The Good Friday Agreement

To mark Good Friday, here’s a piece on the build-up to the Belfast Agreement, better known as the Good Friday Agreement after the day it was concluded.


Events that took place over a long period before 1994 had prepared the ground for the IRA ceasefire. Among these were:

  • a realisation that the military conflict between the IRA and the security forces has reached a stalemate situation
  • the successes of Sinn Féin as a result of the dual paramilitary and political strategy
  • the British government making reassuring statements in public about Britain having “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland” (N.I. Secretary Peter Brooke in November 1990, quoted by de Bréadún, p. 6); in addition, the two sides had been having secret talks through intermediaries over a number of years
  • inofficial talks between SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Adams since 1988. Hume’s long-term strategy was to convince Republicans they could only achieve their aims through political activity. He was heavily criticised at the time for talking to terrorists.

The Downing Street Declaration (15 December 1993)

In response to the Hume-Adams talks, new Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and new Prime Minister John Major issued a joint declaration. Its main points were:

  • both governments disclaimed any selfish interest in Northern Ireland, making themselves instead “persuaders for agreement between the people of Ireland”
  • Northern Ireland was therefore to decide its own future
  • talks between representatives of various groups on future peace in Northern Ireland were promised to all parties if they renounced violence.

The declaration set a pattern for the ambiguous language that was typical of later agreements: on the one hand, it restated the principles agreed in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and on the other, it could be read as a British willingness to be persuaded to withdraw from Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin asked for “clarification”. This was rejected by Major.

The Ceasefires

The IRA declared “a complete cessation of military operations” on 4th August 1994 and were followed six weeks later by a ceasefire declaration from the Combined Loyalist Military Command (an umbrella name for the UDA, UVF and UFF). Unionists refused to negotiate unless they were given confirmation that “complete” meant “permanent”. They and the British government demanded ‘decommissioning’ (the act of handing over weapons) as a proof of the IRA’s peaceful intentions.

End of the IRA Ceasefire

“They haven’t gone away, you know”:
Gerry Adams’s reply to a heckler shouting “Bring back the IRA” during a speech in Belfast. (13 August 1995)

Although talks had been promised, they were not forthcoming, as the various parties argued over whether to negotiate at all, and if so, whether the representatives of terrorist groups should be allowed to participate, especially since low-level paramilitary activity, such as so-called ‘punishment beatings’, continued. Losing patience, on 9th February 1996 the IRA detonated a huge bomb in the centre of London, killing two, injuring 60, and causing £85 million in damage (figures quoted in de Bréadún, p. 16).

The governments announced that elections to talks would be held in May. (Cynics commented that one bomb had achieved more than over a year of ceasefire.) A complex process of directly elected and ‘top-up’ seats was used to allocate seats. It allowed the minority loyalist parties the PUP and the UDP to squeeze in at the last moment, even though they had not won any of the directly elected seats.

Party Votes Percentage Seats Won
UUP 181,829 24.17 28 + 2 = 30
SDLP 160,786 21.36 19 + 2 = 21
DUP 141,413 18.80 22 + 2 = 24
Sinn Féin 116,377 15.47 15 + 2 = 17
Alliance 49,176 6.54 5 + 2 = 7
UKUP 27,774 3.69 1 + 2 = 3
PUP 26,082 3.47 0 + 2 = 2
UDP 16,715 2.22 0 + 2 = 2
Women’s Coalition 7,731 1.03 0 + 2 = 2
Labour 6,425 0.85 0 + 2 = 2

Table 1: Results for the elections to the Talks Forum, 30 May 1996, excluding those parties that got no seats. (Source:

Sinn Féin were excluded; the UDP and PUP were allowed to take part as the loyalist paramilitaries were still (officially at least) on ceasefire.

Second IRA Ceasefire

In May 1997 a general election saw a New Labour government take power with an overwhelming majority. This was significant because the Major government had relied on the votes of Unionist MPs to stay in power, and had lost the trust of republicans. Moreover, the Labour Party had traditionally been more sympathetic towards Irish Nationalism. New PM Tony Blair made Northern Ireland one of his top priorities.

Sinn Féin were invited to talks on condition that a six-week ceasefire had been observed. On 20 July 1997 the IRA announced a second ceasefire. The DUP and the UKUP walked out in protest at the Sinn Féin delegates being allowed to join in the negotiations. The UUP, under its new leader David Trimble, agree to remain but refused to be in the same room as Sinn Féin. (Mathematically, the UUP only needed to reach agreement with the SDLP and one of the minority loyalist parties to have the necessary cross-community support.)

In the meantime, attacks and killings continued, carried out by the LVF, the INLA and the new Continuity IRA, splinter groups on each side who were opposed to any compromise. During the course of the talks both Sinn Féin and the UDP were briefly expelled after the IRA and the UFF breached their ceasefires.

The Good Friday Agreement

The issue of decommissioning continued to be a problem. It was agreed therefore to “de-couple” it from the talks, that is to say, to deal with it in parallel but separately. Furthermore, it was agreed that decommissioning could take place alongside or even after negotiations, rather than as a prerequisite.

The talks were split further into three areas:

  • Strand 1 on a new governmental system within Northern Ireland
  • Strand 2 on North-South relations
  • Strand 3 on East-West relations, i.e. between the governments of Ireland and Great Britain

The talks dragged on slowly. In fact, much of the agreement was formulated by the civil servants of the British and Irish governments, who met with each of the parties, listened to their viewpoints and positions, and tried to create a synthesis. To concentrate minds, in early 1998 chairman George Mitchell moved the deadline forward: final agreement by 9th April, the day before the Easter holiday.

It was a bad-tempered and stressful last few weeks, with both unionists and republicans at times being close to walking out. It culminated in a mammoth 33-hour-long negotiating session. Tony Blair flew over to try to persuade the doubters; President Clinton phoned up participants to add his support. At the last minute it looked as though the UUP would reject the deal as too ‘green’. Finally, on 10th April 1998, 17 hours after the deadline, the parties reached final agreement, although several members of Trimble’s party refused to support their leader’s decision.

“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 others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.” (Section 4 of the Agreement)

The main points of the Belfast (or, as it came to be known, Good Friday) Agreement were as follows:

  1. Ireland shall not be one united country without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland
  2. The people of Northern Ireland have the right to call themselves either Irish or British
  3. A multi-party assembly will be elected to govern the community.
  4. A north/south council be set up to consider areas of mutual interest
  5. An Anglo-Irish council be set up to consider areas of mutual interest
  6. All people shall have basic human rights, civil rights and equality
  7. Linguistic diversity to be recognised — Irish to be taught in all schools
  8. Paramilitary groups to be decommissioned within two years
  9. A gradual reduction in the number of security forces deployed in Northern Ireland
  10. To work towards having an unarmed police force
  11. Political prisoners to be released providing the ceasefire is maintained
Good Friday Agreement published text

The published version of the Agreement. A copy was sent to every household in Northern Ireland. Photo source:

Both sides had had to swallow some unpalatable concessions: the unionists had to accept the cross-border bodies, Sinn Féin in government before decommissioning, and the early release of convicted IRA prisoners, while the republicans had effectively recognised the right of the unionists to veto a united Ireland. Moreover, they were expected to “use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms” (Agreement, section 7.3.) and to support the successor to the RUC. Many of the more controversial issues had been (like decommissioning) postponed; in a way, the parties’ attitude was that there had been ‘enough’ agreement for the time being. The lack of clarity in the ‘small print’ of the Agreement was both a strength and a weakness: it allowed each signatory party to interpret it the way they wanted, while opponents of the Agreement could read their worst fears into it.

Reactions and Referenda

“a significant development”: official PIRA reaction to the Good Friday Agreement, 30th April 1998. (Quoted by de Bréadún, p. 154)

Attitudes to the Agreement varied widely: the UUP was split over the issue, with several senior party members refusing to support it. The DUP and the UKUP called Trimble a traitor to unionism. Extreme Republicans and a small number of ex-Sinn Féin activists condemned it as a sell-out and a return to the Stormont era. For the Agreement to take effect, ‘yes’-votes were needed in referenda north and south of the border. In Northern Ireland people voted on the question: “Do you support the Agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?” 71.1% voted Yes, 28.9% No on a high turnout (81.1%). In the Republic, voters were asked to agree to the unionist demand that Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution be altered. This passed with an overwhelming majority (94.4% in favor). (Source in both cases: Analysis of the Northern Irish results suggested that while a majority of nationalists voted Yes, unionists were divided.


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British and Irish Governments. “The Downing Street Declaration.” Online, 1993.

de Bréadún, Deaglán. The Far Side of Revenge. Wilton, Cork: Collins Press, 2008, new updated ed.

Mulholland, Marc. Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. OUP, 2003.

O’Brien, Brendan. The Long War. Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1999, 2nd ed.

‘O’Neill, P.’. “Irish Republican Army Ceasefire Statement.” Online, 1994.

Rawnsley, Andrew. Servants of the People. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000, 1. publ. ed.

Rowan, Brian. How the Peace was Won. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2008.

Various. “The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement text.” online, 1998.

Whyte, Nicholas. “Northern Ireland Elections.” Online, 2011.

The Good Friday Agreement by