Good Friday Agreement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to overt violence in Northern Ireland by bringing both the Catholic and the Protestant parties in Northern Ireland (including the Irish Republican Army) to the discussion table. The agreement, which was endorsed by the British and Irish governments, gave a voice to the people of Northern Ireland.

Summary of Event

In the early 1600’s, Great Britain colonized the island of Ireland and began a plantation comprising nine counties in Northern Ireland known as Ulster. When Ireland declared independence, the strong British and Protestant presence in Ulster desired to remain a part of the United Kingdom instead of joining the Irish/Catholic peoples of the newly formed Republic of Ireland. As a result, a partition was settled in 1921 that ensured that six of the nine counties of Ulster (Londonderry, Antrim, Armagh, Down, Tyrone, and Fermanagh) would remain its own state, under the sphere of influence of the United Kingdom, and would not be considered part of the new independent country of Ireland. Good Friday Agreement (1998) Northern Ireland;Good Friday Agreement Peace negotiations;Good Friday Agreement [kw]Good Friday Agreement (Apr. 10, 1998) [kw]Agreement, Good Friday (Apr. 10, 1998) Good Friday Agreement (1998) Northern Ireland;Good Friday Agreement Peace negotiations;Good Friday Agreement [g]Europe;Apr. 10, 1998: Good Friday Agreement[09970] [g]United Kingdom;Apr. 10, 1998: Good Friday Agreement[09970] [g]Ireland, Northern;Apr. 10, 1998: Good Friday Agreement[09970] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 10, 1998: Good Friday Agreement[09970] Hume, John Trimble, David Blair, Tony Adams, Gerry Paisley, Ian

From the start, the Protestants in Northern Ireland struggled to maintain control over every aspect of Northern Ireland politics and society, for fear of a Catholic uprising that would lead to the joining of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. As a result, there was heavy discrimination in employment, housing, voting, and education of anyone deemed to be of Irish or Catholic descent. This discrimination mobilized the Catholic people of Northern Ireland into a civil rights movement in the 1960’s and also led to the creation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provisional IRA), Provisional Irish Republican Army a splinter group from the original IRA, which fought for independence in the Republic of Ireland in the early 1900’s.

The Provisional IRA, or Provos, believed that the only way to ensure civil rights for Catholics, ultimately remove the power of the British government, and join Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland would be through an armed uprising. What followed was thirty years of violence in Northern Ireland facilitated by both Catholic/Nationalist and Protestant/Unionist paramilitary organizations. This period of time has come to be known as “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, and bombings, riots, and political assassinations became everyday occurrences. Tensions intensified from Unionist groups who were dedicated to ensuring that Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom and from Nationalist groups who wanted a united Ireland between the north and south. The violence eventually forced the British government to dismantle Northern Ireland’s devolved government in Belfast and take control directly.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, there were several attempts at reconstructing a government body in Northern Ireland. The goal was to improve relations between Catholics and Protestants with input from both the British government and the Irish government, but the attempts were in vain as there was much opposition from the Provisional IRA, its political arm, Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin and Unionist political parties, like the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which did not find any proposed compromises beneficial to their needs. However, by the late 1990’s, the people of Ireland were growing tired of violence and conflict, and the conditions were right for a peace agreement to be reached. The resulting accord is known as the Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement.

Whereas previous prime ministers in the United Kingdom looked at the conflict in Northern Ireland as a burden and were unwilling to have peace discussions with groups, like the IRA, that they deemed terrorist organizations, Prime Minister Tony Blair made both resolving the conflict and including Sinn Féin in the peace process one of his top priorities. Some Unionist party members, such as Ian Paisley (leader of the DUP), refused to negotiate with Sinn Féin and its leader Gerry Adams, because there was suspicion that Adams had himself been a member of the IRA, which Paisley considered a terrorist organization. Also, there was some degree of hesitation to accept any form of agreement before the IRA and other paramilitary organizations completely disarmed. Nevertheless, the agreement was signed on April 10, 1998—Good Friday.

The Good Friday Agreement allowed for the early release of prisoners who had been detained by the British government under suspicion of having paramilitary ties. Here, convicted IRA members Louis McNally (left) and Sean McGuigan are welcomed by relatives after being released from Maze Prison in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, in September, 1998.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Copies of the agreement were delivered to every home in Northern Ireland, and the agreement was placed on a referendum. It was done so with the express purpose of including the entire population of Northern Ireland in on a decision that would surely affect their everyday lives. The agreement was ratified on May 22, 1998, with nearly unanimous support from the Catholic population, although Protestants were split.

The agreement was designed by John Hume, leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), to represent both Nationalist and Unionist perspectives. The terms laid out by the agreement required that the Republic of Ireland end its claim to the physical land in Northern Ireland and accept that the Irish nation should be defined in terms of people and not borders. Ultimately, if the people of Northern Ireland wanted to be united with the Republic, they could vote for that.

The agreement also allowed for the creation of a Northern Ireland assembly that would involve power sharing of both Catholics and Protestants, and, although the region’s current constitutional position would remain in the hands of the British government, the people of Northern Ireland ultimately could vote for change. Both the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland would set up cross-border bodies that would hold some degree of executive powers, and the agreement allowed for the early release of prisoners who had been detained by the British government under suspicion of having paramilitary ties.

Significance

The agreement, and the referendum on which it was placed, gave the people of Northern Ireland a voice that had long been silenced by the violence and ethnic division of “the troubles.” The Good Friday Agreement ended the thirty years of violence that had plagued Northern Ireland, and peace finally seemed within reach. Some issues remained after the implementation of the agreement, including questions regarding the presence of British troops in the region and the disarming of groups such as the IRA. However, the agreement brought with it a peace that the people of Northern Ireland had been wanting for a long time. The violence calmed down considerably because of the agreement, and feuding parties were much more able to talk to each other. For their efforts toward establishing peace in Northern Ireland, Hume and Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Nobel Peace Prize;John Hume[Hume] Nobel Peace Prize;David Trimble[Trimble]

In March, 2007, the citizens of Northern Ireland were able to vote for the chance to set up their own devolved government once again, and devolved power was restored on May 8, 2007, after a four-and-a-half-year suspension. Long-term peace in Northern Ireland may rest on the success of that new government. Good Friday Agreement (1998) Northern Ireland;Good Friday Agreement Peace negotiations;Good Friday Agreement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.” Presidents and Prime Ministers 10 (July/August, 2001): 34-36. Deals with the realization of the Good Friday Agreement, the roles played by both the Republic of Ireland and the British governments, and the issues that still remain to be resolved despite the agreement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKittrick, David, and David McVea. Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2002. Historical examination of the conflict in Northern Ireland, with a focus on the agreement itself and the possibility for a peaceful future.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neuheiser, Jorg, and Stefan Wolff. Peace at Last: The Impact of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004. Examines the failed attempts at peace in Northern Ireland culminating in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tonge, Jonathan. Hot Spots in Global Politics: Northern Ireland. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2006. This introduction to Northern Ireland politics provides a helpful overview of the conflict in Northern Ireland, which includes the Good Friday Agreement and the area’s gradual movement toward peaceful resolution.

“Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act

IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament

Two Founders of Peace People Receive the Nobel Peace Prize

Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

Ulster Peace Accord

Omagh Car Bombing

Categories: History Content