as a vehicle for managing cross-border British Irish relations — and creating an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (Cox, 2018). The growing confidence in the West that the world was entering a period of greater interconnection, peace and stability seemed to be reinforced by an increasing number of negotiated peace processes in other conflicts. The 1989 Taif Agreement in Lebanon, the 1993 end of Apartheid in South Africa, the 1993 Oslo Accords in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the 1995 Dayton Agreement in Bosnia, all saw negotiated settlements to previously brutal or intractable conflicts — giving a renewed sense of purpose and optimism towards the Northern Ireland Peace Process amongst the international community (Cox, 2018).

Figure 4: Crowley, T. (1998). Republican mural, Shiels St., West Belfast, 1998. Cuba Ireland solidarity; portrait of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. [Photograph].

Nevertheless, there were still bumps in the road to come that threw the Peace Process into doubt. In February 1996 PIRA hardliners, who felt that too much was being invested in Sinn Féin in return for too few concessions at the expense of the armed struggle, detonated a 1.4 tonne bomb in Canary Wharf in London, thus ending the ceasefire after less than two years (Paul et al, 2013). The UUP quickly withdrew from talks in protest, vowing not to return until the PIRA had surrendered its weapons. Simultaneously, a series of increasingly violent clashes in the town of Portadown symbolised the continuing Loyalist-Nationalist divide at the communal level. This resulted from attempts to reroute a traditional Loyalist Orange Order parade route from Drumcree Church away from a Catholic neighbourhood, with this "Drumcree Standoff" having acted as a communal flashpoint that had been causing intermittent violence since the 1800s (Doyle, 2018). Loyalists conflated these moves to reroute Orange Order marches with attempts to destroy Loyalist traditions and identity — and saw it as evidence that the Peace Process would lead to the gradual extinction of Loyalist ethnonational culture in order to appease Nationalism. Nevertheless, the 1997 election of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister led to a strengthened commitment to getting the hard work of the Peace Process over the line. The negotiators vowed to continue working towards a Peace Agreement with or without Sinn Féin or the UUP, leading to the second and final PIRA ceasefire in July 1997. The UUP, again realising negotiations would go on without them, also reluctantly returned to the table, causing a profound split within the Unionist community with those opposed to negotiation (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Meanwhile, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), consisting of neutral international representatives, was established in 1997 to oversee the decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry. By April 1998, after years of fierce negotiation, the details of a lasting peace settlement had finally been drawn up.

The Good Friday Agreement: A Document for Ending the Conflict

This section will provide a broad overview and analysis of the main provisions of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), also known as the Belfast Agreement, and the reasons for their necessity (Northern Ireland Office, 1998). The GFA was split into two main pillars. The first was the Multi-Party Agreement resulting from the series of inter-party negotiations since 1996 between eight of Northern Ireland’s political parties along with the British and Irish governments. The second was the British-Irish Agreement consisting of negotiations purely between the British and Irish governments (Montgomery, 2021). These agreements primarily concerned the institutional settlement that would provide the framework for Northern Ireland’s governance, as well as the measures that would secure the continuation of the paramilitary ceasefire. However, it was accompanied by several concurrent processes, such as decommissioning and police reform, that would occur alongside the GFA, albeit independently without the GFA itself formalising the details of these processes.

Figure 5: Unknown. (1998). The prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, and then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement. [Photograph].

The core of the institutional settlement of the GFA is a devolved Northern Irish Assembly and a consociational power-sharing executive (Doylde, 2018). The Northern Irish Assembly is voted in using Proportional Representation, to reflect the division between Nationalists and Unionists and stop the gerrymandering that plagued the old Unionist-dominated Stormont. All members of the Assembly are required to register as either “Unionist”, “Nationalist” or “Other” (Montgomery, 2021). On legislation deemed to be particularly important or controversial, a majority of both Nationalist and Unionist members are required to approve it in a form of supermajority (Montgomery, 2021). Meanwhile, the power-sharing Executive consists of a Leader and Deputy Leader, one of which must be a Unionist and the other a Nationalist, with the positions going to the leaders of the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties respectively. Furthermore, a cross-community Cabinet of Ministers is selected incorporating members from all the main parties of the Assembly (Montgomery, 2021). This is designed to ensure that no one group or party can dominate all the administrative functions of the Northern Irish State, thereby enforcing cross-communal political cooperation and consent in decision-making (Horowitz, 2002). This type of enforced ethnonational power-sharing arrangement has been criticised as accepting and institutionalising communal division, thereby limiting the opportunities to seek alternative forms of politics outside of these ethnonational boundaries (Horowitz, 2002). Nevertheless, this was a necessary step, as no Unionist would accept the possibility of a Northern Irish government that could be dominated by Nationalists, particularly Sinn Féin, and no Nationalist would ever accept the return of the Unionist-dominated Stormont. Ultimately, the dangers of formalising communal division were outweighed by giving a peaceful political outlet to what had previously been violent Loyalism and Republicanism (Doyle, 2018).

This power-sharing arrangement was complemented by both a North-South institutional settlement and an East-West institutional settlement. The North-South settlement consisted of a Ministerial Council, incorporating members of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland Executives, to act as a consultative body to aid cross-border cooperation in twelve designated policy areas. This was a necessary concession to Nationalism in ensuring the promised All-Ireland dimension to the Peace Process (Montgomery, 2021). Similarly, the East-West institutional settlement consisted of a British-Irish Council and an Intergovernmental Conference to ensure British and Irish Ministers, as well as those from Britain’s devolved administrations, could frequently meet to cooperate on Anglo-Irish policy (Montgomery, 2021). British-Irish cooperation had been crucial to the Peace Process until this point and, furthermore, it was hoped that in pursuing similar policies and maintaining friendly relations, the political and psychological distance between Nationalism and Unionism within Northern Ireland would be narrowed (Horowitz, 2002). Unpinning all these institutions was the GFA’s guarantee of respecting the democratic self-determination of the people of Northern Ireland (Horowitz, 2002). For Nationalists, this maintained the possibility of one day uniting with the Republic, whereas for Unionists, who formed a clear majority in Northern Ireland, this guaranteed the continued position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom for the medium and potentially long term (Horowitz, 2002).

Figure 6: Pacemaker. (1998). The decommissioning of paramilitary weapons became the key issue following the ceasefires. [Photograph].

Whilst these institutions provided political settlement, it was also important to address security measures. The first and most pressing issue was the decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry to ensure there could be no easy break of the ceasefire in future (Doyle, 2018). In return, the GFA promised that all paramilitary prisoners who had been convicted before the GFA would be granted an amnesty for their crimes and released from prison within two years (Doyle, 2018). The GFA recommended, although did not make this an explicit provision, that the decommissioning process should be done within this same two-year timeframe under the supervision of the IICD as an independent process (Doyle, 2018). This was one of the most controversial aspects of the Agreement, with paramilitaries convicted of notorious murders, bombings and other appalling acts of violence set to be released back into the same streets as their victims and victims’ families (MacGinty, 1999). Furthermore, the granting of amnesty was seen as a legitimisation of these acts of violence (MacGinty, 1999). Meanwhile, despite this massive prisoner-release concession to the paramilitaries as part of the GFA, the paramilitary organisations would still retain their weaponry, at least until the decommissioning process was complete, meaning there was theoretically nothing stopping these released paramilitary prisoners from returning to violence in the meantime (MacGinty, 1999). Nevertheless, prisoner releases were considered a prerequisite to secure paramilitary support for decommissioning and for the wider GFA (MacGinty, 1999). Britain for its part promised security “Normalisation” by withdrawing its military deployment to peacetime levels, withdrawing legal Special Emergency Powers, and removing fortified military and policing installations and border infrastructure (MacGinty, 1999).

Another important measure to win Nationalist support was a promise to reform policing, with the Patten Commission launched as part of the GFA to recommend how this reform should take place (Hearty, 2017). The subsequent 1999 report ultimately recommended the dissolution of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had never managed to break out of its Protestant-dominated membership and association with partisan Unionist policing. In its place would be the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which would pursue a policy of affirmative action to try and recruit as close as possible to 50% Catholic and 50% Non-Catholic officers, to ensure a non-partisan and neutral policing force (Hearty, 2017). For Unionists, who still formed a majority of the population, a 50% Catholic membership was deemed unrepresentative and hence unfair in giving a disproportionate number of Catholic officers (Doyle, 2018). Meanwhile, for Nationalists, it was inevitable that the PSNI would carry over many of the same Protestant RUC officers who had an embedded history of anti-Nationalist policing (Hearty, 2017). Regardless, the abolition of the RUC, whose reputation amongst Nationalists was irreparable, was a necessary step to try to win back the trust of Nationalist communities. The Patten Commission ultimately confirmed this communal disparity, with 80% of Unionists in favour of the RUC as opposed to only 50% of Nationalists (Hearty, 2017).

Figure 7: Faith, P. (1997). Portadown Orangemen clash with riot police after the men had broken through a metal barrier at Drumcree bridge in Northern Ireland following their Sunday church service. Police and soldiers blocked their return route along the catholic Garvaghy Road. [Photograph].

Finally, the GFA contained a myriad of cultural measures to ensure “parity of self-esteem” between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists, including the legal protection of cultural symbols, and the Gaelic, English and Ulster Scots languages. It furthermore incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Irish Law (Horowitz, 2002). Furthermore, the GFA guaranteed the rights of people in Northern Ireland to hold either British or Irish citizenship, or else both - meaning Irish Nationalists could live their whole lives in Northern Ireland without ever claiming British citizenship (Horowitz, 2002). Although lying outside of the GFA, the Parade Commission was also established in April 1998 in response to the Drumcree conflict, to oversee and, if necessary, restrict Unionist and Nationalist parades and marches deemed overly controversial, inflammatory, or offensive. This included powers to re-route parades passing through contentious areas, to prohibit music at sections of parade routes, and the banning of certain participants for past discretions of these measures (Cox, 2018). This was designed to limit the intercommunal rioting that frequently sprung up around parades, particularly the annual Twelve July Orange Order marches. Nevertheless, as parades are considered a stronger part of Unionist culture, with far more of them than Nationalist parades, the Parades Commission was considered by Unionists as yet another concession to Nationalism (MacSweeney, 1998).

Ratification: Consensus and Division

The Agreement was finally signed on Good Friday on the 10th April 1998 by representatives of Britain and the Republic of Ireland, as well as the eight participants in the Multi-Party talks - among them the SDLP, UUP, Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and two of the Loyalist paramilitary political wings (Reynolds, 2000). The only major party to withhold their support was the DUP, on account of the participation of paramilitaries before they had decommissioned their weaponry. The next stage of the ratification process was a twin referendum on 22nd May 1998. The first was to be held in Northern Ireland to ratify the part of the agreement concerning devolution. The second was to be held in the Republic of Ireland to ratify the international North-South and East-West dimensions of the Agreement, alongside a change in the Irish constitution to remove the Republic of Ireland’s territorial claim to the North (Montgomery, 2021). The Republic of Ireland referendum saw a 56% turnout, albeit with an overwhelming 94% voting in favour of the Agreement, with every single party represented in the Dáil Éireann in favour, forming a solid Republic of Ireland mandate (Reynolds, 2000).

Figure 8: Thursfield, P. (1994). Celebrating the 1994 IRA ceasefire in Belfast. [Photograph].

The Northern Irish referendum also provided a massive mandate in absolute terms, with 71% voting in favour on a large 81% turnout, with the turnout broadly even across Nationalist and Unionist communities (Reynolds, 2000). However, at the communal level, the mandate was less convincing. Nationalists voted overwhelmingly in favour at around 93% (Reynolds, 2000). Nevertheless, some minor Republican parties acting at the political wings of dissident paramilitaries rejected the GFA — e.g., Republican Sinn Féin representing the Continuity IRA, in a sign of the small minorities continuing commitment to, and stubborn cultural tradition of, armed Republicanism. However, for Unionists, the GFA was far more divisive (Reynolds, 2000). The DUP, as one of Northern Ireland’s largest parties and the main representative of electoral Loyalism, and other smaller Loyalist groups like the UK Unionist Party, actively rejected the agreement and campaigned against its ratification (Reynolds, 2000). Ultimately, only 57% of Unionists voted in favour of the GFA, representing a far less convincing communal mandate than that of the Nationalists (Reynolds, 2000). This reflected the strongly felt Unionist belief that they had given a disproportionate number of concessions, and furthermore these concessions had not even secured the decommissioning of PIRA weaponry (Reynolds, 2000). As will become clear in the next chapter, this lack of Unionist consensus posed some glaring problems in maintaining support for, and implementing, the GFA.

Despite this, the clear Northern Irish majority in favour of the referendum, in line with the Principle of Consent, meant the GFA agreement was ratified. The Northern Irish Assembly, alongside the All-Ireland and British Irish bodies, formally came into effect on the 2nd December 1999. The Troubles, at long last, after thirty years of conflict, 3,500 dead, 50,000 wounded, many thousands imprisoned, and thousands more bereaved and traumatised, were formally at an end, leaving this small region of 1.5 million people with a tattered economy and the visible scars of conflict and division (Cox, 2018). Yet the work of the Peace Process was only just beginning. The devastating Omagh Bombing in August 1998, just a few months after ratification of the GFA, killed 29 civilians in the deadliest single attack in Northern Ireland during the whole Troubles (Reynolds, 2000). The perpetrators were another new Republican dissident group, the Real IRA (RIRA), who had formed in 1997 in opposition to the ceasefire and GFA. There was no greater reminder of the fragility of peace, and the danger of moving backwards (Reynolds, 2000). It would take more than a piece of paper and a few news laws and institutions of the GFA framework to create lasting peace. Ultimately it would require the consent, commitment and patience of the wider Northern Irish population.

Figure 9: Mahoney, M. (1998). Police standing in the rubble after a bomb ripped through the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland, August 1998. The prosecution against a suspect in the case has collapsed. [Photograph].

Conclusions: A Framework for Peace, but not a Guarantee

As shown, the Good Friday Agreement was the result of complicated negotiation, hard-fought concessions, and shifting dynamics within all the key players of the conflict, and within a global context that left the violence of the Troubles looking increasingly isolated and anachronistic. With Britain and the Republic of Ireland agreeing on a joint constitutional position and cooperating to facilitate negotiation, and the USA acting as a neutral broker, peaceful Nationalism, armed Republicanism, and armed Loyalism all moved towards negotiations, with peaceful Unionists eventually overcoming their reluctance to sit with Sinn Féin to avoid being left behind. The one exception was the position of electoral Loyalism, which had maintained its consistent opposition to concession throughout the entire thirty-year conflict, for as long as there was any perceived danger of continued Republican violence. The result was an institutional settlement in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. This sought to facilitate political and communal divisions in a peaceful manner by providing a framework for enforced political compromise and cooperation, both within Northern Ireland, and between the Republic and the UK. Furthermore, in conjunction with a separate weapons decommissioning process, it sought to maintain the paramilitary commitment to the Peace Process through prisoner releases, British army withdrawal and policing reform. Nevertheless, the GFA, whilst marking an official end to the conflict, was far from the end of the Peace Process. The Omagh bombing signified the continuing threat of armed dissident paramilitarism, the Drumcree conflict signified continuing inter-communal violence, division and hostility, and the intransigence of the DUP signified the profound split within the Unionist community that undermined the wider consensus in support for the GFA. As the next chapter will show, the Good Friday Agreement, whilst forming a bedrock for a future free of armed violence, had many glaring gaps that would have to be overcome for the Peace Process to move forward.

Bibliographical References

Connolly, E., & Doyle, J. (2018). Ripe moments for Exiting Political Violence: an Analysis of the Northern Ireland Case, Irish Studies in International Affairs: Reflections on the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process, 147-162.

Cox, B. (2018). Northern Ireland: The War that came in from the Cold, Irish Studies in International Affairs (Reflections on the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process), 73-85.

Doyle, J. (2018). Reflecting on the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process: 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, Irish Studies in International Affairs (Reflections on the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process), 1-16.

Dumbrell, J. (2018). The United States and the Northern Irish Conflict 1969–94: from Indifference to Intervention, Irish Studies in International Affairs (Reflections on the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process), 107-126.

Hazleton, W. (2000). Encouragement from the Sidelines: Clinton's Role in the Good Friday Agreement, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 11, 103-119.

Hearty, K. (2014). The Political and Military Value of the “Set Piece” Killing Tactic in East Tyrone 1983–1992, State Crime Journal, 3(1), 50-72.

Hearty, K. (2017) Critical Engagement: Irish republicanism, memory politics and policing. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Horowitz, D. (2002). Explaining the Northern Ireland Agreement: The Sources of an Unlikely Constitutional Consensus, British Journal of Political Science, 32(2), 193-220.

Major, J., & Reynolds, A. (1993). Joint Declaration on Peace: The Downing Street Declaration, Wednesday 15 December 1993, CAIN, Retrieved from:

Mansergh, M. (2018). The Background to the Peace Process, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 145-159.

MacGinty, R. (1999). 'Biting the Bullet': Decommissioning in the Transition from War to Peace in Northern Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 10, 237-247.

McSweeney, B. (1998). Identity, Interest and the Good Friday Agreement, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 9, 93-102.

Montgomery, R. (2021). The Good Friday Agreement and a United Ireland, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 32(2), 2021, 83-110.

Mulcahy, A. (1995). Claims-Making and the Construction of Legitimacy: Press Coverage of the 1981 Northern Irish Hunger Strike, Social Problems, 42:4, 449-467.

Northern Ireland Office. (1998). The Belfast Agreement: An Agreement Reached on the Multi-Party Talks on Northern Ireland, The Stationery Office Limited.

Paul, C. et al. (2013). Paths to Victory: Detailed Insurgency Case Studies, RAND Corporation.

Reed, R., & Edwards, A. (2011). Loyalist paramilitaries and the peace process, Fortnight, 477, 6-7.

Reynolds, A. (2000). A Constitutional Pied Piper: The Norther Irish Good Friday Agreement, Political Science Quarterly, 114(4), 613-637.

Shannon, W. (1986). The Anglo-Irish Agreement, Foreign Affairs, 64:4, 849-870.

Visual sources

Cover Photo: Reading, T. (2020). “No More” Peace Mural in Northern Ireland [Photograph]. Flickr. Retrieved from:

Figure 1: Le Garsmeur, A. (1985). British soldiers stop drivers in South Armagh – AKA Bandit Country – in December 1985 [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Unknown. (1993). Sir John Major, former British Prime Minister, and former Taoiseach, the late Albert Reynolds, at the signing of the Downing Street Declaration on December 15, 1993 [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: PA Images. (1993). The scene at the Shankill Road bombing (PA) [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Crowley, T. (1998). Republican mural, Shiels St., West Belfast, 1998. Cuba Ireland solidarity; portrait of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara [Photograph]. Claremont Colleges Library. Retrieved from:

Figure 5: Unknown. (1998). The prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, and then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 6: Pacemaker. (Cerca 1998). The decommissioning of paramilitary weapons became the key issue following the ceasefires [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 7: Faith, P. (1997). Portadown Orangemen clash with riot police after the men had broken through a metal barrier at Drumcree bridge in Northern Ireland following their Sunday church service. Police and soldiers blocked their return route along the catholic Garvaghy Road [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from:

Figure 8: Thursfield, P. (1994). Celebrating the 1994 IRA ceasefire in Belfast [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 9: Mahoney, M. (1998). Police standing in the rubble after a bomb ripped through the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland, August 1998. The prosecution against a suspect in the case has collapsed [Photograph]. Reuters. Retrieved from:

1 Comment

Aug 28, 2022

Your articles are always very detailed and precise in their explanations. It is not easy to give a good historical account of the events that characterised the period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but I think you have succeeded! It is a very interesting article.

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Finn Archer

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