CAIN Web Service

'Transforming the Conflict'
by Sean Farren and Robert F. Mulvihill (2000)

[KEY_EVENTS] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
PEACE: [Menu] [Summary] [Reading] [Background] [Chronology_1] [Chronology_2] [Chronology_3] [Articles] [Agreement] [Sources]

Text: Sean Farren and Robert F. Mulvihill ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following chapter has been contributed by the authors Sean Farren and Robert F. Mulvihill, with the permission of the publisher. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
The chapter below is taken from the book:

by Sean Farren and Robert F. Mulvihill (2000)
Published by Colin Smythe Limited
ISBN 0-86140-413-0 252pp £8.95

Orders from local bookshops or:

Colin Smythe Limited
Cerrards Cross
Tel: 01753 886000
Fax: 01753 886469
Web: {external_link)

Cover photo: Martin Melaugh © CAIN

This chapter is copyright Sean Farren and Robert F. Mulvihill (2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the authors and the publishers. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author or the publishers. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

From the back cover:

Will the violence ever end? - Will peace and stability ever come? These were the twin folk questions that for most of its history best described the prevailing estimate of the prospects for a solution in Northern Ireland. For generations unionist and nationalist communities were frozen in isolation from one another, preferring demonstrations of communal solidarity to negotiation and cooperation.
This book examines the many attempts to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland, beginning with the civil rights movement and Prime Minister Terence O’Neill’s attempts at reform in the mid 1960s, continuing up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
For the most part, early efforts at peacemaking suggested only mechanical political solutions that deepened the already antagonistic pattern of relationships. It was not until existing relationships were challenged, most crucially in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and subsequently in several other initiatives jointly determined by the British and Irish governments, that the main parties began to participate in efforts to create a democratic peace.
The search for peace had always been overwhelmed by the violence that reinforced separation. Changing relationships and the end of the violent campaigns have created new opportunities for peace building.
Deep wounds still remain unforgiven, failed stereotypes persist and fear abounds. Yet despite all this, as the authors argue, a political and cultural process is now in motion that gives peace its first real chance in Northern Ireland’s history.

SEAN FARREN: Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Ulster, and appointed Minister for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment in the Northern Ireland Executive set up in December 1999. As a leading member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, he has long been closely involved in several political initiatives aimed at resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland (the New Ireland Forum, 1983-84; SDLP-Sinn Fein Talks, 1988; the Brooke-Mayhew talks, 1991-92; the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, 1994-96, as well as the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement, April 1998). He is author of The Politics of Irish Education 1920-1965, and many papers on political and educational issues relating to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

ROBERT F. MULVIHILL is Professor of Political Science at Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania. He is the author of several articles and numerous papers on the conflict in Northern Ireland, several in collaboration with Sean Farren. His doctoral dissertation dealt with Attitudes towards Political Violence. A Survey of Catholics and Protestants in Derry, Northern Ireland. He was a Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.

Front cover photo: ‘Hands Across the Divide’ by Maurice Harron, on the west side of Craigavon Bridge, Derry. Photo by Martin Melaugh, © CAIN Project.








































Following Sinn Fein’s entry to the multi-party talks in September 1997, negotiations proceeded with increasing intensity, through many difficult moments, to end with an historic agreement the following April, on Good Friday. That agreement, now known as the Good Friday Agreement, confounded popular expectations. Public response was, nonetheless, extremely positive and the sense of relief that at last a political agreement had been achieved was obvious in many quarters. The result was that the referenda held at the end of May to endorse it, North and South, resulted in overwhelming majorities in both jurisdictions, seventy-two voting in favour in the North and ninety-five per cent in the South.

In this final chapter we examine how the agreement was achieved and the extent to which its underlying principles, as well as the influences which worked to make it possible, relate to the approach outlined in our discussion. From the beginning, we have been arguing that the conflict could not be transformed unless there were changes in key relationships. Such changes could only occur if one or more of the major parties moved to a more differentiated, neutral position, accepting responsibility for its own interpretation, and inviting all others to do the same. Increased differentiation, we have maintained, on the part of the governments set in motion a long process of change within both republican and unionist ranks. The Good Friday Agreement is the result of this long and difficult process.



In organizational terms the negotiations were conducted in three key committees and two sub-committees. Unlike the arrangements followed during the Brooke-Mayhew talks, on this occasion a parallel, rather than a sequential approach to all aspects of the negotiations, was adopted. This meant that negotiations on new arrangements for Northern Ireland proceed alongside similar negotiations for North-South and for new British-Irish arrangements. Each of the three committees focused on one of the three sets of relationships which had formed the agenda for the Brooke-Mayhew talks. The first, or Strand 1 committee, dealt with relationships between the communities in Northern Ireland and proposals for new political institutions there. The second, the Strand 2 committee, dealt with North-South, i.e. all-island relationships and proposals for political institutions which would link both parts of the country. The third, the Strand 3 committee, dealt with East-West, i.e. British-Irish relationships, and proposals for institutional links between both parts of Ireland and Britain. Two sub-committees also operated. One committee considered arrangements for the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons with members of the International Body on Decommissioning established by both governments to advise and oversee the process in attendance. The second had a broader remit which was to consider what were termed ‘confidence building measures’, i.e. initiatives in such areas as the treatment of prisoners, equality of job opportunity, culture and language, economic development and human rights, all of which could contribute to the confidence of both communities in the whole negotiating process itself and whatever agreements might emerge from it.

The overall chair of the negotiations was former US Senator George Mitchell, assisted by former Finnish Prime Minister Harm Holkeri and the Canadian General John de Chastelain. In deference to unionist sensitivities about ‘outside’ involvement in matters affecting the administration of Northern Ireland, the Strand 1 committee was chaired by the new Secretary of State, Dr Marjorie Mowlam, assisted by the Minister for Political Development, Paul Murphy. Senator Mitchell took particular responsibility for Strand 2 and the confidence building measures committee, while Strand 3 was jointly chaired by both governments. The decommissioning sub-committee was chaired by General de Chastelain who was also the head of the International Body on Decommissioning.

Following Sinn Fein’s entry and the immediate departure of the DUP and UKUP, the political party composition of the talks was, from a community representation perspective, quite unbalanced. While the overwhelming majority of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland was represented through the combined presence of the SDLP and Sinn Fein, the same was by no means true of the unionist community. Using the May 1996 election returns, the basis upon which negotiating mandates were established, just slightly above fifty per cent of Unionists were represented through the UUP and the two small loyalist parties, the UDP and PUP. The balance, represented by the DUP and McCartney’s UKUP, was now outside the process and decidedly hostile to the whole enterprise. Adding to these divisions were those within the UUP itself, several of whose parliamentary members were strongly opposed to the party remaining in the talks once Sinn Fein had entered. To this imbalance was also added the fact that northern nationalism was strengthened by the presence of the Irish government’s delegation whose approach was always very close to that of the SDLP.

Throughout the autumn and early winter of 1997 the negotiations consisted of a series of party presentations outlining their respective analyses of the problems together with the principles and requirements which each believed necessary in order to achieve a settlement. While some presentations repeated what the parties present at the 1991-2 talks had argued, there were shifts in emphasis. Not surprisingly, considerable attention focused on the position and proposals of the newly arrived Sinn Fein, and on how the UUP would react to its presence.



In its submission entitled Principles and Requirements1, Sinn Fein argued that it was entering the talks fully committed to its republican position. Asserting that ‘partition had failed’, Sinn Fein ruled out as unacceptable any ‘internal six-county settlement’ and described the maintenance of the union between Britain and Northern Ireland as ‘a direct impediment to and interference with the right of the people of Ireland alone to determine their development’.2 While the submission stressed the need for accommodation, agreement and consent involving ‘the two main traditions’, Sinn Fein was careful to couch such references in an exclusively all-Ireland context, making no concession, as the Downing Street Declaration had, to any separate consideration for the wishes of the people living in Northern Ireland. The political framework which Sinn Fein regarded as ‘the best and most durable basis for peace and stability’, was ‘a sovereign, united and independent Irish state’.3 Achieving that goal required that the British government accept ‘the right of the Irish people to national self-determination’ and ‘the right of the Irish nation to sovereignty and independence’.4

For Sinn Fein, therefore, the case for ‘a sovereign, united and independent Irish state’ was simply self-evident. Despite unionist opposition in principle and practice, Irish unity did not need to be argued for. Being so self-evidently right and just, achieving Irish unity merely required a British initiative because, in Sinn Fein’s analysis, it was British sovereignty over Northern Ireland that was the essential barrier to unity, not unionist opposition. It also followed that how Unionists might become involved in persuading the British to move to such a position, or any sense of what might be the consequences of a British government adopting such a position in the absence of significant unionist assent, did not require immediate consideration. Only after a British initiative along the lines suggested would these questions become relevant. The approach was, despite all of the references to agreement, accommodation and consent, based on a very traditional republican analysis. Britain had to move first on the question of sovereignty after which an accommodation and agreement with Unionists could be determined. As listed in its submission, the issues which Sinn Fein claimed the negotiations needed to address pointedly revealed this sequence:

  1. Sovereignty;
  2. The constitutional status of the northern statelet and the constitutional legislation which underpins it;
  3. Britain’s policy on this core issue;
  4. Unionist participation, involvement and agreement;
  5. The exercise of national self-determination by the people of Ireland.

Sinn Fein clearly viewed the negotiations as an opportunity to put its case in the first instance to the British government rather than to any of the other participants. With no support for its analysis from any of the other participants, nor for the proposals based on it, the case was simply heard and noted. Neither the Irish government nor the SDLP offered any support, nor could they give the analysis and the approach which had been argued for and accepted by both since the New Ireland Forum in 1984 and, even more significantly, since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The practical consequences of Sinn Fein’s approach within the negotiations was that the UUP simply refused to engage directly with its delegation. Sinn Fein’s failure to accept the principle of consent to constitutional change allowed the UUP to claim that the Sinn Fein approach simply had nothing to offer them, except in the extremely unlikely event of a British initiative in favour of Irish unity.

Notwithstanding its fundamentalist position there was evidence suggesting a willingness on Sinn Fein’s part to accept, or at least acquiesce, in arrangements that would fall far short of its declared goal. The party’s very presence at the negotiations was part of that evidence. It was, in effect, an acknowledgement of the need to argue, to persuade and, probably, to compromise. Violence was no longer instrumental. Furthermore, in a negotiating process where its approach was not shared by either the SDLP or the Irish government, it must have been clear to Sinn Fein that its goal of a united Ireland was not going to be achieved. More significantly, in its own submission Sinn Fein highlighted issues on which progress could be made separately. These issues included what Sinn Fein termed its ‘equality agenda’, issues like fair employment, greater recognition and support for the Irish language and especially, the treatment of prisoners. While many of these issues were already being positively addressed, further progress could be represented as advances which Sinn Fein had helped to achieve, the case for Irish unity notwithstanding. With respect to the broader political agenda, Sinn Fein’s stress on no ‘internal settlement’ and its reference to the need for a ‘democratic accommodation of the differing views of the two main traditions, which takes full account of the conflicting identities’,5 contained hints that the party was prepared to be more flexible than at first seemed likely.



Having made its decision to remain at the talks, surprisingly the Ulster Unionist Party adopted a rather reluctant approach to announcing firm proposals in any of the strands. For a considerable period the UUP concentrated on defending its fundamental constitutional position rather than on advancing any detailed proposals for a settlement. In its submission on principles and requirements the party offered a trenchant defence of the union with Britain which effectively served as a rebuttal of the Sinn Fein analysis. Rejecting any suggestion that the union was imposed on Unionists, the UUP argued that:

The Union with Great Britain is a Union in the hearts and minds of the Unionist people. This feeling of Britishness is not a device or artifice which has been imposed on an unsuspecting people by successive British governments. Britishness is at the heart of Unionist philosophy, the feeling of belonging; the feeling of sharing with our fellow citizens in Great Britain in great national events; of being part of something larger than simply the six counties in the north-eastern corner of our island.6

Unlike the bland approach to identity in UUP submissions to the Brooke-Mayhew talks, this argument had more power and vibrancy. Its analysis and logic were remarkably similar to that which underlay the SDLP’s approach. Basing its case on the sense of identity of the unionist community rather than on references to the ‘greater number’ or to the ‘majority of the people’ in Northern Ireland as in the Brooke-Mayhew submissions, the UUP now explicitly acknowledged that what was at issue was the need to politically accommodate people of two different identities and two different national allegiances, both of which transcended the confines of Northern Ireland. Indeed, as the UUP submission went on to argue, Unionists did not reject the legitimacy of Irish nationalism’.7 What they rejected was the argument that Irish unity was the only legitimate answer to the conflict in Northern Ireland. It therefore followed that an acceptable answer had to acknowledge, as fundamental, the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Making that consent only operative following a British decision to abandon sovereignty, as Sinn Fein seemed to suggest, was, not surprisingly, totally unacceptable to Unionists.

While rejecting as still unacceptable the role afforded the Irish government by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the UUP did indicate that it was prepared to consider a ‘special relationship’ with the Irish Republic, but only if Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution were first removed. The preferred nature of that relationship was hinted at in the first of what were to be frequent references to the manner in which minority problems elsewhere in Europe were being dealt with in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Referring to recent developments under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the UUP pointed to the kind of benevolent role which Hungary was playing on behalf of the Hungarian minority in Romania, as an example of the kind of role which the Irish Republic might play vis-à-vis the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.8 Such a role is purely consultative and involves no mechanisms such as those which had been provided by the Anglo-Irish Agreement. However, given the twelve-year existence of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the obvious value of it to both governments and its significance to the nationalist community, it was highly unlikely that any new agreement could contain the kind of minimalist role for the Irish government suggested by. the UUP. The UUP were probably fully aware of this and were preparing for a much stronger and more structured outcome.



Once again the SDLP emphasized the New Ireland Forum’s position on the rights of both Unionists and Nationalists ‘to effective political, symbolic and administrative expression of their identity, ethos and way of life’ as ‘key to the success of the negotiations’.9 This position, the SDLP reiterated, meant that the negotiations would have to ‘be focused within the framework which embraces and addresses the key political, social, economic and cultural relationships between the communities within the North, between communities North and South and, thirdly, on relationships between Ireland and Britain'.10 Given the structure and agenda for the negotiations, this focus had already been adopted and no longer had to be argued for in any essential manner.



Among the minority parties there tended to be less analysis and more a ‘wait and see’ approach at this stage. Brief submissions from the two loyalist parties stressed Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and the principle of consent; likewise the Labour Group also emphasized the importance of North-South relationships. In addition to also acknowledging the importance of the consent principles and the British-Irish framework, the Alliance Party11 and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition12 both highlighted the need for an inclusive approach to an agreement and to its institutional implementation. In other words, an agreement should make it possible for all shades of political opinion with an effective mandate to be represented at all levels of any new institutions.



Both governments stressed the three-fold set of relationships outlined by the SDLP and, not surprisingly, also placed considerable emphasis on the principles of consent and self-determination as expressed in the 1993 Joint Declaration.13 With their common concerns about paramilitaries in mind, they reminded participants in the talks of the commitments in the Mitchell Principles to abide by any agreement reached and to use only democratic means in pursuit of any changes which they might subsequently want to achieve to an agreement. Decommissioning paramilitary weapons and disbanding paramilitary organizations had not gone away as issues, however much they had been pushed down the immediate agenda.



Dominating proceedings in the period prior to Christmas was the UUP’s refusal to engage directly with Sinn Fein. This refusal did not mean, as many outside the talks seemed to interpret it, that UUP representatives did not respond to Sinn Fein submissions or to the latter’s questions. Essentially it meant the UUP’s refusal of Sinn Fein’s requests for bilateral meetings in which Gerry Adams might have the opportunity of directly addressing David Trimble. The UUP argued that since Sinn Fein’s proposals dismissed the case for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, the foundation stone in the UUP’s case, the potential for agreement in hi-lateral meetings between both parties simply did not exist. Sinn Fein stressed that such hi-lateral meetings would at least signal a step towards mutual understanding. However, within the formal sessions of the talks themselves engagement of a sort between both parties did take place as each responded to comments and questions by the other. In time, this engagement intensified, though no bilateral meeting between Sinn Fein and the UUP ever did take place.



As 1997 drew to a close, attempts to persuade the parties to accept ‘a heads of agreement’ document that would allow detailed negotiations to commence in the new year failed.14 Coinciding and combining with this failure, renewed paramilitary activity placed the whole process under severe pressure. The fractious loyalist paramilitaries, some connected with political parties involved in the talks and some not, embarked on a campaign of targeted and random killings of Catholics which reached a high point over the Christmas and New Year period. Republican groups like the INLA and the newly formed CAC (Continuity Army Council -an IRA splinter group) countered by murdering loyalists and placing bombs in predominantly Protestant towns.15 The IRA itself was accused of breaching its ceasefire following the murder of a prominent loyalist in late January 1998. Across the countryside churches, schools and community halls serving both communities were once again attacked and some destroyed throughout the same period.

As a result of this violence two parties were expelled from the negotiations for short periods when their paramilitary associates were found to have breached their ceasefires and thereby the ‘Principles on Democracy and Non-Violence’.16 The Ulster Democratic Party was expelled when one of its associates, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, openly admitted to having been responsible for the killing of Catholics. Sinn Fein was expelled in very controversial circumstances when police intelligence alleged IRA involvement in two killings in Belfast. Although both expulsions were for short durations, they added further to tension within the talks and above all to delay. While the violence remained at a relatively low level compared to previous periods, it served, nonetheless, as a sharp reminder of the parameters within which a political settlement could be reached. The newly-emerged Loyalist Volunteer Force which was centred on the County Armagh town of Portadown, the scene of the controversial Drumcree parades, was an expression of extreme unionist disaffection with the talks process, as well as a violent threat to an outcome which was bound to contain features which would be deemed unacceptable by some Unionists. On the republican side violence was being carried out by CAC and suspicions were strong that assistance of a kind was being provided by the IRA itself, given the type of weapons used in a number of incidents. A further threat to republican solidarity was the emergence of a lobby group under the label 32-County Sovereignty Committee consisting of other dissident Sinn Fein and IRA members who accused former colleagues of betraying the ‘cause’ by not insisting on a British declaration of withdrawal before entering negotiations.



From late January to mid-February during which time sessions of the negotiations were held in London and Dublin, very little progress was made due to the indictment proceedings affecting the UDP and Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, two significant joint documents from the governments did lay down more precise parameters for the rest of the negotiations. The first, issued in early January and entitled ‘Propositions for Heads of Agreement’ outlined, in summary terms, the framework for an agreement.17 The second, issued the following month, dealt more specifically with North-South arrangements.18

In a joint statement on the first document the governments indicated that their propositions derived ‘from views of all parties on the various issues which arise in the talks’ and that they represented their ‘best guess at what could be a generally acceptable outcome’.19 Not surprisingly the kind of outcome foreseen was one which would include: a new Northern Ireland assembly and administration; a North-South Ministerial Council; a British-Irish Council; provisions to safeguard human, social, economic and cultural rights; and constitutional change based on the principle of consent.

Together with the second document which detailed key features of North-South structures as the two governments saw them, the parties now had outline proposals to which they were invited to respond. From mid-February onwards the negotiations focused, therefore, with increasing detail on proposals which addressed the substance of both documents. Unionists who had expressed considerable satisfaction with the first document because it made no reference to the Framework Documents and included what they regarded as a significant reference to the role of the proposed British-Irish Council were clearly disappointed with the second because of the decision-making powers envisaged for the North-South Council. Dissatisfaction for the very opposite reasons was expressed by Sinn Fein which claimed that the ‘Propositions’ document envisaged the establishment of a scarcely-concealed version of the old Stormont regime which would inhibit and frustrate from the outset any degree of discretion vested in the North-South council.

The atmosphere surrounding the talks was once again heavy with accusations and fears of betrayal. Divisions in unionist ranks increased and intensified. Within the UUP’s own negotiating team, differences emerged which seemed to threaten David Trimble’s determination to keep his party at the negotiating table.20 From without, UUP politicians opposed to the talks increasingly added their voices to those of the DUP and UKUP in calling upon Trimble to withdraw. Sinn Fein, which had submitted no proposals of its own for new northern institutions within Northern Ireland, accused the SDLP of accepting the case for a new assembly and administration which, it alleged, with an inevitable unionist majority would restore a pre-1972 Stormont regime. How a North-South council could function without an elected administration in the North from which to draw its northern membership, nor how trust might be developed between Unionists and Nationalists without an institution based on partnership, Sinn Fein did not explain. While the legacy of unionist rule could explain Sinn Fein’s deep-seated mistrust and suspicion of Unionists, the failure of a party committed to Irish unity to acknowledge the need to create political partnerships in which responsibility could be shared and trust develop, was difficult to understand.

However deeply felt, neither sets of fears were, in fact, sustainable. It was clear that, in the case of a North-South council, it would not be an independent, stand-alone body. Although provided with some decision-making powers the council would not be directly elected and, therefore, had to be accountable to the sources from which its members would acquire their authority. This authority would be derived both from the new northern assembly and from the southern parliament and it would be to both that the members would be accountable. Unionist concerns that a North-South council would be an embryonic and independent all-Ireland parliament, were therefore, unfounded. As for the new northern institutions, neither the assembly nor its administration would mark a return to the old Stormont. Requirements that a new administration be cross-community and that there be safeguards against abuse built into the decision-making process, signalled an institution very different to that of the unionist-dominated regimes of the past. Sinn Fein’s allegations were, also, clearly without foundation.



Since the two governments had declared the previous September that the deadline for the negotiations would be May 1998, pressure mounted for an earlier conclusion to allow, in the case of an agreement, for referenda, North and South, to be held before the summer and its potentially disruptive marching season. In the event of a positive outcome to the referenda, it was also hoped that elections to the new northern assembly could also be held within the same period. With these considerations in mind and the fact that eighteen months had elapsed since the negotiations had commenced, Chairman George Mitchell announced at the end of March that the talks would close, with or without agreement, in ten days, on 9 April.21

An intense round of bilateral contacts followed during which the direct involvement of both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern became crucial to the agreement that emerged a day late, on 10 April, Good Friday.22 Late night and all-night sessions marked the closing days of the negotiations much of which focused on the details of the proposed northern and North-South institutions, as well as on three critical issues in the confidence-building area: police reform, decommissioning and the early release of paramilitary prisoners held in both the British and Irish jurisdictions. Given the very immediate sensitivities surrounding these three matters, it was not surprising that they, rather than the institutional arrangements, became the focal points for dissension in post-agreement debates. Indeed, in the final hours of negotiations divisions within the UUP’s own delegation on these matters delayed the formal adoption of the agreement by the last plenary session.



Institutionally the Good Friday Agreement was a realisation of what the negotiations’ three-stranded agenda and the relationships analysis underlying it, had long predicted. There never had been any prospect of an alternative outcome and within the negotiations it had been more a question of parties attempting to strengthen or weaken proposals for its different aspects than of seriously expecting to achieve a different outcome. Unionists were fully aware that North-South arrangements would have to entail considerable discretion with respect to decision making, if the SDLP was to be satisfied. Conversely the SDLP was fully aware that such arrangements would have to include accountability by the northern members of a North-South council to an assembly in Belfast, if the council was to be acceptable to Unionists. Sinn Fein must also have been fully aware that its proposals for an end to British sovereignty and the creation of a form of Irish unity had no chance of acceptance and that it would have to accommodate itself to the kind of outcome implied by the three-stranded agenda. Sinn Fein’s main aims were, therefore, to ensure that the agreement included provisions for the early release of prisoners and for police reform, together with the strongest possible commitments on human, cultural and civil rights. The agreement did contain such provisions, notably a review of the sentences of those held for terrorist offences and associated with paramilitary groups on ceasefire, with the intention of securing releases within two years. A special commission would review the whole structure, organization and ethos of the police. Other provisions included commitments to enhance the status of the Irish language and to reinforce existing provisions, aimed at guaranteeing fair employment and an end to discrimination.

Constitutional changes, as long predicted, included a declaration on the Irish government’s part to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s constitution, first, to remove the section implying a territorial claim on Northern Ireland and, second, to include the principle of consent as the only basis upon which Irish unity could be achieved. On the British government’s part, it was agreed that the Government of Ireland Act (1920) would be repealed in its entirety and subsequent legislation would include the principle of consent. Finally, upon entering into force the Good Friday Agreement would mean that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement would be replaced by a new British-Irish Agreement. The catalyst for all of the political developments over the intervening twelve and a half years would be replaced by its more comprehensive and far-reaching successor.



The considerable local and international media presence ensured attention to the agreement on a scale unrivalled by any other single event over the preceding decades and the message was, the predictable exceptions apart, an extremely positive one. Civic society in Northern Ireland itself expressed general pleasure that at last the politicians had managed to reach agreement.23 In the rest of Ireland a similar welcome was widely expressed. Abroad, the US administration which had kept in close touch with the negotiations, especially in their final stages, expressed considerable satisfaction.24 From throughout the European Union came a chorus of welcomes and promises of further support once the agreement was implemented.25

However, there were critical hurdles to be crossed before the agreement could be said to have really begun effecting the changes it was intended to achieve. Joint referenda had to be held in the North and in the South by the end of May. Even before then, as the UUP and Sinn Fein had made clear, final acceptance of the agreement by their respective parties would have to await the outcome of internal party consultative processes.

The UUP was the first to complete this process when at meetings of its executive committee and of its governing council, significant votes in favour of the agreement were cast.26 However, notwithstanding such support, divisions within the party were not healed and a section of the UUP, led by several of the party’s MPs and other prominent members, emerged to join an alliance opposed to the Agreement which also consisted of Ian Paisley’s DUP and Robert McCartney’s UKUP. Betrayal of the union with Britain was once again the main banner raised as this opposition characterized the agreement as weakening the Union and increasing the influence of the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Echoing statements made following the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the DUP claimed that ‘The Union is fundamentally weakened by this deal’.27 The agreement, it stated, gave nationalist parties a veto, would place Sinn Fein leaders in government without any decommissioning of the IRA’s arsenal of weapons being insisted upon, would destroy the RUC, and provide an amnesty for terrorist prisoners. Such arguments touched deep emotional chords within the unionist psyche.

Reform of the RUC, an institution which for so long represented the unionist state would affect large numbers of people within that coinmunity, taking account of families and friends of each of the force’s approximately 12,000 members. Secondly, notwithstanding the fact that loyalist prisoners would also benefit, the early release of prisoners, many sentenced for the killing of RUC members and of other members of the unionist community and for destroying unionist owned businesses, was viewed as deeply offensive. Furthermore, the absence of any progress on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and a statement from the IRA that there ‘will be no decommissioning by the IRA’28 except in accordance with its own determination, offered little reassurance to Unionists fearful of change. Finally, there was, in the weeks following the agreement, the evidence of on-going, albeit low level, terrorist activity by dissident IRA groups to strengthen those fears.29

As the referendum campaign commenced, all of the above dramatically increased the pressures upon the UIJP and reinforced the case being made by Unionists opposed to the agreement. However, the weakness in the latter’s case was that while they were able to identify what they opposed, they had no viable alternative to offer that would jointly address unionist and nationalist aspirations. They could only offer an exclusively unionist solution, one to which there was not the remotest possibility of recruiting any nationalist support whatsoever. On the contrary, the UUP could point to several features of the agreement which were major achievements as far as Unionists were concerned: the removal of Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution; the inclusion of the principle of consent in the same constitution; the establishment of a British-Irish Council to strengthen political, social and economic links across the Irish Sea, and accountability by North-South Council members to the new assembly. Above all, the agreement was one which had the full support of the SDLP, considerable support from Sinn Fein and the support of the loyalist and other minor parties within the negotiations. To this local support was added that of the Republic’s government and opposition parties, as well as of the British government and opposition. UUP dissidents, together with the Paisley-McCartney alliance, had no prospect of achieving anything quite so substantial as the Good Friday Agreement, nor as widely supported.

For the SDLP the agreement represented broad acceptance of its three-fold ‘relationship’ analysis, for its emphasis on a British-Irish framework and on the need for both governments to jointly create the circumstances and lay down the parameters within, which an agreement could be reached. In essence, by providing the means and the opportunity for new political relationships within the North, between North and South and between Ireland and Britain, the agreement vindicated what had very explicitly been the SDLP’s approach from the late 1970s.

Sinn Fein’s initial responses were cautious as it set about consulting its membership before determining a definitive position on the agreement. In a speech to the Dail, in Dublin, the Sinn Fein representative, Caoimhin Ó Caoláin, stressed that Sinn Fein did not regard the Good Friday document as a settlement. However, he added that ‘we do believe that the new political scenario which it creates can provide a basis for advancement’.30 As expected, the measures against which Sinn Fein would assess immediate gains from the agreement was the extent to which its ‘equality’ agenda and such other matters as policing, prisoners etc. would be delivered upon. As Ó Caoláin indicated,

the emergence of a new policing service, the release of all political prisoners, the demilitarization of the Six Counties and the withdrawal of the British Army, the ending of sectarian discrimination in employment, the repeal of repressive legislation, full and equal status for the Irish language - these are now awaited and demanded.31

On the fundamental goal of Irish unity the chief Sinn Fein negotiator at the talks, Martin McGuinness, admitted to his party’s annual conference, two weeks after the agreement, that ‘A united Ireland was not attainable in this phase, not because of unionist opposition but because of all the participants, only Sinn Fein was advocating and promoting that objective’.32 This admission was almost an open acknowledgement that Sinn Fein’s approach to Irish unity had not been shared by the other nationalist participants. Sinn Fein’s subsequent decision, taken with open IRA approval, to support a ‘yes’ vote in both referenda and to allow members elected to a new northern assembly to take their seats, was an even more open acknowledgement that the traditional Sinn Fein-IRA approach to unity was being transformed.33 The new phase of the struggle for unity would be an exclusively democratic one, one in which unionist views would, by virtue of entering common institutions, have to be taken into account and not relegated to a secondary position as previously was the case.

Notwithstanding the considerable support for the agreement within the ranks of Sinn Fein and the IRA, opposition within republican ranks did exist, though in a somewhat disjointed form. As we have already noted dissident IRA members, who had withdrawn from the movement at the time of the 1994 ceasefire, had constituted themselves into the Continuity Army Council (CAC) under which umbrella terrorist attacks and killings had been taking place for some time. Following the agreement, CAC continued to engage in terrorist activity and found itself joined by more recent dissidents operating under the same umbrella, or none. Politically two republican groups led opposition to the agreement: Republican Sinn Fein led by the former Sinn Fein President, Ruairi 0 Bradaigh,34 allegedly with links to the CAC; the second group, the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, was of more recent origin consisting as it did of Sinn Fein members opposed to the agreement, led by Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, a sister of the first hunger-striker to die.

The political case of these republican groups was that the agreement reinforced partition and the so-called unionist ‘veto’ on Irish self-determination. The proposed new northern institutions would, they argued, reinstate unionist domination, while the North-South Council was mere window-dressing. The Sinn Fein argument that the agreement provided a transition phase to Irish unity was dismissed as without foundation. ‘There is no dynamic in this process to lead to a British withdrawal and a New Ireland’ was how one of the groups characterized the agreement.35 Instead the new arrangements would achieve the exact opposite because the new northern administration ‘will seek to involve as much of the nationalist population as possible and will be a barrier administration between the Irish people and the imperialist British government. Such a new, reinforced Storrnont will be much more difficult to remove than the old corrupt regime which was brought down by the people’s struggle in 1972’.36 The message was the pure, undiluted traditional republican message from the logic of which Sinn Fein was, after the failure of that struggle, now extricating itself.

The political threat posed by such groups to Sinn Fein was minimal. More significantly, suspicion of some IRA collusion with dissident groups only reinforced unionist fears that Sinn Fein would not live up to the commitments on decommissioning contained in the Good Friday Agreement. The terrorist threat was, therefore, the more problematic. Considerable stocks of explosives and arms were obviously under the control of some dissident IRA members, to judge from the actual attacks carried out and the supplies intercepted by police on both sides of the Irish border in the first six months of 1998. As the IRA had demonstrated throughout the previous decades, even a small number of well armed activists could pose a very serious security threat and, consequently, a political threat as well.



Despite the significance of the referenda results, questions remained as to the durability of the Good Friday Agreement and its more general acceptance as a way forward. Opposition to it remained significant in the unionist community and was not completely insignificant amongst nationalists, more precisely those who deemed themselves traditional republicans. Unionist opposition to the implementation of the agreement posed the greater danger and was starkly revealed in the election campaign for the new assembly which followed in the month after the referendum. Fuelling unionist opposition, most significantly within the UUP, were fears that the IRA had no intention to decommissioning any of its considerable store of arms. As a result, the UUP was not able to maintain a united front against internal opposition mobilized on the issue of decommissioning and only managed to obtain twenty-one per cent of the vote, putting it in second position to the SDLP which gained twenty-two per cent. This was the first time in Northern Ireland’s history that a party of the nationalist tradition emerged from any election as the single most popular party.37

The age-old fears of abandonment and betrayal by Britain and of encroachment by, and enforced assimilation into, the ethos of a Catholic-nationalist Ireland persisted within sections of the unionist community. Worse was the sense of betrayal from within. For those who held these fears the Good Friday Agreement encapsulated them all. Britain’s betrayal, long anticipated, had been at its most profound in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and could not get worse. On this occasion, however, it was David Trimble’s betrayal which was the more profound. A leader who, in his younger days, had strenuously opposed the 1974 Sunningdale arrangements, who had campaigned against the Anglo-Irish Agreement and who had been elected leader of the UUP because of his strong, determined defence of unionism, had accepted an agreement which seemed to forebode nothing but dangers for the unionist community. The future was ominous for those who held such views. Their immediate hope was that in the elections to the new assembly they would be able, following the precedent of unionist opposition in 1973-4, to return a sufficiently strong anti-agreement representation to make the new arrangements unworkable. While they did not immediately succeed in this objective, a strong anti-agreement block of assembly members was elected with a capacity to cause considerable difficulties for the operation of all of the new arrangements. The extent to which they were able to cause such difficulties was to become evident in the first phase of the implementation of the agreement. Combined with other factors, the anti-agreement unionist block was sufficiently influential to inhibit progress on a considerable number of elements in the agreement.38

With minimum popular support, the opposition within nationalism had no prospect of mounting any successful political campaign against the agreement. Politically it would have to await the outcome of the struggle within unionism where a victory for opponents to the agreement could threaten the broad nationalist consensus which had emerged once Sinn Fein had declared its acceptance. More immediately, its various paramilitary associates could only attempt to create instability, adding to unionist fears and hence strengthen unionist opposition.

Despite these dark possibilities, the strong endorsement which the agreement received in both parts of the country strengthened the mood of optimism and raised hopes for a more peaceful and stable future across both the nationalist and unionist communities. A bridge had been crossed by large sections of both those communities and there could be no turning back. Their future now lay inexorably together and, whatever the difficulties and delays in implementing the Good Friday Agreement, its achievement indicated a recognition by the people of Northern Ireland that they could no longer continue living apart.



What is it, despite the apparent simplicity of the problems to be resolved, despite the relative sophistication of the people and despite their closeness to each other, that continued to make the Northern Ireland problem apparently so intractable for so long? Our analysis and perspective have attempted to show the significant influence which the 1980s shifts in both the British and Irish approaches made to the provision of a context in which both communities could begin to have faith in the guarantorship roles of their respective external referents. These shifts representing as they did a psychological withdrawal by Britain and a redefinition by the main elements of nationalist Ireland of the conditions under which Irish unity could be achieved injected a new flexibility into the situation. No longer were the claims of the ‘parent’ states irredentist; instead they focused on the need to address fundamental relationships and to establish political institutions which would effectively represent both communities in the North in their relationships with each other as well as with their external referents. Northern Ireland was no longer just another region of the UK, nor was it a part of Ireland ‘unjustly’ separated from the rest of the island for whose ‘liberation’ people should kill and be killed.

The effects of such shifts were slow to influence events on the ground. Unionists and Loyalists saw in the British shift the kind of betrayal which traditionally they were almost programmed to expect and reacted accordingly. Republicans were at best suspicious and more likely to be dismissive, sensing a degree of unacceptable compromise of the hallowed goal of an independent Ireland.

The search for a settlement to Northern Ireland’s political crisis lasted for over thirty years. A whole generation of politicians and policy makers in Northern Ireland applied themselves to the task. More than 3,000 people were killed, thousands more injured and millions of pounds worth of property destroyed and rebuilt in the course of the violence which marked these years. The mobilization of resources and effort by both the Irish and British governments together with the support provided internationally by the US and other governments as well as the European Union was probably unprecedented in the case of a conflict which did not threaten international stability, nor even the likelihood of conflict between the two ‘parent’ states, Ireland and Britain.

Many people are justifiably perplexed that it took so long, that a tragedy of such proportions had to be enacted and that so much effort and resources had to be invested before the Good Friday Agreement provided a basis for a resolution.

      History says Don’t hope
      On this side of the grave.
      But then, once in a lifetime
      The longed for tidal wave
      Of justice can rise up
      And hope and history rhyme.
      So hope for a great sea-change
      On the far side of revenge
      Believe that a further share
      Is reachable here.
      Believe in miracles
      And cures and healing wells.

      From The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney





Peace in Ireland - Principles and Requirements, Sinn Fein submission to the multi-party talks, 14 October 1997.










Submission by the UUP to Strand 2 of the multi-party-talks, Principles and Requirements, 7 October 1997.






Submission by the SDLP to the multi-party talks, Principles and Requirements, 13 October 1997.




Submission by the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to the multi-party talks Principles and Realities, 13 October 1997.


Submission by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition to the multi-party talks Principles and Requirements, 13 October 1997.


Submission by the British Government to Strand 2 of the multi-party talks Principles and Requirements, 10 October 1997; submission by the Irish Government to Strand 2 of the multi-party talks, Principles and Requirements, 10 October 1997.


Statement by the Independent Chairmen of the multi-party talks, 16 December 1997.


The towns of Moira and Portadown suffered severe bomb damage in February.


The ‘Principles of Democracy and Non-Violence’ were contained in the Report of the International Body on Decommissioning, 22 January 1996.


Propositions on Heads ofAgreement, 12 Jan. 1998.


North-South Structures - a paper to facilitate discussion presented by the British and Irish Governments, 27 January 1998.


Joint Statement by the British and Irish Governments, 12 January 1998.


One of Trimble’s closest associates at the talks, Jeffrey Donaldson MP,called upon his colleagues to reconsider the party’s participation in the talks, Irish News, 20 December 1997.


Statement by Chairman George Mitchell, Irish Times, 31 March 1998.


Both prime ministers were present and devoted themselves exclusively to the talks during the last three days of negotiations.


The Northern Committee Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Confederation of British Industry (Northern Ireland) issued statements welcoming the agreement and urging support for it in the referenda.


Statement by President Clinton, Washington Post, 11 April 1998.


At a special meeting of the European Parliament in Brussels on 2 May overwhelming support was given to the agreement.


Meetings of the UUP executive on 11 April and of the Ulster Unionist Council on 18 April strongly endorsed the agreement.


Statement by the DUP on the Good Friday Agreement,


Statement by the IRA, Irish Times, 30 April 1998.


A number of failed attacks on police stations in the North and the interception of large caches of bomb-making material in the South was evidence of this activity.


Address by Caoimhin 0 Caolain to Dail Eireann, 21 April 1998, Irish Times, 22 April 1998.




Irish Times, 27 April 1998.


The agreement was endorsed by ninety-six per cent of the delegates at the special convention on 10 May 1998, Irish Times, 11 May 1998.


Ruairi 0 Bradaigh, a former President of Sinn Fein who, in 1986 after the party had decided to allow members elected to Dail Eireann to take their seats, resigned to form Republican Sinn Fein.


Editorial comment in Sacirse (newspaper of Republican Sinn Fein), April 1998,




In terms of assembly seats the UUP obtained twenty-eight, the SDLP twenty-four, the DUP twenty, Sinn Fein eighteen, Alliance six, UKUP five, PUP two, Independent Unionists three, Women’s Coalition two; these results provided an overall majority for parties in favour of the Good Friday Agreement but, within the unionist block, only thirty pro-agreement against twenty-eight anti-agreement.


At the time of completion, July 1999, such parts of the agreement as the Assembly’s Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council had not been formed and no progress at all had been achieved on the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. A review of those aspects of the agreement not implemented was scheduled to commence in September 1999 with Senator George Mitchell once again in the chair.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :