Lesson 5: 1997-2007 From Good Friday to Good Government

Lesson 5: 1997-2007
From Good Friday to Government

This lesson looks at the creation of the Good Friday Agreement and its impact over the next decade in terms of the establishment of a power-sharing Government in the north. The lesson looks at how the Executive was formed, suspended and then reinstated over those first ten years.


The election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in Westminster in May 1997 changed the whole context of the peace process in the North. The landslide victory meant that the British Government were no longer reliant on the support of Unionist MP’s in the House of Commons and had more freedom to be flexible in their approach to negotiations. Blair announced that Sinn Féin could be admitted to the talks process within six weeks of a new IRA ceasefire, and that decommissioning could happen in parallel to talks and not before, as had been the case previously.

Multi-Party Talks

The IRA responded by calling a second ceasefire on July 20th which saw Sinn Féin enter the multi-party negotiations on the 15th September. Although Ian Paisley’s DUP left the talks due to the presence of Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party and parties representing the UVF and UDA remained in the talks process, after temporarily leaving in protest. Participation was not just problematic for unionists. Many republicans were uncomfortable with the idea of participating in a process that required the republican movement to commit to purely peaceful means to pursue Irish unity. In October 1997 several republicans left the Provisional movement to establish a new faction known as the ‘Real IRA’. The difficulties in the process were not just external. Progress was slow and painstaking as many parties had radically different visions of what any new political structures should look like. Many also had real difficulties negotiating with people that they held responsible for years of conflict. George Mitchell, a US Senator, had been appointed to Chair the talks by the two governments. He had previously chaired the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) which had previously produced proposals on how to resolve the arms issue. His involvement was a clear example of the US administration's central diplomatic role in the process. With many key elements generally agreed, but with serious disagreement still remaining in others, Mitchell set a two week deadline for agreement to be reached in March 1998.

The Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) was signed on 10th April 1998. The Agreement is the foundation stone upon which the modern peace process has developed. It focussed on a wide range of areas including civil rights, cultural identity, decommissioning, justice and policing, and equality. Before it could be implemented simultaneous referendums had to be held and won in both jurisdictions (North and South). The referenda gave the people of Ireland, as a whole, a real say in the future of the North. The referendum in the North sought a simple Yes or No from voters on whether they supported the Agreement. In the Republic, voters were also asked to agree to an amendment to the Irish Government's territorial claim of sovereignty over the North. This had been a key issue for unionists, who felt it was an existential threat to the northern state, and a key concession from nationalists, who felt it was a legitimate expression of the totality of the Irish nation. Despite a campaign of opposition led by the the DUP, both referenda were overwhelmingly passed, with 71% voting yes in the North, and 94% in the the South. The result was greeted with widespread optimism and jubilation.

The details of the Good Friday Agreement

The Agreement is made up of two components of documentation: 1. An agreement amongst the political parties in the North of Ireland; 2. An international settlement between the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The Agreement has three strands, with each strand representing institutions that dealt with the North of Ireland (Strand 1), North-South issues (Strand 2) and British-Irish issues (Strand 3): Strand 1: established the Assembly and the Executive; Strand 2: established the North-South Ministerial Council, North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association and North-South Consultative Forum which dealt with matters of mutual interest; Strand 3: established the British-Irish Council, British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and British-Irish Interparliamentary Body which promoted cooperation between the two governments. The Agreement also contained the following principles: It was agreed that the North would remain under British Government jurisdiction until there was a majority vote of the people to change this position; The people of the North could identify themselves as either British, Irish or both and could hold British, Irish or both passports.

A Slow Start

The Assembly elections of June 1998 returned the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP as the two largest parties. Devolved power was officially transferred to the Assembly in December 1999, and the Executive began to govern. David Trimble was selected as the First Minister and Seamus Mallon as Deputy First Minister. Whilst Martin McGuinness became the Minister for Education, John Hume decided not to take a ministerial position. In total, the Assembly was suspended four times between 1999 and 2007, initially due to the decommissioning impasse, and then over unproven allegations of an IRA spy-ring operating within the Northern institutions. Whilst the establishment of the Assembly was an achievement in itself, it was clear that much work would have to be done to allow sustained power-sharing in the medium term. During this period the DUP also overtook the Ulster Unionist Party as the largest unionist party which in turn saw its leader Ian Paisley come under pressure from both governments to enter a re-established power-sharing Executive. In tandem Sinn Féin overtook the SDLP as the largest nationalist party in the North.

The St Andrews Agreement

In July 2005, in order to remove the arms issue as a continuing blockage in the process, the IRA announced they were 'formally ordering an end to all armed activity' and had ordered all members to engage in 'purely peaceful activity'. In September that year a number of independent witnesses publicly announced they had witnessed the total decommissioning of the IRA’s arsenal. Between 11th–13th October 2006 multi-party talks were held at St Andrews in Scotland in an attempt to restore the institutions. The agreement which followed saw the institutions restored on the 8th May 2007. The major breakthrough was the full acceptance by Sinn Féin of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the DUP agreeing to full participation in the institutions established through the Good Friday Agreement.


Fresh assembly elections saw the DUP and Sinn Féin returned as the two biggest parties, with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness becoming joint First Ministers. This was a remarkable scenario, given Paisley’s reputation as a unionist hardline opponent of political change and McGuinness's role as a former commander of the IRA. For some, the symbolism of the two men governing together was the ultimate representation of the success of the peace process. Nevertheless, subsequent events have shown that much work remains to be done to sustain the institutions in advance of future constitutional change.



“ ... the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.”
The Good Friday Agreement, Agreement Between The Government Of The United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland And The Government Of Ireland, Article 1, (v).


“There are people who still think that the compromises that were made along the way were unacceptable. But sometimes politics is about that in order to achieve a better end. And there are always two kinds of people in politics: those who stand aside and commentate and those who get their hands dirty and do.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 8 May 2007, as devolution returns to Northern Ireland.


“The agreement that has emerged from the Northern Ireland peace talks opens the way for the people there to build a society based on enduring peace, justice and equality.”
US President Bill Clinton, speaking in 1998.


"Let unionist leaders say clearly that they recognise that my Irish identity and culture holds equal value to theirs. That is what parity of esteem means. That is what equality is about. It is also what the Agreement demands…

…The complacent attitude of the governments needs to change if the true potential of the Good Friday Agreement is to be harnessed.

And I believe that it can be – inclusivity, dialogue, parity of esteem and equality threaten nobody."
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 2013.

Learning Activities

Activity: Create an organisational chart to show the structure of the assembly and the make up of the Executive in 1999 and today. Note the changes (in Diagram below).

Discussion: Why do you think that decommissioning of weapons was such a contentious issue on all sides?

‘Why do you think republicans were opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 but were willing to accept the Good Friday Agreement in 1998?’

‘Why do you think the majority of unionist parties decided to participate in power-sharing institutions with cross-border co-operation from 1998 onwards despite being opposed to the same concepts in 1974?’

Digital Task

TASK DESCRIPTION Students will create a movie of at least 30 seconds which explains what the Good Friday Agreement was and what the key details were. Students will research images (and if possible audio and video) and information from the internet which will be used in their movies.    PLAN Information will be sourced from the internet and designed in the form of a storyboard. Students will be supplied with search terms by the teacher and source appropriate images, videos, audio and information from the internet – ask students to consider the reliability and objectivity of the information they find. Students will identify and select information to use and save it appropriately in a dedicated folder with a meaningful filename (this may be images or quotes that helped them to write their script). Students will keep an account of the sites they have visited in a saved document. Students will use the information and media they have sourced and construct a storyboard for the making of their movie. DO Students will import the various media items they sourced from the internet. Using their storyboards as a guide, students will construct their movie using various editing tools (Splitting, Trimming, Transitions, Effects and Captions/Titles). Students will complete their piece of work by exporting it in a suitable file format (e.g. WMV/MP4). Encourage students to consider the size and style of fonts, the size of images, the effects/transitions used and the tools available to them within the software package. Remind students to save their work in a dedicated folder with an appropriate filename. REVIEW Give students the opportunity to view each other’s work. This may be done by viewing selected pieces of work or students may circulate the room. Taking other students' feedback into account, ask students to justify their choices and decisions, including any difficulties they encountered in the creation of their video file. This may be completed in the form of a saved document.

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