Apr 8, 2021
Legal Insights

Violence in Belfast: The End of The Good Friday Agreement?

Ellen Walsh LLB
5 min read

What is the Good Friday Agreement? (GFA)

The GFA is a pair of Agreements, signed on the 10th of April 1998 that ended the majority of the unrest of the Troubles (a political conflict in Northern Ireland that has waged since the 1960s). It was a keystone moment of the Peace Process which occurred across the 1990s.

The Agreement created several cross-jurisdiction institutions between the North, the Republic of Ireland and the UK.

The Agreement centres around issues of sovereignty, civil and cultural rights, decommissioning of weapons, demilitarisation, justice and policing.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Left) and former Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern (right) signing the Good Friday Agreement at Castle Buildings Belfast (Credit: Irish Post)

The Agreement was required to be approved in both jurisdictions - in the North, voters were asked whether they supported the multi-party agreement. In the Republic, voters were asked in a referendum if they would allow the Irish State to sign the agreement and allow the necessary changes to the Irish Constitution to facilitate the agreement. The voters of both jurisdictions were required to approve the Agreement in order for it to be given effect.

The British-Irish Agreement came into force on the 2nd of December, 1999. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only major political party in the North to oppose the Agreement.

What is the GFA needed for?

In 1922, after strenuous negotiations between the provisional Irish Free State and the British government resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State. This Irish Free State did not include 6 northern counties, which would remain part of the UK under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

This division caused decades of tensions, violence and unrest between Unionists (who favoured remaining with Britain) and Nationalists/ Republicans (who sought to be unified with the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland)

British soldiers charging Catholic youths in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1971. (Credit: NY Times)

The Troubles, beginning in the 1960s marked a drastic change in the levels of hostility and violence in the North. Over 3500 deaths occurred over the next three plus decades. As a result of this, serious political pushes were made towards ending the conflict, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement.

The agreement left the issue of future sovereignty over Northern Ireland open-ended.

The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and would remain so until a majority of the people both of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under "a binding obligation" to implement that choice.

How has the GFA operated thus far?

The GFA created a number of institutions across its three strands;

Strand One - Northern Ireland created The Northern Ireland Assembly, being a devolved legislature for NI with mandatory cross-community voting on specified major decisions and the Northern Ireland Executive, being a power-sharing executive between Unionists and Nationalists/ Republicans with ministerial portfolios allocated between parties (this is done using the D’Hont method)

Strand Two - institutions to be created between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Most notably of the three is the North/South Ministerial Council, made up of ministers from the NI Executive and the Government of Ireland. It also set up the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association and the North/South Consultative Forum

Strand Three created institutions between Ireland and Great Britain (as well as the Crown dependencies). The most important of these are the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, and also established the British–Irish Council and an expanded British–Irish Interparliamentary Body.

Martin McGuinness, being the leader of the Nationalist/ Republican side of the Executive, resigned on the 9th of January, 2017. As the GFA demanded, the devolved government in Stormont collapsed, as no new leader was appointed to replace him. An election was called by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire, wherein the DUP and Sinn Féin returned as the largest parties, and so began a considerable period of talks and discussion prior to both leaders being capable of being restored. In January 2020, the Executive was re-established, with Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill as leaders of both the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively.

Unrest continues

During the extensive negotiations involved in Britain’s departure from the European Union, the EU produced a position paper highlighting its primary concerns regarding the GFA. It stipulated the need to avoid a so-called hard border, North-South co-operation through the departure, citizenship of the EU and how the common travel area may be maintained.

It was agreed that anyone born in Northern Ireland, and thus entitled to an Irish passport by the Good Friday Agreement, will also be able to retain EU citizenship after Brexit.

Former Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May (Credit: Anadolu Agency)

Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May, agreed to protect the Agreement in all its parts and "in the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom would maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement", with the acknowledgement that this is "under the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed

This basic protection became known as the ‘Irish back-stop’, and was hoped would prevent a hard-border, which it was agreed would likely lead to tensions and perhaps violence in Northern and bordering counties. When the withdrawal agreement was finally completed, the protections surrounding the North became known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The current position

The Northern Ireland protocol has had some effect on consumers and on the loyalist/unionist communities, as they allege there now exists an invisible trade border in the Irish Sea, which Unionists feel undermines their connection to the United Kingdom. This dissatisfaction combined with a decision of the PSNI not to prosecute members of Sinn Féin for attending a funeral of a prominent republican during COVID-19 restrictions, led to loyalist groups withdrawing their support from the Good Friday Agreement.

Bus torched in more Northern Ireland violence (Credit: CNN)

Over the course of the last week Loyalist and Unionist supporters have rioted in protest, causing concerning levels of damage and unrest. Members of the Nationalist and Republican communities have also partaken in perceived defence. The violence has been condemned by a cross-party statement;

How can violence undermine the Agreement?

It is abundantly clear from the history of unrest in the North of Ireland that violence achieves little and political dialogue infinitely more. Three decades of violence achieved virtually nothing for either side, but substantial progress has been made since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in the late nineties.

The most basic tenet of the operation of the GFA is reliant on the support and co-operation of both sides. It quite literally cannot function without this co-operation, and it goes without saying that if the Agreement itself cannot function, it follows that neither can the institutions it establishes. This means there is no formal link to either the Republic nor the United Kingdom politically. It also means the collapse of the power-sharing government of the North- and therefore no opportunity for political discourse and dialogue to replace violence and unrest.

It goes without saying that a return to the violence and dis-agreement which marred the 1960s through to the late 1990s serves no party, no man, woman nor child of the North, the South nor the United Kingdom. So much progress has been made politically over the last three decades, but it is easily undone by violence; and if the GFA collapses with no replacement, there may be no going back to that level of respect and understanding across communities for the near future.


Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Lawyered.

Published by
Ellen Walsh LLB
Aspiring Barrister

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