About the Good Friday Agreement
A truly historic opportunity for a new beginning
The Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April 1998. This remarkable document – based on political leadership, vision, and compromise – allowed us to break a cycle of violence that continued for 30 years.
It was possible only through ground-breaking leadership from across the traditions of the island, from the Irish and British Governments, from our international partners, from civil society, and from ordinary people, all insisting on a peaceful, democratic future.
In 1969, peaceful campaigners for civil rights in Northern Ireland were met with a hostile response from authorities. This gave rise to widespread civil unrest and violent activity by paramilitary forces from both communities, and a conflict whose legacy is still with us today. This conflict, known as the Troubles, lasted for three decades. Over 3,500 lives were lost and many more injured, with countless lives impacted.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement
From the early 1980s onwards, the Governments of Ireland and Britain deepened their cooperation to achieve a durable political solution that would bring an end to the conflict. In November 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was agreed by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Hillsborough Castle. The Anglo-Irish Agreement formally recognised the right of the Government of Ireland to put forward views and proposals relating to non-devolved matters in Northern Ireland.
This joint approach, underpinned by close working relationships at official and political level, became a hallmark of the moments of greatest progress in the peace process.
Relationships across and between the islands had also been bolstered by shared membership of the European Union, which provided a framework in which relationships could be deepened at all levels – from politicians exchanging ideas in the corridors of Brussels, to businesses across the island finding new ways to work with one another, made possible by our joint access to the Single Market. From 1995, the EU’s PEACE programmes gave a tangible manifestation of the enduring support in the European Union for peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
In 1993, the two Governments issued a Joint Declaration, known as the Downing Street Declaration, which set out a charter for peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
It established the principles of self-determination and consent in relation to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. This meant that it was up to the people of Northern Ireland to decide on its future status and this could not be imposed from the outside. The Declaration also gave those associated with paramilitary violence a route into the political process.
In 1994, following the ceasefires of IRA and Loyalist paramilitary organisations, a critical window of opportunity for further negotiations arose.
These efforts were given vital support by international partners, with the United States in particular playing a unique role as an honest broker. In December 1995, Senator George Mitchell, who had been appointed by President Bill Clinton as a Special Adviser for Economic Initiatives in Ireland the year before, together with former Prime Minister of Finland, Harri Holkeri and General John de Chastelain of Canada, comprised an international body to independently assess the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. This body reported on progress in January 1996.
However, in February 1996, the IRA ended its ceasefire detonating a bomb in London’s docklands area that killed two people and injured many more.
In May 1996, elections to the proposed Northern Ireland forum and all-party negotiations were held across Northern Ireland.
The Multi-Party Talks
Multi-Party talks opened on 10 June 1996. The talks were chaired by Senator Mitchell and involving the Irish and British Governments, and parties elected in Northern Ireland the previous month. Sinn Fein was excluded until 1997, when the IRA announced a further ceasefire.
Included in the negotiations was the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, an all-women, cross-community group who had lobbied to allow representatives of women’s voices to be in included in the peace talks. The NIWC secured two seats at the Multi-Party talks.
External, independent observers were involved in the negotiations to act as neutral arbiters and instil a sense of trust during the process. US President Clinton took a keen interest in the negotiations and helped create momentum towards agreement, including high-profile visits in 1995 and 1998.
For almost two years, these representatives negotiated on the issues obstructing peace in Northern Ireland, seeking compromises on issues where many had diametrically opposing views. In an effort to overcome the political gridlock, Senator George Mitchell set the deadline for agreement of 9 April 1998.
This led to intense negotiations, with party delegations and government officials working round the clock to find common ground. The initial midnight deadline of 9 April was not achieved, but parties and governments, including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, stayed at Stormont Castle until an agreement was reached the following morning.
On the late afternoon of 10 April – Good Friday – and after 700 days of negotiations, it was announced that the Agreement was reached. All parties involved in the talks attended the final plenary session, during which George Mitchell made the formal announcement and concluded the multi-party talks, bringing an end to decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
The adjoining British-Irish Agreement, that would bring the Good Friday Agreement into force, was also signed on 10 April 1998.
While most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland were supportive of the talks process and the Agreement, the Democratic Unionist Party opposed it, and subsequently campaigned against it.
A Vote for Peace
On 22 May 1998, the Agreement was put to the people in two referendums, both North and South of the border.
The people of the island of Ireland, North and South, voted to resoundingly endorse the Good Friday Agreement, with majorities of 71% and 94% voting ‘Yes’ respectively. This overwhelming democratic endorsement of the Agreement guarantees its enduring legitimacy and means the Agreement belongs to the people of this island in a unique way.
The Agreement in Action
The terms of the Agreement included both the aspirational ideals of political partnership as well as the practical vehicles to cooperation, in order to recognise the diverse but equally legitimate aspirations for the future of the island.
The Agreement began with a Declaration of Support, affirming the negotiators’ commitment to the values of partnership, equality, and mutual respect.
"We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by other others for any political purpose.”
– Good Friday Agreement
The first section of the Agreement addresses constitutional issues. The Agreement recognises the complexity of people’s identities, acknowledging the right of the people living in Northern Ireland to identify as “Irish, British, or both”. It affirms the right of the people living on the island of Ireland to determine for themselves the possibility of a united Ireland, committing the UK Secretary of State to hold a poll if it “appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland”.
The Agreement also outlined the “three-stranded approach”, reflecting the totality and mutually-interdependent nature of relationships across these islands involved in the functioning of the Agreement: within Northern Ireland, North-South, and East-West. A number of power-sharing institutions were proposed, each with a specific mandate to maintain peace, and encourage dialogue and co-operation.
The Good Friday Agreement considers other matters relating to the maintenance of peace and stability in Northern Ireland, including the promotion of human rights, the review of policing and justice arrangements, the decommissioning process, and acknowledging the legacy of the past.
Directly after the approval of the Agreement, work began to ensure the total and verifiable decommissioning of all paramilitary groups. The current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, and former President of Finland, Martti Ahtissari, performed the critical task of monitoring the disarmament efforts of the paramilitary organisations, a crucial step in fostering confidence in the Agreement.
The Strands of the Good Friday Agreement
There are three strands of relationships central to the Good Friday Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement Today
The Good Friday Agreement transformed what we thought was possible and what we could hope for in the future. It transformed relationships at every level across these islands.
Significant progress on peace and reconciliation has been made in the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Stormont Castle. Today, an entire generation on the island of Ireland has lived out of the shadow of violence as a result of the Agreement.
The last 25 years have had their challenges. They have seen failure as well as success. At each moment of difficulty, the only viable solution has always been to come together once again to find an agreed way forward and return to the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement. Our shared commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of addressing these challenges remains.
Since the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, it has been necessary to pursue a series of successive further political and legal agreements to consolidate the peace settlement provided for in the GFA, including the Saint Andrews Agreement (2006), the Hillsborough Agreement (2010), the Stormont House Agreement (2014), the Fresh Start Agreement (2015), and New Decade New Approach (2020).
The impact of the Troubles and legacy of violence can still be felt today, and much work remains in order to truly fulfil the vision and values of the Agreement. The Government of Ireland is committed to implementing the Agreement in its totality to ensure that all communities and traditions can fully reap the benefits of peace.
Northern Ireland has changed profoundly in the 25 years since the Agreement was signed, but the appetite for a peaceful, prosperous future has not. The Good Friday Agreement remains the foundation for a hopeful future as we look to what the current generation of young leaders and peacebuilders will achieve in the next 25 years.
“We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicated ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”
- Good Friday Agreement, 1998