The Good Friday Agreement

Introduction

The Good Friday Agreement, which is also known as the Belfast Agreement, was signed on Good Friday, 10 April 1998. It consists of two closely related agreements, the British-Irish Agreement and the Multi-Party Agreement. It led to the establishment of a system of devolved government in Northern Ireland and the creation of many new institutions such as the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

The Good Friday Agreement was approved by referendums held in both Ireland and Northern Ireland on 22 May 1998. Voters in Northern Ireland were asked to approve the Multi-Party Agreement and voters in Ireland were asked to approve both the Multi-Party Agreement and certain constitutional changes in the British-Irish Agreement.

The British-Irish Agreement

The British-Irish Agreement is an agreement between the British and Irish governments. The Agreement committed to the various institutions set out in the Multi-Party Agreement. It also sets out the agreed position of both governments on Northern Ireland’s current and future status.

Under the terms of the British-Irish Agreement, both governments:

  • Recognised the legitimacy of any choice made by the people of Northern Ireland whether to continue as part of the United Kingdom (UK) or to become part of a united Ireland (the principle of self-determination)
  • Recognised that it is only for the people of the whole of the island of Ireland to agree to a united Ireland, if that is a wish of a majority of the persons on both sides of the Irish border
  • Recognised that, while a substantial section of Northern Ireland wished for a united Ireland, the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom
  • Committed to bringing into effect the necessary legislation if the conditions for a united Ireland were met
  • Committed that, regardless of any choice made by the people of Northern Ireland, the relevant government will treat all the people of Northern Ireland equally and impartially and fully respect the civil and political rights, and social and cultural traditions of both communities.
  • Recognised that it was the right of all persons born in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish or British, or both, and to hold both Irish and British citizenship if they so choose. This right is to continue regardless of any change in the status of Northern Ireland.

The Agreement required changes to the Irish Constitution and to British legislation.

Before the Agreement, the Irish Constitution maintained a territorial claim to Northern Ireland. The new provisions approved by referendum state that, while it is the firm will of the Irish nation to unite the island, such changes can only be brought about by consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. Changes were also made to reflect the citizenship rights of everyone born in Northern Ireland as stated in the Agreement.

The British Government, through the Northern Ireland Act 1998, enshrined the principle of self-determination in legislation and also repealed the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which initially partitioned the island of Ireland. A referendum on a united Ireland is to be called by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when it appears likely that a majority of the people would vote in favour of a united Ireland. If the referendum is defeated, at least 7 years must pass before a new referendum can be held.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 also provides the legislative basis for the various institutions set out in the Multi-Party Agreement.

The Multi-Party Agreement

The Multi-Party Agreement is an agreement between the British Government, the Irish Government and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland. It sets out the support of the signing parties to the terms of the British-Irish Agreement and goes on to provide the framework for various political institutions. It is broken into three strands:

  • Strand 1: Democratic Institutions in Northern Ireland
  • Strand 2: North-South Institutions
  • Strand 3: British-Irish Institutions

It also deals with issues such as human rights, policing, decommissioning and the release of prisoners – see ‘Other areas covered’ below.

Strand 1: Democratic Institutions in Northern Ireland

The Assembly and the Executive are the main institutions of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The Assembly is a democratically-elected body consisting of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). It sits in Stormont. Initially, there were 108 members (6 MLAs per constituency) but this has now been reduced to 5 MLAs per constituency. The number of MLAs may further reduce to 85 in 2021, if the number of constituencies is reduced from 18 to 17 as is currently proposed. MLAs are elected using the Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) system.

Some votes in the Assembly require cross-community support, meaning that either

  • 50% of both designated unionists and designated nationalists must vote in favour, or
  • 60% of those voting vote in favour, including 40% of both designated unionists and designated nationalists.

The Executive is composed of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and up to ten other Ministers. It is answerable to the Assembly and is composed of people elected to the Assembly. The First Minister is nominated by the party with the most MLAs and the Deputy First Minister is nominated by the party with the second-most MLAs. The Minister for Justice is elected using the cross-community support procedure and the other Ministers are allocated using a system which grants entitlements to ministerial roles based on the number of seats won by political parties (the d’Hondt system). Ministers must comply with a code of conduct set out in the Good Friday Agreement at all times.

The Assembly and Executive can make laws and take decisions in the areas of health, agriculture, finance, education, infrastructure and justice.

The Executive collapsed in January 2017 and as a result, the Assembly has not sat since then.

Strand 2: North-South Institutions

The Good Friday Agreement provided for the establishment of a North South Ministerial Council where ministers from both Ireland and Northern Ireland discuss matters of relevance to the whole of the island.

Meetings of the Ministerial Council take different forms. It can meet as a plenary body involving all the ministers from both jurisdictions or on a smaller basis involving only the ministers with responsibility for a particular policy area.

In 6 areas common policies are agreed by the Ministerial Council, which then must be separately implemented in each jurisdiction. These areas are:

  • Agriculture
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Tourism
  • Transport

In 6 other areas, there are joint implementation bodies, which operate on an all-island basis:

  • Waterways Ireland
  • Food Safety Promotion Board
  • Trade and Business Development Body (InterTradeIreland)
  • Special EU Programmes Body
  • The Language Body (consisting of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster Scots Agency)
  • Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission

The North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association has also been set up to facilitate discussion between Dáil Eireann and Seanad members from Ireland and MLAs from Northern Ireland.

Strand 3: British-Irish Institutions

New British and Irish bodies were also required by the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate co-operation in mutual areas of interest. These expanded upon bodies which had already been in operation.

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference brings together ministers from Ireland and the UK.

The British-Irish Council brings 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 Parliamentary Assembly brings together members of parliament from Ireland, the UK, the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Crown dependencies such as the Isle of Man and Jersey.

Other areas covered

The Good Friday Agreement placed a renewed emphasis on human rights, in particular, the European Convention on Human Rights which to that point had not been legislated for in Ireland or the UK. Both countries subsequently incorporated the Convention into national law and established human rights bodies, such as the forerunner to the current Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

The signatory parties to the Good Friday Agreement also re-acknowledged their commitment to decommissioning of weapons, a process which had already begun. In addition, the British Government committed to reducing the number and role of the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland in an attempt to return to a normalised society. As part of this process, various security installations were taken down.

An independent commission was also set up to report on policing arrangements in Northern Ireland. This ultimately led to the establishment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), as a successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and its supervisory body, the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

The Good Friday Agreement also committed both governments to the early release of many prisoners associated with the Troubles on the condition that the groups they were affiliated with stayed in a ceasefire.

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement

The terms of the Good Friday Agreement should not be affected by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU). Any change to the Good Friday Agreement must be agreed by both the British and Irish governments.

The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland which is contained in the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU affirmed that the Good Friday Agreement should be protected in all its parts.

Page edited: 1 February 2020