What is the Northern Ireland Peace Process?
The sectarian division of Northern Ireland into unionists and nationalists has been a source of strife ever since the Partition of Ireland in 1920, and the moves towards complete Irish independence from the UK in the 1930s and 1940s. Today unionists support the continued British status of Northern Ireland while nationalists want Northern Ireland to become a part of the Irish Republic.
A number of unsuccessful attempts to restore peace and devolved government to the province were made between the outbreak of ‘The Troubles’ in 1969 and the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA’s) declaration of a ceasefire in August 1994.
Shortly after the ceasefire was announced, the British government entered into negotiations with Sinn Fein, a republican party whose objective was to end British rule in Ireland. Also in the talks were the Progressive Unionist party (PUP), and the Ulster Democratic party (UDP), loyalist parties associated with paramilitary groups the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) respectively (which followed the IRA’s lead in October 1994).
After the IRA’s Canary Wharf bombing of February 1996, Sinn Fein was excluded from talks. On July 19th 1997, the IRA renewed its ceasefire and Sinn Fein was readmitted to the talks on August 29th, causing the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and the United Kingdom Unionist party (UKUP) to withdraw.
The Belfast agreement (also known as the Good Friday agreement) was signed on April 10th 1998, and was approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum on May 22nd 1998.
The agreement said that Northern Ireland should remain within the UK so long as that was the wish of the people living there; but that the British and Irish governments would give effect to arrangements for a united Ireland if that should become the wish of the people of the province.
The agreement also included proposals for devolved government. The Northern Ireland Assembly was established by the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 and met for the first time on July 1st 1998. David Trimble was elected as first minister, because of his position as head of Northern Ireland’s biggest political party, the Ulster Unionist party (UUP), and Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the nationalist Social Democratic Labour party (SDLP), was named as his deputy.
However, on October 14th 2002, then Northern Ireland secretary John Reid suspended the Assembly following allegations that an IRA spy-ring was operating within Stormont, the Belfast-based assembly headquarters. The UUP threatened to pull out of power-sharing altogether if Sinn Fein was not expelled from the administration.
Before this time, the Assembly had been suspended on three other occasions because of unionist parties’ refusal to participate without additional reassurances from the republicans to renounce violence.
Devolved Power was restored to the Assembly on May 8th 2007 following a power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Following the Stormont incident, 2003 looked promising for decommissioning and devolution. Power-sharing talks resumed in the beginning of October after the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning’s (IICD’s) retrieval and disposal of a large stockpile of IRA weapons, but later that same month unionists backed out of the process.
Assembly elections were held in November 2003 which resulted in Sinn Fein and the DUP strengthening their electoral power. But the IRA complained unionist paramilitaries were still active, and accused Sinn Fein and the DUP of failing to work to stop the violence. As a result, significant talks did not take place until September the following year, when republicans said they would allow arms witnesses as part of decommissioning. This, however, fell short of unionist demands, and three months later the situation worsened.
In December the IRA was accused of stealing £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast, causing a crisis of trust between the unionists and nationalists. This was compounded by the death of Robert McCartney in Belfast in January 2005. His family began a high-profile campaign to get the IRA to take responsibility for his stabbing outside a Belfast pub.
After months of mounting pressure, the IRA announced on July 28th 2005 that it was unequivocally giving up its armed struggle.
In an act of good faith, the government restored Sinn Fein’s Assembly allowances – suspended in December 2004 – in November 2005, and the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, recommended to MPs that they lift the suspension of parliamentary allowances for Westminster.
In October 2006, an agreement was reached setting out a timetable to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and power-sharing government. The St Andrews Agreement required Sinn Fein to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), but also paved the way to transfer control of policing and justice to the government at Stormont, with a target date of May 2008. Sinn Fein has historically been opposed to the PSNI and transferring policing away from Westminster was a key demand.
The DUP nominated Ian Paisley as first minister in the devolved government and Sinn Fein nominated Martin McGuiness as his deputy. The St Andrews timetable planned for Assembly elections on March 7th 2007, with devolved power restored on March 26th. Following delays, power was eventually restored on May 8th 2007.
On September 26th 2005, almost two months after the IRA’s statement renouncing the armed struggle, IICD chairman John de Chastelain confirmed the paramilitary group’s full disarmament. A month later, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) said the IRA was making ‘encouraging progress’ towards decommissioning. Subsequent reports confirmed this progress.
However, unionists remained sceptical because of ongoing trust issues with the IRA and Sinn Fein – previous talks of decommissioning had floundered at the end of 2001.
Responding to the IICD announcement, Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP (then Northern Ireland’s largest party), called decommissioning a failure. He rejected the two commissions’ findings because of concerns about the way in which arms were being turned over. As part of the decommissioning agreement, photographs were not allowed to be taken, and the keeping of records was forbidden.
The threat of splinter groups forming and maintaining a military agenda was of particular concern to unionists, and the wider community. The IMC report in October 2005 concluded that paramilitaries, both loyalist and dissident republican, continued to exert a “malign influence” in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile the nationalists called for the Good Friday agreement to be implemented as soon as possible. For them this meant continuing the sustained fight for police and security reform. There was also the highly controversial question of what to do with terror suspects or escaped republican prisoners who were on the run.
Despite the power-sharing agreement reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP, random terrorist attacks continued to be carried out by dissident groups. These included an attack in 2010 on police constable Peadar Heffron, a Catholic serving in the Northern Ireland police service, who was seriously injured and lost a leg when a bomb exploded beneath his car. Another police constable, Ronan Kerr, also a Catholic serving in the PSNI, was killed by a car bomb in April 2011.
A month later, The Queen visited the Republic of Ireland, the first ever visit by a British Head of State. In a speech in Dublin Castle, Her Majesty spoke of the “complexity” of the relationship between the UK and Eire. “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all,” she said.
“But”, she added, “it is also true that no-one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and the people of our two nations, the spirit of partnership that we now enjoy, and the lasting rapport between us. No-one here this evening could doubt that heartfelt desire of our two nations.”
Although there are continuing reports of new terrorist groups being formed to replace the IRA, the general consensus appears to be that if reunification were ever to take place, it would only do so by political means and with the consent of all Irish people.
The current threat level is set separately for Northern Ireland and Great Britain:
In Northern Ireland it is Severe – this means that a terrorist attack is highly likely.
In Great Britain it is Substantial – this means that a terrorist attack is a strong possibility.
Source: Home Office – 2012
“Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland over recent years. As the headlines in the past few days demonstrate, however, we still have some way to go if we are to overcome the divisions in society and build a genuinely shared future.
“The Government will of course continue to stand by the agreements made over the past two decades and the political institutions they have established…..In addition the Government will maintain the utmost pressure on those who resort to terrorism and violence to pursue their objectives.
“So I look forward to working with the Executive, political parties and people from right across the community to build a stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland for everyone. This is a great opportunity which I relish.”
Theresa Villiers, on her appointment as Northern Ireland Secretary – September 2012.