US President Joe Biden is to visit Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, on Tuesday (April 11) to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Biden tweeted earlier in the day, “25 years ago, Northern Ireland’s leaders chose peace. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement ended decades of violence and brought stability. I look forward to marking the anniversary in Belfast, underscoring the US commitment to preserving peace and encouraging prosperity.”
The Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of the violence known as ‘The Troubles’, has been hailed as a model deal to end long-standing conflicts, and fetched a joint Nobel peace prize for David Trimble and John Hume, then leaders of the two opposing parties in Northern Ireland. The leaders who will visit to mark its anniversary include, apart from Biden, former US president Bill Clinton, Britain’s King Charles, former UK Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair, and former Ireland Prime Minister (or Taoiseach) Bertie Ahern.
However, the anniversary celebrations will be shadowed by the strain Brexit has put on the agreement.
What is the Good Friday Agreement, why is it considered so important, and how is Brexit impacting it?
What is the Good Friday Agreement?
The Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998, between factions of Northern Ireland, and the governments of Britain and Ireland, to end decades of violence in Northern Ireland among those who wished to remain with the United Kingdom (UK) and those who wanted to join Ireland.
The negotiators included then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, then Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, George Mitchell, a former Democratic senator who acted as the envoy of then US President Bill Clinton, and eight parties from Northern Ireland.
What were The Troubles?
Northern Ireland was created in May 1921 by partitioning Ireland, and consists of the six northeastern counties of the island. In 1922, the rest of Ireland gained independence from the British (today’s Republic of Ireland, with its capital in Dublin). Northern Ireland remained with the United Kingdom, but tensions simmered between the side loyal to the Crown, mostly Protestants, and the faction wanting to join the Republic, mostly Catholics.
By the 1960s, the Protestants had become more powerful than the Catholics, who claimed discrimination. By the end of this decade, paramilitary groups from both sides, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were attacking each other. The police and the British Army, trying to quell the violence, were both accused of atrocities and more violence.
The Bloody Sunday of 1972 saw British soldiers kill 14 unarmed protesters. In 1979, the IRA killed Lord Louis Mountbatten, the former Governor General of India, along with his young grandson. In 1984, they tried to assassinate then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In all, according to the BBC, The Troubles claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people.
What were the terms of the Good Friday Agreement?
By the mid-1990s, momentum for peace was building. In April 1998, the negotiators gathered at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast. As The Guardian reported, “Getting Sinn Féin [seen as the IRA’s political arm] and unionists in the same building was a feat in itself.”
The Washington Post wrote about the negotiations, “Blair lived on Mars bars and sandwiches and only went outside once over three days. Wind and sleet hammered the stone castle. Children sang for peace outside its gate — one young boy even attached green and yellow balloons to its walls.”
The children “singing outside the gate” acted as moral pressure on the negotiators, many of whom were close to walking out at multiple points.
Eventually, a deal was thrashed out, which many believe is deliberately ambiguous on several fronts. It in a way allowed all groups to stick to the points most precious to them, while agreeing on ending violence.
Thus, Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK, but could join Ireland if, in a referendum, a majority of people on both sides voted for it. People born in Northern Ireland could have Irish or British nationality or both. Weapons by paramilitary groups would have to be decommissioned, but people in jail for violence so far would be released.
Northern Ireland would get a new government, where both the nationalists and unionists would be represented. This devolved government would sit at Stormont and have powers over most local matters, while the UK government would look after security, foreign policy, tax laws, immigration rules, etc.
On May 22, 1998, a referendum was held in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the agreement was approved by 94 per cent of voters in Ireland and 71 per cent in Northern Ireland.
The Guardian quoted John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney and key member of the peace talks, as saying, “I remember bringing the Belfast agreement to Ramallah to give a copy to Arafat [Yasser Arafat]. I said, ‘Here’s the basis on which you should get an agreement between Palestine and Israel’.”
What is the status 25 years on?
The most important achievement of the Good Friday Agreement has been an end to bloodshed and enduring peace in the region, apart from some sporadic violence. However, Brexit has thrown a spanner in the works. Stormont has been paralysed for more than a year. On Monday, masked youths in paramilitary dress threw petrol bombs at the police. According to Reuters, Britain’s intelligence agency, MI5, recently increased the threat level in Northern Ireland from domestic terrorism to “severe”.
This is because after the UK voted to leave the EU, Northern Ireland shared a land border with an EU country, Ireland. As the EU and the UK have different product standards, checks would be necessary before goods could move from Northern Ireland to Ireland. Creating checkposts at this border, with its history of violence and hard-won peace, was considered too dangerous. Thus, it was decided that checks would be conducted between Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland (which together with Great Britain forms the United Kingdom. This upset the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-Union party, and it continues to boycott Stormont. Without the DUP, the government cannot function.
To solve this crisis, the UK and the EU in February reached an agreement known as the Windsor Framework, but it is yet to soothe nerves. Experts have said that the Good Friday Agreement was kept vague because all sides then wanted peace and were acting in good faith. If this good faith erodes, the agreement can cause problems.
Why is Biden so enthusiastic about it?
The US had played a key part in negotiations building up to the agreement. Apart from that, Biden is descended from Irish immigrants and is vocally proud of his Irish heritage.
After Northern Ireland, Biden will spend three days in Ireland, where he will visit his ancestral homes and meet Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, reported Reuters.
“Since (John F) Kennedy there hasn’t been as Irish American a president as Joe Biden and we’re really looking forward to welcoming him home,” Varadkar said on Sunday, as reported by Reuters.