Northern Ireland: The Good Friday Solution

Article excerpt

Colm McKeogh backgrounds the Northern Ireland Peace Accord achieved at Easter 1998.

To the surprise of many who had observed the political situation in Northern Ireland over the past decades, an agreement was reached between the political parties in Northern Ireland on Good Friday, 10 April this year. The biggest surprise was the agreement of Sinn Fein to a political settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict that stopped far short of a united Ireland. Many had seen no end in sight to the Sinn Fein refusal to recognise the state and to the violence of the IRA and had hoped for no more than a gradual dwindling in support for their stance. Irish governments of the past (as well as groups in Britain and the United States) had abandoned hope of a negotiated settlement to the Northern Ireland conflict and demanded the British imposition of new constitutional and political arrangements against the wishes of the Protestant majority. Yet agreement was reached and the 1998 Accord provides a potential closure to the conflict that neither dwindling support for the IRA nor greater British military success could.

The content of the agreement, however, caused no surprise; its essence was known in advance. For it was, in the words of Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), `Sunningdale for slow learners'. Sunningdale, the best previous attempt at a settlement in Northern Ireland, was an agreement reached in December 1973 at the Sunningdale conference centre in Buckinghamshire in England. It was an agreement between three Northern Irish political parties (Unionist, SDLP, and Alliance) and the British government. The paramilitary groups were not represented. The Sunningdale agreement created a power-sharing assembly for Northern Ireland with a power-sharing executive in which the parties would gain ministerial positions in proportion to their electoral strength. It also created an all-Ireland body, called the Council of Ireland. This was to he an institutional expression of the Irish identity of the minority population in Northern Ireland. It was this strand of the Sunningdale agreement which provoked the strongest Protestant opposition and, five months later, strikes by Protestant workers which led to its abandonment. In February 1974, Edward Heath gambled on a general election. He lost and Labour came to power; in Northern Ireland candidates opposed to the Sunning-dale agreement won eleven of the twelve Westminster seats. The end for the power-sharing assembly came quickly: in May, when the Assembly voted to ratify the Sunningdale agreement, Protestant workers went on strike and paralysed the province. The new Labour government in Britain could see no option but to return to direct role.

What was rejected in 1974 was served up again to great applause in 1998. In the intervening quarter of a century, another 3000 people were killed by political violence in Northern Ireland. What had changed? Why did the people of Northern Ireland now accept what they had previously rejected?

Two communities

The two communities in Northern Ireland are often identified by religious labels, Protestant and Catholic. The political tags, Unionist and Nationalist, Loyalist and Republican, arc problematic: not all members of the minority community in Northern Ireland seek to end the union with Britain. The term `Republican' is used in Northern Ireland to designate Sinn Fein and other groups that share a goal of a united Ireland regardless of the wishes of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. These political labels also define the identity of the two communities in irreconcilable terms, in terms of aspirations that are opposed. This article will therefore use the religious terms Protestant and Catholic to refer to the majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland.

The religious terms are an indicator of the origins of the two communities (40 per cent of the population are Catholic, 22 per cent Presbyterian, 18 per cent Anglican, 4 per cent Methodist). …