20 years on, the Good Friday Agreement is in relatively good health. That may sound surprising to some given the coverage – including the recent intervention of Hilary Clinton – and occasional noises emanating from Dublin, Brussels and ultra-remain supporters in London. The reality on the ground in Northern Ireland, however, is more positive.
In many ways, support for the Good Friday Agreement is stronger now than when it was first brokered. The DUP – who opposed the Agreement in 1998 – now either speak in favour of it, or at worst in neutral terms. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, who reserved their judgement at the time, now support it.
Secondly, the Agreement was put front and centre of the agreement last December between the UK and EU on the next phase of the Brexit negotiations. Both sides recognised that Brexit could not be allowed to jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland.
Another reason to be optimistic is that there are signs that the DUP and Sinn Fein are preparing for another major push to break the deadlock with a compromise to restore the power-sharing executive at Stormont. Such a breakthrough would show that the province – and the Agreement – are stronger than any challenge presented by Brexit.
The signs are that the Border issue can be resolved. Talk about guns and beatings returning with a hard border have greatly reduced. Concern over the loss of ‘Peace money’ which came as a result of the Good Friday Agreement – it represents 1% of the funds which flow directly from the UK to Northern Ireland – would seem to be of little real impact.
Yet despite these reasons for optimism, there are certain issues that must be addressed to secure the long-term health of the Agreement. Undeniably, the Brexit vote has raised tensions between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. Support for Irish nationalism from Catholics has risen – as the latter fear Brexit marks the return of an aggressive English/British nationalism.
The UK Governments of the 1990s have not helped their successors. Many promises were made by London to nationalists in Northern Ireland regarding increased engagement with the EU. In March 1993, as part of the push to get republicans ‘over the line’ to peace, elements within the British state made noises – however inaccurate – that ultimately the long-term future belonged to a united Ireland within a united Europe. Having had their expectations thus set, Irish nationalists are finding it difficult to adjust to the new reality. So as the UK seeks a new relationship with the EU, it must be mindful of the sentiment of some in Ulster – particularly the nationalist faction.
To ensure the Good Friday Agreement is maintained over the long term it is important that Northern Ireland returns to the stability of two years ago. To this end, it is important that Stormont and other institutions are restored quickly. The quicker things get back to normal, the faster tensions will begin to ease.
Evidence of economic progress and calm at the border will also be important in assuring people that the Good Friday Agreement is in robust health. This will boost confidence in the future – and help to ensure we mark the 30th anniversary of peace in Northern Ireland.