This article is written by Neha Dahiya, a law student at Dr. B.R. Ambedkar National Law University, Sonipat. This article explains the background of the conflict in Northern Ireland and how it culminated with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It also analyses the drawbacks of the agreement and the impact of Brexit on it.  

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


The Good Friday Agreement ended one of the longest conflicts in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants. The cause of the rift was the fate of a ‘united Ireland’. While one side wanted to stay with the UK, the other wanted to join the Republic of Ireland. After decades of violence and conflicts, peace came with the signing of this agreement that declared the will of the people as supreme and also created some institutional changes to ensure peace in the country. 

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What is the Good Friday Agreement 

The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement was a peace agreement that brought the conflict in Northern Ireland to an end. It was signed on April 10, 1998, and was ratified by popular vote on May 22, 1998, in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Basically, the issue can be condensed as a conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics. The numeric majority of one group helped it to run a majoritarian government against the other. This sparked decades of conflict that finally ended with the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement led to the formation of various political institutions in the Northern Ireland and defined its relation with Britain and Ireland. The agreement also expressed the will of the people of Northern Ireland who decided to stay as a part of the UK. It highlighted the ‘principle of consent’, i.e., the will of the people is considered to be supreme and legitimate. 

Why was the Good Friday Agreement formulated 

Background of the conflict in Northern Ireland 

Ireland has been ruled by Great Britain for hundreds of years. However, a part of it split off from Britain and called itself ‘the Republic of Ireland’. The part that stayed with Britain was called Northern Ireland.

Following this, there was a division among the people of Northern Ireland into two camps. These were as follows:

  1. The Unionists or the Loyalists- This group was loyal to the British crown and was content with remaining a part of the UK. They were mostly Protestants and dominated the government. 
  2. The Nationalists or the Republics- This group wanted to be independent of the UK. They were in favour of joining the Republic of Ireland and were mainly Catholics. They were a minority. 

The conflict between Protestants and Catholics 

The Protestants being the power holders dominated the Catholic minority. The policies were formulated to put the Catholics at a disadvantage. They found it difficult to get homes and jobs. However, the prevalence of discrimination is hotly debated even now. Nevertheless, the Catholics started protesting for their rights. A civil rights movement emerged by the mid-1960s to which the situation turned violent and as a result of which, the British government was forced to send troops to help in mitigating the violence. There were continuous bombings, assassinations and riots between the two groups. Several people lost their lives in the protest and several armed republican groups were formed. There were several armed Republican groups formed. The largest of these was the Irish Republican Army (IRA). On the other side, the loyalists of the government also formed some violent groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Together in the conflict, both sides caused some heavy casualties. 

Path to the agreement between Catholics and Protestants 

Finally, in the 1990s the IRA decided to stop its violent activities after years of fighting. Thus, this gave a window to both sides to negotiate on peace. Cease-fire was declared in 1994, but instances of sporadic violence continued. The peace process was a protracted one with many participants. Both sides tried to sort out their problems and even other countries were included in the process. After two years of negotiation and three decades of conflict, the peace came about in 1998 as the Good Friday Agreement.

Who signed the Good Friday Agreement 

There were multiple participants in the agreement. Mainly, the agreement was signed between the British and Irish governments. The two major political parties involved were the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The former was led by David Trimble and the latter by John Hume. The two leaders even won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly in 1998. There were other parties as well like Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and the Progressive Unionist Party. However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which later emerged as the largest Unionist Party walked out of the agreement. 

Components of the Good Friday Agreement 

The Multi-party Agreement

The multi-party agreement was a part of the Belfast Agreement agreed among the British government, the Irish government and the political parties of Northern Ireland. Basically, it provides support and legitimacy to the British-Irish agreement, extended by all the signatories. It also laid the groundwork for the political institutions of Northern Ireland. 

Broadly, it had been broken down into three strands, which are as follows:

  1. The Democratic Institutions in Northern Ireland- The main institutions of the government were declared to be the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland. 

The Assembly- It was a democratic institution having 90 members in total. The members, called MLAs are elected with the help of the system of proportional representation. An interesting feature here is that for some votes, cross-community support is necessary. This implies that 50% of both the designated unionists and nationalists must vote in favour, or 60% voting in favour including 40% of both the designated unionists and nationalists. 

The Executive- It comprises a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and up to ten other ministers as well. It is responsible to the Assembly and is composed of the people elected to the Assembly. The party with the most number of MLAs elects the First Minister. On the other hand, the party with the second-most number of MLAs nominates the Deputy First Minister. 

The Assembly and Executive have the powers to make laws regarding health, agriculture, finance, education, infrastructure and justice. Unfortunately, the Executive collapsed in 2017 and since then the Assembly has also not sat together. 

  1. The North-South Ministerial Council– This is a place where ministers from both Ireland and Northern Ireland sit together to discuss the matters significant to both of them. The council has agreed to six areas that require common policies, which are then supposed to be implemented in each jurisdiction separately. 

These include:

  1. Agriculture 
  2. Education
  3. Environment
  4. Health 
  5. Tourism 
  6. Transport

Also, there are six more areas that require joint implementation bodies

These are- 

  1. Waterways Ireland
  2. Food Safety Promotion Board
  3. Trade and Business Development Body
  4. Special EU Programmes Body
  5. Language Body
  6. Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission

3. British- Irish Institutions – In order to facilitate co-operation between the new British and Irish bodies in the areas of mutual interest, the British-Irish Council was established. It brought together government representatives from Ireland, the UK, the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Crown dependencies, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. 

The British-Irish Agreement 

It was an agreement between the British and Irish governments to work together and co-operate in various institutions. It also clears the agreed positions of both the governments on the status and future of Northern Ireland. 

Under the agreement, the British and Irish governments have:

  1. Right to self-determination- Acknowledged the legitimacy of the will of the people of Northern Ireland on the topic of whether to continue to be a part of the UK or join Ireland, i.e. right to self-determination. 
  2. Accepted the right of the people on both sides of the border to decide on the fate of a united Ireland. 
  3. Recognized that a majority of people have decided to continue being a part of the UK, albeit a substantial number wanted the opposite. 
  4. Committed to bringing the required legislation, if the conditions for a united Ireland are fulfilled. 
  5. Agree to treat all the people of Northern Ireland equally and impartially, regardless of any choices made, and to respect their civil, political rights, and social and cultural traditions.
  6. Recognised the right of all the people born in Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish, or British or both, and to hold both citizenships if they desire. 

The agreement required changes in both the Irish and British Constitutions. Thus, it enacted the Northern Ireland Act,1998, to incorporate the principle of self-determination in the law and also repealed the Government of Ireland Act,1920. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was given the power to call for a referendum when it appears that the majority wants a united Ireland and if it was defeated, then no new referendum could be held until at least seven years have passed since the previous one. 

Essential clauses of the Good Friday Agreement 

The essential clauses of the Good Friday Agreement are as follows:

  1. It provided for a balanced constitutional settlement based on the principles of self-determination and consent, which would require changes in both the British and Irish constitutions. 
  2. People were declared to be sovereign and it was up to them to decide the fate of their nation. 
  3. For the first time, a concrete pathway was laid down to build a united Ireland, if the people consented. 
  4. It provided for internal institutional changes in Northern Ireland along with the provisions for cross-community participation. 
  5. The constitution of 108 member Assembly and a Cabinet-type Executive ensured inclusiveness of all the communities with no scope of domination of one by the other. 
  6. It established a balanced and effective forum for communication and co-operation between North and South by means of the North-South Ministerial Council. 
  7. The principle of devolution strengthened by the British-Irish council provided a valuable platform to discuss issues of wider concern without friction. 
  8. The agreement also contained some landmark provisions related to equality of rights in political, social, economic and linguistic spheres, justice and policing. It aimed at unarming the police force and to reflect the demographic make-up of the country in the force. 
  9. As per the agreement, the Republic of Ireland deleted from its constitution, the provision that claimed sovereignty over the North. Also, the British government repealed the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which provided it with a veto over the status of Northern Ireland.

Implications of the Good Friday Agreement

Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, there have been several developments to implement its provisions and further the peace process. The following are some major developments:

  1. As per the Agreement, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was to be decommissioned. The Independent Decommissioning Body confirmed in 2005 that IRA had been decommissioned. 
  2. In order to implement the devolution of policing and justice and a stable power-sharing arrangement, the St. Andrew’s Agreement was brought in 2006. 
  3. In 2010, the Hillsborough Agreement was signed that facilitated the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. 
  4. The Stormont House Agreement came about in 2014 which dealt with a wide range of political, social and economic issues with the aim of reconciliation and economic revival of Northern Ireland. A number of financial commitments were taken up. A new institutional framework was also taken up to deal with the incidents that had happened in the past. 
  5. To implement the provisions of the Stormont House Agreement and to tackle the issue of para-militarism, A Fresh Start- The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan came about in November 2015. 

Criticisms of the Good Friday Agreement 

  1. In his book called ‘the Good Friday Agreement: A flawed and incomplete process’, Vicky Cosstick mentioned two fundamental drawbacks in the Agreement. These were mainly structural flaws that led to its failure. They were as follows:

I. Notion of ‘Two-communities’ or ‘traditions’- This notion can be found both in the Agreement and in the institutions developed post-agreement. This just amplified the divisions that were prevalent in the society and it further polarised the political environment. The groups represented by the major political parties have further been cemented by acknowledging the same in the formal agreement. In order to gauge the cross-community support, the leaders are supposed to identify themselves as ‘nationalist, unionist or other’ which further intensifies and highlights the divisions. This has further driven the communities away from each other. Such polarised yet suppressed sentiments have the potential to resurface and disrupt the peace. 

II. Secondly, he mentions that the agreement was capable of matching the severity of the conflict that was deeply rooted in Northern Ireland. He also questioned the authenticity of the ‘neutral role’ played by Britain in the conflict. 

  1. Another criticism of the agreement is related to its lack of initiative and action. It does talk about peace and resolving other issues, but it does not provide any practical framework to take an action. Violent groups have continued to erupt and the various peace agreements have been signed and suspended from time to time. This has been called ‘negative peace’ where the root of the cause has not been addressed effectively. 
  2. The Agreement contains provisions for political reconciliation but falls short of strong measures for cultural reconciliation. Since then the cultural schisms have been exacerbated by the political divisions deepened by the concept of cross-community support leading to a form of ‘cultural war’.
  3. The social effects of the conflict have been largely ignored in the agreement. The agreement may have affirmed principles like equality and justice but no clear pathway has been laid down to achieve the same. 

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement 

Cause of apprehensions due to Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement 

Brexit has sparked a new wave of fears and apprehensions. It has been contended that Brexit could mean the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement. Post-Brexit, Ireland would remain a part of the EU while the UK and Northern Ireland would not. This could give a rise to tensions on the Irish borders. The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) could endanger the special position given to Northern Ireland. A narrow majority voted for the ‘Brexit’ in 2016 and decided to sever its ties with the EU. Earlier, the UK was a part of the customs union and single market of the EU by the virtue of being its member. That means once the UK leaves the EU, the Irish border would become a customs border with checks and controls.

A proposed solution to protect the agreement from Brexit

Earlier it was decided that till an alternative mechanism is developed, the UK would remain a part of the single market of the EU. However, it was later revised to continue to include Northern Ireland as a part of the UK’s customs territory and Value Added Tax (VAT) area, and that it would also align with EU’s rules in the area. It was also stated that after fours of the end of the transition period, Northern Ireland Assembly would vote on its future course. However, the leaders from Northern Ireland have been wary of this arrangement. Since then, the US has been trying to negotiate and maintain peace between the sides. However, the apprehensions continue. 


The Good Friday Agreement, though aimed at ensuring long term peace in Northern Ireland, as per the experience, has seemed to have failed in doing so. Not underestimating the role it played in ending the decades-long conflict, it has not been able to completely eliminate the problem. We have seen a number of fallouts. The major problem that remains is the integration of society and the practical application of the measures to implement the provisions of the agreement. Brexit has further complicated the situation, threatening the years-long peace with the special position that Northern Ireland has been placed. Nevertheless, the agreement brought some very effective and positive principles forward. It gave the right to self-determination to the people of Northern Ireland and declared the will of the people as sovereign. Thus, with sporadic instances of violence and friction, the agreement has somehow managed to hold the people of Northern Ireland together. But there is definitely a scope for better negotiation. 



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