Worries over Good Friday Agreement mar 25th anniversary
Pope Francis said on Easter Monday he was praying that the Good Friday agreement signed 25 years ago ending violence in Northern Ireland can be "consolidated" to benefit the people of all of Ireland. But the Pope's appeal came as the agreement has come under strain following Britain's exit from the European Union.
It seemed still peaceful in Belfast on Monday, but the Pope's appeal to make the Good Friday agreement serve everyone came amid worries about the deal's future.
Signed on April 10th, 1998, the Good Friday agreement was to end three decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and terrorist attacks on mainland Britain.
The fighting was rooted in history, as after more than eight centuries of British rule, Ireland gained independence in 1922.
Northern Ireland, however, remained part of the United Kingdom.
Tensions between Republican nationalists who wanted to join Ireland and unionists who wanted to remain in Britain led to bloodshed from the 1960s to the 1990s.
The bloodshed, known locally as the Troubles with a capital T, involved shootings, bombings, and other attacks and is believed to have killed more than 3,500 people.
Attacks included British troops firing at unarmed protesters that killed more than a dozen on "Bloody Sunday" in 1972 to terrorism that nearly killed then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher when the Irish Republican Army or IRA bombed her Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, in 1984. "You hear about these atrocities, these bombs, but you don't expect them to happen to you," she told reporters after the bombing that killed five people and injured dozens more.
Eventually, the Good Friday Agreement brokered by Washington was ratified by governments in London and Dublin precisely 25 years ago.
Enshrined in the accord is the "principle of consent," which states that Northern Ireland could at any time join Ireland if most people on both sides vote in favor.
The agreement also gave Northern Ireland its political body, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and founded the British Irish Council, a platform for future relations between the two countries.
Jonathan Powell was Britain's chief negotiator. "The Good Friday Agreement was, in the end, an agreement to disagree. It didn't solve the problem. Some people in Northern Ireland want to be part of the United Kingdom, and some people want to be part of a united Ireland. We couldn't resolve that problem. What we did was stop them from killing people to pursue those aims," he stressed.
The speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Alex Maskey, agrees. He participated in ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. "It was an honorable compromise. It contains challenges for everyone. But it did not diminish any of the deeply held political views of those present. Nor did it mean that the future would be easy, but it was a new beginning," he recalled.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and U.S. President Joe Biden are arriving Tuesday to launch several days of high-profile commemorations and to ease tensions.
The terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland has been raised from substantial to severe, meaning an attack is highly likely. Based on a British intelligence assessment, that move follows a rise in dissident Republican activity, including a recent gun attack on a top police officer.
Since Britain's exit from the European Union in 2020, the "Brexit" after 47 years of membership, the Good Friday Agreement has come under strain.
Power-sharing institutions created by the accord have been paralyzed for over a year over bitter disagreements on post-Brexit trade. Britain and the European Union agreed to overhaul arrangements. But the new deal -- the Windsor Framework -- is yet to receive backing from the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's influential pro-British party.
Stefan J. Bos