The Northern Ireland Peace Process

A section of the peace wall that divides Catholic and Protestant communities runs along Cupar Way in west Belfast. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

The Good Friday Agreement has brought considerable progress and relative calm to Northern Ireland since 1998, but much work remains to dampen sectarian tensions that could lead to renewed violence and threaten progress toward greater cohesion.

Last updated February 3, 2014

A section of the peace wall that divides Catholic and Protestant communities runs along Cupar Way in west Belfast. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.


Northern Ireland experienced decades of conflict between the late 1960s and 1990s that claimed more than thirty-five hundred lives, and the era, known as the Troubles, largely pitted the historically dominant Protestants against the Catholic minority. A peace deal struck in 1998 created a power-sharing government that included political forces that had been aligned with armed groups on each side of the conflict. Most of the Belfast Agreement—usually referred to as the Good Friday Agreement—has been implemented, and a devolved national assembly in Belfast is now in place. Some divisive issues related to sectarian and national identity were left unresolved by the accord, however, and contribute to occasional outbursts of disruption and violence.

What is the status of the peace process 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. It 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 not to support violence.) An accord reached in 1998 helped contribute to a sharp reduction in violence, with the annual conflict-related death toll, which peaked at 479 in 1972, dropping to single digits in recent years. The Good Friday Agreement provided a framework for political settlement and was centered on a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland that would require cross-community support for important decisions, ensuring that no single community or party could dominate the assembly. Certain governing authorities were transferred from the UK Parliament at Westminster to the devolved assembly in Belfast, and paramilitary groups committed to abandoning their weapons and joining the political process.

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Yet distrust persisted. Political jockeying over devolution—the transfer of police, judicial, and other local government powers from London to Belfast, as well as the decommissioning of paramilitary groups’ weapons—hindered the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and contributed to the electoral losses of moderate parties in 2003, to the benefit of the more hard-line republican—Sinn Féin—and unionist—Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—parties. London reinstated direct rule of Northern Ireland in late 2002 when the sides failed to agree on implementing important aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland’s assembly wasn’t restored until 2007.

Compromises have been struck since the Good Friday Agreement, notably a fifty-fifty recruitment scheme between Catholics and Protestants for a police force that had been predominantly Protestant and viewed by Catholics as an enforcer of unionist domination. That program ran from 2001–2011 and increased the percentage of Catholics in the police force from 8 percent to 30 percent. The 2010 Hillsborough Agreement finalized the devolution of policing and justice functions from Westminster to the Northern Ireland assembly—a major achievement. It also outlined a process for replacing the Parades Commission (the body with the power to regulate parade schedules and routes), which many Protestants saw as biased against their interests. That process was never implemented, however, amid deep political disagreement. In May 2013, the Sinn Féin–DUP governing coalition unveiled the "Together: Building a United Community" strategy, a legislative program for the forthcoming session that seeks to address, among other things, persistent sectarian segregation in education and housing and economic inequality. Intercommunal tensions remain, especially with regard to expressions of religious, political, and community identity and differing interpretations of the past.

Are armed republican and loyalist groups still a threat?

Yes. Paramilitary organizations on both sides are capable of disrupting the peace, but security experts say they have been significantly weakened since the Good Friday Agreement and lack the capacity to derail Northern Ireland’s overall political stability. Security officials say they cannot sustain a violent campaign on the scale of the Troubles from the 1970s to the 1990s.

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Politically motivated killings have declined significantly since the peace process began, and the main armed republican group, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Óglaigh na hÉireann) put its weapons beyond use in 2005. Two other dissident Irish Republican Army (IRA) groups—the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA—appear to have small, overlapping memberships that have mounted occasional attacks on police officers and political opponents. Both republican and loyalist militias are still recruiting members, acquiring weapons, and engaging in criminal activity.

The main armed loyalist organizations during the conflict were the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. Over the past two decades they gave up their arms, but a number of offshoots emerged, including the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the Red Hand Defenders, and the Orange Volunteers. Northern Ireland police officials blame loyalist groups for violence related to flag protests in December 2012 and parades in July 2013, in which riots blocked off roads in Belfast and dozens of police officers were injured.

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What are the remaining disagreements in Northern Ireland?

Inequality in housing, education, and employment have persisted, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, deadlocked on contentious issues, has not been able to reach compromises that address these concerns through legislation, according to the 2013 Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report [PDF], commissioned by the Community Relations Council. Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of high school dropouts among the four countries in the UK, though Catholics have enjoyed greater educational success than Protestants. This imbalance is reversed when it comes to wealth; 22 percent of Catholic households live in poverty compared to 17 percent of Protestants, according to the report.

There are roughly four thousand parades per year in Northern Ireland, with 5 percent of them considered contentious, according to the 2012 annual report of the Parades Commission for Northern Ireland. The majority of these contentious parades occur during the "marching season" in the spring and summer. Some parades attract dozens while others are much larger, such as an August 2013 march by the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant group, which had more than five thousand participants. The majority of the marches, especially the controversial ones, are organized by unionists, the commission says.

Protestant marches are viewed as triumphalist by many Catholics. The Orange Order, for example, which holds parades to express loyalty to the British Crown each summer, is seen by most Catholics as hostile. Parades can have heavy sectarian undertones, featuring songs that celebrate Protestant victories in conflicts as distant as the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Some of these parades, and their routes, are more than two hundred years old, and this deep history makes unionists reluctant to alter their customs. Retaining these cultural expressions is, unionists say, a way to preserve a Protestant heritage that they fear is slowly eroding, first through partial separation from Westminster through devolved government and then through the gradual demographic shift toward a Catholic plurality in Northern Ireland. Protestants make up 48 percent while Catholics comprise 45 percent of the country’s population of 1.8 million, according to the 2011 census. Protestants were a majority in 2001, accounting for 53 percent of the population. Neither group is expected to regain a pure majority, and both are losing share due to the rising number of people citing no religious affiliation.

Political compromise has been difficult to maintain. In December 2012, for example, the Belfast city council voted to fly the Union flag on fifteen designated days per year, an agreement that offered too little for many unionists and too much for many nationalists. Some loyalists viewed it as the latest affront to British culture and mobilized their supporters for months of protests that further pushed Northern Ireland’s communities apart. Republican parades that commemorate their struggle during the Troubles have also led to clashes. And republicans have confronted some loyalist parades that march through or near Catholic neighborhoods. Though the police force has gained the trust of many Catholics over the past decade, it has struggled to manage the violence and sectarian intensity of parades and protests.

Addressing the legacy of the past also remains a sensitive issue. As noted above, more than thirty-five hundred people died and thousands more were injured during the conflict in Northern Ireland. In many cases, the authorities have not been able to identify who was responsible for those deaths, and relatives of those who died still hope for a sense of closure. Investigations are difficult, costly, and controversial, however. In addition to the passage of time, which can make it impossible to uncover evidence or identify credible witnesses, the record keeping of the British police and military was not equaled by the Provisional IRA or loyalist militias. The bigger question remains how to balance calls for truth, justice, fair compensation, and reconciliation for those directly affected by the conflict.

Did peace yield an economic dividend?

Peace in Northern Ireland helped attract more than $2 billion in foreign investment over the past five years, mainly in the financial services, technology, and pharmaceutical sectors, Reuters reports. Tourism reached 504,000 in 2009 (twice 2001 levels), but has declined in recent years. Londonderry, known to nationalists as Derry, was selected as the 2013 UK City of Culture and held prestigious art exhibitions and festivals, a significant transformation for city that was the scene of much violence during the Troubles.

Unemployment rates are lower but a sectarian imbalance remains among men. Nearly 12 percent of Catholic men were out of work compared to 7.4 percent of Protestant men, according to the 2011 census released by Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, the latest official tally that breaks down data by religion. But the gap is shrinking from the 30 percent Catholic unemployment rate registered in some parts of Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Northern Ireland’s overall unemployment was 7.5 percent as of June 2013, slightly below the UK average and much lower than the 13.6 percent rate in the Republic of Ireland. Per capita income has increased after a sharp decline during the 2008 recession, but consumer spending remains depressed and almost one quarter of shops in Northern Ireland are vacant. The economy is overly reliant on the public sector, which has been boosted by subsidies from London, and both the UK and Northern Ireland governments have a shared goal of rebalancing the economy and spurring growth in the private sector. Thus far, the economic dividend from peace has not lived up to the predictions that politicians made when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

What does the Panel of Parties in the NI Executive plan to accomplish?

The Panel of Parties in the NI (Northern Ireland) Executive was established in 2013. It brought together representatives from the five major parties in Northern Ireland—the DUP, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionist Party, Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Alliance Party—to address disputes that had not been resolved by the peace process, including how to better deal with parades and protests; flags, symbols, and emblems; and Northern Ireland’s past. Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, chaired the talks, and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a CFR adjunct senior fellow and professor at Harvard University, served as vice chair. Haass was the U.S. special envoy in support of the Northern Ireland peace process from 2001 to 2003 when he also served as director of policy planning at the State Department. O’Sullivan was his chief adviser as envoy.

The panel held consultations with civil society groups, interested individuals, and the five participating parties through the summer and autumn of 2013. In all, Haass and O’Sullivan met with more than five hundred people representing some one hundred civil society groups from across Northern Ireland. The negotiations among the parties saw considerable progress on mechanisms to contend with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, as well as steps forward on parades and other events. Flags and emblems proved the most difficult topic; the final text called only for continued discussions on that issue. All five parties did not, however, endorse the final text, so no agreement was reached on how to proceed in any of these areas. Party leaders have pledged to continue their discussions to try to reach accord on outstanding issues and move toward implementation.


Resources Up

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

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

The 2012 Parades Commission Annual Report [PDF] provides details about parades, one of the unresolved issues in the peace process.

Gideon Rose sits down with CFR President Richard N. Haass in this Foreign Affairs Focus video to discuss the recent talks in Northern Ireland that focused on disputes over flags, parades, and the past.

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