For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome again Dr Mary C. Murphy, from the University College in Cork, Ireland.
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Twenty-five years ago, on 10th April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast. How do you assess the legacy of this event today?
In 1998, the signing of this carefully negotiated peace document was a momentous and historic achievement. It secured the paramilitary cease-fires which had been called four years previously, and it also heralded substantial, and sometimes difficult, institutional and policy change for Northern Ireland.
Internationally, the Agreement was greeted with jubilation. In Northern Ireland, the reception to the Agreement was optimistic, but also cautious. Nevertheless, over 70% of voters in Northern Ireland chose to support the Agreement in a referendum which took place six weeks after it was signed.
Did they make the right choice?
In many ways, their decision to vote ‘yes’ has been vindicated. In the 25 years since the referendum, political violence has substantially abated and today Northern Ireland is a safer place. The Agreement has effectively underpinned a period of peace and stability, and simultaneously facilitated improved economic growth and some social progress.
The provisions of the Good Friday Agreement included the creation of new political structures in Northern Ireland which helped to stabilise relations between the opposing unionist and nationalist communities. It also institutionalised North-South relations on the island of Ireland and facilitated closer British-Irish links. These institutional innovations sought to accommodate the distinct identities and competing political aspirations of unionists and nationalists, a vital component of the peace agreement.
However, it has not all been smooth sailing since 1998.
What are the difficulties that remain?
The power-sharing institutions have been vulnerable to crisis and have been suspended or collapsed on a number of occasions. Even right now, they are not operating. Disagreement on how to accommodate Northern Ireland interests in the context of Brexit, has led to the largest unionist party – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – boycotting the institutions.
Moreover, not all aspects of the Agreement were easily implemented. There was for instance the reform of the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Having endured discrimination at the hands of the predominantly Protestant police force, the Catholic community was deeply hostile towards the RUC and favoured its disbandment. In contrast, Protestants saw the RUC as their protector. Agreement on a reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was achieved, but it was a highly emotive and difficult affair.
The Agreement also included arrangements to facilitate the early release of paramilitary prisoners; many of whom were subsequently freed from prison just two years later. This meant that many prisoners served substantially less than their full sentences for a whole series of paramilitary activities which had destroyed lives, families and communities. For many victims, this provision of the Agreement was especially difficult.
And what is the situation today, 25 years later?
Some elements of Northern Ireland society are still separated and divided. More than 90% of schools are segregated. The majority of public sector housing estates are divided along religious lines. Over 100 so-called peace walls, which act as a security buffer between different communities, remain intact.
Concerning Brexit, the recently signed ‘Windsor Framework’ attempts to address and alleviate the challenges linked to Northern Ireland’s contentious post-Brexit trading rules; and significantly, there is majority support for the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to be resurrected in the wake of the Windsor Framework. However, not all political parties share this view. The DUP’s fear that the Windsor Framework does not protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and instead facilitates moves towards Irish unity, is preventing the Agreement from being operationalised and implemented in its entirety.
So the Agreement is still work in progress?
In 1998, it took immense courage on the part of the people and politicians of Northern Ireland to support and accept the terms and provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. That courage paid off. However, there are still relations to be mended, institutions to be stabilised and policies to be implemented.
In the closing scenes of the wonderful Derry Girls TV series on Netflix, at the moment when Northern Ireland is on the cusp of voting to support the Good Friday Agreement, the main character Erin says: ‘We have to be brave’. Her words ring true as much today as they did on 10 April 1998.
Thank you very much, for sharing your views on this milestone in European history with us. I recall that you hold a Jean Monnet Chair at the University College of Cork.
Interview by Rune Mahieu.