The Good Friday Agreement

By Alison McCartney
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
1999, Vol. 1998/1999 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

The current political climate in the United Kingdom is very much of devolution to regional governments, whether it is in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or even in England.  The process of devolution in Northern Ireland has emerged from a very delicate situation and the Good Friday Agreement would appear to be one last, desperate attempt to solve or at least relieve the terrible situation.

The Good Friday Agreement has come to signify a glimmer of hope for Northern Ireland, in that compromise was certainly the order of the day, for every party involved.

To fully understand the implications of the Good Friday Agreement, one must realise the nature of the Northern Irish problem.  Northern Ireland has been a bi-confessional society for a very long time and therefore political beliefs are aligned along religious and ethno-nationalist grounds.Unfortunately, socio-economics has very little to do with affiliations.  It has previously been the reluctance of these two confessions to compromise their visions, that has led to the failure of previous attempts at regional government and it is the presence of compromise and accommodation that makes the Good Friday Agreement such a strong document.

However, without seeming to tempt fate, one must be aware that although the Agreement has is basically a strong document, it has some inherent weaknesses, which may affect its potential success.  One of the things that makes the Good Friday Agreement a fundamentally robust document is that it ensures that the New Northern Ireland Assembly is fully representative of all sections of society and no one section has the ability to manipulate the business of the Assembly.  The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights is extremely important to the working of a power sharing government because it protects the rights of minorities which may have been ignored in an ethnic democracy.  With this great emphasis on human rights, there is a danger that ‘Individual’ rights may be substituted for ‘group’ rights.  This would give groups such as Unionists and Nationalists, an institutional backing and further entrench the sectarian divisions Northern Ireland has known for so long.  Sectarianism is further entrenched ‘In the New Northern Ireland Assembly with the insistence of the Good Friday Agreement that each party designate themselves Unionist or Nationalist according to their aims.

Will a government ever exist in Northern Ireland where parties are elected on their socio-economic policies, like our Irish and British Counterparts, and not on their religious or ethnic affiliations? Another factor, which strengthens the Good Friday Agreement, is the overwhelming support it received from the people of Northern Ireland.  The proposal of power sharing executive in 1973 and the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982 were not put to the people in a referendum, but were initiatives of the then Secretaries of State.  It is doubtful if we will ever know if the two previous governments would have had the support of the people.  Therefore every Assembly Member in Stormont today knows that he/she has the full commitment of the people of Northern Ireland, which gives much more legitimacy to their task.

However, the support of the people will not guarantee the success of the Assembly.  This will be determined by the party’s willingness to co-operate in the Executive of the Assembly.  Rather than allowing the Executive to form voluntarily when a certain level of cooperation can be reached, it is imposed as an integral part of the Agreement.  The problem with this is becoming evident now, with the insistence of the Unionist parties that paramilitary decommissioning as a precondition for the formation of the Executive.

Another question of the new power sharing Assembly is whether the prevalence of moderate and centre politics can be maintained.  The Ulster Unionist Party could be called one such moderate party.  It is well known that David Trimble had to work extremely hard to get a majority in his party to support the Good Friday Agreement.  This majority is becoming more and more precarious and if David Trimble loses even one or two of his supporters to more extreme parties, then he will no longer hold a moderate majority.  The unionist spectrum of the Assembly will then be in the hands of ‘No’ extremists.  Although it may seem a small point, David Trimble and the internal split in Unionism is posing a serious threat to the running of the New Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Good Friday Agreement represents difference goals for different parties and this difference has the potential to cause trouble in the long term.  Unionists hope the Good Friday Agreement will finally enshrine the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.  In a way the Agreement satisfies this aim, in that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom until a majority of its citizens decide otherwise.  Nationalists on the other hand, believe the Irish dimension to the Agreement, namely, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British/Irish Council, will ultimately lead to a United Ireland.  The conflict of interests will certainly raise itself after the ‘honeymoon period’ has ended.  People in Northern Ireland have thought that the Good Friday Agreement was the ultimate compromise and that as long as it was adhered to, the problems of Northern Ireland could be solved.  This is not the case because the reason Northern Ireland has a conflict is because it is a divided/sectarian society.  Therefore, the only form of government which could work and manage these divisions is power sharing, because it protects the rights of minorities.  Surely, the desired scenario should be when governments are elected on socio-economic politics and not how they view the geographical future of Northern Ireland or religion.  If sectarianism could be lessened or even obliterated in Northern Ireland there would be no need for a power sharing government because there would be no majority/minority groups that needed abridging/ protecting.

It is with relation to this point that I believe the greatest deficiency in the Good Friday Agreement lies.  It is only conflict management and not conflict resolution.  However, its significance must not be diminished as it represents the first and most difficult step in the creation of a non-sectarian society for Northern Ireland.  Let us only hope that the air of compromise continues through the New Northern Ireland Assembly because if it does, the Good Friday Agreement, despite its weaknesses has the potential to save as many lives in the future, as have been lost in Northern Ireland’s black past.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

I was prompted to review the situation in Northern Ireland for a number of reasons, not least because my previous article published in this journal now seemed to be a waste of paper in the light of the disappointing end to the IRA cease-fire which consequently affected the ongoing quest for a settlement of the Ireland situation. A settlement which is laden with emotion, characterized most recently by the twenty fifth anniversary of Bloody Sunday... MORE»
The role of President was laid out in the Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann) of 1937 with the first elections to the position being held in 1938.  The role is defined in articles 12-14 of Bunreacht na hÉireann as being the ceremonial Head of the Irish State.  The Constitution defines the President as someone “who shall take precedence over all other persons in the State and who shall exercise and perform... MORE»
In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dismissed the possibility of negotiating with leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), claiming that there is no sense in talking to a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, as it later became known, secret negotiations to set conditions for the Oslo Accords agreement with... MORE»
The Troubles, a period of conflict between mostly Protestant Unionists and mostly Catholic Nationalists in Northern Ireland, ended in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement. The division of society... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Political Science

2022, Vol. 14 No. 09
This interdisciplinary paper investigates the shortfalls and obstacles to success currently facing the climate movement, examining issues represented by the disconnect between policy and electoral politics, the hypocrisy and blatant indifference... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 06
Two of the most prevalent protest movements in recent history were the Black Lives Matter and the #StopTheSteal movements. While there are many differences between the two, one of the most prevalent is their use of violence. Whereas the BLM movement... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 05
Strong linkages between autocrats and the military are often seen as a necessary condition for authoritarian regime survival in the face of uprising. The Arab Spring of 2011 supports this contention: the armed forces in Libya and Syria suppressed... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
During the summer of 2020, two fatal shootings occurred following Black Lives Matter protests. The first event involved Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the second Michael Reinoehl in Portland, Oregon. Two shootings, each committed by... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
In popular international relations (IR) theory, knowledge production is often dismissed as an objective process between the researcher and the empirical world. This article rejects this notion and contends that the process of knowledge production... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
This article explores the political relationship between nation-building, ethnicity, and democracy in the context of Ethiopia. It traces Ethiopia's poltical history, explores the consequential role ethnicity has played in the formation of the modern... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
The study examines the degree to which Xi Jinping has brought about a strategic shift to the Chinese outward investment pattern and how this may present significant political leverage and military advantages for China in the Indian Ocean Region (... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


Writing a Graduate School Personal Statement
What is the Secret to Success?
Finding Balance in Graduate School