Good Friday Agreement Good Friday Agreement. Photo: Diego Sideburns / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the years since the Troubles were ended in Northern Ireland, the limitations of the peace agreement have become ever starker, argues Chris Bambery

As we mark 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, it is important to remember that it effectively marked the end of the Troubles, the spiralling of violence which began with the police breaking up a civil-rights march in Derry in October 1968. What followed was the introduction of British troops in August 1969, after the Unionist government of Northern Ireland permitted a sectarian march into the Nationalist Bogside in Derry. Internment without trial began in August 1969, then there was Bloody Sunday and the killing of fourteen civil-rights marchers in Derry by the Parachute Regiment, and the 1980 and 1981 Republican hunger strikes for political status which saw, in the second strike, ten prisoners die.

In all, the Troubles left 3,600 dead and more than 50,000 injured. The peace process which preceded the Agreement had begun with the Irish Republican Army signalling to its secret contacts in British intelligence that it wanted to agree to end its military campaign against British forces in Northern Ireland and in Britain. Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin had held talks with John Hume, leader of the moderate nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, to try to chart a way to end the Troubles. Eventually, after overcoming many obstacles, they also involved the government of the Irish Republic. The USA and the European Union encouraged direct talks between the British government and all parties. Eventually, after many a detour, it resulted in the Good Friday Agreement.

For the IRA, this shift reflected their recognition they could not militarily beat the British. Their opponents drew a similar conclusion that they could not militarily defeat the IRA. Both accepted that a political conclusion was desirable. The end to the armed struggle was something welcomed by the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Today there are fringe Republican groups committed to violence, but they are marginal.

The end of the Troubles

Amazingly, over two decades after the Irish Republican Army dissolved itself, Loyalist paramilitary groups still exist. The largest, the Ulster Defence Association, is experiencing a bitter feud in North Down, with homes being attacked, including a pipe-bomb attack on one containing four children, and people forced to leave the area. What’s at stake is which of the two UDA gangs controls the local drugs trade.

The end to armed struggle, the decommissioning of weapons and the dissolution of armed groups was central to the peace process: the long negotiations in the build up to the Good Friday Agreement. In return, political prisoners, both Republican and Loyalist, were released, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary would be dissolved to be replaced by today’s Police Service of Northern Ireland. The RUC was established in 1921, when the Northern Ireland state was created, as a permanent armed force serving the interests of the Unionist state, whose main job was to hold down the Nationalist population.

It is important to distinguish between the wider peace process, which was to be welcomed, and the political structures created by the Good Friday Agreement, which have left deep problems. Peace was not simply handed down by the British and Irish governments, along with US President Bill Clinton, as key actors in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ordinary people, from across the community, had stood and marched together in protest at both Republican and Loyalist killings, often organised through the trade unions, which for all their weaknesses did bring working-class people together. That was the case in 1992, when the UDA opened fire in a bookies on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, killing five civilians. That was the case in 1993, when an IRA bomb killed nine civilians on the Shankill Road and the bomber himself. That was the case later in the same year, when UDA gunmen opened fire in a pub in Greysteel, County Derry, where a Halloween party was taking place. That was the case on other occasions.

That popular drive for peace has now been written out of history. However, it was also demonstrated in the two referendums which followed the signing of the Agreement. In those endorsements of the Agreement in Northern Ireland, 81% of the population voted with a 71% vote in favour. In the Irish Republic, a referendum saw a 94% vote to remove the constitution’s claim to rule the northern state.

Sectarianism entrenched

The Agreement was not just designed to end military conflict. The promise from the politicians was that it would end both sectarian division and the poverty which haunted Northern Ireland. On sectarianism, the notion that Northern Ireland was divided between two communities, Nationalist and Unionist, hermetically sealed from each other, was enshrined into the Agreement. It created   two new main institutions, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. The Assembly is a devolved body with powers broadly similar to those of the Scottish Parliament, and for both those institutions in Northern Ireland, Westminster can resume control when it wishes.

The Executive was created based on the idea of power sharing with ministerial portfolios proportionally allocated between the largest Assembly parties based on votes received. The First Minister had to come from the biggest party, with the Deputy First Minister coming from the party in the opposite community with the most votes. So if a Unionist party got the biggest vote, they got the First Ministership, and the Nationalist party with the biggest vote got the deputy’s job.

Under ‘Safeguards’, the Agreement lays down that: ‘At their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity – nationalist, unionist or others.’  After that the ‘others’ are not mentioned again. Yet, there have been ‘others’ elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly: feminists on a women-only list, the middle-class Alliance party which does not accept either label, and the radical-left People Not Profit.

Arrangements ‘to ensure key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis’ require either ‘parallel consent’ (a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists voting together), or a ‘weighted majority’ (60% of the overall vote, including at least 40% of unionists and 40% of nationalists). That marginalises the ‘others’ and seeks to encourage those within Nationalist and Unionist communities to vote Green or Orange.

This set up creates two communal blocks, Nationalist and Unionist, competing for scarce resources to go to ‘their’ community. This is a dynamic whereby if it is agreed that funding should go to a sports centre in Nationalist West Belfast, it needs to be matched by similar across in Unionist East Belfast. In reality, sectarianism remains a problem with the number of ‘peace walls’ sealing off working-class Nationalist and Unionist areas mushrooming since 1998.

Sectarian issues surface repeatedly. So, in 2012, after Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the union flag to designated days, protests against the decision took place over four months, resulting in injuries to 160 police officers and 34 rioters being jailed. A proposed Irish Language Act to give the Irish language equal status to English in Northern Ireland was blocked by the main Unionist parties, who have accused nationalists of ‘using the Irish language as a tool to beat Unionism over the head’.

The way the Northern Ireland Assembly is set up means that issues which would be seemingly non-sectarian suddenly get viewed in just such a way. Between 2012 and 2019, the Assembly voted five times on same-sex legislation. Unionists have generally voted against, and used their veto to block the legislation, while Sinn Féin and other Nationalists voted in favour.

The present impasse

Of course, the big issue currently is the refusal of the Democratic Unionist Party to form a power sharing executive with Sinn Féin. The latter became the biggest vote winner in the May 2022 elections, winning two seats more than the DUP. It refused to accept Michelle O’Neill as First Minister, citing the dispute with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Now that’s been resolved, they have not shifted from vetoing O’Neill.

For 24 years, first the Unionist Party and then the DUP, which voted against the Good Friday Agreement, held the First Ministership, but what’s good enough for them is not for the Republicans. The fact that Sinn Féin could become the biggest party, together with the fact that Catholics (overwhelmingly Nationalist) now outnumber Protestants (generally Unionist) has turned things round in two respects.

First, back in 1921, Britain divided Ireland and created a state whose borders were drawn to contain the biggest possible number of Unionist voters, within the greatest physical area to guarantee that: thus of nine counties of Ulster, three were left out because they had Nationalist majorities. It is simply no longer the case that the remaining nine have Unionist majorities.

Second, back in 1998, it was believed that the two largest parties in Northern Ireland would be the Unionist Party (seen as more moderate than the DUP which opposed the Good Friday Agreement) and the SDLP, with both being able to govern Northern Ireland amicably. That too has changed utterly.

Across the border in the Republic, Sinn Féin was the largest party at the last election (kept from office by an unlikely coalition of its opponents) and polls consistently show that it is to remain so. The Good Friday Agreement agreed referendums on Irish unity could take place if both the Republic’s parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly vote accordingly. Back in 1998 that seemed an unlikely prospect: today not so.

From its creation, the Northern Ireland state was marked by repression, sectarianism and poverty. With the end of the Troubles, the repressive power of the state has decreased. Sectarianism has too in the sense that Nationalists are no longer barred from a series of public-sector jobs as they were. There is now a confident Nationalist middle class, a majority of whom support Sinn Féin.

Prospects and alternatives

But that has not removed the sectarian division which remains. Nor did the Good Friday Agreement usher in economic change. The median annual pay of Northern Ireland employees is £30,000. The UK figure is £33,000, while in London it is £41,866 and in Scotland £33,332. The average annual earnings for employees in the Irish Republic is €44,202 per year. Britain is marked by low productivity compared to the USA and France, let alone Asian economies. In Northern Ireland it is even lower. Productivity in Northern Ireland is 40% lower than in the Republic. The authors of a recent study concluded ‘almost all of the productivity gap can be explained by lower levels of investment and skilled workers in Northern Ireland.’

The reason for the continuation of sectarianism and poverty lies in partition. Northern Ireland, the one industrialised area of Ireland, was tied to Britain via Clydeside and Merseyside. It depended on staple industries, shipbuilding, heavy engineering and textiles, producing for the British and imperial markets. Back in 1921, the future seemed secure. Of course, Britain and its staple industries entered a decline, being unable to compete with foreign competitors. That decline hit the branch economy even heavier blows than those across the Irish Sea.

To add insult to injury, since the 1990s, there has been something of a great leap forward in the Irish Republic. That created deep social problems – currently soaring rents blight the country – but today’s Republic has far outstripped its northern neighbour. The Unionist middle class has increasingly voted with its feet, graduates quitting Northern Ireland never to return. Economic disadvantage now stalks working-class people in both communities. We have seen resistance to this, but the weight of sectarianism remains a dead hand.

So, much of the promise of the Good Friday Agreement remains unfilled. What alternative is there? Irish unity has potential, but not if the Irish Republic simply absorbs the north. The Republic remains a vicious neoliberal society with a voracious elite. It continues to privilege the Catholic Church in health and education provision. It has no equivalent of the NHS, which exists in the north. Neither should unity be based on a simple head count of Nationalists and Unionists.

It requires a more radical vision: one that promises universal, free health care to all in Ireland, an extension of rights to all of economic and social measures to benefit the many not the few.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.