BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — It has been 25 years since the striking of the Good Friday Agreement, the landmark peace accord that ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland, a period known as “the Troubles.”
The anniversary is being marked with celebration that peace has endured, but concern about entrenched divisions and political instability. And the specter of violence has not wholly disappeared – last month U.K. intelligence services raised the terrorism threat level for Northern Ireland from “substantial” to “severe.”
Here’s a look at the accord and how it came about:
WHAT WERE THE TROUBLES?
When Ireland, long dominated by its bigger neighbor Britain, became a self-governing Roman Catholic-majority country a century ago, a six-county region in the north with a Protestant majority remained part of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland was split between two main communities: nationalists — most of them Catholic — who desired union with the rest of Ireland, and largely Protestant unionists, who wanted to stay British.
The Catholic minority experienced discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas in the Protestant-dominated state. In the 1960s, a Catholic civil rights movement demanded change, but faced a harsh response from the government and police.
The situation deteriorated into a conflict involving Irish republican militants, loyalist paramilitaries and U.K. troops. Bombings and shootings killed some 3,600 people, mostly in Northern Ireland, though republicans also set off bombs in mainland Britain.
WHAT LED TO THE PEACE DEAL?
By the early 1990s, the armed conflict had reached “a hurting stalemate,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queens University Belfast. “There was a recognition on the part of the British government and army, and on the Irish republican side as well, that there was never going to be an outright victory.”
The Irish Republican Army called a cease-fire in 1994, allowing its allied party, Sinn Fein, to join other nationalist and unionist parties in peace talks co-sponsored by the British and Irish governments. The United States played a key role — former Sen. George Mitchell chaired the talks, spending 22 months in Belfast overseeing the delicate multi-party negotiations.
The talks came close to collapse several times. But after a marathon weeklong negotiating session that stretched long past deadline, agreement was reached on April 10, 1998 — Good Friday. British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the agreement, saying: “Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders.”
The following month, the agreement was ratified by voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
WHAT’S IN THE AGREEMENT?
The agreement gave formal recognition to Northern Ireland’s multiple identities, allowing residents to identify as British, Irish or both.
It ended direct U.K. rule and set up a Northern Ireland legislature and government with power shared between unionist and nationalist parties. The agreement affirmed Northern Ireland as part of the U.K. but set out that it could in future unite with Ireland if a majority in both the north and the republic supported the move.
After some hiccups, militant groups agreed to disarm, and paramilitary prisoners jailed for taking part of the violence were freed — something that remains a sore point with victims and bereaved families.
The British military withdrew and dismantled its bases and border checkpoints. People and goods could flow freely across the all-but-invisible border between Northern Ireland and the republic.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION NOW?
Four months after the agreement, IRA dissidents planted a car bomb that killed 29 people in the town of Omagh, the deadliest single attack in Northern Ireland.
But despite sporadic attacks since then by small splinter groups, peace has held.
Niall Ó Dochartaigh, professor of political science at the University of Galway, said that despite the Good Friday Agreement’s failings, “it has been hugely successful in bringing to an end the large-scale organized violence that took place for more than a quarter of a century.”
“The peace process side of it worked very well, and those who wanted to destroy the agreement and start a conflict again have very little purchase,” he said. “But the constitutional side, the new institutions, have not worked as well.”
The power-sharing government has collapsed several times, most recently a year ago when the main unionist party walked out to protest a post-Brexit trade agreement with the European Union. The Belfast government remains suspended.
Tensions remain between the two main communities, with fortified “peace walls” separating some nationalist and unionist neighborhoods. But a growing number of people identify as neither unionist nor nationalist, and support is growing for the non-sectarian Alliance party. Northern Ireland’s short-term governance and long-term future are both unresolved.
Ó Dochartaigh said all the political instability “hasn’t threatened the foundations of peace, yet.”
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