The Good Friday Agreement
The Agreement (PDF 204kb) reached at the conclusion of the Multi-Party negotiations in Belfast on 10 April 1998 has fundamentally altered the context in which the Government’s objectives with regard to Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations are pursued. It was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, in referenda held simultaneously on 22 May 1998.
The Agreement represented an historic breakthrough. It commits all participants to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences. Participants in the multi-party negotiations recognised it as a historic opportunity for a new beginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between Britain and Ireland. It envisages a future based on the acceptance of diversity and on the principles of partnership, equality and mutual respect, clearly committing the participants to “the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all”.
The Agreement provided for the establishment of new institutions, across three “Strands”:
- an Assembly and Executive within Northern Ireland to exercise partnership government based on equality (Strand I)
- a North/South Ministerial Council to develop co-operation and action within the island of Ireland (Strand II)
- a British-Irish Council to promote mutually beneficial East/West relationships. (Strand III)
It also included measures to uphold the protection of human rights and equality and to deal with the consequences of conflict. In addition, it mapped the way forward with major new initiatives in the crucial areas of policing and justice.
The Agreement is clear on the special constitutional position of Northern Ireland. It underlines the legitimacy of seeking a United Ireland and it also recognises that it is the current legitimate wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Most importantly, it enshrines the principle of consent, clearly stating “that it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.
Since 1998, full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been the Government’s priority. Much progress has been made in the intervening years in delivering on the commitments made across such important areas as human rights, equality, community relations and policing and justice. North/South and East/West co-operation has been advanced.
While the devolved institutions (Assembly and Executive) of the Good Friday Agreement functioned for only limited periods between 1998 and 2007, the British and Irish Governments continued to work together and with the parties during that time to tackle all outstanding issues in order to build the trust and confidence to allow the full restoration of these institutions and the full implementation of the Agreement.
In 2005 and 2006 the context for political engagement improved greatly. The announcement on 28 July 2005 that the IRA had ended its armed campaign and the confirmation by the Independent Decommissioning Body that IRA decommissioning had been completed led to intensified political contacts between the Governments and the parties and renewed efforts to find a way forward.
In 2006 those efforts culminated in the publication of the St Andrews Agreement on 13 October, following talks hosted by the Taoiseach and PM Blair with the political parties in Scotland.
Underpinning the Good Friday Agreement, the St. Andrews Agreement set out a clear way forward for all parties to commit to the full operation of stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and to full support for policing and the criminal justice institutions.
Major progress in that regard was made in the early months of 2007, allowing restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to take place on 8 May 2007. The North/South Ministerial Council can now meet once again and the North/South Implementation Bodies can function fully.
The Good Friday Agreement remains the template for cooperation between the two Governments in relation to Northern Ireland. Both Governments are committed in all circumstances to ensure that it is implemented to the maximum possible extent for the benefit of all communities.