10/04/2018 07:00 BST | Updated 10/04/2018 11:47 BST

The Good Friday Agreement: 20 Years On, Why Is The Peace Deal Under Threat?

Historic pact paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland, but some fear Brexit puts it in jeopardy.

Today marks 20 years since the historic deal known as the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland, bringing peace to a land which had known bombs and bullets for generations.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern signed the pact which would bring together sides who had been at war with each other into a power-sharing deal in Belfast.

The Agreement won the support of the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum, signalling the end of years of sectarian conflict which had, by the mid 1990s, claimed more than 3,500 lives.

It marked the beginning of a power-sharing government between nationalists and unionists, and saw the Irish Republican Army - known as the IRA - and loyalist gunmen decommissioning their weapons.

Paramilitary prisoners were also released early from prison as part of the deal.

While the truce has at times been shaky – and political stalemates have seen London suspend the Northern Irish government at various points in the past two decades – the Good Friday Agreement could now be facing its greatest threat: Brexit.

What is the Good Friday agreement?

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 

Brokered by Tony Blair’s government, the agreement brought an end to 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, known as The Troubles.

It was signed in 1998 and supported by most Northern Ireland parties, the British Government and the Irish Government.

It led to the early release of political prisoners who had committed killings and was followed by decommissioning of weapons, fundamental reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and the establishment of a devolved cross-community power-sharing government at Stormont.

In 2017, that power-sharing administration collapsed over a botched Government-run green energy scheme. 

Ongoing divisions between the DUP and Sinn Fein over Irish language rights, the ban on gay marriage, and addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past have prevented power-sharing to resume.

Endless rounds of negotiations led by the British and Irish Governments have failed to produce a breakthrough, and the Irish government’s efforts to maintain a soft border, in particular its demand that Northern Ireland continues to align with many EU regulations, has angered unionists who fear it is veiled attempt to push a united Ireland agenda.

Why is it so contentious now?

Brexiteers have been accused of talking the Good Friday agreement down in order to pave the way for a clean break from the EU’s Customs Union – a move which would make a hard border inevitable.

The border will become the frontier between the EU and a non-member state after Brexit, but both sides in the negotiations say they are committed to avoiding a “hard border” with infrastructure such as cameras or checkpoints.

The promise is proving hard to keep. Removing Northern Ireland along with the rest of the UK from the EU’s Customs Union risks creating a need for such infrastructure, while keeping the province in the bond would effectively draw a border down the Irish Sea.

May gave her backing in December to a proposal in which a hard border would be avoided either as part of a broader trade agreement with the EU, or by the use of as-yet-unspecified technology.

If neither of those options come to fruition, the EU insisted on a “backstop” alternative under which parts of the Northern Irish economy would remain closely integrated in the EU’s systems.

However, May has since denounced this. The Prime Minister says it is time to look for “workable” solutions to the impasse, but faces the additional problem that the DUP, which props up her Government in Westminster, is certain to object to any proposal which treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.

The uncertainties have led to high level interventions, with Hillary Clinton writing in The Guardian that reinstating border controls or infrastructure would be a return to the “bad old days”.

“There are some who argue that the agreement has outlived its usefulness. They are wrong,” Clinton wrote on Tuesday.

Who were the key players back in 1998?

Martin McGuinness 

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Martin McGuinness answering questions during a press conference in London, 26 February 1998

Martin McGuinness was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator in the talks that led to the agreement. He was nominated by his party for a ministerial position in the power-sharing government, where he became minister of education.

The ex-IRA commander, who became deputy First Minister in 2007, died last year of a rare heart condition.

Bertie Ahern 

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Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair speak to the media during a news conference at Hillsborough Castle.

The then-Irish Taoiseach was praised for his commitment to the talks, signing the agreement just hours after his mother’s funeral.

He told BBC Northern Ireland’s The Sunday News: “The art of politics is compromise, the art of politics is working together for the good of the people, the people that elect you, the people that trust you, this is what political leadership is about.”

Gerry Adams

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Gerard Adams was leader of Sinn Féin between November 1983 and February 2018.

One of the longest-serving party leaders in the world, Adams was Sinn Fein president for 34 years, hailed by some as a visionary and a peacemaker, but vilified as a terrorist by others.

In January, Adams said taking Northern Ireland out of the EU would “destroy” the agreement, stating fundamental human rights enshrined in the 1998 accord to end violence could be undermined. He believes Northern Ireland should enjoy special status within the union of 27 states after Brexit. 

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU referendum by a majority of 56% to 44%.

George Mitchell

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US special envoy George Mitchell with former UUP leader David Trimble.

Sent by President Bill Clinton, Mitchell was the US special envoy to Northern Ireland who chaired the negotiations.

He has recently urged Theresa May and Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to resolve the problem of the post-Brexit border because it has been an “important factor” in reducing tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Asked about claims the Good Friday Agreement was now getting in the way of political progress in Northern Ireland, he told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I don’t agree with that analysis.

“I think the people espousing that line are primarily concerned with the Brexit debate in the UK and are using the Northern Ireland issue as a part of that debate.”

Tony Blair 

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Tony Blair meeting with Bertie Ahern ahead of finalising the Good Friday Agreement.

The former Prime Minister cites the April 1998 agreement as one of the most important achievements of his decade in power.

Speaking ahead of the anniversary, he said: “Some of the most difficult meetings I had as prime minister were with the families of the victims of the Troubles.

“They actually fitted into two categories of people. One group of people said ‘How can you be sitting down with murderers, making a deal with them or releasing people who have committed horrendous crimes against innocent people, and my family were victim of this appalling violence?’.

“And then there would be other people who would say ‘You’ve got to make sure this works because I don’t want other people to go through what I’ve been through’.

“This is where, in the end, as a political leader, you’ve got to decide what you think is right. These rights require choices that are difficult for the leader but they are even more difficult for the people who have been victims of the trouble.”

Blair believes it is still possible to resolve the current Stormont impasse. Speaking at the weekend, he said: “I cannot believe it is not possible to find a way around it. It is very similar to the types of issues we used to deal with.

“It is not easy, and Brexit complicates things for a variety of reasons but… it is still worth doing.”

David Trimble

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Former UUP leader David Trimble won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in sealing the landmark deal.

Lord Trimble was First Minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2002 when the institutions were suspended following a police raid on Sinn Fein’s Stormont offices.

The former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in sealing the landmark Good Friday Agreement. Paramilitary arms were later decommissioned during his tenure.

Lord Trimble said the credit for saving lives 20 years ago lay with “the people of Northern Ireland generally who made it clear to paramilitaries that they did not want that to continue”. 

The current key players 

Theresa May

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Theresa May's minority government relies on Democratic Unionist support in key Westminster votes.

Prime Minister Theresa May, whose minority government relies on Democratic Unionist support in key Westminster votes, has insisted there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit. 

A spokesman for May said she was “totally committed to the restoration of the devolved institutions, working intensely with the parties and the Irish Government to achieve that”. 

She added: “As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreement, we are totally committed to the restoration of the devolved institutions, working intensively with the parties and the Irish Government to achieve that.

“Throughout the past year the Prime Minister has been heavily involved in the political process.  She has led frequent discussions with Northern Ireland’s political leaders and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, including in Belfast in February.

“The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State will continue to do whatever is necessary to see devolved government restored and the Agreements implemented in full.”

Leo Varadkar

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned that Brexit could “drive a wedge” between Britain and Ireland.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar has warned that Brexit could “drive a wedge” between Britain and Ireland, urging that a border deal must be done by October to allow time for it to be ratified by legislatures.

Speaking last month, he said: “To me, Brexit is a threat to the Good Friday Agreement simply because it threatens to drive a wedge between Britain and Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and potentially between the two communities in Northern Ireland. And that’s why we must do all that we can to make sure that those wedges, that that risk, does not become reality.”

Arlene Foster

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DUP leader Arlene Foster and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley.

The DUP leader has hit out at warnings that the peace process could be under threat because of Brexit as an “insult” to the people of Northern Ireland. 

Foster, whose party props up May’s Government in the House of Commons, insisted she did not want to see the imposition of a ‘hard border’ after Britain leaves the EU.

At the same time, she reaffirmed her party’s objection to the EU’s “fallback” plan which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the single market if the two sides were unable to resolve the border issue.

“I want to see an optimistic, sensible and pragmatic approach to Brexit,” she said.

“I object in the strongest possible terms to people who have limited experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland throwing threats of violence around as some kind of bargaining chip in this negotiating process.

“To do so is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland who worked so hard to bring peace to our country.”

Mary Lou McDonald

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Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald with former leader Gerry Adams. 

The new Sinn Fein leader has described Brexit as “an absolute disaster” and said it was “mutually incompatible” with the Good Friday Agreement.

“I sense a real resentment amongst Irish people that Ireland becomes collateral damage in a power play with the Tories in Dublin,” she said, a day after replacing Gerry Adams in February.

Sinn Fein has claimed Foster agreed a draft deal to resurrect power-sharing last month before pulling the plug in the face of an internal revolt among party members angry at the prospect of concessions on the thorny issue of the Irish language.

It is an allegation Foster has strenuously denied.

Michel Barnier

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The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has repeatedly stressed the need to protect the GFA in any Brexit deal.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator insists the EU is looking for “practical solutions” to the border issue and upholding the Good Friday Agreement. Barnier has repeatedly stressed the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in any Brexit deal.