Good Friday Agreement

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The Good Friday Agreement

Signed on 10 April 1998 in Belfast
Also known as the Belfast Agreement


The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) or Belfast Agreement was a major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s. Northern Ireland’s present devolved system of government is based on the Agreement. The Agreement also created a number of institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The Agreement is made up of two inter-related documents, both agreed in Belfast on Good Friday, 10 April 1998:

  1. A multi-party agreement by most of Northern Ireland’s political parties;
  2. An international agreement between the British and Irish governments (the British-Irish Agreement).

The Good Friday Agreement set out a complex series of provisions relating to a number of areas:

  • The status and system of government of Northern Ireland within the UK. (Strand 1)
  • The relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (Strand 2)
  • The relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. (Strand 3)

Central to the Agreement were the following issues:

  • Civil and cultural rights,
  • Decommissioning of weapons, and
  • Justice and policing

The Agreement was approved by voters across the island of Ireland in two referendums held on 22 May 1998.

  1. In Northern Ireland, voters were asked whether they supported the multi-party agreement.
  2. In the Republic of Ireland, voters were asked whether they would allow the state to sign the  agreement and allow necessary constitutional changes to facilitate it.

The people of both jurisdictions needed to approve the Agreement in order to give effect to it.

The British-Irish Agreement came into force on 2 December 1999.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Agreement.



Parties and Structure

The Agreement was made between the British and Irish governments and eight political parties or groupings from Northern Ireland:

  • The Ulster Unionist Party,
  • The Social Democratic and Labour Party,
  • Sinn Féin,
  • The Alliance Party,
  • The Progressive Unionist Party,
  • The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and
  • The Ulster Democratic Party and Labour.

The Agreement comprises two elements:

  1. The legal agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom; and
  2. A more substantial agreement between the eight political parties and the two governments.

File Pics The Good Friday Agreement was agreed 15 years ago. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement

The first element has just four articles; it is that short text that is the legal agreement, but it incorporates in its schedules the latter agreement.

Technically, this scheduled agreement, the second element, can be distinguished as the Multi-Party Agreement, as opposed to the Belfast Agreement itself.

The vague wording of some of the provisions, described as “constructive ambiguity”, helped ensure acceptance of the agreement and served to postpone debate on some of the more contentious issues. Most notably this included paramilitary decommissioning, police reform and the normalization of Northern Ireland.


The Status of Northern Ireland 


The Agreement acknowledged:

  • That the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain part of the United Kingdom;
  • That a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland.

Both of these views were acknowledged as being legitimate.

The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice.

Irrespective of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom, or part of a united Ireland, the Agreement provides for the right of people in Northern Ireland —

  • To identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both and
  • To recognize as their right to hold either or both British and Irish citizenship.

The two Governments also agreed, irrespective of the position of Northern Ireland; that the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction over the Six Counties shall —

  • Be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions, and
  • Shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and
  • Provide just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.

As part of the Agreement

  • The British parliament repealed the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (which had established Northern Ireland and partitioned Ireland), and
  • The People of Ireland amended Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland, which asserted a territorial claim over Northern Ireland.

The British-Irish Agreement came into force on 2 December 1999. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Agreement.


New Institutions

The Agreement sets out a framework for creating a number of institutions across three “strands”.

Strand 1 dealt with the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland and established two major institutions:

  • Northern Ireland Assembly – a devolved legislature for Northern Ireland with mandatory cross-community voting on certain major decisions.
  • Northern Ireland Executive – a power-sharing executive with ministerial portfolios to be allocated between parties by the highest averages method.

Strand 2 dealt with “north-south” issues and institutions to be created between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. These are:

  • North/South Ministerial Council
  • North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association
  • North/South Consultative Forum

North-South Ministerial Council is made up of ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland. It was established “to develop consultation, co-operation and action” in 12 areas of mutual interest. These include six areas where the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland form common policies but implement these separately in each jurisdiction, and six areas where they develop common policies that are implemented through shared all-Ireland institutions.

The various “institutional and constitutional arrangements” set out in the Agreement are also stated to be “interlocking and interdependent”.


The offices of the North/South Ministerial Council on Upper English Street, Armagh, Northern Ireland.

As part of the Agreement, the newly created Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Parliament of Ireland (the Oireachtas) agreed to consider creating a joint parliamentary forum made up of equal numbers from both institutions. In October 2012, this forum was created as the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association.

The Northern Ireland political parties who endorsed the agreement were also asked to consider the establishment of an independent consultative forum representative of civil society with members with expertise in social, cultural, economic and other issues and appointed by the two administrations. An outline structure for the North/South Consultative Forum was agreed in 2002 and in 2006 the Northern Ireland Executive agreed it would support its establishment.

Strand 3 dealt with “east-west” issues and institutions to be created between Ireland and the United Kingdom (as well the Crown Dependencies). These are:

  • British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference
  • British-Irish Council
  • An expanded British-Irish Interparliamentary Body

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference was agreed to replace the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council and the Intergovernmental Conference created under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The Conference takes the form of regular and frequent meetings between the British and Irish ministers to promote co-operation at all levels between both Governments. On matters not devolved to Northern Ireland, the Government of Ireland may put forward view and proposals. All decisions of the Conference will be by agreement between both Governments and the two Governments agreed to make determined efforts to resolve disagreements between them.

The British-Irish Council, is made up of ministerial representatives from the British and Irish governments, the UK’s devolved administrations (Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), as well as from the Crown dependencies, the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey. The purpose of the Council is to promote co-operations and pose a forum for the creation of common policies.

Under the agreement, it was proposed that the already-existing British-Irish Interparliamentary Body would be built upon. Prior to the agreement, the Body was composed of parliamentarians from the British and Irish parliaments only. In 2001, as suggested by the Agreement, it was expanded to incorporate parliamentarians from all of the members of the British-Irish Council.

These institutional arrangements created across these three strands are set out in the Agreement as being “interlocking and interdependent”. In particular, the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North/South Ministerial Council are stated to be “so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other” and participation in the North/South Ministerial Council is “one of the essential responsibilities attaching to relevant posts in [Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland].”


Decommissioning and Normalization

Against the background of political violence during the Troubles, the Agreement committed the participants to “exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues”. This took two aspects:

  • Decommissioning of weapons held by paramilitary groups; and
  • The normalization of security arrangements in Northern Ireland.

The participants to the Agreement comprised two sovereign states (the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland) with armed and police forces involved in the Troubles.

Two political parties, Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) were linked to paramilitary organizations: the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) respectively.

The Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), which was linked to the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), had withdrawn from the talks three months previously.

dovemodThe multi-party agreement committed the parties to “use any influence they may have” to bring  about the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years of the referendums approving the Agreement. The process of normalization, committed the British government to the reduction in the number and role of its armed forces in Northern Ireland “to levels compatible with a normal peaceful society”. This included the removal of security installations and the removal of special emergency powers in Northern Ireland. The Irish government committed to a “wide-ranging review” of its Offenses against the State legislation relating to the suppression of terrorism.

The Agreement called for the establishment of an independent commission to review policing arrangements in Northern Ireland “including [the] means of encouraging widespread community support” for those arrangements. The British government also committed to a “wide-ranging review” of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

Both the British and Irish governments committed to the early release of prisoners serving sentences in connection with the activities of paramilitary groups, provided that those groups continued to maintain “a complete and unequivocal ceasefire”.

A date of May 2000 was set for total disarming of all paramilitary groups. This was not achieved leading the Assembly to be suspended on a number of occasions as a consequence of Unionist objections.

A series of rounds of decommissioning by the IRA took place (in October 2001, April 2002 and October 2003) and in July 2005 the IRA announced the formal end of its campaign. Loyalist decommissioning did not follow immediately in kind. In June 2009, the UVF announced they had completed decommissioning and the UDA confirmed it had started to decommission its arsenal.


Equality and Human Rights

The Agreement affirmed a commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community”. The multi-party agreement recognized “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity”, especially in relation to the Irish language, Ulster Scots, and the languages of Northern Ireland’s ethnic minorities, “all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland”.

The British government committed to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into the law of Northern Ireland and to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Setting statutory obligations for public authorities in Northern Ireland to carry out their work “with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity was set as a particular priority.” The Irish government committed to “[taking] steps to further the protection of human rights in its jurisdiction” and to the establishment of an Irish Human Rights Commission.



Under the agreement, the British and Irish governments committed to organizing referendums on 22 May 1998, in Northern Ireland and in the Republic respectively. The Northern Ireland referendum was to approve the Agreement reached in the multi-party talks. The Republic of Ireland referendum was to approve the British-Irish Agreement and to facilitate the amendment of the Constitution of Ireland in accordance with the Agreement.

The result of these referendums was a large majority in both parts of Ireland in favour of the Agreement. In the Republic, 56% of the electorate voted, with 94% of the votes in favour of the amendment to the Constitution. The turnout in Northern Ireland was 81%, with 71% of the votes in favour of the Agreement.

In the Republic, the electorate voted upon the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution of Ireland. This amendment both permitted the state to comply with the Belfast Agreement and provided for the removal of the ‘territorial claim’ contained in Articles 2 and 3. A referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty  (Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which amended the Treaty of the European Union) was held on the same day.




Direct London rule came to an end in Northern Ireland when power was formally devolved to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council when commencement orders for the British-Irish Agreement came into effect on 2 December 1999. However, Article 4(2) of the British-Irish Agreement (the Agreement between the British and Irish governments for the implementation of the Belfast Agreement) required the two governments to notify each other in writing of the completion of the requirements for the entry into force of the British-Irish Agreement; entry into force was to be upon the receipt of the latter of the two notifications.

The British government agreed to participate in a televised ceremony at Iveagh House in Dublin, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, attended early on 2 December 1999. He exchanged notifications with David Andrews, the Irish foreign minister. Shortly after the ceremony, at 10.30 am, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern signed the declaration formally amending Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution. He then announced to the Dáil that the British-Irish Agreement had entered into force (including certain supplementary agreements concerning the Belfast Agreement).

The Assembly and Executive were eventually established in December 1999 on the understanding that decommissioning would begin immediately, but were suspended within two months due to lack of progress, before being re-established in May 2000 as Provisional IRA decommissioning eventually began.


Parliament Building (Stormont) in Belfast, Northern Ireland seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Aside from the decommissioning issue, however, ongoing paramilitary activity (albeit relatively low level compared to the past) by the Provisional Irish Republican Army — e.g., arms importations, smuggling, organized crime, “punishment beatings”, intelligence-gathering and rioting — was also a stumbling block. The loyalist paramilitaries also continued similar activity although as they were not  represented by a significant political party, their position was less central to political change.

Politicsofnorthernirelandlogo.svgThe overall result of these problems was to damage confidence among unionists in the Agreement, which was exploited by the anti-Agreement DUP which eventually defeated the pro-Agreement Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in the 2003 Assembly election. The UUP had already resigned from the power-sharing Executive in 2002 following arrests of Sinn Féin personnel on charges of gathering intelligence for use by terrorists. These charges were eventually dropped in 2005 on the controversial grounds that pursuit would not be “in the public interest”. Immediately afterwards, one of the accused Sinn Féin members, Denis Donaldson was exposed as a British agent.

In 2004, negotiations were held between the two governments, the DUP, and Sinn Féin on an agreement to re-establish the institutions. These talks failed, but a document published by the governments detailing changes to the Belfast Agreement became known as the ‘Comprehensive Agreement’. On 26 September 2005, however, it was announced that the Provisional Irish Republican Army had completely decommissioned its arsenal of weapons and “put them beyond use”. Nonetheless, many unionists, most notably the DUP, remained skeptical and agreement on how to restore the power-sharing assembly still had not been reached as of July 2006. Of the loyalist paramilitaries, only the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) had decommissioned any weapons.[12] Further negotiations took place in October 2006, leading to the St Andrews Agreement.

In May 2007, a power sharing executive was again established to govern Northern Ireland in devolved matters. The second Northern Ireland Executive consisted of the DUP and Sinn Féin, with Ian Paisley of the DUP as First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin as Deputy First Minister.  Although Paisley was the head of the government, he and Martin McGuinness held equal powers within the Northern Ireland Assembly government.

Paisley retired from the office of First Minister and from the leadership of the DUP on 5 June 2008 and was succeeded in both functions by Peter Robinson. In the third Northern Ireland Executive the same political relationship now exists between Robinson and McGuinness as existed formerly between Paisley and McGuinness.

Hands Across Divide

This article was taken from:  (edited by Greg Seán Canning)