Northern Ireland: The Peace Process
Northern Ireland: The Peace Process
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
For years, the British and Irish governments sought to facilitate a peaceful
settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland. After many ups and downs, the two
governments and the Northern Ireland political parties participating in the peace talks
announced an agreement on April 10, 1998. Despite a much improved security situation
in the years since then, full implementation of the resulting Good Friday Agreement has
been difficult. On May 8, 2007, however, Northern Ireland’s devolved political
institutions were restored after an almost five-year suspension following a power-
sharing deal between the largest unionist and nationalist parties. This report will be
updated as events warrant.
Since 1969, over 3,200 people have died as a result of political violence in Northern
Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. The conflict, which has its origins in the
1921 division of Ireland, has reflected a struggle between different national, cultural, and
religious identities.1 The Protestant majority (53%) in Northern Ireland defines itself as
British and largely supports continued incorporation in the UK (unionists). The Catholic
minority (44%) considers itself Irish, and many Catholics desire a united Ireland
(nationalists). For years, the British and Irish governments sought to facilitate a political
settlement. The Good Friday Agreement was reached on April 10, 1998. The Agreement
called for devolved government — the transfer of power from London to Belfast — with
a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive Committee in which unionist and nationalist
parties would share power. The Agreement also contained provisions on
decommissioning (disarmament), policing, human rights, UK security normalization
(demilitarization), and the status of prisoners, and recognized that a change in Northern
Ireland’s status can only come about with the consent of the majority of its people.
Additionally, the Agreement created a North-South Ministerial Council and a British-Irish
Council. Voters in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland approved the accord in
referendums on May 22, 1998. Elections to the Assembly took place on June 25, 1998.
1 In 1921, the mostly Catholic, southern part of Ireland won independence from Britain. The
resulting Republic of Ireland occupies about five-sixths of the island of Ireland; Northern Ireland
occupies the remaining one-sixth.
Nevertheless, full implementation of the peace agreement has been difficult. The
devolved government was suspended for the fourth time in October 2002 amid a loss of
trust and confidence on both sides of the conflict. Unionists were concerned about the
IRA’s commitment to non-violence and the lack of full nationalist support for policing;
meanwhile, nationalists worried about the pace of UK demilitarization, police reforms,
and ongoing loyalist paramilitary activity. Efforts to restore the devolved government
culminated on March 26, 2007, when the traditionally anti-Agreement Democratic
Unionist Party (DUP) agreed to enter into a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein,
the IRA’s associated political party. The new government began work on May 8, 2007,
with DUP leader Ian Paisley as First Minister and Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin
McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. London and Dublin hope that this deal will
entrench the political settlement embodied in the Good Friday Agreement and produce
a politically stable devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Devolved Government and Recurrent Crises
1999-2002. For years, instability in Northern Ireland’s devolved government was
the rule rather than the exception; decommissioning and police reforms were key sticking
points. Authority over local affairs was first transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly
and Executive on December 1, 1999, after 27 years of direct rule from London. But on
February 11, 2000, London suspended the devolved government because the Assembly’s
First Minister, then-Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble, was poised to
resign to protest the absence of IRA decommissioning. After intense negotiations
involving Trimble and Sinn Fein, the IRA pledged to put its arms “beyond use.” The
power-sharing institutions were reinstated in June 2000.
For the next twelve months, unionists remained frustrated by the ongoing lack of
IRA decommissioning. As a result, Trimble resigned as First Minister on July 1, 2001.
Since the Assembly can operate no longer than six weeks without a First Minister or new
elections must be called, London suspended the devolved government on August 10 for
24 hours. London feared elections would result in gains for hardliners. The brief
suspension reset the clock, giving negotiators another six weeks to try to avert the collapse
of Belfast’s political institutions. Meanwhile, pressure on the IRA to decommission
began to grow following the August 2001 arrests in Colombia of three suspected IRA
members on charges of training FARC guerrillas to use explosives, and the September 11
terrorist attacks. On September 21, 2001, London suspended the Assembly again for 24
hours to buy more time for negotiations. Finally, on October 23, after Sinn Fein leader
Gerry Adams publicly called for IRA decommissioning, the IRA announced that it had
put a quantity of weapons “beyond use” to “save the peace process.” In response, the
UUP decided to rejoin the Executive, and the Assembly reconvened in November 2001.
Relative calm prevailed in early 2002. On April 8, 2002, the IRA carried out a
second act of decommissioning. Still, worries about the IRA’s long-term commitment
to the peace process persisted following allegations that the IRA was buying new
weapons, updating its “hit list,” and was behind the theft of intelligence documents from
a Belfast police barracks. On October 4, 2002 police raided Sinn Fein’s Assembly offices
and arrested four officials as part of an investigation into a suspected IRA spy ring. The
UUP and the DUP threatened to withdraw from the government unless Sinn Fein was
expelled. With the political process in turmoil, London once again suspended Belfast’s
devolved government and reinstated direct rule on October 14, 2002.
London and Dublin led talks with Northern Ireland’s political parties to try to find a way
forward. Negotiations largely focused on finding a formula to assure unionists that the
IRA was winding down as a paramilitary force and meeting nationalist demands for
government stability and more progress in the police, justice, and human rights fields. In
October 2003, the IRA announced a third act of decommissioning, but UUP leader
Trimble criticized the lack of details about the quantity of arms disposed, and put further
progress toward restoring devolution “on hold.”
Despite the suspension of the power-sharing institutions, Assembly elections took
place in November 2003. The elections resulted in a shift toward perceived hardliners.
The DUP — led by the Reverend Ian Paisley — overtook the UUP as the dominant
unionist party. Sinn Fein surpassed the more moderate Social Democratic and Labor
Party (SDLP) to become the largest nationalist party. Immediately after the elections, the
DUP asserted that it would not enter into government with Sinn Fein until the IRA
disarmed and disbanded; the DUP also refused to talk directly to Sinn Fein. Most analysts
predicted that the election results would make restoring devolution more difficult.
Negotiations continued but remained stalemated for much of 2004. Efforts to restore
devolution were further complicated by a December 2004 bank robbery in Belfast, which
police believed was carried out by the IRA, and the January 2005 murder of Belfast man,
Robert McCartney, during a bar brawl involving IRA members. These incidents
increased pressure on the IRA and Sinn Fein to also address the issue of IRA criminality.
On April 6, 2005, Gerry Adams effectively called on the IRA to abandon violence and
pursue politics as an “alternative” to “armed struggle.”
On July 28, 2005, the IRA ordered an end to its armed campaign. It instructed all
members to pursue objectives through “exclusively peaceful means” and to “not engage
in any other activities whatsoever.” All IRA units were ordered to “dump arms.”
Although many analysts asserted that the IRA’s statement was the least ambiguous one
ever, unionists were wary, noting that it did not explicitly address the issue of IRA
criminality or whether the IRA would disband. The DUP and other unionists also wanted
Sinn Fein to support Northern Ireland’s new police service (see below). On September
26, 2005, Northern Ireland’s Independent International Commission on Decommissioning
(IICD) announced that the IRA had put all of its arms beyond use, asserting that the IRA
weaponry dismantled or made inoperable matched estimates provided by the security
forces. On February 1, 2006, the International Monitoring Commission (IMC), which
monitors paramilitary ceasefires and political party compliance with the peace agreement,
asserted that the IRA seemed to be moving in the right direction. However, unionists
remained skeptical and the DUP continued to resist sharing power with Sinn Fein.
In an attempt to break the stalemate, London recalled the Northern Ireland Assembly
on May 15, 2006; the Assembly was permitted to debate policy matters but was not given
the power to make laws. UK and Irish officials had hoped that by recalling the Assembly,
even in such a “shadow” form, confidence would build between the opposing parties and
in the political process. When this attempt ultimately failed, London and Dublin gave the
parties until November 24, 2006, to form an Executive or new British-Irish “partnership
arrangements” would be implemented to effectively govern Northern Ireland. The exact
form of such partnership arrangements was left unclear, but analysts viewed this prospect
as a veiled threat to unionists to reach a deal or risk ceding greater authority over the
affairs of Northern Ireland to Dublin.2
With no real progress in the negotiations by mid-September 2006, former UK Prime
Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern announced an all-party
meeting in Scotland in an attempt to hammer out a deal. On October 13, Blair and Ahern
put forth a road map, known as the “St. Andrews Agreement,” intended to break the
political stalemate. It called for negotiations between November 2006 and March 2007
on forming a new permanent government; during this time, the DUP would agree to share
power with Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein would agree to support the police service and join
the Policing Board. The St. Andrews Agreement also included some changes to the
operation of the power-sharing institutions and provisions on government stability and
human rights; in addition, to meet nationalist demands, it called for the devolution of
policing and justice powers from London to Belfast by 2008. It set March 7, 2007, as the
date for new Assembly elections, and March 26 as the date for London to rescind direct
rule and restore Northern Ireland’s devolved government. Blair and Ahern warned that
failure to establish an Executive by March 26 would result in the dissolution of the
Assembly and new British-Irish “partnership arrangements” to govern Northern Ireland.
Analysts contended that the biggest problem was the lack of trust between the DUP
and Sinn Fein. The DUP wanted Sinn Fein to accept Northern Ireland’s new police
service, the courts, and the rule of law before agreeing to shared government. Meanwhile,
Sinn Fein wanted the shared government to sit before accepting policing because it feared
that, otherwise, the DUP would raise additional issues regarding the IRA before agreeing
to share power. In January 2007, Sinn Fein members voted to support Northern Ireland’s
police and the criminal justice system in the context of the reestablishment of the political
institutions. Many experts viewed Sinn Fein’s resolution as historic, given the IRA’s
traditional view of the police as a legitimate target.3
On March 7, 2007, Northern Ireland voters went to the polls. Once again, the DUP
and Sinn Fein emerged as the largest unionist and nationalist parties. Both the DUP and
Sinn Fein interpreted these election results, in which each saw off challenges from
internal dissenters opposed to the St. Andrews Agreement, as providing a mandate to
work toward forming a power-sharing government. Analysts speculated that in light of
Sinn Fein’s commitment to policing, and perhaps to secure his own legacy, Paisley was
finally ready to enter into government with Sinn Fein.
On March 26, 2007, Paisley and Adams met for the first time and announced a deal
to enter into a power-sharing government on May 8, 2007. London and Dublin agreed to
accept the six-week delay in restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved government given that
the two parties were able to reach agreement themselves. The DUP had pressed for the
delay in order to “raise the level of confidence in the [unionist] community,” especially
in regard to Sinn Fein’s pledge to support policing. Analysts contend that the image of
Paisley and Adams sitting at the same table and the statements of both pledging to work
toward a better future for “all” the people of Northern Ireland were unprecedented. On
2 Brian Lavery, “Blair and Ahern Warn Ulster: End the Standoff by Fall Deadline,” New York
Times, April 7, 2006.
3 “Sinn Fein Votes To Support Police,” BBC News, January 28, 2007.
May 8, 2007, Paisley and Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness were sworn
in as First and Deputy First Minister respectively, and the power-sharing Assembly and
Executive began work. Many experts believe that unlike past efforts, this deal will stick,
given that it was reached by the DUP and Sinn Fein, viewed as the two most polarized
forces in Northern Ireland politics.4
By many accounts, the devolved government has been running relatively smoothly
and Paisley and McGuinness have established a good working relationship. Focus has
largely been on local political issues, such as water charges, health care, housing, and
education. In October 2007, the Executive issued a new legislative program, a 10-year
investment strategy, and its first budget since devolution was restored. Many hailed these
documents as demonstrating the Executive’s ability to work together on key priorities and
spending plans. At the same time, tensions within the Assembly and Executive exist, and
some reflect nationalist-unionist divisions. For example, the DUP and Sinn Fein remain
at odds over certain aspects of the plan to transfer police and justice affairs from London
to the devolved government. In May 2008, Paisley, who is 81, announced that he would
step down as DUP leader and First Minister; observers speculate that his decision likely
reflects his increasing fragility and a recent loss of support among some Protestant voters
who still oppose the power-sharing deal. Peter Robinson, the former deputy DUP leader,
succeeded Paisley as party leader and First Minister.5
Implementing Police Reforms
The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) — Northern Ireland’s former, 92% Protestant
police force — was long viewed by Catholics as an enforcer of Protestant domination.
Human rights organizations accused the RUC of brutality and collusion with loyalist
paramilitary groups. Defenders of the RUC pointed to its tradition of loyalty and
discipline and its record in fighting terrorism. The Good Friday Agreement called for an
independent commission to help “ensure policing arrangements, including composition,
recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols, are such that ... Northern Ireland has a
police service that can enjoy widespread support from ... the community as a whole.” In
June 1998, Prime Minister Blair appointed Chris Patten to head this commission. In
September 1999, the Patten Commission released a report with 175 recommendations.
It proposed a new name for the RUC, a new badge, and new symbols free of the British
or Irish states. Other key measures included reducing the size of the force from 11,400
to 7,500, and increasing the proportion of Catholic officers. Unionists responded
negatively, but nationalists were mostly positive.
In May 2000, the Blair government introduced the Police Bill in the House of
Commons. Nationalists were critical, arguing that Patten’s proposals had been gutted.
London responded that amendments would deal with human rights training, promoting
50-50 recruitment of Catholics and Protestants, and oversight responsibilities. The Police
Bill became law on November 23, 2000, but Sinn Fein and the SDLP asserted that the
4 Frank Millar, “Paisley Reaches Out and Grasps Cherished Prize,” Irish Times, March 27, 2007;
“NI Politics Moves Away from Edge,” BBC News, May 8, 2007.
5 “McAleese Praises Stormont Leaders,” Irish News, November 30, 2007; “Call for Talks To
Break Justice Powers Deadlock,” Press Association, February 26, 2008; Mary Jordan, “N.
Ireland’s Paisley To Relinquish Leadership Roles,” Washington Post, March 5, 2008.
reforms did not go far enough. In March 2001, recruiting began for the future Police
Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). To help ensure nationalist support, London proposed
further concessions in July 2001, including halving the anti-terrorist “Special Branch.”
In August 2001, the SDLP broke with Sinn Fein and accepted the British
government’s additional concessions on policing; the SDLP (along with the UUP and
DUP) agreed to nominate representatives to the Policing Board, a democratic oversight
body. On November 4, 2001, the Policing Board came into being. That same day, the
RUC was renamed the PSNI, and the first class of recruits drawn 50-50 from both
Catholic and Protestant communities began their training. Some say that Sinn Fein’s
absence from the Policing Board discouraged more Catholics from joining the PSNI.
Sinn Fein maintained that its acceptance of the PSNI and the Policing Board hinged
on a deal to revive the devolved government and the transfer of policing and justice
powers from London to a restored Assembly and Executive. As noted above, in January
2007, Sinn Fein members voted to support the police and join the Policing Board in the
context of a reconstituted Assembly and Executive. Sinn Fein members assumed their
places on the Policing Board in late May 2007. In July 2007, the British army ended its
38-year long military operation in Northern Ireland. Although 5,000 British troops remain
based in Northern Ireland, they no longer have a role in policing.
The Bush Administration views the Good Friday Agreement as the best framework
for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland and U.S. officials have welcomed the restoration
of the devolved government. Many Members of Congress actively support the peace
process. Encouraged by progress on police reforms, several Members prompted the
Administration in December 2001 to lift a ban on contacts between the FBI and the new
PSNI. Congress had initiated this prohibition in 1999 because of the former RUC’s
human rights record. Hearings in the 109th Congress focused on the peace process,
policing reforms, and the status of public inquiries into several murders in Northern
Ireland, including the 1989 slaying of Belfast attorney Patrick Finucane, in which
collusion between the security forces and paramilitary groups is suspected. The United
States is an important source of investment in Northern Ireland and has provided aid
through the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) since 1986.
P.L. 110-161 (December 26, 2007) appropriated $14.9 million for the International
Fund for Ireland as part of the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act.
H.Res. 482 (Gallegly; passed House, July 11, 2007) and S.Res. 209 (Kennedy;
passed Senate, May 17, 2007) expressing support for the new power-sharing government
in Northern Ireland.
H.Con.Res. 20 (Smith; passed House, January 30, 2007; passed Senate, March 15,
2007) calls on the UK government to establish a full, independent, and public inquiry into
the 1989 murder of Northern Ireland attorney Patrick Finucane.