Political background and chronology of peace process

Political background and chronology of the peace process

The existing political division in Ireland dates from the Government of Ireland Act 1920.  The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921 and after centuries of British rule, 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland gained independence.  The remaining 6 counties formed Northern Ireland, which continued to be governed within the United Kingdom.  However, while the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster continued to exercise sovereignty, power on a variety of matters was devolved to a local Parliament and Government established initially in Belfast City Hall in 1921 and later moved to the parliament building in Stormont in 1932.

From 1921 to 1972, although Northern Ireland elected members to the Westminster parliament, the devolved Government operated with virtual autonomy from London on local matters.  Power remained exclusively in the hands of the Unionist party which drew its support from the majority community in the area which favoured union with Britain.  Nationalists had in practice no role in government and they suffered discrimination at local level in many areas, including voting rights, housing and employment.

In 1969 non-violent campaigners for civil rights met with a hostile and repressive response from the Stormont authorities, ushering in a period of sustained political crisis.  This gave rise to civil unrest and the revival of violent activity by paramilitary organisations representing elements within both communities.

In a deteriorating security situation the local Northern Ireland Parliament and Government were prorogued in 1972 and the British Government assumed direct responsibility for all aspects of the government of Northern Ireland.  With the exception of one brief period in 1974 when a local executive was established on a power-sharing basis under the Sunningdale Agreement, Northern Ireland was until December 1999 governed under a system of direct rule under the authority of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (a member of the British Cabinet). 

The search for a political settlement: 1980s and 1990s

From the early 1980s onwards, the British and Irish Governments began to co-operate more closely in an effort to achieve a widely acceptable and durable political settlement of the Northern Ireland problem. This effort involved both the successive establishment of a number of structures and mechanisms for dialogue and negotiation, and a growing convergence on the fundamental constitutional and other principles which should underpin a settlement.

In November 1985, the Irish and British Governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement (PDF 2512kb) . The Agreement enabled the Irish Government to put forward views and proposals on many aspects of Northern Ireland affairs, and through its structures the two Governments intensified their work to find a solution to the Northern Ireland problem.

In 1991/92, the two Governments convened round-table talks involving the main constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland (the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI)). While some common ground was identified, overall agreement could not be reached.

On 15 December 1993, the then Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds TD, and the British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, issued a Joint Declaration which set out a charter for peace and reconciliation in Ireland. It set out the basic principles necessary to underpin the political process and established the principles of self-determination and consent in relation to the Constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

The Declaration also sought to offer those associated with paramilitary violence a route into the political process by stating that “democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics and to join in dialogue in due course between the Governments and the political parties on the way ahead.” The leader of Sinn Fein, Mr Gerry Adams, had earlier in 1993 resumed a dialogue with Mr John Hume, the leader of the SDLP.

On 31 August 1994, the IRA announced a “complete cessation of military operations”. This announcement was followed on 13 October 1994 by a similar statement from the Combined Loyalist Military Command. Following the cease-fires the two Governments engaged in direct political dialogue with Sinn Fein and the two loyalist parties, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP).

On 22 February 1995, the then Taoiseach, Mr John Bruton TD, and the then British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, published A New Framework for Agreement (known as the Framework Document) , setting out the shared understanding between the two Governments of their best estimate of how an honourable accommodation might be envisaged across all the relationships, without compromising the long-term aspirations or interests of either tradition or of either community in Northern Ireland. The Governments also committed themselves to comprehensive negotiations involving the Northern Ireland parties, the outcome of which would be submitted for democratic ratification through referendums North and South.

The year following the publication of the Framework Document was dominated by efforts to move forward to comprehensive and inclusive political talks. The key challenge was to find a formula whereby representatives of the unionist community would agree to take part in negotiations in which Sinn Fein were also represented. The issue of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms assumed great significance, blocking progress to talks. In December 1995 the two Governments established an International Body under the chairmanship of US Senator George Mitchell to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. In its report of January 1996 the International Body recommended that all parties participating in negotiations should commit themselves to six principles of democracy and non-violence, including the total and verifiable decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. It proposed that the parties consider a proposal whereby decommissioning might occur during negotiations.

On 9 February 1996 the IRA announced an end to its cease-fire and resumed violence. Both Governments vowed to continue the search for political agreement and expressed the hope that a restoration of the cease-fire would allow for the resumption of political dialogue with Sinn Fein.

Multi-Party Talks

Multi-party talks involving the two Governments and Northern Ireland political parties which had been successful in a specially convened election in May 1996 (the UUP, DUP, SDLP, APNI, PUP, UDP, United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP), Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) and Labour, but excluding Sinn Fein, in the absence of a complete and unequivocal IRA cease-fire) finally began on 10 June 1996.

The talks were chaired by Senator Mitchell, assisted by former Finnish Prime Minister Mr Harri Holkeri and retired Canadian General John de Chastelain. For the first year, after the adoption of rules of procedure in July 1996, they made little progress, as the decommissioning issue continued to dominate. On 20 July 1997, the IRA announced a resumption of its cease-fire, opening the way for the entry of Sinn Fein to the talks on 9 September. Two of the unionist parties, the DUP and the UKUP, then left the talks. However, the largest unionist party, the UUP, continued to participate.

An Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD)  was established by the two Governments on 26 August 1997 to report on progress on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

Substantive negotiations eventually began on 24 September 1997, following agreement on a comprehensive three-stranded agenda. They continued until April 1998. Each participant presented its views and proposals on aspects of the agenda. As the talks progressed the independent chairmen worked with the two Governments and the parties to identify areas of broad agreement and isolate areas of remaining difficulty. Eventually, the independent chairmen set a deadline of 9 April 1998. In the final and intensive negotiations the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern TD, and the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair led their Governments' delegations.  

Good Friday Agreement 1998

On Friday, 10 April 1998 a comprehensive political agreement – known as the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement was approved at a plenary session of the talks. The two Governments signed immediately thereafter a new British-Irish Agreement committing them to give effect to the provisions of this multi-party agreement, in particular those relating to constitutional change and the creation of new institutions.

Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

In the referendums held on 22 May 1998, the people of Ireland, both North and South, overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement. In Northern Ireland, 71.1 per cent of the people voted to approve the Agreement. In the South, 94.4 per cent of the people voted to allow the Government become party to the Agreement. The combined Yes vote in both parts of Ireland was 85 per cent. This was the first occasion since 1918 on which all the people in Ireland had voted together to decide their political future. The electorate in the South approved amendments to the Irish Constitution which formed part of the Agreement.

Following the approval of the people, the two Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland began the long and detailed task of implementing the Agreement and setting up the institutions for which it provides. Elections took place to the new Northern Ireland Assembly on 25 June 1998. The Assembly, in which pro-Agreement parties held most of the seats, subsequently met on 1 July 1998 and elected Mr David Trimble of the UUP as First Minister and Mr Seamus Mallon of the SDLP as Deputy First Minister.

The Northern Ireland Police Commission (under the chairmanship of Chris Patten) reported in September 1999. In order to give effect to its recommendations, the British Government enacted legislation in November 2000 and April 2003. Part of the new accountability structures in policing included the establishment of the office of the Police Ombudsman (November 2000); the Policing Board (November 2001) and the District Policing Partnerships (March 2003). The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) came into being in November 2001, replacing the Royal Ulster Constabulary, when the first batch of new recruits joined the service. For more information, see the Policing and Justice  section of this website.

In the period since the signing of the Agreement, considerable progress has been made towards its full implementation. Significant achievements have been made in a number of areas, including policing, human rights and equality. The Governments and the parties have had to face and overcome difficulties in certain key areas, particularly on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and on the stable and inclusive operation of the political institutions.

Unfortunately, the institutions established by the Agreement, particularly the Executive and the Assembly- have not yet had an opportunity to operate for any sustained period of time. Power was first devolved to the new Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, established under the Agreement, on 2 December 1999. However, disagreements between the parties, principally over the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, led to the operation of the Assembly being interrupted by a series of suspensions over the next two years.  On 14 October 2002, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. John Reid, made an order suspending the Executive and Assembly following allegations of Republican intelligence gathering in Stormont.

In an effort to restore momentum towards full implementation of the Agreement, on 1 May 2003 the two Governments published a Joint Declaration (PDF 88kb)  , which outlined the work that they had been engaged in since the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly in 2002 and identified areas where progress could be made in the ongoing implementation. A period of intensive negotiations between the parties and the two Governments failed to resolve all outstanding difficulties and Assembly elections, held in November 2003, resulted in the DUP and Sinn Féin becoming the largest parties on the unionist and nationalist side respectively.

On 7 January 2004, the two Governments established an Independent Monitoring Commission to produce regular reports on the issues of paramilitary and criminal activity and on security normalisation.

A year of further intense negotiations during which the Governments convened a Review of the Operation of the Good Friday Agreement brought all sides close to agreement. However, on 8 December 2004, both governments announced that, while almost all outstanding issues had been agreed with the parties, differences over the process to be used to verify the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons remained unresolved. The Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern T.D. and the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, publicly released their proposals for an agreement  on all outstanding issues relating to the peace process.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Belfast on the same day, the two Prime Ministers expressed the firm hope that the people of Northern Ireland would reflect on what had been achieved and on the opportunity which the agreement, if accepted in its entirety, represented. They also made clear their intention to press ahead to find ways of bridging the remaining gaps.

On 7 January 2005, the PSNI Chief Constable, Mr. Hugh Orde, made public his assessment that the IRA were responsible for a substantial raid on the Northern Bank head office in Belfast in December 2004.

The Government subsequently delivered a clear message to the Sinn Féin leadership that unless IRA paramilitarism and criminality was brought to a definitive closure, there was no prospect of restoring inclusive devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

On 6 April 2005, the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams made a statement directed at the IRA in which he asserted that there was now a political alternative to “armed struggle”. He appealed to the IRA to consider “initiatives which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity”. The IRA subsequently launched a process of internal consultation on Adams’ appeal.  

On 28 July 2005, the IRA issued a statement indicating that an end to its armed campaign had been ordered by the leadership. The statement confirmed that the IRA leadership had authorised their representative to engage with the IICD to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use. On 26 September 2005, the IICD submitted a report to the two Governments confirming that IRA decommissioning had been completed.

Following the IICD announcement political contacts intensified with a view to the restoration of devolved government at the earliest possible opportunity. A series of meetings took place at political level between the two Governments and discussions with the political parties were also stepped up, including a series of “stocktaking” meetings with the parties on 14 and 24 November 2005 at Hillsborough jointly chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain.

On 26 January 2006, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Blair met in Dublin to consider the way ahead in relation to Northern Ireland. They issued a joint statement after the meeting in which they stated that 2006 would be a decisive year for the process and called on all the parties to take the necessary steps to allow trust and confidence to be built. They announced that talks with the parties would begin on 6 February with the aim of setting out the arrangements and timetable for the restoration of the institutions.

On 6 April 2006, the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair set out the Governments’ joint strategy for the recall of the Assembly on 15 May 2006, with a view to restoring the power-sharing institutions. All 108 MLAs took their seats at the Assembly’s first meeting on 15 May – the first time they had met in that format in over three and a half years.

On 29 June, the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair met the parties at Stormont to take stock of developments since the recall of the Assembly. On the same day they published a work-plan and a timetable setting out the steps to restoration to assist the parties with their preparations for government.

Over subsequent months, the parties met within the framework of the Assembly’s Preparation for Government Committee, which was established to scope the work needed to be done in preparation for government. Membership of the Committee comprised three members each from the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP and SDLP, and two from the Alliance party. The Committee submitted reports to the Governments on the following issues: (i) the economy, (ii) law and order issues (iii) institutional issues and (iv) rights, safeguards, equality and victims’ issues.

On the 11-13 October, the Taoiseach and PM Blair hosted intensive talks with the political parties at St Andrews in Scotland with the aim of reaching agreement on all outstanding issues. At the end of these talks, the two Governments published the St. Andrews Agreement.

Underpinning the Good Friday Agreement, the St. Andrews Agreement set out a clear way forward for all parties to commit to the full operation of stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and to full support for policing and the criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board. Major progress in that regard was made in the early months of 2007.  On 28 January the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis overwhelmingly endorsed a motion supporting policing and the criminal justice system in accordance with the St Andrews Agreement.  In the context of implementing the St Andrews Agreement, elections were held to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 7 March 2007 which delivered a strong mandate for power-sharing. They returned the DUP with 36 seats, Sinn Féin with 28 seats, UUP with 18, SDLP 16, Alliance 7, PUP 1, Greens 1 and Independents 1.

 The restoration of the devolved institutions took place on 8 May 2007, in accordance with the St. Andrews Agreement and commitments made by Sinn Féin and the DUP in an unprecedented meeting held in Stormont on 26 March 2007.

The commitment to a fresh start to relations on the island was underscored by the successful meeting between the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern and the DUP leader Dr. Ian Paisley on 4 April at Farmleigh, and again as the Taoiseach welcomed Dr. Ian Paisley as Northern Ireland’s First Minister to the site of the Battle of the Boyne on 11 May.

On 15 May 2007, in the first ever such speech by a Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern was welcomed in Westminster to address the Joint Houses of Parliament.