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Expert Comment: Fifteen years since the Belfast Agreement

Stormont Wednesday 10 April 2013

Dr Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Hope, on the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

It is now fifteen years since the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) was signed, creating the framework for the Northern Irish peace process. A multi-track process brought together the main political parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments to construct a three-level structure, creating a set of political institutions for Northern Ireland but also creating institutions for relations between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland and for relations between Ireland (North and South) and Britain.

The Agreement was never intended to be a complete solution, rather it was intended to allow some progress to occur, to move the various groups involved away from their previously very intransigent positions, and to try to create a context from which it would be easier to move on to a more lasting peace. At this stage, how much progress has been made?

There are two very clear positives. First of all, the level of violence has, thankfully, been greatly reduced. Many of the paramilitary groups have given up their weapons, the police service has been substantially reformed, and the British Army is no longer patrolling the streets. These developments have led to a genuine transformation of Northern Irish life. Secondly, the political institutions are now secure. Each party in Northern Ireland is probably happiest with a different aspect of the deal, but none of them disavows the Agreement as a whole. So the three-level structure works and is accepted.

However, there are still very serious challenges. Violence might have been pushed to the further extremes, but there remain residual but nonetheless very dangerous groups on both sides that are prepared to use violence for political ends. There are still many sharp disagreements, such as the recent flags dispute. The recession is threatening some of the sense of progress that had been achieved, and this is likely to worsen when cut-backs bite ever more deeply into the public sector. In particular, youth unemployment is around the 20% mark and is a growing concern.

Above all, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The number of so-called ‘peace walls’ that segregate the two communities from each other has increased since the Agreement was signed rather than decreased. Almost 95% of school pupils attend denominational, segregated schools. And the political system is deeply ghettoised, with virtually no Catholics voting for the Democratic Unionist Party and virtually no Protestants voting for Sinn Féin. It is a kind of voluntary, agreed apartheid.

This reflects one key issue that was not addressed in the original Agreement. There is no real strategy for reconciliation between the two communities, and no mechanism was established for encouraging both sides to try to come to terms with their past history. This was perhaps a necessary omission at the time – the negotiating groups had enough on their plates to try to get the basic deal in place. But as a result, the Northern Irish peace process remains fragile and limited. If we think only in terms of peace as the absence of violence, then great progress has been achieved. But if we think of peace as the fostering of a spirit of harmony and justice and equality, if we aspire to a deep and lasting peace, then there is still a great deal to be done.

Dr Holmes appeared on Radio Merseyside's Breakfast Show on the morning of Wednesday 10th April, discussing the Belfast Agreement. You can hear the interview here, from one minute twenty seconds onwards.


Image: Stormont Castle. Photo by Son of Groucho. Licensed under CC BY-ND

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