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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

25 Years of Peace: The Good Friday Agreement

Article by: Ana Torres

71% for Peace

The Northern Ireland that we know today would be unimaginable without the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. In the referendum that followed, many people of Northern Ireland rejected the status quo of division and violence. Instead, they opened themselves up to hope, voting ‘Yes’ for peace with a majority of 71%.  25 years on, a conference entitled The Dynamics of Peace was held at Queen’s University Belfast (17th-19th April 2023) to explore how decades of conflict came largely to an end, heralding a historic opportunity for change, compromise and ultimately reconciliation. Panel discussions included reflections from the many architects of the agreement who worked together, taking dangerous risks to build peace. The guarantors of the bilateral international agreement also looked back at their involvement, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the current Chancellor of Queen’s University, chairing their panel. 

The Catalysts for the Agreement

The celebration commenced with an inspiring keynote address from Senator George J. Mitchell, former US Special Representative for Northern Ireland and Chair of the Northern Ireland AII Party Talks. He commemorated the courageous efforts of two late political giants in Northern Irish history, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party: ‘Without John Hume there would not have been a peace process. Without David Trimble there would not have been a peace agreement.’ Both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1998) for their commitment to establishing a democratic peaceful process based on equal rights and governance directly from Stormont, Belfast. Power-sharing was established, with the First and Deputy First Ministers, one unionist and one nationalist, having equal authority. 

A Global Resolution?

The conference looked outwards to consider the impact of the agreement in an international context; as a template for resolving global conflict. The need to nurture its implementation is therefore paramount. It must be recognised as a rare and invaluable accomplishment that speaks to Israelis and Palestinians, to Colombians, to Rwandans, to Cambodians and to Ukrainians. The core pressing concerns, however, were local. The conference concluded with a reimagining of the economic prospects for NI, especially post-Brexit and in light of the recent Windsor framework.

The Women of The Peace Process

The former US Secretary of State paid tribute to the forgotten women who made the agreement possible. For example, to Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar who founded the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (1996) so that they could be involved in formal peace negotiations. They addressed issues such as victim reconciliation that would have otherwise been neglected, and the need for a Bill of rights on equality and integrated education. While these are aspirations that have yet to be realised in NI, the conference reemphasised these as key solutions for an enduring peace.

The ‘Peace Babies’

Secretary Clinton focused her address on the future of young people, whom she described as the conference’s “true subjects”. Referencing the 25,000 students of all backgrounds at Queen’s University who enjoy an ‘ordinary’ student life, she highlighted how, considering the historical context, “there is nothing ordinary at all about what has been built here”. While honouring the anniversary as a significant milestone, she emphasised the importance of fulfilling the promises of the agreement in the years ahead.

Finding the Balance

The north’s generation of ‘peace babies’ undoubtedly appreciate a safer, more secure society than that of previous generations. Senator Mitchell stated that while the agreement is imperfect, rather “the best that could be achieved at the time, peace babies are not exposed to the conflict that claimed the lives of 3,700 people. Clinton, however, took the opportunity to stress unresolved societal concerns, such as divided neighbourhoods and schools, unemployment and the fact that “33% of school leavers in Northern Ireland leave to seek their futures elsewhere, taking with them their skills, their education, their ambitions, their dreams”. Clinton’s perspective echoes the disillusion expressed by many young people, such as the late journalist Lyra McKee, murdered in 2019, who believed prosperity “never appeared. With this in mind, Clinton’s message is clear: Northern Ireland’s healing process is a work in progress, and the commitment to peace as well as prosperity must be long-term. 

Moving forwards towards prosperity?

Regions of Northern Ireland still suffer from insufficient investment. Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, highlighted how Ardoyne in north Belfast, for example, has been historically excluded: Let the 25th anniversary be an opportunity to deeply penetrate the issues in [these] communities.’ The elephant in the conference room was most certainly the ongoing collapse of the of the Northern Ireland executive; a historical instability since 1998 that has impeded progress. The Democratic Unionist Party walked away from power sharing with Sinn Féín (2022) in protest of the Brexit protocol, saying it threatened NI’s position within the UK. 

Continued Political Instability

Northern Ireland remains without a devolved government, despite the fact that 56.2% of unionists believe that PM Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit deal, the Windsor framework, “removed many negative consequences of the protocol”. The same framework ensures that there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, and the conflict that came with it. National and international pressure on the DUP to return to Stormont built throughout the 3-day conference. Naomi Long, leader of NI’s Alliance Party, emphasised reforming the agreement as the solution to functioning governance, revealing that her party put forward an “invest for reform scheme” to the UK government. Long’s appeal to former Junior Minister of the DUP, Emma Little-Pengelly, was applauded by the audience: “I understand how Unionism is uncomfortable with the protocol and Windsor framework, but I can’t understand how you did not see this coming with Brexit”. Significantly, Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP, was the only party leader absent from the panel. 

Rekindling the Spirit of 1998

The conference hailed the Good Friday Agreement as a breakthrough but also served as a reminder of the incomplete journey towards more holistic progress. Senator Mitchell issued subtle encouragement (“it is not a sign of weakness to resolve your differences by democratic and peaceful means) while President Clinton was more explicit in his address, referencing the Nobel Peace prize winner and poet, Seamus Heaney: “He would say we walked on air against our better judgment, now you have a hard floor to walk on, for God’s sake get up and walk.” Today, Northern Ireland celebrates that there is no space for the so-called Troubles of the past, but also recognises that the agreement, transcending the seemingly impossible in 1998, is only a solid starting point for the ‘peace baby’ generation.

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