The Good Friday Accords

Almost a year has passed since Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland’s major political parties signed the Good Friday Pact in April 1998. This agreement mandates the creation of a Northern Ireland Assembly, cross-border bodies linking northern and southern Ireland, and a British-Irish council. Ending 24 years of direct rule by Westminster, the signatories agreed the province will be governed by consent and nonviolence—principles that ultimately favor Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’s long-standing goal of a united Ireland, since the Catholic population continues to rise relative to the Protestant.

By raising hopes that it would end three decades of sectarian violence, the Good Friday Pact generated more than a few self-congratulatory excesses—Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, felt the “hand of history” on his shoulders—and a profusion of awards. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and John Hume, head of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, won Nobel Peace Prizes; former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was named “Grand Knight of the Order of the British Empire,” one of Britain’s highest honors, for his role as neutral mediator; and Adams found himself feted as an international statesman, thanks largely to the Clinton administration’s political support.

While the desire to celebrate peace is understandable, especially since the “Troubles” have claimed more than 3,300 lives (most of them civilian), there is always the danger of celebrating too soon. In fact, the euphoria surrounding the Good Friday Pact has given way to growing frustration, thus casting doubt on the prospects for a durable peace.

Sectarian opposition to the Good Friday agreement has spawned Republican and Loyalist splinter groups. The most dangerous group is the so-called Real IRA, which broke ranks with Sinn Fein’s military wing, the Provisional IRA, in late 1997. The Real IRA has since carried out several car bombings, including the horrific Omagh attack in August 1998, which killed 29 and injured 220.

The Catholic and Protestant splinter groups reflect the distilled hatreds of hardened terrorists. While no peace agreement is likely to assuage their penchant for violence, full implementation of the Good Friday agreement will help marginalize these groups. Unfortunately, this process is in danger of stalling.

Obstacles to Disarmament

Disarmament (“decommissioning”) has long been a sticking point in Northern Ireland cease-fire agreements and peace plans. The Good Friday Pact set an ambitious two-year deadline for the “total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations.” The paramilitary groups include the IRA and various shadowy Protestant militias. To date, there has been scant progress; only one Protestant paramilitary group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, has made a token gesture of decommissioning.

The disarmament impasse is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The Unionists insist on disarmament before two Sinn Fein ministers are appointed to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Sinn Fein claims that nothing in the Good Friday Pact requires the IRA to disarm first. Gerry Adams has insisted that turnover of weapons at this point would be tantamount to “surrender,” since the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) would retain their weapons and the British Army could easily reinforce its Northern Ireland garrison.

The issue of local policing appears equally problematic, especially regarding the composition of the Protestant-dominated RUC. Chris Patten, former Hong Kong governor, is spearheading a commission of inquiry on local policing. The Patten Commission likely will recommend the establishment of a new force. It will be easy to change the police force’s name and uniforms. The real challenge will be recruiting and training sufficient numbers of Catholics to serve in what has traditionally been an overwhelmingly Protestant police force.

The Good Friday Pact is part of a mixed bag of post-Cold War peace agreements. Reconciliation efforts in South Africa and Nicaragua have turned out better than expected. Yet concrete progress in the Middle East—the 1993 Oslo Accords and, more recently, the 1998 Wye River Agreements—has proven frustratingly elusive. UN-brokered settlements in Angola, Cambodia, and Haiti seem perpetually on the brink of collapse.

The Good Friday Pact, like the 1995 Dayton Agreement in the Balkans, reminds us that quelling the blood-shed is not the same as achieving a self-sustaining peace. The latter requires a level of political maturity not yet evident in either region.

What Next?

Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland will continue for years to come, thanks to intransigent Nationalist and Loyalist splinter groups. The more important question is how much longer the IRA and loyalist groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force will keep their powder dry absent political progress. Ominously, the IRA’s New Year’s message expressed “growing frustration and failure of the agreement to deliver meaningful change.”

The potential for disaster looms large if the Good Friday Pact derails. The IRA will remain one of Western Europe’s most sophisticated terrorist groups for many years, capable of spectacularly ambitious attacks, such as its 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten, 1983 attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet, and 1996 Canary Wharf bombing in London.

No one should disparage the Good Friday agreement; establishing consent and nonviolence as the governing principles in Northern Ireland represents a major achievement. The popular referendum in May 1998 endorsing the Good Friday agreement is another positive sign. That said, no one should underestimate the stumbling blocks to a more durable peace. There is, after all, nothing inevitable about peace taking root; the 1973 Sunningdale agreement, an early attempt to end the “Troubles” with a power-sharing Northern Ireland assembly, failed dismally.

Thus far, the Good Friday Pact has held together largely because thorny issues such as disarmament and local policing have been deferred. Full implementation of the agreement will almost certainly require some relaxation of its ambitious timetable along with a greater emphasis on incremental steps to sustain forward progress. While baby steps may not yield flashy photo opportunities or Nobel Peace prizes, they are certainly preferable to bombs and bullets.

  • James H. Anderson

    At the time this article was published, James H. Anderson, Ph.D., was a national security analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

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