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Northern Ireland

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The Agreement – also known as[1] the Belfast Agreement (Irish: Comhaontú Bhéal Feirste) or the Good Friday Agreement (Irish: Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta), and occasionally as the Stormont Agreement – was a major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was signed in Belfast on 10 April 1998 (Good Friday) by the British and Irish governments and endorsed by most Northern Ireland political parties. On 23 May 1998 the Agreement was endorsed by the voters of Northern Ireland in a referendum. On the same day, voters in the Republic voted separately to change their constitution in line with the Agreement. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only large party that opposed the Agreement. The Agreement came into force on 2 December 1999.[2][3]



The Agreement's main provisions included the:

  • Principle that any change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland could only follow a majority vote of its citizens;
  • Commitment by all parties to use "exclusively peaceful and democratic means";
  • Establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly with devolved legislative powers;
  • Cross-community principle for any major decision taken by the Assembly;[4]
  • Establishment of a 'power-sharing' Northern Ireland Executive, using the d'Hondt method to allocate Ministries proportionally to the main parties;
  • Abolition of the Republic's territorial claim to Northern Ireland via the modification of Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution. As a result, the territorial claim which had subsisted since 29 December 1937 was dropped on 2 December 1999;[2]
  • Repeal of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 by the British Parliament;[5]
  • Establishment of a North-South Ministerial Council and North-South Implementation Bodies to bring about cross-border cooperation in policy and programmes on a number of issues;
  • Establishment of a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (replacing the former Anglo-Irish Inter-governmental Conference, established by the Anglo-Irish Agreement),[6] which gave a consultative role to Ireland concerning non-devolved matters.[7]
  • Establishment of a British-Irish Council, comprising representatives from the governments of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey, and the Isle of Man;
  • Conditional early release within two years of paramilitary prisoners belonging to organisations observing a ceasefire.
  • Establishment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
  • Establishment of a two-year time frame for decommissioning of paramilitary weapons;
  • Introduction of legislation to place a duty to promote equality of opportunity on public authorities in Northern Ireland
  • Demilitarisation, end of Operation Banner and withdrawal of British troops until reaching peacetime levels;[8]
  • Reform of the police led by the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland;
  • Recognition of the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose; and
  • Confirmation that the right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.

The Agreement also marked the end of a dispute between the two states over the names of their respective states: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Ireland.[9] Vague wording of some of the provisions (described as "constructive ambiguity"),[10] which helped ensure acceptance of the agreement at the time, served to postpone debate on some of the more contentious issues — most notably paramilitary decommissioning, police reform and normalisation. A date of May 2000 was set for total disarming of all paramilitary groups. This was not achieved and delayed the establishment of the Assembly and Executive,[11] because one of the four main parties in the Assembly — Sinn Féin — was "inextricably linked" to the largest paramilitary group, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), and unionists refused to share power with this party, while the IRA remained armed.

History of implementation

The Assembly and Executive were eventually established in December 1999 on the understanding that decommissioning would begin immediately, but were suspended within two months due to lack of progress, before being re-established in May 2000 as Provisional IRA decommissioning eventually began. Aside from the decommissioning issue, however, ongoing paramilitary activity (albeit relatively low level compared to the past) by the Provisional Irish Republican Army — e.g., arms importations, smuggling, organised crime, "punishment beatings", intelligence-gathering and rioting — was also a stumbling block. The loyalist paramilitaries also continued similar activity although as they were not represented by a significant political party, their position was less central to political change.

The overall result of these problems was to damage confidence among unionists in the Agreement, which was exploited by the anti-Agreement DUP which eventually defeated the pro-Agreement Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in the 2003 Assembly election. The UUP had already resigned from the power-sharing Executive in 2002 following arrests of Sinn Féin personnel on charges of gathering intelligence for use by terrorists. These charges were eventually dropped in 2005 on the controversial grounds that pursuit would not be "in the public interest". Immediately afterwards, one of the accused Sinn Féin members, Denis Donaldson was exposed as a British agent.

In 2004, negotiations were held between the two governments, the DUP, and Sinn Féin on an agreement to re-establish the institutions. These talks failed, but a document published by the governments detailing changes to the Belfast Agreement became known as the 'Comprehensive Agreement'. On 26 September 2005, however, it was announced that the Provisional Irish Republican Army had completely decommissioned its arsenal of weapons and "put them beyond use". Nonetheless, many unionists, most notably the DUP, remained sceptical and agreement on how to restore the power-sharing assembly still had not been reached as of July 2006. Of the loyalist paramilitaries, only the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) had decommissioned any weapons.[12] Further negotiations took place in October 2006, leading to the St Andrews Agreement.

In May 2007, a power sharing executive was again established to govern Northern Ireland in devolved matters. The second Northern Ireland Executive consisted of the DUP and Sinn Féin, with Ian Paisley of the DUP as First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin as Deputy First Minister. Although Paisley was the head of the government, he and Martin McGuinness held equal powers within the Northern Ireland Assembly government.

Paisley retired from the office of First Minister and from the leadership of the DUP on 5 June 2008 and was succeeded in both functions by Peter Robinson. In the third Northern Ireland Executive the same political relationship now exists between Robinson and McGuinness as existed formerly between Paisley and McGuinness.


The Agreement is an international agreement between the British and Irish governments. It comprises two elements: the text of the actual agreement between the two governments. That text is very short. It has just four articles.[3] It is that short text which is the legal agreement. The Northern Ireland political parties were not involved in its negotiation. However, the short legal agreement incorporates in its Schedules the more substantive agreement reached by the eight political parties (the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the Ulster Democratic Party and Labour) and the two governments.[3] Technically, this Scheduled agreement can be distinguished as the multi-party agreement as opposed to the Belfast Agreement itself.[3]


In May 1998, there were separate referendums concerning the Belfast Agreement. The referendum in Northern Ireland was a direct vote on the Agreement, while the vote in the Republic of Ireland was a vote to amend the Irish constitution in line with the Belfast Agreement.

The result of these referendums was a large majority in both parts of the island of Ireland in favour of the Agreement.

In the Republic only 85,748 (3% of the electorate) voted 'No' but approximately 40% of the electorate did not exercise their franchise.

In the North, when normal combined voting strengths among both nationalist and unionist communities are superimposed on the Referendum result, it is clear that pre-polling opinion polls and exit polls on the day were correct in showing that a majority of the unionist voters voted 'Yes'. The DUP claim to have been at that point 'a majority of the majority' was clearly difficult to substantiate although in later events they succeeded in so becoming.

In Ireland the electorate voted upon the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution of Ireland. This amendment both permitted the state to comply with the Belfast Agreement and provided for the removal of the 'territorial claim' contained in Articles 2 and 3. Ireland voted upon the Amsterdam Treaty on the same day. The results of the two simultaneous referendums on the Belfast Agreement were as follows:

Turnout Yes No Totals
Northern Ireland 81% 676,966 (71%) 274,879 (29%) 951,845 (100%)
Republic of Ireland 56% 1,442,583 (94%) 85,748 (6%) 1,528,331 (100%)

Agreement comes into effect

Direct London rule came to an end in Northern Ireland when power was formally devolved to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council when commencement orders for the British-Irish Agreement came into effect on 2 December.[13][14][15] However, Article 4(2) of the British-Irish Agreement (the Agreement between the British and Irish governments for the implementation of the Belfast Agreement) required the two governments to notify each other in writing of the completion of the requirements for the entry into force of the Belfast Agreement.[16] Entry into force was to be upon the receipt of the latter of the two notifications. The British government agreed to participate in a televised ceremony at Iveagh House in Dublin, the Irish department of foreign affairs. Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, attended early on 2 December 1999. He exchanged notifications with David Andrews, the Irish foreign minister. Shortly after the ceremony, at 10.30 am, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern signed the declaration formally amending Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution. He then announced to the Dáil that the British-Irish Agreement had entered into force (including certain supplementary agreements concerning the Belfast Agreement).[3][17]

See also


External links

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