Despite the arrival of troops in Northern Ireland in 1969, sectarian violence in the country continued. On April 10th, 1998, leaders of main Irish political parties, as well as the British Prime Minister and other politically or militarily significant figures signed the Good Friday Agreement. Its aim was to end violence and terrorism and provide a new framework for governments in Northern Ireland.
These were its main points:
* There would be a Northern Ireland Assembly made up 108 members, six selected by PR (proportional representation) from each of the 18 existing Westminster constituencies.
*A first minister and a deputy first minister, likely to be David Trimble, as leader of the largest party and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, as deputy.
*The assembly would have powers to legislate and take over the running of government departments such as agriculture and education.
*Its first responsibility would be to set up a north-South ministerial council to direct co-operation on a series of issues. The assembly will be suspended if it does not establish the co-operative body within a year.
* There would be a new British Irish council. Members will be drawn from the Northern Ireland assembly, the British and Irish governments, and devolved bodies in Wales and Scotland.
*The Irish government will amend 2 and 3 of its constitution, which lay claim to Northern Ireland. London will repeal the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.
*The British Government will reduce numbers of police and armed forces and remove security installations.
* All participants will reaffirm commitment to decommissioning of weapons and to work with independent international commission on decommissioning.
*An independent commission will be established on the future of policing in Northern Ireland.
If the Good Friday Agreement was to fulfil its aim, then all parties involved would have to compromise, as each of these points did not suit the exact needs of any one group. David Trimble was leader of the assembly. As he is a unionist, this would have displeased nationalists. Having a Nationalist as the deputy made many nationalists feel their beliefs were secondary in importance to those of Unionists.
Part of the Good Friday Agreement meant that some people serving prison sentences for terrorist attacks would be able to leave prison before their sentence ended. This would benefit and displease both Unionists and Nationalists.
Sectarian violence continued, such as punishment beatings of rivals by extremist groups. Nine tenths of punishment shootings and beatings in 1998 were carried out after the GFA was signed, the first of these on the same day. This proved that some were prepared to go to any lengths to prevent the GFA from achieving its aims.
The orange marches still continued to pass through an area known as the ‘diamond’, a notoriously Catholic part of Derry, causing more conflict.
The signing of the GFA caused the forming of splinter groups. These consisted of ex-members of groups that had signed the GFA. They had ‘splintered’ from their group as their more extreme views meant they did not believe in signing the GFA. These groups were known to carry out violent attacks.
One of these groups was known as ‘The Real IRA’. They are believed to have carried out one of the worst bomb attacks in Northern Ireland since the agreement was signed. The Omagh bombing killed 29 people after a bomb had been left in a car in a busy shopping district and then false warnings caused the police to usher the crowd towards the location of the bomb. It took place just three months after the GFA was signed and was seen as a huge setback to the progression of peace in Northern Ireland.
In February 2000 there was another bombing by Nationalists in a mainly protestant town. Fortunately no one was injured. This came shortly after the British government had threatened to reimpose direct rule on Northern Ireland.
The continued bombing angered political leaders who argued that overwhelming support for the GFA meant that violence such as this was ‘rejected’.
In September 2001, violence erupted as Catholic schoolgirls were walking to Holy Cross Primary School. The violence occurred as the Catholic families passed through a mainly protestant area on their journey. The extent of the violence meant that there had to be a strong police presence on the route each day, to protect the schoolgirls from broken bottles and bricks, which were being thrown, as well as many other weapons including blast bombs.
Esther Holmes was taking her daughter to school during the violence.
“It was absolutely terrifying. They were shouting ‘dirty tramps’, ‘your kids are animals’, ‘Fenian scum’, ‘you Fenian bastards’. And all we were trying to do was get our kids to school.”
This shows the extent of the level of vitriol in the area. The violence became so bad the school had to shut for a number of days, and was only able to reopen when measures had been taken to increase the safety of the school children and their parents.
Part of the GFA stated that paramilitary groups were to decommission their weapons. Despite this, none has taken place., hindering the development of peace.
These troubles could only be explained by the huge difference in demands from different groups. The GFA aimed to satisfy most of these groups but has not been able to achieve its aims due to ‘the legacy of mistrust’ that has existed due to deep rooted reasons that have existed for centuries between Nationalists and Unionists in the province.