Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement: On the Way to Peace or Conflict Perpetuated?

Essay, 2004

30 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)




The Parties and their Demands
1. The Unionists
2. The Nationalists
3. The UK and the Irish Governments

The Good Friday Agreement
1. The Northern Ireland Assembly
2. The Power-Sharing Executive
3. The North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council

Theoretical Perspective

Transition, Solution or Failure?




Six years after the Good Friday Agreement[1] was signed and after a promising, although troubled start of the institutional framework it has put in place, Northern Ireland is, following the suspension of devolution on 14 October 2002, yet again under direct rule from Westminster. Centuries of conflict, decades of violent troubles and diametrically opposed demands of the groups involved make the Northern Ireland question to one of the most difficult conflicts of our time. Nevertheless, the Agreement reached in 1998 was “hailed as a blueprint for political compromise, peace and stability.”[2] There was genuine optimism both among the parties involved and the international community that the Agreement would succeed and resolve the conflict.

However, in the political reality of Northern Ireland, the Agreement soon reached its limits, and people realised that it takes more than an assembly and a power-sharing executive to overcome Ulster’s deep rooted sectarian divisions. Internal disagreement in the unionist and nationalist camps over the direction the Agreement is likely to take them and the still unresolved question of IRA weapons decommissioning leave the future of the Agreement in serious doubt.

The aim of this paper firstly is to analyse how the Agreement addresses the demands of the groups involved and whether the institutional framework it proposes is a suitable mechanism to regulate the conflict in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it seems appropriate to begin this paper with a brief overview of the parties to the conflict and their demands. The second chapter will then deal with the Agreement in more detail and take a close look at how the Northern Ireland Assembly, the power-sharing Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council work and how these institutions are designed to meet the groups’ demands.

The Agreement has been widely acknowledged as being consociational and consistent with the four principles of power-sharing identified by Lijphart. This paper will thus, secondly, discuss the theoretical foundation of the Agreement in the third chapter. Here, it will particularly focus on the role of the voting system (Single Transferable Vote) employed for the Assembly elections, which is unusual for consociational models.

In chapter four, this paper will identify the advantages and disadvantages consociationalism might have for Northern Ireland as well as examine possible alternatives. In particular, it will be argued that “politics in Ulster is a much more ‘bottom up’ affair than in Great Britain or many other parts of Western Europe”[3] and the consociational approach, due to the inherent focus on elite-rule, might not be successful here. Furthermore, the Agreement can be criticised for institutionalising difference rather than promoting a discourse of equality[4] and thus merely regulating the conflict rather than solving it. A viable alternative to the consociational model thus could be the social transformational approach, as put forward by Taylor.[5]

The final chapter will conclude that the Agreement is undeniably a major breakthrough as it brought the parties “toward a negotiated rather than a violent mode of operation.”[6] Indeed, if one believes that the Agreement was all about “keeping bombs out of London”[7], one must conclude that the Agreement reached its goal, as IRA violence has certainly decreased[8]. Even if the Agreement itself does not solve the conflict, by creating a prolonged period of peace in which political dialogue can take place, it could be a vital step towards a future settlement. But is the current situation in Northern Ireland really a transitional period likely to lead to a solution of the conflict in the future or is it what Trimble calls the ‘continuation of war by other means’?

The Agreement was certainly not an overall failure as it has managed to bring parties together in political institutions which have refused to sit together in the same room for decades. But its limitations must also be clear: the war might be over but the conflict is far from ended. Since the Agreement has failed to address the underlying issues of the conflict and merely regulates violence, it cannot be regarded as a permanent and sustainable solution.

The Parties and their Demands

The conflict in Northern Ireland is one caused by incompatible conceptions of national belonging and the means to realize them.[9]

Clearly, this is a very simplified conception of the conflict, yet it underlines the importance to discuss the identities and demands of the groups involved, before being able to analyse the appropriateness of any peace deal.

The largely Protestant unionists […] seek the permanent union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The predominantly Catholic nationalists aim for the irrevocable unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.[10]

Essentially, the opposing groups in Northern Ireland are the Catholic minority, which makes up around 40% of the Northern Ireland population, and the Protestant majority, which constitutes 46%.[11] While most Protestants are unionists and seek to safeguard the status quo as Northern Ireland being part of Great Britain, Catholics are, against common perception, not homogenously nationalist and only about 70% would like to see Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland united.[12]

Whereas, among the unionists a relatively small group of loyalists can be identified as political radicals and supporters of violence, republicans, typically associated with the IRA, are the violent minority in the nationalist camp.

However, it should be noted that the nationalist and unionist identities are artificially created and essentially have no objective basis. Hence, the sad irony is that the people of Northern Ireland perhaps share an identity distinct from the British and the Irish but seem to be unable to realise their communalities.

One model of the Northern Ireland Conflict is of two opposed groups each looking for outside support, the nationalists to Dublin and the unionists to London, but having more in common with each other, perversely, than either has with its outside sponsor.[13]

1. The Unionists

The largest unionist political party is the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). When it was founded in 1905 its main objective was to protect British identity, heritage and way of life against the threat the British Home Rule Act[14] posed against the union.

The UUP is represented in the Westminster Parliament as well as in the European Parliament, in the 1998 elections it won the largest share of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly and held the First Minister position with David Trimble.

Although the UUP is the more moderate party among the two unionist parties, it refused to negotiate with Sinn Féin and opposed any involvement of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland affairs. Indeed, with regard to the minority in Northern Ireland, the UUP’s traditional position was that one “cannot expect the Irish minority in Northern Ireland to be equal to the majority. They are going to continue to be a minority […] They cannot expect to have an equal role with the majority.”[15]

Only “in the interest of peace and under political pressure from the Blair government and the Clinton administration”[16] and perhaps it realised that this was the only way to secure a power-position in Northern Ireland, the UUP changed its position, signed the Agreement and formed a power-sharing government.

However, the UUP still mistrusts Sinn Féin, which is evident in the question of IRA weapons decommissioning. David Trimble has threatened to resign as First Minister for several times in order to coerce the IRA to show significant progress in this matter, yet it is obvious that he has achieved quite the opposite as he “has backed himself into a corner and the IRA holds the key to the door.”[17]

From within the unionist camp, the UUP’s strongest opponent is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which was in fact founded “as a reaction to what its members saw as a move towards ‘liberalism and treachery’ by the official Ulster Unionist Party.”[18] Led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, the DUP stands for radical and hard-line unionist interest and ideas and opposes any cross boarder cooperation with the Republic of Ireland, attempts to reform the police and indeed the whole Good Friday Agreement, for it believes it will eventually lead to the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland and represents an attack on Protestants’ rights.

The DUP not only refuses to talk to Sinn Féin politicians but also to even sit together with them in the same room, which aggravates the work of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Electoral support for the DUP grew considerably in the 2003 elections. The DUP increased its share of seats in the (suspended) Assembly by ten and would now be the largest party.[19]

2. The Nationalists

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is the main political party in the nationalist bloc. Astonishingly, it is the only party in the conflict that has not changed its principles since it was founded in the 1970s.

The SDLP strongly opposes violence and promotes a democratic, constitutional but above all peaceful settlement of the conflict. Although its main objective is to achieve equal rights and status for the Catholic community in every area of life (i.e. housing, employment, etc.) the SDLP seeks to establish social justice and equal opportunities for all people of Northern Ireland. The long-term objective of the SDLP certainly is a united Ireland, but until a majority of the people in Northern Ireland decides otherwise, the SDLP wants the current constitutional status of Northern Ireland upheld, which is the reason why the SDLP is heavily criticised by radical republicans.

A major strategy of the SDLP was to wean republicans away from violence and towards a ‘battle at the ballot-box’. Therefore, the former SDLP leader John Hume initiated talks with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams in the mid 1980s, which are widely acknowledged as the foundation of the 1998 Agreement and reflect the SDLP’s emphasis on “’mutual respect’ in cultural diversity”[20].

Radical republicanism is represented politically by Sinn Féin[21], which is closely associated with the IRA. In the past, its policy was maximalist as it aimed to end the partition of Ireland, which it regards as unlawful, to end the British rule of Northern Ireland and the release of all political prisoners.


[1] Officially known as the ‘Belfast Agreement’, henceforth: the Agreement

[2] James Dingley, “Peace in Our Times? The Stresses and Strains on the Northern Ireland Peace Process”, in: Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 25, No. 6, November 2002, pp. 357-382, p.358

[3] Dingley, op.cit., p.366

[4] Katy Hayward and Claire Mitchell, “Discourses of equality in post-Agreement Northern Ireland”, in: Contemporary Politics, Vol. 9, No. 3, September 2003, pp. 293-312

[5] Rupert Taylor, “Northern Ireland: Consociation or Social Transformation?”, in: John McGarry (ed.), Northern Ireland and the Divided World: The Northern Ireland Conflict and the Good Friday Agreement in Comparative Perspective, OUP, Oxford, 2001, pp.37-52

[6] Benjamin Gidron, Stanley N. Katz and Yeheskel Hasenfeld (eds.), Mobilizing for Peace: Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and South Africa, OUP, Oxford, 2002, p.vii

[7] Sir Jo Cunningham, former President of the Ulster Unionist Council, as quoted in: Dingley, op.cit., p.375

[8] However, soon after the Agreement was signed, the Omagh bombing of 15 August 1998, which left 29 dead, took place. Yet, it was the last major terrorist act after the agreement was signed.

[9] Stefan Wolff, “The Road to Peace? The Good Friday Agreement and the Conflict in Northern Ireland”, in: World Affairs, Vol. 163, No. 4, Spring 2001, pp. 163-170, p.163

[10] Jonathan Stevenson, “Irreversible Peace in Northern Ireland?”, in: Survival, Vol. 42, No. 3, Autumn 2000, pp. 5-26, p.5

[11] Figures according to the 2001 census, the remainder to 100% are persons with no religion or no religion stated, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Northern Ireland Census 2001: Key Statistics (table KS07a: Religion), 26 November 2002, <>, (30 March 2004)

[12] Dingley, op.cit.

[13] Senator Maurice Hayes, “Neither Orange Marches nor Irish Jig: Finding Compromise in Northern Ireland”, in: Marianne Elliott (ed.), The Long Road to Peace in Northern Ireland Peace: Lectures from the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2002, pp.92-104, p.94

[14] In the early 20th century, the British government proposed the division of the Irish island into what is today known as Northern Ireland (consisting of the six Ulster counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone) and South Ireland, both governed by its own parliaments. The South Ireland parliament never really worked and in 1921 the Irish Free State was declared.

[15] John Taylor, deputy leader of the UUP, as quoted in: Hayward and Mitchell, op.cit., p.298

[16] Dominic Beggan and Rathnam Indurthy, “Explaining Why the Good Friday Accord is Likely to Bring Lasting Peace in Northern Ireland”, in: Peace and Change, Vol. 27, No. 3, July 2002, pp. 331-356, p.344

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid., p.345

[19] Hayward and Mitchell, op.cit., p.306

[20] Hayward and Mitchell, op.cit., p.297

[21] Translated literally from Irish Gaelic ‘Sinn Féin’ means ‘We Ourselves’

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement: On the Way to Peace or Conflict Perpetuated?
University of Kent  (Brussels School of International Studies)
2+ (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Northern, Ireland, Good, Friday, Agreement, Peace, Conflict, Perpetuated
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Patrick Wagner (Author), 2004, Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement: On the Way to Peace or Conflict Perpetuated?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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