Important Agreements

And documents preceding the Good Friday Agreement


Important Documents from 1970 to 1998

Prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the British and Irish governments had tried several times to reach agreements. March 1973, saw the most sophisticated attempt yet, to solve the Northern Ireland problem. A white paper proposed an elected assembly which would have no authority until an executive of both Catholic and Protestant ministers had agreed to share power. A Council of Ireland would discuss mutual concerns from both governments. The main tasks of the gathering were to agree on the Council of Ireland's composition and functions, to deal with the subject of greater north-south security co-operation, and to attempt to settle the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The conference also dealt with the issue of policing, as members of the SDLP fought to change the name of the RUC to represent a force that was neutral. All of these issues were met with resistance from both sides, but after countless hours of negotiation, the Sunningdale Agreement was signed in Sunningdale Park located in Sunningdale, Berkshire, on December 9, 1973.1

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Left: British Prime Minister Edward Heath signs the Sunningdale Agreement. Photo: BBC2

Strong objection came from the both loyalists and unionists of Northern Ireland. Unionists saw the agreement as undemocratic and the Council as a step toward a united Ireland. The Ulster Unionists formed the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC), as an alliance of anti-agreement unionists along with the Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party (VPUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Together they would stand a single anti-Sunningdale candidate in each constituency. Soon after they succeeded, pro-agreement unionists withdrew their support for the agreement. When the members of this anti-agreement would challenge or question the agreement, many times there were no answers for their questions. One major problem with the Sunningdale Agreement was that it was, in reality, an agreement to reach an agreement, leaving much to be finalized. In May of 1974, a loyalist organization called the Ulster Worker’s Council (UWC), consisting of mostly Protestant trade unionists and others, called a general strike which ultimately led to the collapse of the agreement.3

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Right: Department of Justice memorandum dated 22 January 1974 relating to the Irish Government meeting held to discuss, among other matters, the establishment of a Council of Ireland, as laid out in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974. From the National Archives of Ireland.4


Ten years after Sunningdale had failed, talks began between the British and Irish governments again in the early 80s. As result of the hunger strikes at Maze Prison and the election of Bobby Sands as MP, Sinn Fein was launched back into the public spotlight which threatened the political power of the SDLP.5As leader of the SDLP, John Hume persuaded the Irish government to create the New Ireland Forum to discuss the future of both parts of Ireland. The forum produced a report published in May 1984; it suggested 1) a united Ireland, 2) a confederation of Northern Ireland and the Republic and 3) joint authority over Northern Ireland.6 Unionists, the government of the United Kingdom, and Sinn Fein boycotted the forum and Ms. Thatcher strongly rejected the report with a firm "No. No. No." to the three alternatives.

The report did however spark movement between the two governments; the UK realized the problems in Northern Ireland were not going to stop until a settlement could be reached, and they began secret negotiations with the Irish government in early 1985. After 36 meetings between representatives of the two governments, they announced the agreement in which a) the UK recognized the Irish Republic's right to make proposals concerning Northern Ireland and b) the Irish Republic recognized that a united Ireland was a long term objective and that it could only be achieved through majority consent. Finally the two governments set up a conference between them, to discuss issues of mutual interest and to help produce a better society in Northern Ireland.7 Thatcher and FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Hillsborough on November 15, 1985. The Agreement recognized any change that was to come to Northern Ireland would not be done without the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.8

Thatcher commented:

"Its purpose is to try to bring together and support all of those people in Northern Ireland who wish to end violence and to proceed in a democratic way."9

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10Watch Media Broadcast of Signing

The Irish government narrowly voted for it on November 21st and the UK government approved it by a huge majority on November 27th. With much the same reaction to Sunningdale, unionists were appalled by the agreement and felt abandoned by their government. Over 100,000 rallied against the agreement at Belfast City Hall; Ulster Unionist leader, James Molyneaux, said that Northern Ireland was being delivered from "one nation to another".11 Sinn Fein was also against the AIA because the Irish government was recognizing Northern Ireland's existence. By 1987, Unionists gave up their campaign against the agreement. Despite widespread opposition of Unionists, the Agreement proved to be one of the most important elements in securing the Belfast Agreement in the future. It was the first formal us of interstate cooperation in Northern Ireland, and thus lead to a large shift in the way the once-oppressive British treated Irish Catholic community. In all, it opened the communication lines between both governments lead to more room for communication during the peace process.12


In the fall of 1993, it was clear members of Sinn Fein no longer believed violence would bring an end to British rule in Northern Ireland, and wanted to engage in the "peace process." In December 1993, John Hume (leader of the SDLP) and Gerry Adams (leader of Sinn Fein) sent a proposal to the Irish and British governments. The document called for reflection on many issues including self-determination, assurance from Britain that it had no selfish interest in remaining in Ireland, and heavy emphasis on the need for agreement.13 The proposal was reincarnated into the Downing Street Declaration in December of 1993, issued by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, John Major, and the Taoiseach of Republic of Ireland, Albert Reynolds. The declaration addressed many of Hume and Adams’ issues and stated the British government was to encourage, facilitate and enable the peace process. It addressed self-determination stating:

"The British government agrees that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish."14

To the shock of many, the governments also pledged that all parties linked with paramilitaries, such as Sinn Féin, could take part in negotiation, so long as they abandoned violence.

All negotiations throughout the troubles are examples of public policy changes through diplomacy, which are negotiations between governments.15 However, the Downing Street Declaration is perhaps the most inclusive example with the first mention as Sinn Féin and other non-governmental groups as negotiators. It was this breakthrough that made the declarations successful. It was considered sufficient by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, who went on to announce a ceasefire on August 31, 1994. This was then followed on October 13th, by an announcement of a ceasefire and apology from the Combined Loyalist Military Command.

Another example of public policy changes is through restorative justice, a category of victim and offender encounter programs that can be regarded as a post-crime reconciliation program. John McCourt showed examples of the restitution, reconciliation and reintegration when he was part of the program to bring Catholic women across the river to Protestant communities where they had worked before the troubles. Through many of these community actions, peace has begun to grow throughout Northern Ireland, a specific example of community action is the work of Alternatives in Belfast. Alternatives is an organization who work with local para military groups to combat local violence in a peaceful way.16 These actions also aided in the political movements toward peace.

Finally, because the leaders in the peace process are mostly diplomats, they were able to handle confrontation during negotiation. The tool of role-playing, meaning they practiced and were prepared for what could have went wrong upon entering negotiations with the other group. Because they had been in sessions such as these before, they were prepared to deal with the stress and fear that could possibly happen during these negotiations.17


The fork in the road that seemed to point in the direction of Irish unity was not the Dowing Street Declaration, but possibly the Frameworks for the Future published in February 1995. This document, drafted by Dublin diplomat Sean OhUiginn further shaped a ‘shared understanding between the British and Irish Governments to assist discussion and negotiations involving the Northern Ireland parties’.18 It also intended for new North/South institutions to be created leading to ‘agreed dynamic, new co-operative and constructive relationships’.19 This document gave Nationalist the hope of future Irish unity. It was strongly supported by the Nationalists and outright rejected by Unionists.

Important Documents Prior to 1970

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Above: Perhaps the most important document in the history of Ireland, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic20

The Declaration of Independence was a document adopted by Dáil Éireann, the revolutionary parliament of the self-proclaimed Irish Republic. It was signed at their first meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin, on January 21st, 1919. The Constitution of Ireland came into force on 29 December 1937. Controversial articles 2 and 3 were amended with the Good Friday Agreement.

The Special Powers Act was a highly controversial sanction passed in 1922. For more information on the act see, the Internment page.

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