April 10th, 2021 marked 23 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of armed fighting during the Troubles. The deal was brokered through cooperation and expectations set by the Republic of Ireland and the UK with much help from the international community. While an imperfect deal, it ensured the new generation of Northern Ireland would not experience the same fate of violence and strict secular divides endured by those before them. While most armed revolt has died down, summers are marked by heightened tensions amongst Ulsters and Republicans as the warmer weather almost inevitably coincides with a new wave of violence.
Increasing reasons for exasperation
Following the enactment of the GFA, it was expected much of the secularism would dissipate and the way would be paved for the coming generations to grow up in cities like Belfast and Londonderry (Derry to Republicans). However, the walls separating Catholics from Protestants remain, and in many cases, so do the resentments amongst hardliners on both sides of the conflict.
Many in the younger generations have sought political representation outside of the stark divide, instead picking a party such as The Alliance who represent a desire to shift away from the past and create policy based on more European ideals, such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. The Alliance party has been taking voters from DUP and Sinn Fein as the population has sought more neutral representation, though the DUP and Sinn Fein still wield power at Stormont.
The politics of Stormont have been nothing short of rocky throughout the late 2010s as the executive was suspended from 2017 to early 2020, based on a disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein. This stalemate also potentially harmed Northern Ireland’s participation in the Brexit talks. The GFA stated that the assembly would have a say in any policy-making regarding the EU, but the decisions were made predominantly by UK representatives and the EU.
Brexit has ultimately exasperated the region’s stability that had been built upon a peace agreement that was not an insurance of change, but a series of small fixes that kept the bubbling tensions at bay. Social inclusion has not been completely reached, and the use of the peace walls remains in effect with the opening and closing of the gates along Falls and Shankill Road every night at curfew in Belfast.
From an international perspective, it has also been assumed that the decommissioning of weapons by organizations like the IRA was a requisite of peace, but an MI5 report showed all five of the main terrorist groups, both Ulster and Republican, still held weapons in 2015. Today, breakoff organizations like the PIRA and the RHC still continue to recruit. The concern, however, has shifted to smaller cells as roughly 15 to 40 terrorist attacks a year have taken place since 2000.
A volatile situation
Continued violence and security threats are of particular concern on this year’s GFA anniversary as Northern Ireland has been highlighted in the international media for intense unrest and rioting in recent weeks.
Ulster loyalists have taken to the streets with petrol bombs, bricks, fireworks, and other weapons. Sadly, many of the rioters are not even over the age of 18 and are being urged on by older paramilitary members and bosses. The current uptick in violence stems from a population that is very unhappy with the reality of a hard Brexit. The Irish Sea border and the subsequent difficulties in shipping and trade experienced since earlier this year have created an environment rife with detestation of current political shifts.
Along with the loyalists feeling betrayed by Boris Johnson’s Irish Sea border, which effectively separates Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain, the pandemic has created issues of its own. There is also talk that much of the anger stems from the March 30th ruling not to bring charges against Republicans, including Sinn Fein leadership, after nearly 2,000 persons broke the coronavirus protocol and attended an IRA funeral, many maskless, in June 2020. This led Unionists to call for the Chief of Police to resign from his post.
In addition to the prosecutor’s decision and the Northern Ireland Protocol, in March, a group called The Loyalist Communities Council that represents the UVF, UDA, and Red Hand Commando paramilitary groups, wrote Boris Johnson to withdraw their support for the Good Friday Agreement.
In no other moment has the future of the deal seemed quite as bleak as on this year’s anniversary. Questions of the ultimate dealings of Brexit were largely surrounded by fears of its aftermath in Northern Ireland, and the hard deal executed under the current government is proving to play out in menacing fashion.
Catherine McQueeny is a Master’s student at the department of Political Science and International Relations of Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: C. McQueeny (2021), “A Bleak Future for the Good Friday Agreement?”. https://crisesobservatory.es/a-bleak-future-for-the-good-friday-agreement-c-mcqueeny/
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