In Search of Peace: The Fate and Legacy of the Good Friday Agreement. (Perspectives)

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In 1920 and 1921, after centuries of British rule, including 120 years when the entire island was governed as part of the United Kingdom, 26 of the 32 Irish counties gained independence. The other six counties remained in political union with Britain as Northern Ireland. However, while the United Kingdom's Parliament at Westminster continued to exercise sovereignty, power was devolved to a local parliament, established in 1920 at Stormont in Belfast.

For the next 50 years, the devolved Stormont government operated with virtual autonomy from London on local matters. Power remained exclusively in the hands of the Unionist party; which drew its support from those favoring union with Britain. The minority nationalist community, on the other hand, represented the desire for Irish unity. They had no role in government and suffered systematic discrimination in many areas, including voting rights, housing, and employment.

In 1969, campaigners for civil rights received a hostile, repressive response. Northern Ireland then entered into a sustained political and security crisis. Paramilitary activity by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and loyalist extremist groups increased. In this deteriorating situation, the British government assumed direct responsibility for all aspects of the government of Northern Ireland. IRA and loyalist violence, however, continued with little respite until 1994.

From the early 1980s, the British and Irish governments began to cooperate more closely in an effort to achieve a widely acceptable and durable political settlement in Northern Ireland. This effort involved the successive establishment of a number of structures for negotiation and a growing convergence on the fundamental principles that should underpin a final peace settlement.

Initially, an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council was set up to provide a formal framework within which to conduct relations. Later, under the terms of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, an Intergovernmental Conference was established, chaired jointly by a representative of each government, and served by a permanent Joint Secretariat. The agreement enabled the Irish government to put forward views and proposals on many aspects of Northern Ireland's affairs for the first time, prompting both governments to intensify their work toward a solution to the Northern Ireland problem.

To that end, in December 1993 a joint declaration was issued that set out the basic principles of a peace process. Central to the declaration were the principles of self-determination and consent. The declaration stated that the British government had "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland" and reaffirmed that "they will uphold the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland." The British government further agreed "that it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish." Furthermore, the declaration recognized that "the democratic right of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and conse nt of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland."

In February 1995, "A New Framework for Agreement" was published, describing how to reach an accommodation without compromising the long-term aspirations of either community in Northern Ireland. The governments also committed themselves to comprehensive negotiations involving the Northern Ireland parties, the outcome of which would be submitted for democratic ratification through referenda in the North and South.

The following year, the publication of the framework document was dominated by efforts to move to comprehensive political talks. …