This work involves sustained contact with the Northern IrelandExecutive, the British Government, with the political parties, withall sections of society in Northern Ireland and with a range ofinternational partners. These collective efforts, which are stillongoing, have transformed the social, political and economiclandscape of Northern Ireland, particularly in the years since theGood Friday Agreement (see below) was signed in 1998.
Northern Ireland is now a far more peaceful, prosperous and stablesociety than when the first steps towards peace were taken in the1980s and 1990s. Many advances have been made in deliveringprogress in areas such as equality, human rights, policing andcommunity relations. In recognition of the potential forNorth/South synergies, all-island co-operation has intensified.East/West relations have also been enhanced.
Restoration of the power-sharing institutions established under theGood Friday Agreement on 8 May 2007 represented a critical stepforward, not only in creating effective government for NorthernIreland, but in seeking to build a common future for all itspeople.
The existing political division in Ireland dates from the passingof the Government of Ireland Act 1920 by the BritishGovernment. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921 andafter centuries of British rule, 26 of the 32 counties of Irelandgained independence. The remaining 6 counties formed NorthernIreland, which continued to be governed within the UnitedKingdom.
However, while the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminstercontinued to exercise sovereignty, power on a variety of matterswas devolved to a local Parliament and Government establishedinitially in Belfast City Hall in 1921 and later moved to theparliament building in Stormont in 1932.
From 1921 to 1972, although Northern Ireland elected members to theWestminster parliament, the devolved Government in Belfast operatedwith virtual autonomy from London on local matters. Powerremained exclusively in the hands of the Unionist party which drewits support from the majority community in the area which favouredunion with Britain. Nationalists had in practice no role ingovernment and they suffered discrimination at local level in manyareas, including voting rights, housing and employment.
In 1969 non-violent campaigners for civil rights met with a hostileand repressive response from the Stormont authorities, ushering ina period of sustained political crisis. This gave rise tocivil unrest and the revival of violent activity by paramilitaryorganisations representing elements within both communities.
In a deteriorating security situation the local Northern IrelandParliament and Government were prorogued in 1972 and the BritishGovernment assumed direct responsibility for all aspects of thegovernment of Northern Ireland. With the exception of onebrief period in 1974 when a local executive was established on apower-sharing basis under the Sunningdale Agreement, NorthernIreland was until December 1999 governed under a system of directrule under the authority of the Secretary of State for NorthernIreland who is a member of the British Cabinet.
The search for apolitical settlement: 1980s and 1990s
From the early 1980s onwards, the British and Irish Governmentsbegan to co-operate more closely in an effort to achieve a widelyacceptable and durable political settlement of the Northern Irelandproblem. This effort involved both the successive establishment ofa number of structures and mechanisms for dialogue and negotiation,and a growing convergence on the fundamental constitutional andother principles which should underpin a settlement.
In November 1985, the Irish and British Governments signed theAnglo-Irish Agreement. The Agreement enabled the Irish Governmentto put forward views and proposals on many aspects of NorthernIreland affairs, and through its structures the two Governmentsintensified their work to find a solution to the Northern Irelandproblem.
In 1991/92, the two Governments convened round-table talksinvolving the main constitutional political parties in NorthernIreland (the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Democratic UnionistParty (DUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and theAlliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI)). While some commonground was identified, overall agreement could not be reached.
On 15 December 1993, the then Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds TD, andthe British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, issued a JointDeclaration which outlined a charter for peace and reconciliationin Ireland. It set out the basic principles necessary to underpinthe political process and established the principles ofself-determination and consent in relation to the Constitutionalstatus of Northern Ireland. The Declaration also sought to offerthose associated with paramilitary violence a route into thepolitical process provided they established a commitment toexclusively peaceful means and the democratic process.
On 31 August 1994, the IRA announced a “complete cessation ofmilitary operations”. This announcement was followed on 13 October1994 by a similar statement from the Combined Loyalist MilitaryCommand. Following the ceasefires, the two Governments engaged indirect political dialogue with Sinn Féin and the two loyalistparties, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the UlsterDemocratic Party (UDP). Following the ceasefires and thepublication in February 1995 of A New Framework for Agreement(known as the Framework Document), in which the Governments set outtheir shared understanding of the possible outcome of comprehensivenegotiations, intensive efforts were made to secure a way forwardinto comprehensive and inclusive talks.
The question of the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons actedas a block on progress and, in December 1995, the two Governmentsestablished an International Body, under the chairmanship of UnitedStates Senator George Mitchell, to provide an independentassessment of the issue. In its report of 24 January 1996 theInternational Body recommended that all parties participating innegotiations should commit themselves to six principles ofdemocracy and non-violence, including the total and verifiabledecommissioning of all paramilitary weapons.
When on 9 February 1996 the IRA cease-fire broke-down, bothGovernments vowed to continue the search for political agreementand expressed the hope that a restoration of the cease-fire wouldallow for the resumption of political dialogue with Sinn Fein.
Multi-Party Talks 1996
Multi-party talks involving the two Governments and NorthernIreland political parties (the UUP, DUP, SDLP, Alliance Party, PUP,UDP, United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP), Northern Ireland Women'sCoalition (NIWC) and Labour, but excluding Sinn Fein, in theabsence of an IRA cease-fire) finally began on 10 June 1996.
The talks were chaired by Senator Mitchell, assisted by formerFinnish Prime Minister Mr Harri Holkeri and retired CanadianGeneral John de Chastelain. For the first year, after the adoptionof rules of procedure in July 1996, they made little progress, asthe decommissioning issue continued to dominate. On 20 July 1997,the IRA announced a resumption of its cease-fire, opening the wayfor the entry of Sinn Fein to the talks on 9 September. Two of theunionist parties, the DUP and the UKUP, then left the talks.However, the largest unionist party, the UUP, continued toparticipate.
Substantive negotiations eventually began on 24 September 1997. Asthe talks progressed the independent chairmen worked with the twoGovernments and the parties to identify areas of broad agreementand isolate areas of remaining difficulty. In the final andintensive negotiations the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern TD, and theBritish Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair led their Governments'delegations.
GoodFriday Agreement 1998
On Friday, 10 April 1998 a comprehensive political agreement wasapproved at a plenary session of the talks. The two Governmentssigned a new British-Irish Agreement immediately thereaftercommitting them to give effect to the provisions of thismulti-party agreement, in particular those relating toconstitutional change and the creation of new institutions.
The Good Friday Agreement was explicitly recognised by participantsin the multi-party negotiations as a historic opportunity for a newbeginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, between Northand South and between Britain and Ireland. It commits theparticipants to the “achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, andmutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the humanrights of all.”
The Agreement provided for the establishment of new politicalinstitutions, reflecting the three strands of relationshipsinvolved:
- A legislative Assembly and Executive within Northern Ireland to exercise partnership government based on equality
- North/South Ministerial Council and all-island implementation bodies to develop co-operation and action within the island of Ireland
- a British-Irish Council to promote mutually beneficial East/West relationships and as a forum for cooperation between the various sovereign and devolved administrations in Britain and Ireland.
It also included measures to uphold the protection of human rightsand equality and to deal with the consequences of conflict.In addition, it mapped the way forward with major new initiativesin the crucial areas of policing and justice. In regard to securityissues, the Agreement included a commitment by all parties to workwith the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning(IICD) to achieve the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Forits part, the British Government committed itself to achieving, asearly as possible, a return to normal security arrangements inNorthern Ireland.
The Agreement also dealt with the special constitutional positionof Northern Ireland, outlining an agreed position, based on theprinciples of self-determination and consent.
In the referenda held on 22 May 1998, the people of Ireland, bothNorth and South, overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement.In Northern Ireland, 71.1 per cent of the people voted to approvethe Agreement. In the Republic, 94.4 per cent of the people votedto allow the Government become party to the Agreement. The combinedYes vote in both parts of Ireland was 85 per cent. This was thefirst occasion since 1918 on which all the people in Ireland hadvoted together to decide their political future.
The Good Friday Agreement – Template for Peace
The Good Friday Agreement acts as the template for cooperationbetween the British and Irish Governments in relation to NorthernIreland. Both Governments are committed in all circumstances toensure that it is implemented to the maximum possible extent forthe benefit of all communities.
Since 1998, full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement hasbeen the Government’s priority. Much progress has been made indelivering on commitments made across such important areas as humanrights, equality, community relations, including the establishmentof Human Rights Commissions in both parts of the island, and theEquality Commission in Northern Ireland. In the area of policing,new accountability structures have included the establishment ofthe office of the Police Ombudsman; the Policing Board and theDistrict Policing Partnerships. The Police Service of NorthernIreland (PSNI) came into being in November 2001, replacing theRoyal Ulster Constabulary.
Progress in relation to security issues has also been steady.Following the IRA statement of July 2005, committing itself toexclusively peaceful means, the British Government initiated itsplanned security normalisation programme which had been agreedwith the Government as part of the Joint Declaration of April2003. In the context of a continuing enabling environment,this committed the British Government to a number of measures,including the removal of army watchtowers, the vacation and closureof all but 14 army bases and the reduction in troop levels fromover 13,000 to 5,000. These normalisation measures were completedon 31 July 2007.
Elections to the first Northern Ireland Assembly took place on 25June 1998, with power first devolved to the new Assembly andExecutive on 2 December 1999. However, disagreements between theparties, principally over the decommissioning of paramilitaryweapons, led to the operation of the Assembly being interrupted ona number of occasions over the next two years. On 14 October2002, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. John Reid,made an order suspending the Executive and Assembly, followingallegations of intelligence gathering in Stormont.
Rebuilding confidence and Restoring Momentum
In an effort to restore momentum towards full implementation of theAgreement, the Governments published a Joint Declaration on 1 May2003, which identified areas where progress could be made. However,a period of intensive negotiations between the parties and the twoGovernments did not resolve all outstanding difficulties at thattime. Subsequent Assembly elections, held in November 2003,resulted in the DUP and Sinn Féin becoming the largest parties onthe unionist and nationalist side respectively.
A year of further intense negotiations brought all sides close toagreement, but on 8 December 2004, the Governments announced that,while almost all outstanding issues had been agreed with theparties, differences over the process to be used to verify thedecommissioning of paramilitary weapons remained unresolved.
In 2005 and 2006 the context for political engagement improvedgreatly. The announcement on 28 July 2005 that the IRA hadended its armed campaign and the confirmation by the IndependentDecommissioning Body in September 2005 that IRA decommissioning hadbeen completed led to intensified political contacts between theGovernments and the parties and renewed efforts to find a wayforward.
In 2006, those efforts culminated in Scotland in the publication ofthe St Andrews Agreement on 13 October, following talks hosted bythe Irish and British Governments with the political parties.
Underpinning the Good Friday Agreement, the St. Andrews Agreementset out a clear way forward for all parties to commit to the fulloperation of stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland,and to full support for policing and the criminal justiceinstitutions. Major progress in that regard was made in the earlymonths of 2007, with all-party support for policing and thecriminal justice institutions secured in January and Assemblyelections in March resulting in a clear popular mandate forpower-sharing.
Restoration of the Institutions – 8 May 2007
These developments allowed restoration of the institutions of theGood Friday Agreement – in suspension since 2002 - to take place on8 May 2007. On that day, Dr Ian Paisley, DUP Leader, and Mr MartinMcGuinness of Sinn Féin were appointed as First Minister and DeputyFirst Minister of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson subsequentlyreplaced Dr. Ian Paisley as First Minister and leader of the DUP inJune 2008.
With restoration of the devolved institutions, the North/SouthMinisterial Council (NSMC) could once again meet and theNorth/South Implementation Bodies function fully The fifth Plenarymeeting of the NSMC took place in Armagh on 17 July 2007. TheNorthern Ireland delegation, led by the First Minister, Dr IanPaisley and the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and theIrish Government delegation, led by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern,acknowledged the significance of the occasion, the first meeting ofthe Plenary since 2002. They welcomed the opportunity to meet inthe NSMC to consult on and promote mutually beneficial co-operationon a range of issues and to take a number of decisions on theCouncil’s work. Since that time, Ministers have continued toreview key developments in the NSMC through ongoing sectoralmeetings , where they have the opportunity to engage in broaddiscussion on a range of issues of common interest and concern,including child protection, tourism, road safety andinfrastructure. The first Plenary meeting of the British-IrishCouncil (BIC) following restoration took place in Belfast on 16July 2007.
All-Island Partnership & Co-operation
The Irish Government is committed to promoting partnership anddeepening economic, social and cultural relations between bothparts of the island of Ireland. The then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern,and the DUP’s Dr. Ian Paisley underlined the commitment to buildingrelations on the island in a spirit of friendship and mutualunderstanding at a significant meeting at Farmleigh House in Dublinon 4 April 2007, and through ongoing engagement since restorationtook place on 8 May 2007.
In recognition of the synergies that can be gained throughall-island co-operation across the economy, infrastructure andspatial planning, the border region and improvedco-operation on cross-border public services such as health andeducation, particular focus has been placed in recent years ondeveloping co-operation in these areas. In October 2006, aComprehensive Study on the All-Island Economy was launched, whichsets out the economic rationale for North/South collaboration, aswell as concrete proposals for economic initiatives.
All-island co-operation is also a horizontal theme of theGovernment’s National Development Plan for the period 2007-2013. Itsets out, for the first time, proposals for Irish Governmentinvestment in North/South projects and initiatives for mutualbenefit. These include joint investment in new strategic projectsto benefit North and South; and the opening up of access toexisting development funds on an all-island basis, and/or theintroduction of new, agreed joint funding measures. Key measuresundertaken to date include a major roads investment programme, therestoration of the Ulster Canal from Clones to Lough Erne and theintroduction of a single electricity market for the island.
British-Irish Relations and the Peace Process
Over the last thirty years, the context in which the IrishGovernment’s objectives in relation to the peace process inNorthern Ireland are pursued has been transformed. TheBritish-Irish relationship is multi-faceted, influenced byhistorical connections, geographical proximity and strong economiclinks. There is a vast network of individual connections betweenthe two islands. Many Irish-born people live and work in Britain.The British-Irish relationship is evolving towards an enhanceddegree of understanding and a greater recognition of sharedinterest at almost every level, as reflected in the historicaddress of the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, to the Joint Houses ofParliament in Westminster on 15 May2007.
International Support for the Peace Process
The peace process in Northern Ireland has always benefited from thewidespread support of the international community, including our EUpartners, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others. Thefocus of international support has included both political supportfor the evolving peace process and practical assistance in theareas of economic regeneration and cross-community reconciliation,including through the International Fund for Ireland and the EU’sProgrammes for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland and thesix border counties of the Republic. The Irish Government hascommitted to engage productively with the international communityin sharing its experiences of the peace process and to work withothers where this would prove helpful.
Representation in theNorthern Ireland Assembly, British and European Parliaments andLocal Government
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly andExecutive exercises authority over broad areas of social andeconomic policy. The Northern Ireland Assembly comprises 108members across 18 constituencies, elected by proportionalrepresentation on the basis of the single transferable vote.
The composition of the power-sharing Executive is determined by theresults of the Assembly elections, the most recent of which wereheld on 7 March 2007 under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement.The number of seats won by each party was as follows (n =nationalist, u = unionist, o = other):
| DUP (u) || 36 |
| Sinn Féin (n) || 28 |
| UUP (u) || 18 |
| SDLP (n) || 16 |
| Alliance (o) || 7 |
| Green (o) || 1 |
| PUP (u) || 1 |
| UKUP (u) || 0 |
| OTH(o) || 1 |
The election results above resulted in 4 Ministerial posts in theExecutive for the DUP, 3 for Sinn Féin, 2 for the UUP, and one forthe SDLP.
In addition, Northern Ireland returns 18 members to the UnitedKingdom parliament at Westminster. Following the 2005 Westminsterelections, party representation is nine DUP, one UUP, five SinnFéin and three SDLP. Northern Ireland also elects three Members ofthe European Parliament.
Reform of Local Government in Northern Ireland is currently underconsideration by the Northern Ireland Executive, as part of anoverall Review of Public Administration. On 31 March 2008, theMinister for the Environment, Arlene Foster, outlined changes thatwill reduce the number of councils from 26 to 11 by 2011. The newcouncils will have increased responsibilities, including aspects ofplanning, rural development, urban regeneration and communitydevelopment.
The 2006 mid-year population estimate for Northern Ireland was1,742,000. This estimate is based on the most recent (2001)census, when the population of Northern Ireland was recorded at1,685,267.