First 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement: Deal has yet to fulfil potential

The Good Friday Agreement brought the framework for peace, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith looks back on the key moments of the first 20 years of the peace process.

First 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement: Deal has yet to fulfil potential

The Good Friday Agreement brought the framework for peace, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith looks back on the key moments of the first 20 years of the peace process.

The 1998 Nobel Peace Prize laureates John Hume, right, and David Trimble, photographed at a press conference in the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo.
The 1998 Nobel Peace Prize laureates John Hume, right, and David Trimble, photographed at a press conference in the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo.

FROM the SDLP’s John Hume and the UUP’s David Trimble jointly winning the Nobel peace prize as architects of the Good Friday Agreement, to both parties being effectively written out of history by their Sinn Féin and DUP rivals over the next 20 years.

From the DUP’s insistence it would never sit at the same table as Sinn Féin, to Ian Paisley Sr and Martin McGuinness’s relationship becoming so strong they were known as the Chuckle Brothers.

From Omagh, Holy Cross, loyalist Michael Stone’s “theatrical” gun and bomb attack attempt on Stormont and the 2009 murder of two British soldiers outside an army barracks, to eventual decommissioning by almost all paramilitary groups.

And from promises of a new era of power-sharing, to those same promises being repeatedly undermined due to a series of scandals and Troubles legacy issues that have now stalled Stormont for more than 13 months.

While far from perfect, the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement has seen seismic shifts in Northern Ireland which while bringing the peace have far from ended the political war.

However, although the historic April 1998 deal will be rightly lauded this week, what has followed it remains only a partial success that has yet to fully live up to its potential, as the key moments of the past two decades underline:

1998

April 10:

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were at the centre of negotiations for peace in Northern Ireland.
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were at the centre of negotiations for peace in Northern Ireland.

After long-drawn out negotiations sought by SDLP leader John Hume and UUP leader David Trimble, and overseen by Mo Mowlam, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair announce the Good Friday Agreement terms.

The deal will be put to a dual May 22 vote on both sides of the border.

In typical fashion, Mr Blair says “a day like today is not a day for soundbites, really”, before adding “but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders”.

While the SDLP and UUP are the architects of the deal, they will over the following 20 years be overshadowed by rival parties Sinn Féin and the DUP.

This remains a significant bone of contention, as the DUP was the only party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement, while Sinn Féin delayed its own signing off on the deal.

April 10 to May 22:

On May 10, Sinn Féin votes to end its abstentionist Stormont seats policy if the agreement is backed.

In an unexpected moment, pop star Bono brings SDLP leader John Hume and UUP leader David Trimble on stage at a May 19 gig at Belfast’s Waterfront where they shake hands and urge a yes vote.

In December, Mr Hume and Mr Trimble jointly win the Nobel peace prize.

May 22:

The Good Friday Agreement is passed in the Republic by 94.39% and in Northern Ireland by 71.12%.

Six of the UUP’s 10 MPs immediately quit for Ian Paisley Sr’s rival DUP.

A vote on who should hold the 108 MLA seats in the new Assembly takes place on June 25, with an agreement that a cross-party government would be formed.

Mr Trimble is named first minister and the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon deputy first minister.

July 12:

In the first clear signs of trouble, 10,000 loyalists gather at Drumcree to protest the decision to block the Orange Order from marching down Garvaghy Road, Armagh, resulting in a week of intense violence.

One week later, three children are killed in Ballymena after their house is set on fire by loyalists.

August 15:

An RUC police officer looks at the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market St, Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1998.
An RUC police officer looks at the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market St, Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1998.

Omagh. In an attack from a recently-formed splinter group called the Real IRA, 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins are murdered and 220 others are seriously injured, the most lethal atrocity of the Troubles.

Among the dead are Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon teenager, five other teens, six children and two Spanish tourists.

Both unionists and nationalists are killed by the bomb, which was set off after inaccurate phone warnings to police.

September:

A number of controversial prisoner releases are agreed as part of the Good Friday Agreement over the next two years.

1999

March 15:

Nationalist lawyer Rosemary Nelson is murdered by loyalist group the Red Hand Defenders after a car bomb is placed at her home in Lurgan. A subsequent investigation rules out British security collusion, but not individual officer involvement.

May 27:

The first body of the Disappeared provisional IRA victims is recovered. The remains of Eamon Molloy, who was taken when he was 21 in 1975, are found in a Louth graveyard.

September 9:

The Patten report on policing calls for a radical overhaul of the RUC and its replacement with a new police service called the PSNI due to the long-standing image of it being a Protestant police force. The PSNI is eventually created in 2001.

2000

March 26:

John Hanley, a member of the public, holds up a paper from the time of Bloody Sunday at the start of the Saville Inquiry in 2000.
John Hanley, a member of the public, holds up a paper from the time of Bloody Sunday at the start of the Saville Inquiry in 2000.

The Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday atrocity begins taking oral evidence from hundreds of witnesses of the notorious January 30, 1972, shooting of 13 people in Derry by British soldiers. The new investigation, which began in 1998, was established due to a widespread belief the April 1972 Lord Widgery investigation just 11 weeks after the shootings was a whitewash.

2001

January to August:

Despite an initially agreed Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IMC) deadline for paramilitaries to give up their arms in 2000, the Provisional IRA has yet to do so as British troops remain in Northern Ireland.

A new deadline of June 30 is set and passes without full disarmament, leading to Mr Trimble resigning as first minister in protest at the provisional IRA’s failure to put its weapons “completely and verifiably beyond use”.

A breakthrough eventually occurs on August 7, when the Provisional IRA agrees to a method of destroying its arsenal which is accepted by IMC chair general John de Chastelain of Canada. It takes four more years for full decommissioning to occur.

June 19:

Northern Ireland returns to the international headlines for all the wrong reasons after a Catholic primary school for girls called Holy Cross becomes the centre of the anger and division in the province.

In June, Loyalists begin picketing the school claiming Catholics have regularly been attacking their homes in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, which is deeply segregated. Hundreds of protesters appear over a number of weeks and try to stop terrified schoolchildren and their parents from walking to the school from their area, throwing stones, bricks, fireworks, blast bombs and urine-filled balloons in the process.

August 11:

Three Irishmen — Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley — are arrested for travelling on false passports at Bogota in Colombia, with local police alleging they were members of the provisional IRA and training FARC rebels.

November 4:

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is officially established, and replaces the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

December 7:

The Police Ombudsman’s investigation into the Omagh atrocity finds the RUC special branch failed to act on warnings.

2002

October 4:

Stormont faces the real prospect of collapse after a “spy ring” is uncovered among Sinn Féin officials overseeing the party’s administrative office in the Assembly.

A number of senior Sinn Féin officials are arrested, including the party’s administration office head Denis Donaldson, who three years later is found to be a British agent.

UUP leader David Trimble says the Assembly cannot continue with Sinn Féin being “half-in, half-out”.

2003

May 11:

Sinn Féin and Northern Irish politics is sent into disarray after several newspapers name senior party official Freddie Scappaticci as “Stakeknife”, the code name of a British spy who infiltrated the provisional IRA hierarchy. Mr Scappaticci denies the allegations.

It is claimed the British government overlooked at least 40 “Nutting squad” murders in the 1970s to protect Mr Scappaticci’s cover.

November 26:

The first Assembly election since the Good Friday Agreement was signed sees both the UUP and SDLP lose control of Stormont, with voters moving in droves to the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The clear polarisation of Northern Irish politics, which has never been reversed, changes the entire dynamic of the post-Good Friday Agreement environment.

2004

December 20:

The largest bank robbery in Irish history takes place, after £26.5m is stolen from the Northern Bank’s headquarters in Belfast.

The PSNI, Irish Government and British government accuse the Provisional IRA of being responsible, a claim that is denied by both the paramilitary group and Sinn Féin.

August 6:

Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams on Good Friday, 1998. His party grew to overshadow the SDLP in the years after the agreement.
Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams on Good Friday, 1998. His party grew to overshadow the SDLP in the years after the agreement.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams publicly says he wants the Provisional IRA to fully decommission, due in part to repeated unionist threats they will not return to power-sharing while the paramilitary group remains.

2005

January 30:

Robert McCartney, 33, is killed after an altercation at Magennis’ Bar on May St in Belfast.

A cover-up is alleged after PSNI officers who arrive at the scene to examine evidence are met with an impromptu riot, bar CCTV tapes removed, bar staff threatened and a number of witnesses claiming they were in the bar toilet at the time. Sinn Féin eventually suspend 12 members and the Provisional IRA expels three members.

May 4:

The unionist switch from the UUP to DUP in the key 2003 Assembly election is repeated in the 2005 Westminster election, leaving the UUP with just one MP, Sylvia Hermon, who later becomes an Independent.

September 26:

The chair of the IMC, General John de Chastelain, meets with Irish and British government representatives to say he is now satisfied the Provisional IRA has taken part in full decommissioning and put all of its weapons beyond use.

December 15:

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams says Denis Donaldson has been uncovered as a British intelligence agent given the codename “Martin”. Mr Donaldson says he was recruited after a “compromising” himself during a vulnerable time in his life.

2006

November 24:

Notorious former UDA member Michael Stone — notorious for the 1988 Milltown cemetery murders — causes a major Stormont security alert after trying to enter the building with an imitation Beretta pistol, a knife and a viable bomb, in addition to planting eight pipe bombs on the campus. It takes three security officers to disarm him by trapping him in revolving doors.

At a court hearing on December 19, Mr Stone’s lawyer claims the incident was “a piece of performance art replicating a terrorist attack”.

The attack puts recent talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin on how to return to long-stalled power-sharing on ice. However, the incident has since been seen as a moment which forced Northern Irish parties to re-double power-sharing efforts.

2007

March 25:

The DUP and Sinn Féin finally strike a power-sharing deal with the help of international negotiators, the Irish government and the British government.

Ian Paisley Sr becomes first minister and Martin McGuinness deputy first minister, with the duo soon nicknamed the “Chuckle Brothers”.

2008

April 4:

Denis Donaldson is found dead in his Donegal cottage after being shot a number of times. The Real IRA claim responsibility for the murder three years later.

June 3:

Peter Robinson replaces Ian Paisley Sr as DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister. His public relationship with Martin McGuinness is more tense and workmanlike. Two years later, Mr Robinson’s position comes under threat when it emerges his wife Iris had an extra-marital affair and further revelations about their business arrangements.

2009

March 7:

Two British army soldiers are shot at the Massereene barracks in Antrim while collecting a pizza. The Real IRA claims responsibility, leading to an outcry from all sides of the political divide.

June 27:

Two years after declaring a ceasefire, the IMC officially says the UVF has decommissioned and put its weapons beyond use.

October:

The DUP and Sinn Féin risk collapsing the Assembly again due to a row over devolution of policing and justice powers from Britain to Northern Ireland.

2010

June 15:

Then British prime minister David Cameron formally apologises for the Bloody Sunday atrocity after the Saville inquiry findings, saying the shootings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

2011

May 17-20:

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and then President Mary McAleese, followed by Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, at Aras an Uachtarain during the queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011, a visit which in years previous would have been impossible. Picture: Paul Faith
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and then President Mary McAleese, followed by Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, at Aras an Uachtarain during the queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011, a visit which in years previous would have been impossible. Picture: Paul Faith

Queen Elizabeth II visits Ireland, a trip that just two decades earlier was seen as impossible. Despite some splinter terrorist group threats, she is broadly welcomed across the country in a hugely symbolic moment of peace for Ireland and Britain.

Summer:

The PSNI launch a legal bid to gain access to the Boston College tapes — interviews with paramilitary and political figures to be released after they die — after a number of allegations.

Gerry Adams is later interviewed by the PSNI in 2014 over disputed claims he was involved in the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville.

2012

December 3:

The DUP-Sinn Féin power-sharing arrangement is once again thrown into doubt after loyalists hold a series of violent riots over Belfast City Council’s decision to limit the number of days the British flag is flown over official buildings.

The incident is soon labelled “flag-gate”.

2014

April 24:

Gerry Adams is arrested by the PSNI in relation to the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville in 1972. He denies any involvement, and appeals for anyone with information to come forward.

June 27:

Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister and former Provisional IRA member Martin McGuinness shakes hands in Belfast with Queen Elizabeth II, three years after her visit to Ireland.

September 12:

Former DUP leader Ian Paisley Sr dies after a long illness.

Autumn:

Stormont once again faces collapse after Sinn Féin refuses to implement social welfare reforms, leading to three months of talks to save power-sharing.

2015

Summer:

After two former provisional IRA members are shot in August, PSNI chief constable George Hamilton says the paramilitary group still exists.

After 10 weeks of talks, the Irish and British governments, DUP and Sinn Féin agree to the new Fresh Start Agreement, which focusses on paramilitarism and welfare reforms.

2016

June 23:

Britain’s decision to narrowly vote in favour of leaving the EU sees the future of Northern Ireland and the peace process again thrown into doubt.

Sinn Féin say a vote on the border should be held within the next decade, while the DUP and UUP insist Northern Ireland must be treated the same way as other parts of Britain.

2017/2018

March 21 2017:

Martin McGuinness dies after a short illness, while months later Gerry Adams says he will step down as Sinn Féin leader.

March 2 to present:

The Assembly has not sat since this date, due to an ongoing row between the DUP and Sinn Féin which began as a dispute over fuel allowance corruption claims and has since focussed on Irish language rights and other issues. Both the Irish and British governments insist a resolution must be found to prevent the return of direct rule from London.

20 of the key moments in the past 20 years

1: The vote, May 22, 1998

2: Omagh, August 15, 1998

3: Decommissioning deadlines broken, January to August, 2001

4: Holy Cross, June 19, 2001

5: PSNI established, November 4, 2001

6: Spy ring uncovered, October 4, 2002

7: DUP overtakes UUP and never looks back, November 26, 2003

8: Northern Bank robbery, December 20, 2004

9: IMC says provisional IRA has put weapons beyond use, September 26, 2005

10: Denis Donaldson revealed as double agent, December 15, 2005

11: Michael Stone’s theatrical attack, November 24, 2006

12: UVF decommissioning, June 27, 2009

13: Queen’s visit, May 17-20, 2011

14: Adams arrested over Jean McConville, April 24, 2014

15: McGuinness and Queen shake hands, June 27, 2014

16: Ian Paisley senior dies, September 12, 2014

17: PSNI say provisional IRA has not gone away, summer 2015

18: Brexit, June 23, 2016

19: McGuinness dies, March 21, 2017

20: Stormont stalls, March 2, 2017, to present

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up