Northern Ireland Problem

The partition of Ireland in 1921 established for the first time two separate entities within the island of Ireland. The separate state of Northern Ireland was to remain under direct control from Westminster while the south would begin the journey of self government. The fact that there were six counties in Northern Ireland that were to remain under British rule caused anguish both north and south of the boarder. While at this time the north was dominated by people who wanted to stay under British control there was a sizeable minority who were more than unhappy with the arrangement.

What followed was a political, social and class struggle which has lasted till the present day. Following many failed attempts at a solution the Good Friday Agreement provided a realistic hopefulness that an agreement could be reached. However the collapse of the agreement just a few years after its implementation shows that the problem is far from resolved. In this essay I will look to analyse the Good Friday Agreement and its prospects in been the solution to the Northern Ireland problem.

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I will look at the agreement itself, the problems it encountered while in operation and the many problems it may face if it is to be put back in to operation. Although not directly linked in to this question, I feel it is nevertheless important to very briefly outline what the actual Northern Ireland problem consists of. Although many political scientists site different factors as to the cause of the problem, it is however accepted that the problems of Northern Ireland are multi-dimensional. In short, there are two main groups in the state.

One group wants to retain links with the British monarch; (the Unionists) while the other wants to become part of the Irish Republic (the Nationalists). The two opposing groups conflict in various ideologies such as national identity, religion which in turn has led to a conflict in political affairs over the last century. Over the past century, the sides have also classed over civil rights issues following wide-spread Catholic oppression by the Protestant community from as high up as governmental level. A combination of these factors eventually led to what was known as the ‘troubles’ which lasted from 1969 to the end of the century1.

During the troubles over three and a half thousand people lost their lives which is unprecedented in a Western European democracy level. Throughout the troubles, the Nationalists and the Unionist were driven further away from each other and following failed power sharing trail in the 1970’s and the Anglo Irish agreement in the 1980’s a solution to the problem seemed increasingly unlikely. The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 brought a ray of optimism to the country of Northern Ireland that a solution may possibly have been found. The agreement attempted to end violence permanently and manage existing political and cultural differences in the hope of ultimate reconciliation. ‘ (Chpt 15) The agreement was reached following lenghtly discussions, which involved nearly all the major parties. The Agreement contained proposals for a devolved, power sharing government situated in Belfast that would be in charge of the running of the country. It also called for majority rule and minority rights; shared political decision-making and shared economic benefits.

Importantly for Unionists, they could maintain there ties with the United Kingdom while there was also the promise of IRA disarmament and significantly for the Nationalist side, new ties to the Republic of Ireland were created. The promise to review the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the early release from prison of paramilitary prisoners were also seen largely as significant gains on the Nationalist side. The Agreement had to be ratified by voters both North and South of the Boarder and when the vote was returned it was passed overwhelmingly by the South (90% yes) and convincingly in the North (71% yes).

Unionists however were far more sceptical about the agreement and the Unionist vote was not all that convincing. Therefore the potential for the agreement to be the solution to the Northern Ireland Problem was limited from its birth, as a sizeable Protestant minority did not support it. Power was eventually devolved to a new assembly in Stormont in December of 1999. However there were obvious problems from the start with regard to the terms of the agreement and especially with regard to the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the new Assembly lasted only two months and was temporarily suspended in February of 2000.

This trend would set the scene for the life of the Agreement and after a return to the Stormont government in May of 2000, it was suspended once more in October of 2002, again the issue of decommissioning was central to its suspension as Unionist parties were unhappy with the speed of decommissioning taking place by the IRA. This situation has remained to the current day and Northern Ireland is still under direct rule from Westminster therefore once again bringing in to question whether the Agreement can be the basis for solution to the Northern Ireland problem.

In today’s current political climate, there is no doubt that the survival of the agreement hangs in the balance and at the time of writing (April 2005) the next few weeks in the lead up to the general election in the UK and the period after are a critical time for the supporters of the agreement. The Agreement still has the full backing from the British and Irish prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern who believes that the agreement ‘remains the only route to lasting peace and reconciliation on our island’.In fact this trend was becoming evident in the lead up to the Agreement as Catholic and Protestant middle classes have chosen to opt out of politics, ‘having become cynical and disillusioned with the political process and wanting little or nothing to do with it. (O’Malley pp19)

Furthermore, as it was the working class who suffered most in the ‘troubles’, a greater polarisation has arisen in working class communities and these communities will be expected to vote on mass in the forthcoming election  The manifesto has explicitly ruled out the d’Hondt formula2 or any similar formula as a means to forming government. The DUP wants parties to negotiate how many posts they get themselves and what they are. This means that in practical terms, if the DUP remains the largest unionist party, ‘the agreement will have to be renegotiated and an assembly set up under new legislation with new elections to ratify it’. (Sunday Times, April 10th)

In an effort to counter this, the UUP leader, David Trimble in an interview with BBC radio 1 on the 17th of April, called for voters to create a ‘cross community administration based on the ‘centrist’ parties from the nationalist and Unionist sides’. (The UUP and SDLP) This may however be an unlikely scenario and it is widely predicted that the two extremist parties will once again be the largest parties on the two sides. Should this happen political stalemate will once again occur and the Agreement may become dead in the water.

This would undoubtedly be too long for the British and Irish governments as well as the other parties in the North who want to push forward with the Agreement. The situation has not been helped in the last few months following the brutal killing of Robert McCartney by the IRA, their alleged involvement in the Northern Bank robbery and their continuation of punishment beatings. Clearly then, the Agreement depends largely on the IRA and when or if they become no longer part of the equation, but until this happens, it is unlikely that there will be any compromise with the DUP or the UUP.

In conclusion, I believe that the Good Friday agreement will not be the solution to the North’s problems in the foreseeable future and it is most likely that political stalemate will continue for a number of years to come. Its only saving grace can come in the fact that the British and Irish governments will not sit idle for a long period of time if the stalemate continues. This could lead us to believe that it may be possible for the Agreement to be the basis for solution but for the original document to be altered slightly to meet everyone’s needs.

However, two problems arise from this. Firstly, there has never being a viable alternative which would satisfy both communities. Alternatives such as an independent Northern Ireland or a decline in tensions due to further European Integration are either not viable or generations away. The fact that the DUP did as well as they did in the last European elections is a sign that they were aware of this threat but have moved to nullify it.

Another alternative that was suggested was to have a more modified direct rule with some elements of local government. However this too would bring about the problem of power sharing. The second problem with an alternative agreement is that a recent survey, a vast majority of Protestants (85%) feel that nationalists got the better deal (Scotsman. com, 2005-04-19) from the agreement and any amendments to the deal would be highly scrutinised to ensure no further Nationalist gains occurred.

The population divide between Catholics and Protestants has never been closer than today and Unionists will be extremely reluctant to give any more concessions to Nationalists. All in all, the combined Westminster and local government elections are shaping up as the most important in recent times, deciding the terms on which unionism and nationalism can do business in the years to come. For any progress to be made in the coming years, there must be full and unconditional disarmament by the IRA of which both parties on the Unionist side must be content with.