For a quarter of a century, The Good Friday Accords have been putting a stop to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. But the political, economic, social and security problems remain acute. “No one can deny that the peace deal is in decline.’
In the Northern Irish capital Belfast, 25 seconds of silence will be held on Monday for 25 years of Good Friday agreements. Pro-Irish Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists will form a human chain. Local politicians then and now will fraternize with colleagues from Ireland and the United Kingdom. US president Joe Biden and his predecessor Bill Clinton will also be visiting later this week.
It is a fitting tribute to how the improbable took place on april 10, 1998: the end of three decades of sectarian violence between paramilitary movements of both faith communities. The then British prime minister Tony Blair, his Irish colleague Bertie Ahern and Clinton’s special envoy George Mitchell had succeeded in their diplomatic tour de force.
For a long time, unionists refused to negotiate directly with the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). “Except in the men’s toilets, the only place where they were alone,” said then-Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Almost everyone signed the Belfast Agreement. Only the smaller Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of the radical Reverend Ian ‘Doctor no’ Paisley was to be thwarted for years to come.
For a quarter of a century, the agreement has stood and life in Northern Ireland has undeniably improved. “Everyone realizes that going back to the past would be a complete disaster,” Blair said. Nevertheless, the birthday party proceeds in a minor way.
36,923 shootings, 16,209 bombings, 3,483 deaths – more than half of them ordinary civilians – and 47,541 wounded. The toll of the Troubles between 1969 and 1998 was enormous. As a result of The Good Friday Accords, the IRA and Ulster Volunteer Force would gradually disarm. Prisoners from both groups were released. British forces retreated. And the local police corps, a unionist stronghold, also gained more Catholic officers.
Republican splinter groups in particular remain active, but they are marginal compared to the dark days of yesteryear. Since the end of 1998, about a hundred more people have been killed, mostly in internal settlements and attacks against the police. Last year, the British Secret Service MI5 even lowered the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland for the first time since 2010.
In late March, he raised them again anyway, after the New IRA targeted a police car with a roadside bomb and shot police inspector John Caldwell. And there are “strong indications” that violence is planned in the coming days.
Just as worryingly, Northern Ireland remains the poorest region of the UK, after Wales and the south-east of England. It is estimated that the Troubles reduced the gross domestic product (GDP) by 10 percent, without the support from London even up to 20 percent. Unemployment was chronically high.
Since 1998, GDP per capita has risen by 27 per cent, although it remains 20 per cent below the UK average. The same lag applies to the level of productivity. The employment rate, apart from London, did not rise so quickly anywhere. But with well over a quarter of the workforce neither working nor looking for a job, Northern Ireland lags far behind the UK. A further 27 per cent are employed by the government, which has been putting it in huge deficits for years and forcing London to keep sending billions of pounds.
“The peace dividend is disappointingly limited,” conclude Graham Brownlow, David Jordan and John Turner, economists at Queen’s University in Belfast. Brexit, which 56 percent of Northern Irish voters voted against, is not helping either.
To avoid a hard border with Ireland, which would open old wounds, it was decided to control trade flows between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The recent Windsor Agreement largely streamlines that, but barriers remain. And the DUP, meanwhile the largest Protestant party, boycotted the Northern Ireland government as long as that rift in the British union exists.
“It is a miracle that The Good Friday Agreement survived Brexit,” Clinton said. Brownlow, Jordan and Turner are Stern: ‘the lack of government and the bad governance when there is government has plagued Northern Ireland since 1998.’