A transformative agreement


The contribution made by the Belfast Agreement to a civilised life on this island has faded in the public’s imagination because of political caution and the painstakingly slow pace at which its provisions were implemented. In spite of that, the agreement has transformed political life in Northern Ireland and helped to break down barriers between Dublin and Belfast, while contributing to a strong, co-operative relationship between the Irish and British governments.

Only by looking back to the violence that scarred Northern Ireland for 30 years and its destructive impact on communal and inter-governmental relations can the true value of the Belfast Agreement be appreciated. Fashioned on the foundations of the Anglo-Irish Agreement – with the support of the United States and the negotiating skills of Senator George Mitchell – it marked a new departure. The Northern parties, with the exception of the DUP, formally agreed on the status and government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and signed up to undertakings involving civil and cultural rights, the decommissioning of weapons and a return of justice and policing powers to Northern Ireland. The right of the people of Northern Ireland to choose their own political future was a central element while provision was made to develop North-South institutions and relations within these islands.

Foreign investment flowed towards both sides of the Border as the threat of armed conflict receded. Economic output and social investment grew. Political progress in implementing the agreement was, however, painfully slow. After five years, government demands were still being made for the IRA to decommission its weapons. When that happened, it took a further six years before the DUP agreed to share power with Sinn Féin and policing and justice powers returned to Northern Ireland.

The tortuous nature of the political process should not disguise the advances that have been made. Policing by the PSNI is broadly recognised as even-handed and both communities are represented on policing boards. Discrimination in the allocation of housing has been addressed while the Parades Commission has defused much of the tension that surrounded the traditional marching season. There have been other achievements. But the most obvious and visible one has been a stable, powersharing Executive.

The greatest threat to the agreement is complacency. Elements in both communities are wedded to traditional animosities and want it to fail. That has been reflected in occasional street rioting and attacks on the police. Political and community leaders must do more to create a healthy, integrated society that rejects intolerance and discrimination.