As a result of sustained efforts since the 1980s, Northern Ireland today has a far more peaceful, prosperous and stable society. The Irish Government has worked alongside the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland for over three decades to bring about this change: that work continues to the present day.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in 1921established a 26-county Irish Free State. Two distinct groups emerged in Northern Ireland: those in favour of union with the United Kingdom (Unionists) and those in favour of unity with the Republic of Ireland (Nationalists).
From 1921 to 1972 Northern Ireland had its own devolved government (separate from Westminster), in the control of the Unionist majority. This resulted in discrimination against Nationalists in areas such as voting, housing and employment.
In 1969, peaceful Nationalist civil rights campaigners in Northern Ireland experienced a repressive reaction which led to civil unrest. The Government of Northern Ireland requested the deployment of the British Army, and there was a revival of paramilitary organisations: the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the Nationalist side, and Loyalist paramilitary groups on the Unionist side. There followed a period of sustained conflict, commonly known as the Troubles.
In the early 1980s the Irish and British Governments began working more closely together to achieve a political settlement acceptable to the whole community. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by both Governments in November 1985, allowing the Irish Government to put forward views and proposals on affairs in Northern Ireland. It also put in place structures to help the two Governments to find a lasting solution to the conflict.
1993 - 1998
In 1993 the two Governments issued a Joint Declaration which set out a charter for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, and gave those associated with paramilitary violence a route into the political process. The IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries announced a cessation of their activities in 1994. In 1996, an international body under the chairmanship of US Senator George Mitchell provided an independent assessment of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms.
Multi-party talks began in 1996, chaired by Senator Mitchell and involving the Irish and British Governments and all the elected parties in Northern Ireland. These talks ultimately culminated in the Good Friday Agreement agreed on 10 April 1998.
The Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South, in referenda held in May 1998.
The Agreement provided for the establishment of three structures:
- the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, allowing elected political parties to share power. The Assembly is located at Stormont, just outside Belfast.
- the North South Ministerial Council to develop cooperation between both parts of Ireland.
- the British-Irish Council to promote the relationship between Ireland and Britain.
International Support for the Peace Process
The peace process in Northern Ireland has benefited from the support of the international community, including EU partners, the US, and others. The EU has provided political backing for the evolving peace process. It has also provided concrete support for the regeneration of the economy and for cross-community reconciliation, through the International Fund for Ireland and the EU’s Programmes for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Cross-border co-operation on EU issues
The Irish government and the Northern Ireland Executive also work closely together on EU issues, with structures in place at ministerial and official level to discuss policy issues of common interest. Northern Ireland will be closely associated with Irish Presidency, for example at the European Affairs Ministers’ informal meeting in Dublin in January.
Northern Ireland today
Northern Ireland today is feeling the impact of the global economic downturn, but nonetheless continues its emergence from its troubled recent past. New industries are being created, cities are being revitalized, and tourist numbers continue to rise with the addition of major new attractions such as the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.
The sustained efforts of politicians from Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland have paid real dividends. And as a result the relationship between Britain and Ireland is warmer and closer than ever, reflected in the hosting by then President McAleese of a successful and moving State Visit to Ireland by the Queen in 2011.