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Northern Ireland
     A second time of Troubles
     Good Friday Agreement
     Brief return to Stormont

Devolution and reform

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A second time of Troubles: from1970

Sectarian violence is endemic in northern Ireland from the start of the 1970s. In 1972, the worst year of all, there are 467 deaths, 321 of them civilians. By 1992 the death toll in this second major bout of Troubles passes the 3000 mark, including more than 2000 civilians.

Among the continuous attempts to find a solution, certain initiatives stand out. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in 1985 by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald for Britain and Ireland, sets up regular meetings between ministers and officials of the two governments. It is a significant step - the first time that the republic of Ireland has had any say, however oblique, in the affairs of the northern province.


A new initiative in 1993 follows a series of meetings between John Hume (the Westminster MP for Foyle and leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party) and Gerry Adams, the president of Provisional Sinn Fein. The meetings are highly controversial, for they can be interpreted as negotiating with terrorists - since Sinn Fein and the IRA are closely related (how closely is a matter of debate) as the political and military wings of a linked organization.

Nevertheless the two men's initiative leads to another bid for peace at the highest level. In December 1993 the British and Irish prime ministers, John Major and Albert Reynolds, issue a joint Downing Street Declaration.


This again breaks new ground in declaring that Sinn Fein will be welcome at a future conference table if the IRA renounces violence. After months of intense debate on the issue, the IRA declares a ceasefire in September 1994. The Loyalist paramilitaries follow suit a month later.

These unprecedentedly hopeful signs are followed by an eighteen-month peace which has a benign influence on the economic as well as the psychological condition of northern Ireland. The time is spent preparing for all-party peace talks and debating the thorny question of whether the IRA will relinquish their arms once the talks start (their position) or must do so as a condition for taking part in any talks (the British government's position).


George Mitchell, a former US senator, is invited by the British and Irish governments to chair an international group charged with devising a workable solution to this problem. The Mitchell group reports in January 1996, proposing a progressive decommissioning of arms in Northern Ireland as part of an ongoing peace process.

John Major accepts the report in principle, but says that it cannot be implemented until after the election of a peace forum. This response is rejected by Sinn Fein. A few days later, in February, a massive IRA bomb explodes at Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, killing two and doing extensive damage. The precious ceasefire is at an end.


Good Friday Agreement: 1997-1999

Sectarian violence resumes after the Canary Wharf bomb, at first with IRA terrorist acts perpetrated only in mainland Britain but from October 1996 in Ulster too. Loyalist terrorists soon retaliate in Ulster.

When the Labour party wins the general election in May 1997, one of the first acts by the new prime minister, Tony Blair, is an attempt to kickstart the stalled peace process in northern Ireland. He announces in June that talks on the future of the province will begin in September, regardless of whether or not there is a cessation of violence - adding that Sinn Fein will be welcome to join the talks six weeks after the IRA has declared a new and unequivocal ceasefire.


This introduction of a deadline, after which Sinn Fein will be absent from at least part of the talks, proves effective. On July 19 the IRA announces a ceasefire to begin on the following day, with the result that they can participate when talks begin at Stormont in September. The Unionist side briefly walks out in protest, but within a few days they are back.

On September 23 representatives of all the main political groups in northern Ireland meet for the first time, face to face, for discussions. In October they are briefly joined by Tony Blair. Not since 1921 has a British prime minister met with Sinn Fein. Blair shakes the hand of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, causing outrage in hardline Unionist circles.


The close involvement of Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of the republic of Ireland, is a crucial element in this peace process. In January 1998 the two governments present a joint set of proposals to the peace talks. Their plan combines an elected northern Ireland assembly with various cross-border and British Isles councils - to provide other forums in which to ease local tensions.

Blair's original programme placed a time limit on the talks, insisting that a package be agreed by May 1998 as the basis for a referendum. The deadline is met. In Belfast, on 10 April 1998 (Good Friday), both governments and the relevant political parties formally agree to the holding of a referendum - along lines close to those jointly proposed by Blair and Ahern.


The Good Friday Agreement also mentions the phased release of paramilitary (or terrorist) prisoners, and the gradual decommissioning of weapons as proposed by Mitchell. And there is one important political innovation. The referendum is to ask for approval in the republic of Ireland that the claim to the six counties be dropped from the constitution.

The referendum takes place in May 1998. A 94% vote in the republic supports the Good Friday Agreement and the proposed change in the constitution. In northern Ireland 71% vote for the agreement. Elections follow immediately, in June, for the Stormont parliament. The various Unionist groups win 55 seats and the nationalists 42 (comprising 24 seats for the SDLP and 18 for Sinn Fein).


Almost Stormont: 1998-1999

In July 1998 the Northern Ireland Assembly meets for the first time at Stormont. David Trimble (Ulster Unionist) is elected First Minister.

For nearly a year desultory business continues, without Trimble being able to form a cabinet and begin the proper process of governing. The reason is the long-standing problem of the decommissioning of arms. The timetable has been left deliberately vague in the Good Friday Agreement. Now the Unionists insist that Sinn Fein cannot be part of government until decommissioning has begun. The IRA is equally adamant that it will not give up any weapons until Sinn Fein is in the government. In desperation Blair attempts another deadline. Unless there is agreement by the end of June 1999, there will be no Stormont parliament.


Long nights of intense bargaining up to the end of June, and through the first two days of July, end with an ultimatum from the British and Irish prime ministers. They propose now that Sinn Fein should be allowed to take part in the proposed executive on the mere promise of IRA arms decommissioning, which must begin within a short period and be complete by May 2000. A strict monitoring system for decommissioning is to be set in place. Stormont will be suspended if the IRA fail to meet stipulated deadlines.

If all parties accept these terms, and meet together in Stormont on July 15 to select the members of the executive, then devolved powers will be transferred to northern Ireland on July 18.


Intense discussion continues over the next two weeks, particularly between David Trimble, on behalf of the Ulster Unionists, and Tony Blair. Trimble complains that no clear evidence has been provided that the IRA does intend to hand in its arms, and no strict timetable for them to do so has yet been agreed. Without better guarantees on this front he refuses to recommend to his party the proposed arrangements for immediate power-sharing.

On July 15 northern Ireland's elected politicians assemble in Stormont. The business of the day is the nomination by each party of their representatives on the power-sharing executive. But the Ulster Unionist seats are empty.


The assembly progresses solemnly through a hollow procedure. The SDLP and Sinn Fein are the only parties to nominate ministers, so the ten-member executive becomes exclusively nationalist. Ministerial portfolios are allocated. Then the speaker announces that the executive is invalid because it does not meet the power-sharing requirement.

The peace process goes back into limbo, with a profound public sense of disappointment. The Good Friday Agreement and the referenda still hold good as the basis for future progress, but devolution has been snatched once again from northern Ireland. Meanwhile it has been achieved elsewhere, in both Scotland and Wales - some twenty years after first being on offer.


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