Derry Girls finale: Good Friday agreement episode hits a powerful political nerve

The show’s brilliantly disruptive approach to history has pierced hearts of viewers and the heart of political power in Westminster

Derry Girls was cited in a heated parliamentary debate on new Northern Ireland legislation last week. This wasn’t the first time the sensational Troubles-era sitcom became a political lightning rod.

Yet again the Good Friday agreement has been on the lips of right-wing politicians in a dangerous strategy to misuse the peace accord for their own ends (including those who admit to never having read it, such as UK deputy prime minister Dominic Raab).

The post-Brexit forward march of unilateral action by Westminster and the DUP regarding Northern Ireland’s future – unconscionably without the consent of its people, and erroneously in the name of the Good Friday agreement – has seemed inexorable. But in an extraordinarily unexpected instance last week, another Conservative politician discussed the agreement in the same breath as Derry Girls when he denounced the British government’s reckless treatment of Northern Ireland in a speech on the House of Commons floor. This remarkable moment illustrates how the show’s brilliantly disruptive approach to history has pierced not only the hearts of viewers worldwide, but also the heart of political power in Westminster.

A heated debate continues in the UK Parliament on the Northern Ireland Troubles Legacy and Reconciliation Bill despite the publication of a report by an independent panel of leading experts who found it to be “in breach of the Good Friday agreement” and “international human rights law”. Last week former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Julian Smith referenced the “brilliant Derry Girls finale” when stating his opposition to the Troubles Bill during its second reading.


Smith indicated that he was “deeply uncomfortable” with the proposed Bill and its handling of history. He cited a scene from the popular show as proving the significance of an official government recognition of past wrongs. Smith noted, “The lead character Erin’s monologue on coming of age in Northern Ireland was set to clips of Bloody Sunday and, more importantly, David Cameron’s apology. A clear modern reflection of the importance of that acknowledgement of the past.” The clip from his impassioned speech went viral, reaffirming that Derry Girls has hit a powerful political nerve.

As Siobhán McSweeney, who plays headmistress Sister Michael, points out, “There was an audience waiting for Derry Girls.” The show has been instrumental in spreading global understanding of the Troubles and the peace process. McSweeney observes, “The timing could not be more apt. It shows how the past is … always with us. The Good Friday agreement was hard won and hard fought for. The people of Northern Ireland voted for it and now it’s in danger of being attacked through ignorance. … It all goes back to the fact that a sitcom is teaching the people of [Britain] about the history of Northern Ireland.”

The week prior to the finale’s broadcast Channel 4 held an advance screening for the UK Parliament, featuring a Q&A with show creator McGee. One wonders which politicians attended and whether they chose to learn something from it.

The bravura series finale of Derry Girls, titled simply The Agreement, is an unforgettable ending to an absolutely masterful show that melds the personal and the political, and comedy and pathos, in a way that only McGee can achieve. In the last episode, the lead characters’ coming of age coincides with the Good Friday agreement referendum in May 1998. Until this point in the show, the Troubles served as a backdrop to their everyday adolescent lives.

Lisa McGee has confirmed in interviews that she always intended for Derry Girls to be a three-series show, which would culminate in the simultaneous milestones of the Agreement and their entry into adulthood. She places politics at the forefront of the one-hour bonus episode, while still generating plenty of laughs. When Granda Joe laments that he doesn’t understand “thon bloody introduction” to the agreement, Aunt Sarah explains matter-of-factly, “If you vote yes, you’re allowed to swing both ways. You can be Irish, you can be British, or you can be bi.”

McGee began drafting the first series of Derry Girls in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum. She recounts, “When I started writing the show, I did think about the carelessness of the Brexit vote, compared to how seriously people took that vote on the Good Friday agreement, and that maybe people didn’t really know what they were voting for.”

The magnitude of this responsibility is palpable in the show’s closing sequence, which bears witness to each character casting their vote in the booth. Although they do not speak, their facial expressions and gestures reveal the intensity of their individual emotions to powerful effect. In a quietly devastating moment, RUC chief constable Byers (played by Liam Neeson) removes his cap in honour of those who lost their lives, while a voiceover of David Cameron’s apology to the people of Derry for the Bloody Sunday massacre on behalf of the British state plays in the background.

For all the show’s uproarious and often irreverent humour, the last episode is deeply moving. The finale skilfully captures the charged atmosphere in the north at the time and the mixed feelings of jubilance and ambivalence ahead of the momentous vote, the outcome of which, as Sister Michael tells her pupils, “could change the course of history.”

We see beloved characters placing a vote for peace and stepping out of the polling station and into an unknown future. These final scenes are intercut with archival news footage of political figures such as SDLP leader and peacemaker John Hume alongside fellow Derry citizens at the euphoric moment when it was announced that a resounding 71.1 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted yes for the agreement. McGee affirms, “It makes me very proud of where I come from … How that vote went was one of the most incredible things that any country has ever done.”

Although Derry Girls is set during the 1990s, its resonance to the contemporary political crisis in the UK is undeniable and impactful. McSweeney comments, “I feel it’s incredibly poignant that we watch [them] head off at the end full of tentative hope for peace and reconciliation, for the future for young people. And we cut to now, and that is in danger, and it breaks my heart.”

Recently UK foreign secretary Liz Truss announced that as “co-signatory and co-guarantor” of the agreement, the British government will “take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability” by introducing legislation to “make changes to the [Northern Ireland] protocol”. As Queen’s University Belfast academic Katy Hayward asserts, “This amounts to breaking one international agreement to appease those who are in the course of breaking another international agreement – under the auspices of protecting the integrity and objectives of both.”

Meanwhile, Stormont remains suspended due to a minority party’s refusal to take their Assembly seats in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The DUP, following the Johnson administration’s lead, falsely maintains that the protocol (part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement designed to protect the North’s position) “undermines the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”. However, the party’s boycott of the North-South Ministerial Council – a body created by the agreement to facilitate cross-border cooperation – was ruled “an unlawful breach of the pledge of office” by the Belfast High Court in 2021. They are an anti-agreement party, and as Susan McKay remarks of current developments, “The DUP’s declared devotion to the Good Friday agreement is new and transparently insincere.”

In the final episode of Derry Girls, Erin asks her Granda Joe about the agreement referendum, “What if we do it and it was all for nothing? What if we vote yes and it doesn’t even work?” “And what if it does,” he counters, “What if no one else has to die? What if this all becomes a ghost story that you tell your weans one day?”

Granda Joe’s response encapsulates the radical hope and newfound possibilities underpinning the agreement, as well as the desire to make things better for the next generation. Twenty-four years on, as treaty signatory and Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition co-founder Monica McWilliams emphasises, “There is much that still needs to be delivered, but we have come a long way. There are people alive today who may well have gone to early graves had it not been for the Good Friday agreement.”

McGee knew from the outset that she would end the show with the girls walking into a new future created by the agreement. She states, “It was about finding the right place to leave them and know they’re gonna be ok, and I think – I hope – we’ve done that.”

Nearly a quarter-century after the signing of the agreement and the accompanying referendum vote, the future of Northern Ireland is once again precarious and the Troubles have not faded into a ghost story. They remain in living memory and their legacy continues to shape everyday life in the North. The UK government’s proposed Troubles Bill endangers the right of those affected by the conflict – which includes the whole of Northern Ireland – to be delivered any semblance of justice. The DUP’s failure to accept the outcome of the Assembly election, and their obstruction of democratic governance and power-sharing, further imperil the people of Northern Ireland during a dual cost of living and health crisis.

Westminster and the DUP must be held to account for their actions. Derry Girls reminds us that despite everything, we must hold on to hope for better things to come. It is worth recalling Erin’s closing monologue in full: “Things can’t stay the same. And they shouldn’t. No matter how scary it is, we have to move on and we have to grow up, because things, well, they might just change for the better. So we have to be brave. And if our dreams get broken along the way, we have to make new ones from the pieces.”

The impact of Lisa McGee’s love letter to her city and to the people of Northern Ireland demonstrates the tremendous power of art to instil hope in a time of crisis. She should take a bow, and we should all take note of what Derry Girls has prompted us to remember.

Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is visiting scholar at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She is coeditor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017)