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The 25th Anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement: Work in Progress

April 14, 2023 - Etain Tannam, Associate Professor in International Peace Studies, School of Religion, Theology and Peace Studies, discusses the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland and reflects on the recent events to mark the anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement culminating in President Joe Biden's visit to Ireland this week.

It is work in progress and there is no doubt that mistakes were made along the way. However, learning from those mistakes allows for progress.
Professor Etain Tannam

The 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement occurred on April 10th, but was marked also on April 7th- Good Friday. It was a very special week on the island. Here in Trinity, four key figures in the Agreement’s negotiations – Martin Mansergh, Monica McWilliams, Jonathon Powell and Nancy Soderbergh  - were awarded honorary doctorates in a very moving Commencement ceremony, beautifully hosted by the Chancellor of Trinity and former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and the Provost Linda Doyle. On March 30th in the run-up to the anniversary, the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and the School of Religion, Theology, and Peace Studies hosted the British Ambassador to Ireland for a panel discussion with students and parliamentarians from the  Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the House of Commons and the Oireachtas Good Friday Agreement Implementation Committee.


But of course the big celebration of the 1998 Agreement was US President Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland and Ireland. The celebrations and carefully tuned speeches allowed us all to reflect on the Agreement’s great achievement of peace, but also on the gaps that still need to be filled.


However, the need to build reconciliation was highlighted by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin in a welcome speech to President Biden in Dundalk. Brexit and unionists’ concerns about the Northern Ireland protocol have severely dented trust and tarnished celebrations. Many unionists are disillusioned with the Agreement believing it has not protected their interests, particularly because many perceived the Protocol to erode Northern Ireland’s status in the UK. In addition, the Alliance Party that self-designates as neither unionist nor nationalist has called for the Agreement’s revision. Under the Agreement, the Alliance Party as a non-nationalist or unionist party has limited influence. The Agreement’s model means that only a nationalist and unionist party representative can be First and Deputy First Minister. It also provides a petition of concern to nationalist and unionist parties if 30 members of the devolved Assembly object to a policy proposal. For the Alliance and others these rules lead to frequent collapses of the Agreement’s institutions.


The most recent collapse (in 2022) was by the DUP in protest at the Protocol and its revised version the Windsor Framework. It has cast a shadow on the 25th anniversary of the Agreement and President Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland. Unlike the President’s memorable speech to the Oireachtas in Dublin, he did not speak to the Assembly in Stormont because it was not sitting, instead speaking at the new University of Ulster campus in Belfast. The Windsor Framework was approved in Westminster by an overwhelming majority, so it is hoped the DUP will re-enter the institutions after local elections in May, as the Framework is a fait accompli.


However, despite the institutions’ collapse, the 25th anniversary of the Agreement brought home how different life was in Northern Ireland twenty-five years ago and how much has been achieved. Is it perfect? No. It is work in progress and there is no doubt that mistakes were made along the way. However, learning from those mistakes allows for progress. The current Irish government has frequently referred to the need to implement all three strands of the Agreement robustly and the 2020 Programme for Government sets out that aim. The Agreement’s institutions offer the best means of resolving differences and providing stability. In particular British-Irish intergovernmental cooperation under Strand Three is essential for the Agreement’s survival and for stability in Northern Ireland and on the island.

Rishi Sunak’s leadership of the Tory government has improved British-Irish relations and trust appears to have improved. In addition, the promise of significant US investment by President Biden this week, the likelihood of increased prosperity under the Windsor Framework (which gives Northern Ireland access to British and EU markets) and the robust implementation of all three strands of the Agreement should make for more expansive celebrations in Northern Ireland in future years. In the meantime the Agreement is celebrated for its most important achievement of all - peace. 



Etain Tannam (BA, Trinity College Dublin, MA University of Essex, PhD, LSE) is Associate Professor in International Peace Studies and fellow, Trinity College Dublin. Her main area of expertise is Irish/Northern cross-border cooperation and British-Irish intergovernmental/diplomatic cooperation, with emphasis on Brexit's impact. She is a member of the ARINS Steering Committee. She recently wrote in the Irish Times about the Windsor Framework.

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