The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what went wrong?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) is 20 years old today, but recent events in Northern Ireland have shown that power-sharing has proven a difficult exercise. Alan Whysall, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the Agreement as well as its implementation, examines what has gone wrong since the Agreement was signed. A second blog, to be published tomorrow, will discuss what can be done to get the Agreement back on track.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, (‘the Agreement’),  but the system of power-sharing government it established in Northern Ireland has not functioned for over a year. It was widely seen in Britain, as elsewhere, as a significant act of statesmanship, supported by both main parties. But it now appears at risk, as the Irish border becomes a critical issue in the Brexit negotiations.

What has gone wrong?

The Agreement was a political construct to underwrite the ending of a conflict and address the divided politics of a divided society. Progress in those three areas – conflict, politics and society – is interlinked. There was a hope that the division would reduce. In society it has, to some degree, though the progress is now in danger; in politics, less so.

The Agreement covered a wide range of matters besides devolved power-sharing government, but the main focus has been on that issue. The institutions were troubled from the start. Power-sharing government was not established until late 1999. Dogged by unionist reluctance to be in government with Sinn Féin while the IRA continued in being, it collapsed in late 2002. Five years’ direct rule followed, during which the IRA declared its war over and decommissioned weapons, and political negotiations culminated in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 (with minor changes to the Agreement institutions). Re-established in 2007, the institutions functioned for 10 years.

Sinn Féin pulled out of the Executive in January 2017 citing lack of ‘respect’ from the DUP, essentially around Irish identity. Its key demand became an Irish Language Act, much debated though little defined by either proposers or opponents. Political negotiations appeared to be leading to agreement in February this year, when the DUP abruptly pulled out, its base apparently unhappy at the prospect of the (rather modest) language legislation proposed in the draft text.

DUP figures now speak of restored devolution being impossible this year; no further negotiations are in prospect. The new Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, has brought forward legislation at Westminster on the Northern Ireland budget.

Since last January, opinion in Northern Ireland is much polarised; the rhetoric of the parties, and to some degree the print media, has plunged into a partisan downward spiral. The spirit of partnership that was once to the fore in politics, and at times won votes, is withering, with few vocal proponents in the political realm.

The respect issues

‘Respect’ sums up many of the underlying tensions. Parity of esteem for the British and Irish identities was an essential part of the Agreement equation: nationalism renounced its immediate claim to a united Ireland on the basis that someone considering themselves Irish should be able to live as contentedly in Belfast as Dublin. But what it meant was never fully clear, leading to recurrent disputes – the flag protests of a few years ago, the Irish language question now. There would seem to be unionist self-interest in promoting nationalist contentment, reducing the desire for constitutional change. Until recently it appeared that nationalism was waning; results of recent elections suggest it is growing. Few Unionist politicians have made the arguments for parity of esteem, though; nor, recently, has the British government.

‘Respect’ also cuts the other way. Unionists regularly complain that Sinn Féin fails to respect the legitimacy, established in the Agreement, of Northern Ireland’s current position as part of the United Kingdom. Its MPs do not take their seats at Westminster, which is hence without a nationalist voice; the party even avoids the term ‘Northern Ireland’.

With the commitment of both main parties to the Agreement in question, the consequent lack of trust feeds into the polarisation of opinion. Some say the DUP, which never endorsed the Agreement, are content to rely on their (temporary) influence at Westminster rather than operate the institutions. Others doubt whether the Sinn Féin leadership wants Northern Ireland to work effectively, and so reduce the appetite for a united Ireland.

Associations with paramilitarism are a further aggravation. A renewed willingness in Sinn Féin to commemorate the IRA dead causes tension; so do apparent links between the DUP and loyalist paramilitary associates. The prospect of resolving issues relating to ‘the past’, a recurrent bone of political contention, appears to shrink.

The deeper weaknesses

A political culture largely focused on the past has always conditioned the operation of the Agreement institutions, despite the efforts of many. There has been little development of any vision for the future of Northern Ireland, beyond the constitutional aspirations for the British or Irish link.

Indeed there has been limited appetite for discussing, still less tackling, difficult public policy issues, and the safeguards provided by the constitutional architecture frequently reduced the institutions to stasis. This is despite the fact that much cries out to be done. The Northern Ireland economy remains weak and heavily dependent on Treasury transfers; there are serious social problems; the aspiration to reduce sectarianism and create a ‘shared future’, though widely subscribed to, has been pursued half-heartedly; public services like health struggle even more than elsewhere.

Power-sharing government achieved less than it might have done, and often appeared to those inside and outside as a barren grind. Regular suggestions of impropriety (if not corruption), though rarely proved, helped drag the institutions down to a low public standing, far from the optimism of the Agreement’s early days.

Hence – perhaps, even more than elsewhere – politics became a bubble activity from which much of the wider population, especially younger people, felt alienated. With distinguished exceptions, civic society kept its head down, often fearful of offending the political class.

The governments

In the past, sustained action by the British and Irish governments, sometimes with a US contribution, kept politics on the rails. This was a high priority in London as well as Dublin, for successive governments over several decades. After devolution, understandably, there was a stepping back in favour of letting Northern Ireland politicians resolve their own disputes.

Latterly, even as political tensions mounted in Northern Ireland, the British government centrally has appeared to give it little attention, except as regards parliamentary arithmetic. Its attitude may reflect opinion in Great Britain, where there has never been great affection for the Northern Ireland link. A recent poll suggested 36% of people think leaving the EU is a higher priority for Britain than keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom (that weighting being particularly pronounced among Leave and Conservative voters). The Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Smith, was recently sacked for arguing that the Irish border should be taken more seriously, (and in consequence that a second Brexit referendum is essential).

The British government has come increasingly to be seen by nationalists as partisan. Since 2010 avowedly Unionist, it is now dependent on the DUP at Westminster for its survival; and its influence has consequentially waned. Its ability to work with the Irish government, the partnership that has driven political progress, is increasingly challenged.


Greatly exacerbating matters now is Brexit, about which the main parties in Northern Ireland are sharply divided. Brexit does not in itself violate any terms of the Agreement. But the effective disappearance of the border as a result of EU regimes, especially the Single Market, has been a notable part of its successful implementation. To nationalism, anything that threatens a hardening of the border is anathema.

The shock of Brexit’s imposition is real, because it is the first major change to the political dispensation in Northern Ireland since the Agreement, and one that came about without the cross community support that underpinned the Agreement itself (indeed in the face of a majority against in the referendum).

Everyone agrees that a hard border in Ireland is undesirable. Apart from the political and economic impacts, it would be a provocation to violence of one sort or another.

Free movement of people appears to be assured in the negotiations. But many (not just nationalists) have serious doubts about aspects of the approach proposed by the British government and others to avoid a hard border, with physical installations, for goods.

The Irish government has worked closely with the European Commission on guarantees for this (incurring much antagonism from sections of British and DUP opinion). The Commission’s March draft agreement, building on the joint EU/UK text of December, offers three options. The first two involve avoiding the need for a hard border through a comprehensive settlement, or through technology – but there is widespread scepticism over these.

The fallback as outlined by Brussels is a common regulatory area, effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the Customs Union as well as the EU Internal Market for goods – potentially an advantageous position economically. But unless the whole of the UK remains effectively in both, border controls would be needed between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Since these would be in a few seaports and airports, they might be more effective and less obtrusive than on hundreds of border roads. But they are symbolically toxic to Unionists, and both the government and the DUP have ruled them out.

Without a change in position, Brexit risks leaving scars and potentially physical installations that will be the focus of great political discontent, and blight political agreement for a number of years.

What has gone right?

Despite recent events and longer-term weaknesses, the contribution of the Agreement to life in Northern Ireland and more widely is massively positive:

  • Most obviously, it has brought about the conditions in which political violence, recurrent in Irish history, has largely ceased – although a significant threat remains from dissident Republicans and from loyalist criminality. Street violence is much reduced.
  • The political parties, while power-sharing continued, were obliged to apply their efforts to working together, however imperfectly, rather than bang partisan drums.
  • With the benefit of much international goodwill, life in Northern Ireland has changed greatly for the better. Much of society has moved on – often in advance of the politics. Among young people in particular there has seemed to be a greater fluidity in identity, a rejection of the binary British or Irish split. But reconciliation and the reduction of sectarianism have lagged overall.
  • There has been some economic success since the end of violence, too, in the attraction of substantial foreign investment, and overseas tourism.
  • Economic and governmental cross-border exchanges have flourished.
  • Policing by consent has been achieved: support across the community for the Police Service is in remarkable contrast to the mistrust of many nationalists for the old Royal Ulster Constabulary. However it is not guaranteed: the keystone of the arch, the Policing Board for Northern Ireland on which the major parties sit, is not able to operate effectively with politics in abeyance.

Can this endure?

The benefits brought about by the Agreement are now in the balance. We risk a prolonged political stand-off, in which gains may start to crumble, as the (still large) consensus around the Agreement dissipates.

Such a political vacuum in the past has been conducive to violence. It is important not to be alarmist, and there is little sign that any recrudescence of street violence (or worse) is imminent. But it is also important not to be complacent. The present essentially peaceful conditions are not a given: they were the product of intensive effort and attention by people and governments in Belfast, London, Dublin and the US. They need some of that attention again.

This is part one of a two-blog series on the Good Friday Agreement. Part two considers how the Agreement may be brought back on track. Read it here.  

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. He was present as a member of the British government team throughout the Good Friday Agreement negotiations before heading the team responsible for putting it into legislation in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The Constitution Unit.

6 thoughts on “The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what went wrong?

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  6. If we are to have continuing direct rule from Westminster, I would like to see one UK minister and one Irish minister making decisions together on a consensus basis. Once they start making decisions on issues like abortion and same sex marriage to bring Northern ireland into alignment with the rest of the UK and with the rest of Ireland (assuming that the referendum there is in favour), then I think the DUP would want to come back into government, rather than be sidelined.

    It would also be useful if the Agreement could be revised so that it required a minimum of one party from the Protestant side and one from the Catholic side without it having to be the two largest parties. As it is, it gives both Sinn Fein and the DUP a veto, but if the former just had to get the UUP to agree, or the latter to get the SDLP to agree, both would be more likely to moderate their positions.

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