The Good Friday Agreement at 20: Legacy at Home and Abroad


The year 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War fought between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967. The war resulted in Israel capturing and occupying the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. This brought some one million Arabs under Israel’s direct control and saw Israeli territory grow by some 300km to the south, 60km to the east, and 20km to the north. The legacy of this conflict continues to frame the Israel/Palestine conflict in 2019.[i]

The year 2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the period of conflict known commonly as ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. It also marked the twentyfifth anniversary of the landmark Downing Street Declaration which committed the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom to seek a peaceful constitutional settlement to this conflict, and the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The conflicts in Israel/Palestine and in Northern Ireland each represent the culmination of centuries’ old ethnic, religious, social and political conflict. Despite ongoing exports to broker peace in both cases, it is clear that the Northern Ireland peace process has been relatively more successful than the attempts to reach peace between Israel and Palestine, although the peace in Northern Ireland is fragile, the institutions are highly vulnerable, and the process is far from perfect.

While it is easy to overstate similarities and differences between such cases, and while it is unclear if the Good Friday Agreement can provide a template for a resolution to any other conflict including in Israel/Palestine, the presence of checkpoints, the physical and psychological impact of the presence of borders, demographic changes, and fragile economic growth are all matters that cut across these cases. Thus, an examination of the Northern Ireland peace process as the Good Friday Agreement turns twenty may provide some food for thought for analysis of the Israel/Palestine conflict today.

Peace in Northern Ireland

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought about an end to the violent conflict in Northern Ireland that had cost
thousands of lives, as political representatives from across the conflict armed their commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence. The agreement established the institutions and norms which underpin the fragile peace process and the devolved democratic institutions in Northern Ireland.[ii]

Building peace is never easy, and the first twenty years of devolved government in Northern Ireland since 1998 have presented major challenges to the peace process. This includes breakdowns in the power-sharing governments, and outbreaks of sporadic political violence and criminality. However, recent events have presented possibly the greatest threat to the peace process, and has raised questions regarding relations between the communities in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and between the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is partly given the fallout of the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the EU in 2016, and the pressure this has brought to bear on the constitutional arrangements surrounding the Irish border in particular.


The prospect of borders and the dangers they can pose for peace-building looms large in both the Israel/Palestine and Northern Ireland conflicts. Both the UK and Irish governments are committed to avoiding the return of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland after Brexit – that is, physical checks or infrastructure on the border. The UK and Ireland are currently part of the EU single market and customs union, so products do not need to be inspected for customs and standards, and since 1922, under the terms of a bilateral Common Travel Area, people pass freely across the border without the need for customs checks.

As is the case in the Israel/Palestine conflict, one of the greatest threats to peace in Northern Ireland relates to the handling of the border, and how the erection of any physical infrastructure would be perceived, especially by those living near the 500km frontier. Tens of thousands of people cross the border each day for work, study and pleasure, people in Northern Ireland can claim a passport from both Ireland and the UK, and part of the reason that peace has reigned is that people are more free to identify as they wish. Any restrictions on free movement, any physical infrastructure on the border, and any threat to the complex and often layered identities that exist, perceived of otherwise, could endanger the fragile peace, and would be seen as a step back towards the dark days of the Troubles.[iii]

Relationships and challenges – the EU dimension

Crucially, unlike in Israel/Palestine, the Northern Irish peace process has always been mediated by UK and Irish involvement in the European Union (EU). The preamble to the Good Friday Agreement makes specific reference to the countries as ‘friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union’.[iv] What has perhaps proven most valuable for the success of the peace process to date have been the regular meetings between UK and Irish politicians and officials at EU Council level, which allowed not only shared positions and interests for the two countries to become obvious, but also for strong personal relationships to form, for example between Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds, and subsequently between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. While UN and Arab League structures allows for some equivalent cooperation in the case of Israel/Palestine, the relatively greater sophistication of EU structures and the sheer density and frequency of interactions proved vital for the formation of trust and understanding that was necessary to broker in the case of Northern Ireland.

However, a common refrain in the Israel/Palestine case is that the tensions between religious, secular and Arab Israelis, and between Hamas and Fatah, have thwarted the prospect of peace. The radicalisation of the Palestinian electorate and the growth of Hamas and the increasingly nationalistic positions taken by the ruling Israeli coalition mirrors the situation in Northern Ireland. In a similar fashion, the political landscape in Northern Ireland in 2019 is much different and more polarised than it was in 1998, as the relatively more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Parties (UUP) parties who dominated twenty years ago have been squeezed, and eclipsed by the more radical Sinn Féin party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and politics is growing increasingly entrenched and belligerent – not least surrounding the Brexit debacle.

Sharing power

As an example of this belligerence, the Northern Ireland devolved institutions have remained on hiatus since elections in 2017, and are mired in the domestic political controversy surrounding the mismanagement of a renewable-energy programme which goes right to the top of Northern Irish politics, and threatens to engulf Arlene
Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.[v] Thus, at what may be regarded as the most politically challenging period for Northern Ireland since the end of the Troubles, the province lacks the representation of its devolved assembly. This lack of leadership presents a further major threat to the maintenance of the peace process.

Northern Ireland has been described as a ‘paranocracy’ rather than a democracy, with especially unionism being sustained by the very real fragility of the Northern Irish state, and the continuing historical claims of sovereignty of successive Irish governments, which was at least nominally removed in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.[vi] This palpable lack of trust and atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion was partly resolved by the establishment of the power-sharing institutions following 1998. Indeed, the fragile peace has required the establishment of institutions that build trust, which might be something approaching a universal norm of peacebuilding. But the institutions have to be up and running to build trust. When these break down the system risks breaking down.

Simply put, when looking at the case of Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, or any other peace process, the importance of individual change agents and policy entrepreneurs are critical for peace to break out and to be sustained. Tragically, the dysfunction in the devolved assembly plays into the hands of both of the main Northern Irish parties, as unionists desire a strong union with Great Britain and appeal to rule from Westminster, while Sinn Féin want to show that the devolved assembly is flawed, but instead appeal to a united Ireland. Meanwhile, both sides relish the opportunity to not be left responsible for ‘holding the Brexit baby’. Unfortunately for the people living in Northern Ireland, there are no automatic sanctions for non-compliance in the power-sharing institutions, and the bizarre self-inflicted paralysis can theoretically remain permanent.

Meanwhile, the inevitability of demographics may also yet play a crucial role in the politics and society of both cases. As has been well-documented, in the case of Israel/Palestine, Palestinian birth rates are far higher than among Jewish communities which, alongside the decline in Jewish immigration, is expected to see the number of Arabs in the region exceed that of Jews by 2020.[vii] This has prompted some Palestinian to prefer to just ‘wait it out’ before seeking to seize political power when their community enjoy a majority. In the case of Northern Ireland, long-term population changes similarly make the prospect of unification with the Republic of Ireland increasingly likely, given the relative growth of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. In the last assembly elections in 2017 Sinn Féin came within 1100 votes of topping the pole, and only 30,000 votes now separate those parties that wish to maintain
the union with Great Britain, and those who back Irish unity. The threat of a hard border, alongside increased support for Scottish nationalism, increases the likelihood of a push for a united Ireland, and the increased likelihood of political unrest as a result.

International dimension

The peace in Northern Ireland was always driven forward by individual figures from the UK and Ireland, including the likes of the SDLP’s John Hume, Irish Taoisigh (prime ministers) Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, UK prime minister Tony Blair, and Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland including the widely-respected Mo Mowlam. However, a cast of international characters also played pivotal roles in the resolution of the conflict, including former Finnish prime minster Harri Holkeri, and the Canadian soldier and diplomat John de Chastelain and current South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who oversaw the decommissioning of paramilitaries on behalf of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

Particularly, however, the involvement of US figures was especially important. Throughout the 1990s late night phone calls from President Bill Clinton’s White House to resolve an impasse during negotiations was not uncommon, and US government special enjoys to Northern Ireland, notably Senator George Mitchell and Richard Haass, were central figures in the negotiations. The SDLP’s John Hume was close to the likes of Senator Ted Kennedy and Tipp O’Neill, speaker of the US House of representatives, which helped to ensure that Northern Ireland remained prominent on the US political agenda. Tony Blair, whose mother was from Ireland, took a highly personal role in the negotiations, and went on to be the Quartet’s envoy for the Israel/Palestine conflict, and others including Senator Mitchell also went on to have prominent roles in the Middle East.

Sinn Féin’s ability to mobilise support among Irish-America was also pivotal to its own successes throughout the 1990s and 2000s, which maps on top of the mobilisation of support among both Israeli and Palestinian diasporas overseas and in the region. However, in October 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the arrest in August of that year of three Irish republicans who were accused of collaborating with FARC guerrillas in Colombia, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) began the process of putting its arms permanently beyond use, and in July 2005 the IRA leadership officially brought an end to its armed campaign. This can partly be read as a pragmatic response by the IRA and republican movement to the changing political mood especially in the US, as the War on Terror shifted the centre of gravity away from Northern Ireland, and saw Sinn Féin seeking to distance itself from terrorism.

Despite its many challenges, Northern Ireland remains at peace, and the Northern Ireland peace process still presents one of the most successful peace agreements in history.[viii] Since 1998, the occurrence of acts of violence have fallen dramatically, economic activity has grown steadily, and relations between the communities in this divided country have continued to normalise. However, Northern Ireland continues to struggle economically, and benefits from substantial financial transfers from the UK government. Northern Ireland also remains an unequal society and tensions can still boil over, for example during the traditional July marching season. What’s more, while acts of political violence remain relatively infrequent, they have not been absent, and more than 150 lives have been lost to what the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) describe as ‘security-related killings’ since 1998.[ix]


The political and constitutional experience of this small province could hold lessons for particularly the Israel/Palestine conflict, as has been widely documented.[x] As with all places, Northern Ireland is steeped in its own socio-political context. The crossover between the Israel/Palestine and the Northern Irish conflict are in many ways limited, but the fundamental need for trust and the ability for actors to communicate effectively and efficiently with one another is clear.

Indeed, the fragility of the Good Friday Agreement should not make us less optimistic about the potential for peace elsewhere, including in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East. What it tells us is that building peace, and building institutions that foster trust takes time, energy, political imagination and courage. The institutions that help to build peace must be strong and responsive enough to rise to the challenges posed by externalities including the likes of Brexit and by the domestic political challenges and ambitions of domestic political parties and individuals.

The energy and compromises necessary to build and sustain institutions that foster trust is a prerequisite for the Good Friday Agreement to continue to bear fruit. While not a panacea to the conflict, and while the commitment to peace must come from within the parties to the conflict themselves, the engagement, support, and oversight of international figures proved vital to the initial successes of the peace process. Once international attention ebbed away from Northern Ireland, it could be argued that the peace became harder to sustain, and the civility and dedication that had come to define the politics of Northern Ireland ebbed away with it.

A renewed emphasis of this oversight could be key to kickstarting the institutions, and to rescuing the imperilled peace. Notably however, since 2017, the position of US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland has remained vacant, and as recently as May 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has confirmed that he has not considered filling the position.[xi] It seems unlikely, given the current atmosphere in Washington, that a new envoy will be appointed, nor that any meaningful US-led attempts to broker peace in the Middle East would be forthcoming during this president’s time in once. What’s more, given the direction of travel of the UK government in the context of Brexit, it is unlikely that Northern Ireland (or Israel/Palestine) can look forward to much support from those quarters either.

It is important also to reflect on the role of religion in these conflicts. The religious divide in Northern Ireland has rarely been theological, and can only be truly understood in tribal terms. As was the case throughout the years of conflict, Northern Ireland today still has segregated neighbourhoods, schools and other communities, and yet the peace holds. The real dividend of the peace process has been that communities no longer feel threatened as many once did, and the main reason there isn’t violence is that people are relatively happy with the status quo, and are more free to live their lives as they wish.  A lesson that may be drawn for the Israel/Palestine conflict is that peace does not necessarily require social harmony or integration, but merely the existence of institutions that build trust, and the ability for people to identify as they wish without fear of sanction of marginalisation – the realisation of self-determination in a fundamental sense.

[i] Bowen, J. (2012). Six Days – How the 1967 War shaped the Middle East. London: Pocket Books.
[ii] Bew, P. 2007, The Making and remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, Lixey books : Dublin.
[iii] Colfer, B. (2017). “Implications for Ireland from the UK withdrawal from the EU.” [Online] E-International Relations, February 21, 2017. Available at:
[iv] See The Agreement – Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations, otherwise known as the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ or the ‘Belfast Agreement’, available at:
[v] Colfer, B. (2017). “The revenge of the crocodile: Northern Ireland’s election brings new uncertainty.” [Online] In the Long Run, March 16, 2017. Available at:
[vi] Biagini, E. 1996 ‘Northern Ireland and Beyond: Social and Geographical Issues’, Springer : NYC.
[vii] Alabbasi, M. 2018, ‘Arab population statistics renew charged debate on Israel’s future’, The Arab Weekly, 01 Apr, available at:
[viii] Fenton, S. (2018). The Good Friday Agreement. London: Biteback Publishing.
[ix] Nolan, P. (2018). “‘Post-conflict’ Northern Ireland is still plagued by political violence.” The Irish Times, April 23, 2018. Available at:
[x] Gregory, M. et al. (2006). “The Past’s Promise: Lessons from Peace Processes in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.” Journal of Peace Research, 43(2), 181-200
[xi] Lynch, S. (2018). “Doubts over appointment of US Northern Ireland envoy.” The Irish Times, May 24, 2018. Available at:

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