Northern Ireland History - Good Friday Agreement - Belfast Agreement

Northern Ireland History 1998 - Good Friday Agreement

A thirty page document was sent to the people of Ireland and that document became known as "The Good Friday Agreement " or as many called it "The Belfast Agreement."  Call it what you will, it was an historical document and one that was dropped through every household letter box in Ireland.

The date of the two original signatures was the 10th April 1998 and the two signatories were from the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland.

It was a truly historic moment and one that had often looked in danger of failing completely.  People across Northern Ireland stared at new's bulletins as they captured the coming and going of politicians throughout the small hours.  Agreement was eventually reached and the people of Ireland were left to make their decision.

Contents of the Good Friday Agreement

This was to be a three strand document and the strands were as follows:

  1. Strand One - Democratic Institutions in Northern Ireland
  2. Strand Two - North/South Ministerial Council
  3. Strand Three - British-Irish Council and British & Irish Intergovernmental Conference

Good Friday Agreement Strand One

This element provisioned for an elected democratic Assembly to be set up in Northern Ireland with 108 members and to be given full legislative and executive authority.  This would come with built in safeguards so that all sections of the community could work together to ensure the operation of the institutions would be successful.  There were 36 conditions to be met to ensure equality and justice for all in Northern Ireland.

Good Friday Agreement Strand Two

A North/South Ministerial council would be set up to bring together those who would be elected to have executive responsibilities in Northern Ireland and ministers in the government of Ireland.  They would meet, consult and co-operate in matters affecting the island of Ireland which were deemed to have mutual interest. There were also 19 conditions built into this to ensure effectiveness and equality of treatment.

Good Friday Agreement Strand Three

In this strand a British-Irish council would be established to promote the harmonious and mutual development of the totality of the relationships in the two islands.  Many referred to this as the East/West element of the Agreement.

There were 12 conditions associated with the British-Irish Council.

British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference was also introduced in this strand to subsume both the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council and the Intergovernmental Conference that had been established in a previous Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald.  There were 13 conditions in place to make this effective as well.

The Belfast Agreement also had sections that covered rights, safeguards, equality of opportunity, decommissioning, security, policing and justice, review of the criminal justice system, and prisoners.

The Four Articles of The Belfast Agreement

This is what the people of Northern Ireland needed to see, understand and interpret and then decide if they wished to accept it.  All parties in the North, South of Ireland in the United Kingdom were in favour of this agreement except for one party who refused to attend the talks.  That was Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.  Here is a description of the four articles:

Good Friday Agreement Article One

The Two Governments:
recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland

There were 6 parts to the first article but in principle it meant that there would be no united Ireland unless this was the wish of the people of Northern Ireland and at the time that was a strong safeguard for the Unionist community.

Good Friday Agreement Article Two

This simply stated that they would support and implement the agreed structures within the document and set up the various institutions.

Good Friday Agreement Article Three

This simply stated that this agreement would replace the previous 1985 legislation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement

Good Friday Agreement Article Four

This article simply covered off that both British and Irish governments would pass their own legislation to allow for the introduction of the new agreement

The politicians and governments offered this to the people of Ireland to decide and for many weeks there was great political debate and analysis.  A vote would be taken in the North and the South of Ireland and a majority in both countries would have to agree this.

On the 23rd May 1998 the votes were cast and the Belfast Agreement was endorsed by both voters in Northern Ireland and in the South of Ireland.

  • In Northern Ireland the turnout was 81% and 71% of that had voted Yes
  • In Southern Ireland the turnout was 56% and 94% of that had voted Yes.

Many politicians claimed this was a resounding YES vote and it was hailed with great stories and new being broadcast throughout the world and celebrations took place across many parts of Northern Ireland.

However sitting underneath the 71% yes vote in Northern Ireland was the fact that almost all Catholics and Nationalists had voted Yes, which meant that only a slim majority of Unionist and Protestants had made a Yes vote.  This would be a significant issue in the years that would lie ahead.