Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a 1998 peace treaty that sought to permanently end sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland.
“The Troubles” began in the 1960s, a mix of political, nationalistic, and religious conflict over the status of Northern Ireland and her citizens. Loyalists (those loyal to the British Crown and primarily Protestant) slightly outnumbered Republicans (those who wished to see Northern Ireland become part of Ireland again and primary Roman Catholic), but held a disproportionate amount of power. For example, most government jobs went to Loyalists…the police force in Belfast was 90% Protestant.
Along with other civil rights movements that sprang up around the world in the 1960’s, Irish Republicans also began a campaign to eradicate what they viewed as institutional discrimination intended to keep the Catholic minority in check.
Protests were crushed by British forces, violence broke out, and a 30-year conflict began.
By the time 1998 arrived, the situation seemed bleak. Over 3,000 had been killed and over 45,000 injured, the majority civilian.
Riots, protests, and other civil disobedience led to a British-imposed segregation of Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, the erection of 18-foot walls dividing these neighborhoods and “Peace Gates” that were locked each night so that no one could go from neighborhood to neighborhood. It was an eerie, Orwellian world. So-called “no-go areas” were neighborhoods in which Loyalists and British forces could not safely operate.
These areas were primarily patrolled by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the primary paramilitary branch of the Republicans. Bombings were routine, snipers targeted civilians, and every interim ceasefire eventually crumbled.
A Time for Peace
By 1998, both sides were ready to talk, hoping to hammer out a permanent solution. After days of back-and-forth late night discussion, an agreement was reached on Good Friday, April 10, 1998. As shared by the BBC:
The Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement as it would become known) contained proposals for a Northern Ireland Assembly with a power-sharing executive, new cross-border institutions with the Republic of Ireland and a body linking devolved assemblies across the UK with Westminster and Dublin. The Republic of Ireland has also agreed to drop its constitutional claim to the six counties which formed Northern Ireland. There were also proposals on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, the future of policing in Northern Ireland and the early release of paramilitary prisoners.
Despite occasional spurts of violence over the last two decades, the agreement remains in force and is marked as the official end of The Troubles.
Four years ago, I had the chance to visit Northern Ireland with my friend John (not this John). Even today, the visit still sends chills down my spine. We spent a night in Londonderry or Derry (how you call the city depends upon what side of the conflict you are on), one of the most notable “no-go areas” I mentioned above.
I was struck by the Irish flags and signs like this all over the city:
Contentious murals remain, some of them freshly painted. There may not be much violence any longer, but bitter division remains.
How fitting that peace was achieved on Good Friday, yet how sad that it took 50,000 casualties to finally forge a lasting compromise. Peace remains fragile and should not be taken for granted. Mistrust and inequality remain. But let us celebrate the 20th anniversary of this peaceful end to conflict. Let us also learn from this dark chapter in history by affirming this day the dignity of every human being.