Northern Ireland at Peace – 19 years on from the Belfast Agreement
By Srimal Fernando Global Editor, The Diplomatic Society
Nineteen years ago on 10 April 1998, after years of determined negotiations, in the early hours of Friday morning United States special Envoy for Northern Ireland, Senator George Mitchell said, “I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland have reached agreement”.
Photograph: David Trimble and John Hume display their Nobel Peace Prize medallions and certificates
The Belfast Agreement of 1998, commonly referred as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which ended the three decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, laid the foundations for a workable framework committing to a multi-party power-sharing assembly.
Elections are of utmost importance in any democratic country and give the power to the people and enable them to choose their leaders. The first Northern Ireland Assembly election of 1998 marked a historic milestone with over 1.5 million voters choosing to elect 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA).
In 1998 major parties such as the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Social Democratic and Labour Party (SLDP) and Sinn Féin, made significant gains in the Assembly elections. The 1998 Assembly election saw a high voter turnout with more than 68 percent of voters peacefully submitting their ballots. Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) party led by David Trimble won 28 assembly seats, while Gerry Adam’s Sinn Féin party won 18 seats in the 1998 elections (The Election Office of Northern Ireland 1973 -2001).
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize jointly to David Trimble, the leader of Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP ) and to John Hume the Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SLDP) for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
David Trimble Protestant leader of the Ulster Unionist Party became the First Minister of the new assembly in 1998. Nineteen years later the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won 28 assembly seats and Sinn Féin won 27 seats in the Assembly election of 2017 (The Election Office of Northern Ireland 2017).
Compared to previous assembly elections the Sinn Féin vote share increased in the past two decades. Looking back into the history, former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness was Sinn Féin's chief negotiator who played a vital role in leading the Republican movement away from violence and in securing an Irish Republican Army( IRA) arms decommissioning in 2005.
“I grew up watching and hearing about the Martin McGuinness who was a leading member of the IRA engaged in armed struggle. I came to know the Martin McGuinness who set aside that armed struggle in favour of making peace,” said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair following the death of McGuiness.
Although there are many challenges there are many lessons that one might learn from the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Analysing the negotiation and implementation and the lessons drawn from the Northern Ireland agreement brought peace, stability and stopped bloodshed in the region.
In fact in the case of Northern Island “one island, one state” solution was one of ways the decades-old conflict could be resolved and to achieve lasting peace. In this type of circumstance decision to hold a referendum in order to ratify the Good Friday Agreement to understand the different perception of the general population was important before implementing the agreed frame work.
In practice, third party mediation among the political actors and stakeholders of the conflict contributed to wider peace-building efforts in the Northern Ireland’s peace process. In fact the Good Friday Agreement approach helped to ensure devolve powers to re-establish some sense of normalcy and began to develop a sense of identity belonging to Northern Irish society.
In addition at the same time the power sharing framework in the Northern Ireland agreement brought together rival groups together on different issues receiving support to enable them to play a more effective role for them to commit for long term peace and stability of Northern Ireland.
Nineteen years ago the Political stake holders of North Ireland made the right choices to create a positive environment to impact on the peace process. In just a few years, after the Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland has made giant steps on the path towards national reconciliation, lasting peace and maintaining stability.