April 10, 2023
IntelBrief: The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland: 25 Years Later
U.S. President Joe Biden is visiting Northern Ireland, marking the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), which officially ended the three-decade conflict known as ‘The Troubles.’ Sometimes referred to as ‘the Long War’ or ‘the Dirty War,’ the conflict has shaped Northern Ireland’s political, social, and cultural identity. Beginning in 1969 and building upon decades of inter-communal, ethnic, and sectarian tensions, the conflict pitted minority Catholics against majority Protestants, and those favoring the continued union with Great Britain against those calling for a united Ireland. Many Catholics (especially Irish nationalists and republicans) wanted Northern Ireland’s six counties to join with the Republic of Ireland’s twenty-six counties to form one, united Ireland. Many Protestants (especially unionists and loyalists) continued to profess loyalty to the British Crown and favored remaining part of the United Kingdom. The United States, during the Clinton administration, played a key role in brokering the Agreement and bringing the fighting to an end. The Good Friday Agreement was built upon the progress of earlier deals, including the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and the Downing Street Declaration (1993). The process also benefited from the commitment of all stakeholders – including the US, UK, and Irish governments - to reach a sustainable agreement. The Irish-American diaspora in the United States played a significant role in the conflict, both providing funding to armed groups at various points while also being a major force in bringing the conflict to an end throughout the 1990s. President Biden often references Ireland as his ancestral homeland and has always been interested in U.S.-Ireland issues.
During the course of the Troubles, more than 3,600 people were killed, most of them civilians. In 1998, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Loyalist paramilitary groups, including the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), agreed to lay down their arms, paving the way for a power-sharing agreement and a new parliament known as the Northern Ireland Assembly, based in Stormont, the seat of government in Northern Ireland. The political process known as devolution, decentralizing control over key ministries, including health and education, helped assuage concerns over representation and government resource allocation. In addition to armed groups decommissioning weapons, individuals imprisoned during the conflict were released and reintegrated into society, and measures were introduced to reduce tensions between previously adversarial communities. The European Union was a key contributor of funding and resources for various civil society initiatives that brought communities together. To some, the conflict in Northern Ireland is hailed as a model of conflict resolution, a prototype that should be studied and emulated. From a counterinsurgency lens, the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland has been studied closely by scholars and practitioners. Toward the end of the conflict, the PIRA was infiltrated at the highest levels by British intelligence, which repeatedly foiled the terrorist group’s plots and planned attacks.
The agreement has led to a remarkably durable peace, a testament to the ability of the political parties involved —Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – to forge common ground during the negotiations. The transformation from terrorism and political violence to politics is complex and uncertain, often beset by setbacks, false starts, and feints. Gerry Adams, a former PIRA commander who went on to become the face of Sinn Fein, has come under criticism for his role in violence against civilians who did not agree with the PIRA or who were perceived as collaborators. Many similar transformations have been announced, only to be abandoned, as the armed wing of a political party usurps the political wing’s agenda and convinces supporters that only armed struggle can bring about the desired change. The Palestine Liberation Organization, once considered by several states to be a terrorist group while others considered it a movement for self-determination, famously signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, forging a path, albeit largely abandoned since, for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and delivering a two-state solution. Some groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah, begin developing legitimate political representation while hedging their bets, retaining significant military capabilities, leading to a hybrid entity that is part terrorist group, part political party. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Colombian terrorist group that once collaborated closely with the PIRA, is currently undergoing the transformation away from the bullet and toward the ballot, though it remains to be seen whether its move to politics is permanent or fleeting.
Still, tensions have been simmering recently, related in part to growing anxiety around Brexit and its implications for trade and security at the Irish border, and the very future of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom. Dissident Republican groups and Loyalist paramilitaries also pose a threat, leading the UK to elevate its terrorism threat status to “severe” just days before President Biden’s visit. A threat level of “severe” means that a terrorist attack is “highly likely.” Last month, Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was shot by masked men in Omagh, County Tyrone. A number of people have been arrested since the attack, with Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan saying that the focus remained on “violent dissident republicans.” There have been growing concerns about a group calling itself “the New IRA,” an organization also responsible for the murder of Lyra McKee, a journalist, back in 2019. While no serious counterterrorism analysts expect a return to the days of 'the Troubles,’ post-conflict settings almost always face challenges from splinter groups that seek to play the role of spoiler, whether by conducting attacks that derail a fragile peace, or by pursuing a hardline policy that eschews any negotiations with longstanding adversaries. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is seeking to address concerns in Northern Ireland surrounding the economic impact of Brexit, which, if successful, could go a long way toward mollifying existing grievances. Yet, with a Scottish independence referendum still possible in the near future and widespread electoral success enjoyed by Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland, there are still major events that could destabilize politics throughout the UK and reinvigorate dormant rivalries while sparking new feuds.