‘This is the beginning, not the end.’ Just why was the Good Friday Agreement signed?

“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do.” – Tony Blair, April 1998

The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement, and henceforth ‘the Agreement’) has been hailed as historic, momentous and remarkable, to name but a few of its key descriptors. Yet how was this ‘historic’ deal brokered? This essay will consider some of the factors which transpired to create the document, including the 1997 election of Tony Blair, the international context, and changes within the Republican movement’s priorities and the softening of the Unionist position. The Agreement, as is widely recognised by historians, did not come about due to one factor; it was the culmination of years of negotiations and debate, compromise and struggle. Indeed, this work will consider only the four political factors discussed above. The Agreement remains an emotive topic for many in Northern Ireland, and is likely to remain so into the future.

A New Government: The Impact of Blair’s 1997 Election.

Ulster PM Blair/Ahern sign

May 1997 saw the election of the first Labour government in eighteen years. Near the top of Blair’s priorities was orchestrating a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland; in his memoirs, Blair stated that his Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, ‘snorted with derision’ when informed of Blair’s desire to end the Troubles. Blair made his ambition public in a speech in Belfast on 16 May 1997, shortly after becoming Prime Minister, when he stated, ‘I am ready to make one further effort to proceed with the inclusive talks process,’ informing Sinn Féin that, although he desired their involvement, he would not be held to ransom by their requirements. Blair wanting to reach a peaceful settlement quickly was hugely important for Northern Ireland, because it indicated a commitment to the ordinary people. Moreover, his pro-union language in the 16 May speech gave hope to Unionists that he would not abandon the Union.

Furthermore, Blair’s decision to bring New Labour further into the centre helped the peace process in Northern Ireland. On the Today Show shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Blair announced his government was neutral in regards to Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom. This was hugely important for the peace process; the previous stance of Labour was to support a United Ireland, yet Blair’s neutrality allowed him to speak to all politicians without arousing suspicion on any side.  Blair’s openness and negotiation skills with both Unionists and Republicans were vital to the negotiation concluded on Good Friday 1998; without them, it is certainly debateable whether 1998 would have seen an agreement. On numerous occasions the negotiations almost broke down; indeed, without a call from President Clinton it is likely that David Trimble would have withdrawn from negotiations on Good Friday itself. Blair’s constant energy and his passion for peace helped the Agreement into being because if he had not pushed on the negotiations, brought concessions where necessary and subtly ignored ‘niggles’, the peace process would not have continued as it did. Without Blair’s determination and genuine desire for a peaceful negotiation, it is unlikely that the Agreement would have been signed so soon after his election. Yet, as with the internationalist viewpoint discussed later, Blair was not internal to the Northern Ireland issue. Without a genuine desire for peace from both Republicans and Unionists, nothing would have been agreed, and no progress would have been made. This means that Blair’s election alone cannot be the most important explanation for the Agreement.

President Clinton and the American Influence:

International pressure on Northern Ireland is a relatively new historiographical concern. Whilst President Clinton’s role in persuading Trimble and Gerry Adams to sign the Agreement at the final hour is frequently cited, Michael Cox argues Clinton’s role was even more intrinsic to the process.  He says that Clinton’s decision to grant Adams a US visa helped promote Sinn Féin within the Republican movement. However, this assessment surely places too much emphasis on extrinsic rather than iClinton Agreement Ireland pngntrinsic aspects of the Troubles. In a conflict so deeply rooted in conflicting identities and ethnoreligious relationships, it is unclear how important external pressure can be.

Paul Dixon disputes Cox’s analysis. He argues that John Major actively utilised Clinton’s
decision to offer Adams a visa; it allowed him to publicly
appear affronted by Britain’s closest ally, in order to ‘balance the scales’ and show support for the Unionist position. This is, Dixon argues, particularly telling because the second visa was organised shortly after the publication of the Joint Framework Declaration, a document which relaxed decommissioning conditions. However, a more cynical interpretation of Major’s apparent outrage can be made. As discussed, Major relied upon Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) votes in Westminster. However, he desired the peace process to continue, something the Unionists apparently considered over. This would therefore suggest that the international context was important indirectly; Clinton’s involvement formed a scapegoat, a symbol towards whom Unionists could direct their anger. Nevertheless, the international element’s role was also much subtler in the progressing peace towards the Agreement. Adams’ ability to travel to America and promote a peaceful process gave him an extra level of authority. The endorsement of his planned peaceful process by America, therefore, gave Adams and his fellow leaders the weight of international recognition and support when appealing to grassroots Republicans to give up the armed struggle to achieve their objectives.

Yet internationalists tend to overlook the similarities of the Agreement to the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement. In both, power-sharing was the main component, despite some adaptations within the Agreement; for example, there are safeguards in place to ensure all decisions are supported by majorities of both communities. This indicates a continuity in British policy; if this is the case, what did the end of the Cold War bring to the process? Thus it is suggestive that the international element, whilst helping change grassroots Republicans’ ideology, did little in terms of the peace process itself, or the creation of the Agreement. Indeed, even Clinton’s famous calls to Trimble and Adams to persuade them to sign the deal occurred because Tony Blair called him and requested assistance in reassuring both parties of parity of status in the post-Agreement state. Clinton commanded respect from both warring sides, and desired only a peaceful solution; he was an excellent choice to calm the nerves of both parties. Therefore, whilst international pressure helped direct the mass of Republicans towards peaceful protest, it cannot be considered the primary, or even secondary, factor to explain the Agreement.

Republicans and Unionists: A Journey

Without changes within the hard-line stance of both the Republican and Unionist parties, the peace process would have disintegrated. Sinn Féin first gained major political attention with the election of hunger striker Bobby Sands to Westminster in 1981; despite reservations from the IRA leadership, Sinn Féin polled 13.4% of the vote for the Westminster elections, with Gerry Adams gaining the West Belfast seat in 1983. The Armalite-and-ballot-box policy – the continuation of the armed struggle in conjunction with contesting elections – remained in use until the IRA ceasefire of August 1994, when the method became wholly peaceful. However, the further politicisation of the Republican movement in the 1990s was an important precursor to the Agreement. As detailed in Adams’ memoir, numerous attempts at official negotiations with the British and Irish governments in the mid-1990s foundered on the IRA’s continued activism. The opening of negotiations between the SDLP and Sinn Féin in 1988 to create a pan-nationalist front certainly marked the start of a more electorally focused Sinn Féin. Whilst the vote to redact the abstentionist policy by Sinn Féin in 1986 appeared to mark an increase in electoral pressure, this was largely on the back of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 rather than any change in Republican ideology. This would suggest that the mid-1980s continued to see the armed campaign as the more important element of the IRA-Sinn Féin strategy.

However, the question remains: if Sinn Féin had entered political negotiations, at least privately, in 1988, why did they only enter the peace process in 1997? As discussed, this is largely due to John Major’s reliance on the Unionists. Major’s reluctance is clear when discussing the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. At its centre was the ‘serpentine’ of self-determination and consent from the Hume-Adams negotiations, though it offered no solid timeframes for negotiating. When asked for clarification, Major simply stated none was necessary. This suggests that Blair’s ‘unexpected’ majority of 179 meant a decision could be made for the good of the province, rather than merely to consolidate Blair’s own power, due to his independently strong government. Therefore, changes to Republican ideology and the election of Blair worked in tandem to create conditions whereby Sinn Féin could negotiate, and the Agreement could be signed.

Changes to the Unionist position were also important in the development of the peace process which led to the Agreement. Yet the militant DUP refused to endorse the Agreement. This is made abundantly clear from the newspaper article titled ‘No Peace in Paisley’s Pulpit.’ Speaking publicly, Paisley said ‘these are serious and terrible times we are living in, politically,’ denouncing David Trimble for doing deals with murderers. His refusal to accept the Agreement is akin to 1974, when his ‘firebrand mix of politics and Protestantism’ led to political chaos and the General Strike which ultimately led to the failure of the Sunningdale Agreement. However, other Unionist parties were much more open to change. Despite intense uncertainty, Trimble managed to persuade the UUP to negotiate with Sinn Féin. When reviewing annual marching seasons, it seems strange to consider the idea Trimble was a ‘moderate’, given his leading role in negotiating the Orange Order’s march down Garvaghy Road in July 1995. Indeed, a leading British politician ‘snorted into [his] Frosties’ when newspapers labelled Trimble as a ‘moderate’ Unionist. Despite this fear among ‘true’ moderates that the peace process was under threat with Trimble’s election as UUP leader in 1995, the reverse occurred. An example of his moderation is persuading his party to agree to the Mitchell Principles; these advocated a wholly democratic negotiation process, removing paramilitaries from the equation. Nonetheless, Trimble maintaining the focus on IRA decommissioning meant negotiations continued to stumble, both under Major and Blair, through the mid to late 1990s. Indeed, at the final hour on Good Friday, Trimble attempted, though ultimately failed, to reject the Agreement due to decommissioning issues. The constant focus on decommissioning prolonged the peace process, meaning Trimble’s moderation alone did not lead to the Agreement.

Conclusion: Politics, Interdependency, and the Future

As can be seen through the above factors, there is no one reason for why the various forces involved in Northern Ireland reached an Agreement on 10 April 1998. Indeed, to attempt to argue that one factor is of primary importance would be to offer a reductionist argument, to privilege one group’s priorities over another. However, it is clear that the four factors discussed all had relevance and importance in bringing the Agreement into being. Tony Blair’s election in 1997 offered ‘fresh blood’ to the peace process, a new impetus to reach an arrangement which suited most, if not all, involved. President Clinton’s role throughout the 1990s offers an interesting example of why we should not remain isolationist in our analysis of historical events, particularly in the modern day. Finally, without changes to the hard-line positions of both Unionists and Republicans, there would not have been enough middle ground to encourage political leaders to compromise. Without the inspiring leadership of both Trimble and Adams and their ability to compromise when necessary, the Agreement is unlikely to have been concluded. Therefore, it is clear that a great many factors colluded in order to create the Agreement; indeed, this essay has only considered some of the political factors. What will be interesting to see in the future is: how much further will Northern Ireland travel down the peace process line beyond the Agreement?

Written by Victoria Bettney


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