Backgrounder

Moving Past the Troubles: The Future of Northern Ireland Peace

The Good Friday Agreement has dampened sectarian tensions and brought stability to Northern Ireland, but Brexit border arrangements and growing dissatisfaction are throwing the region’s hard-won gains into doubt.
A policeman in the rubble of the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Belfast.
A policeman in the rubble of the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Belfast. Henri Bureau/Getty Images
Summary
  • Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, suffered decades of violence known as the Troubles, a conflict largely between pro-UK Protestants and pro-secession Catholics.
  • The 1998 Good Friday Agreement achieved compromise by creating a new power-sharing government, facilitating disarmament, and abolishing border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • Brexit, with its novel trade and border arrangements, has threatened the delicate balance and sparked worries over renewed conflict.

Introduction

Northern Ireland, a long-contested region of the United Kingdom, experienced decades of conflict between the late 1960s and the late 1990s that killed more than 3,500 people. The era, known as the Troubles, largely pitted the historically dominant Protestants against the Catholic minority. A peace deal struck in April 1998 created a power-sharing government that included political forces aligned with armed groups.

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Twenty years later, most of the Belfast Agreement—usually called the Good Friday Agreement—has been implemented. Although paramilitary groups still exist, they have mostly disarmed, and to a large extent violence has ceased. However, sectarian tensions endure, and the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union has complicated Northern Ireland’s border arrangements, threatening renewed turmoil.

What has driven the conflict in Northern Ireland?

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Northern Ireland’s modern period of conflict started in the late 1960s and lasted more than three decades. What started as a civil rights movement—Catholics protesting what they saw as discrimination by Northern Ireland’s Protestant-dominated government—deteriorated into violence, with the involvement of paramilitary groups on both sides and the arrival in 1969 of the British Army.

The conflict involved mostly Protestant loyalists, who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, against mostly Catholic republicans, who wished to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists shared their respective communities’ goals but tended to eschew violence.

A map of Northern Ireland with relevant statistics

What is the Good Friday Agreement?

Reached in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement provided a framework for political settlement in Northern Ireland centered on power-sharing between unionists and nationalists. It was signed by the British and Irish governments, as well as four of the major political parties in Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Alliance Party. Among major parties, only the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) abstained. While the agreement confirmed that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, it stipulates that Ireland could be united if that was supported in a vote by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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The agreement called for the devolution of authority over certain policy areas from the UK Parliament to a newly created assembly in Belfast, and it paved the way for paramilitary groups to abandon their weapons and join the political process. It has contributed to a sharp reduction in violence, and the annual conflict-related death toll, which peaked at 480 in 1972, has dropped to the single digits in recent years.

What is the governing structure of Northern Ireland?

The government in Northern Ireland is composed of two main bodies, both based at the Stormont Estate in Belfast.

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Legislature. A popularly elected, ninety-member assembly legislates on matters such as health, education, and agriculture. The assembly requires support from both unionists and nationalists to make important decisions, ensuring that neither can dominate.

Executive. A cabinet-like executive administers the government. It is chaired by a first minister and a deputy first minister, one from each main tradition. So far, the first minister has always been a unionist and the deputy first minister a nationalist or republican.

Has the Good Friday Agreement been successful?

Distrust among the factions persisted for years after the accord. Political jockeying over devolution—the transfer of police, judicial, and other powers from London to Belfast—and the decommissioning of paramilitary groups’ weapons hindered implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. While London devolved local powers in late 1999, political turmoil in Northern Ireland prompted it to reimpose direct rule in 2000 and again in 2002. London only restored the devolved government in 2007, with the breakthrough St. Andrews Agreement, signed by the UK and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s main parties. By then, the DUP was the largest unionist party and Sinn Fein the largest among nationalists and republicans.

Another milestone came in 2010 with the Hillsborough Agreement, in which Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed on terms for the devolution of policing and justice functions, as well as a roadmap for managing sectarian parades. By the mid-2010s, the political institutions envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement were generally functioning well, as parties with starkly differing views served together in government.

What is the status of Northern Ireland’s government?

The relative political stability in Belfast began to unravel in 2017, when an energy scandal precipitated the resignation of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. This caused the executive’s collapse and led to fresh elections for the assembly in March 2017. The DUP remained the largest single party, but its advantage over Sinn Fein fell to just one seat, a result indicative of Northern Ireland’s demographic shifts: as of the last census [PDF], in 2011, the minority Catholic community had increased to 45 percent of the population, while Protestants were no longer a majority, at 48 percent. The impasse also highlighted deep divisions over Brexit, which the unionist DUP favored and Sinn Fein (along with other major parties) opposed.

The DUP and Sinn Fein were unable to resolve their differences for nearly three years, leaving Northern Ireland without a local government until early 2020. Under pressure to compromise or face another round of elections—and with the DUP sidelined from the UK government after a commanding election win by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in December 2019—the two parties made a deal that reopened Stormont on January 11, 2020.

In a major compromise, the parties agreed to measures to promote the Irish language, something unionists have long opposed over concerns it will elevate nationalist and republican culture at the expense of their own. In return, the agreement contained provisions to promote Ulster-Scots, which is traditionally spoken by the descendants of Protestants who came to Northern Ireland from Scotland. Negotiations were also moved along by promises from Dublin and London for more funding to Northern Ireland’s hospitals, schools, and other social services. 

Comprised of Northern Ireland’s five primary political parties, the revived executive is led by Prime Minister Arlene Foster (DUP) and newly appointed Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Fein). This marks the first time two women lead the devolved government.

What challenges remain?

Northern Ireland’s restored leadership faces difficult challenges in providing basic services as well as addressing sectarian divisions. One of the most urgent tasks is to improve health services, which fell into crisis after the breakdown of local government and have been stressed further by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses and other health workers went on strike in December 2019 to protest salaries that had fallen below those in the rest of the UK. Though many health unions reached agreements with the government for increased pay and other demands in 2020, the unions still say the system is on an unsustainable path.

Meanwhile, sectarian divisions remain prominent. Fewer than 10 percent of students in Northern Ireland attend religiously integrated schools, or those not primarily associated with a single faith. Social interaction between the two main religious communities remains limited. Dozens of so-called peace walls divide Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.

Northern Ireland’s restored leadership faces difficult challenges in providing basic services as well as addressing sectarian divisions.

Other long-standing issues continue to cause friction. Parades and marches—held mainly but not exclusively by Protestant groups—often have heavily sectarian undertones. The same is true of flags and emblems, displayed by all sides on lampposts and buildings. Moreover, Northern Ireland’s leaders have never developed a comprehensive approach to the legacy of past violence, as some other postconflict societies have. Efforts to prosecute those responsible for killings and to pursue other initiatives have been uneven, which analysts say has hindered reconciliation.

These issues—parades, flags, and the legacy of the past—were the subject of 2013 negotiations chaired by Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and now on CFR’s Board of Directors. The talks, which involved the five main political parties, did not produce an agreement, though many of the proposals—including establishing a historical investigations unit to look into unsolved deaths during the conflict and a commission to help victims get information about relatives’ deaths—formed a large part of the Stormont House Agreement, reached in 2014.

After years of standstill, the UK government pledged to implement legacy-related institutions outlined in the 2014 agreement as part of the January 2020 accord to restore Stormont. However, uncertainty persists, especially regarding how Johnson’s government will handle investigations into former members of the UK security services over their actions in Northern Ireland’s conflict.

How will Brexit affect Northern Ireland?

A majority of Northern Ireland’s people—almost 56 percent—voted for the UK to remain in the EU. The DUP was alone among Northern Ireland’s main parties in supporting Brexit. A significant amount of direct funding was at stake: since 1995, the EU provided Northern Ireland with more than one billion euros per year for peacebuilding and reconciliation programs. Despite Brexit, the current funding program is set to last through the end of 2021, with a budget of 270 million euros.

The most contentious issue has been Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland. The border, which was heavily militarized during the conflict, has since become essentially invisible, with people and goods crossing freely. This was possible in large part because both Ireland and the UK were part of the EU’s single market, the common set of regulations that allows for the free movement of goods, services, people, and money within the bloc.

With Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK having officially left the EU, this has changed. Throughout Brexit negotiations, EU, Irish, and UK officials all sought to avoid the return of a hard border, fearing that checkpoints could complicate trade, revive tensions between communities, and open the door to renewed violence. Yet London’s commitment to leaving the EU single market and customs union made some sort of border checks inevitable. The new relationship between the EU and the UK, negotiated over the course of 2020 and implemented starting in January 2021, settled on a complicated solution to this thorny problem: the Northern Ireland Protocol.

What is Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol?

Under the arrangement, Northern Ireland is, like the rest of the UK, no longer part of the EU customs union, the basis for common tariffs on all goods entering the bloc. The necessary customs checks are to take place not on the border with the Republic of Ireland but rather between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; this, in effect, creates a new border in the Irish Sea. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland—but not the rest of the UK—will continue to follow many of the EU single market regulations, allowing the land border with Ireland to remain open. Additionally, the protocol is aided by a separate Ireland-UK agreement that allows free movement of people between the two countries.

What is the future of the peace process?

Some observers have long feared that the UK’s departure from the EU threatens the Good Friday Agreement; they include Tony Blair, the UK prime minister who presided over the accord. The previous Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, echoed this point in March 2018, arguing that Brexit “threatens to drive a wedge between Britain and Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and potentially between the two communities in Northern Ireland.” Sinn Fein leaders have called Brexit “the most serious threat in the history of the peace process.”

That is because the Good Friday Agreement established intricate arrangements among the various parties. The Three Strands of the pact created a web of institutions to govern Northern Ireland (Strand One), bring together leaders in Northern Ireland with those in Ireland (Strand Two, or North-South cooperation), and bring together leaders from throughout the UK and Ireland (Strand Three, or East-West cooperation). There are currently more than 140 areas of Northern Ireland–Republic of Ireland cross-border cooperation, including on health-care services, energy infrastructure, and policing. Many experts and political leaders fear that any disruption to this cooperation could undermine trust in the agreement and thus the basis of peace in Northern Ireland.

Though Prime Minister Johnson and Irish leaders have pledged to protect the Good Friday Agreement, some Brexit supporters have seized the opportunity to criticize the deal’s power-sharing institutions, arguing that the pact is outdated. Some in the DUP, which opposed the agreement in 1998, have also questioned the arrangements it established.

While much of the worry has focused on the border with the Republic of Ireland, there are already indications that the Northern Ireland Protocol—and its new border checks in the Irish Sea—could renew tensions with Northern Ireland’s Protestants: April 2021 saw the worst street violence in Belfast in decades. Many unionists, including the DUP, supported Brexit as a way of drawing closer to the UK, but the Protocol has raised their ire. They fear that any distinction between their region and the rest of the UK will drive a wedge between them, and see the new Irish Sea border checks as a betrayal by London. Analysts say that while the spark for the April riots was anger over republican officials breaking pandemic lockdown rules, the deeper cause is a growing sense of grievance among Protestants that the Brexit deal and the Good Friday Agreement itself are failing to represent their interests. 

Yet another pressing question is whether Brexit could lead Northern Ireland’s people to vote to leave the UK and join a united Ireland, for which the Good Friday Agreement allows. Since the 2016 Brexit vote, Northern Ireland’s nationalist and republican leaders have called for a referendum. That would require London’s approval, as well as a separate vote in the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Fein, in particular, is adamant about organizing such a referendum, and its growing electoral popularity in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has brought that possibility closer to reality than ever.

Mohammed Aly Sergie and Diana Roy contributed to this report.

Recommended Resources

The Congressional Research Service [PDF] examines the Northern Ireland peace process.

In Foreign Affairs, Henry Farrell analyzes the repercussions of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement.

A 2018 Economist report takes stock of the situation in Northern Ireland twenty years after the peace deal.

This BBC explainer delves into the details of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the controversy surrounding it.

The University of Ulster operates an expansive archive of information and primary sources on the Troubles.

CFR President Richard N. Haass discusses the 2013 talks in Northern Ireland in a Foreign Affairs video.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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