20 Years since the Good Friday Agreement: What we can learn from Northern Ireland’s Peace Process

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By Dr Giuditta Fontana, Leverhulme Fellow
Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS), University of Birmingham

On 10th of April 2018, former negotiators gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement put an end to three decades of what are known as Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, which resulted in over 3,500 deaths and 50,000 people injured. Recent estimates suggest that, had the Agreement not been concluded, up to a further 2,400 people could have been killed in the conflict over the past two decades.[1] The celebrations served as an apt reminder that the Agreement’s troubled youth is far from over, that peace cannot be taken for granted, and that many of the Agreement’s promises have yet to be fulfilled.

The Importance of Stability and Security

Northern Ireland’s stability and security over the past couple of decades has been underpinned by the consensus over the sharing of political power between both Irish nationalists (Catholics) and British unionists (Protestants). However, following the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, in which First Minister Arlene Foster (DUP) was implicated, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness resigned and Sinn Fein refused to replace him. Since January 2017 Stormont remains at an impasse.

While political negotiations continue, the economy is bearing the costs of instability. An emergency budget was passed in November to ensure the continuation of public services, but important decisions such as expanding Shared Education programmes remain in limbo. This situation is risky: past experience suggests that post-conflict societies like Northern Ireland are vulnerable to socio-economic pressures and political voids. Indeed, since the collapse of the power-sharing executive in early 2017, new issues have emerged to complicate negotiations.

An Uncertain Strategic Environment

Much has been written about the detrimental impact of the Brexit referendum and of London’s decision to trigger Article 50 on Northern Ireland. The very concept of Brexit, challenges one of the pillars of the Good Friday Agreement: the porosity of the Irish border. The recent suggestions at the UK’s ability to unilaterally change the status of Northern Ireland (by removing it from the EU) are serious enough to trigger demand for a referendum on Irish unity. The results of such a referendum are unclear: demographic change is narrowing the divide between the Protestant and Catholic communities and has already resulted in an overall Nationalist majority in the Assembly.

Culture, Identity and the Past

The Good Friday Agreement also envisaged the promotion of a culture of tolerance premised on a parity of esteem for the Catholic/Irish and Protestant/British traditions. However, debates over the use of the past, the display of symbols and cultural expressions have poisoned the public debate recently. Since the 2012-2013 Flag Protests, several rounds of political negotiation, as well as the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture & Tradition, have failed to generate broad agreements on how to regulate these identity-sensitive issues.

In fact, divisions over an Irish-language Act have emerged as the primary frontline between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Sinn Fein reiterates that an Irish Language Act –granting equal official status between Irish and English – is prescribed by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement (the Good Friday Agreement’s successor). On her part, DUP leader Arlene Foster explained her opposition to the act, arguing that ‘if you feed a crocodile it will come back for more’.

Culture and Peace

The impasse in Stormont stands as a stark warning to peace negotiators everywhere: For resilient and transformative peace processes, provisions to address identity-sensitive cultural expressions should be built into comprehensive peace agreements and implemented resolutely in their aftermath. This is the core finding of my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship. In this project, I am investigating cultural reforms in 292 peace agreements concluded between 1989 and 2016, and their implementation in four selected case studies: Northern Ireland, Lebanon, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Sierra Leone. I find that Northern Ireland is not alone in marginalising cultural expressions in the immediate aftermath of a peace agreement. However, at this historical junction, Northern Ireland has an opportunity to lead the way in building a genuine culture of tolerance after violence.

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