Belfast Agreement

Today The Pensive Quill carries part three of an article by guest writer Liam O Ruairc on Irish Republicanism and the Peace Process

Liam O Ruairc

The culmination of the peace process was the signing of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th 1998 and its subsequent endorsement in two referendums on 22 May 1998. Prime Minister Blair spoke of feeling "the hand of history" during this period. (51) Not only had the Provisional movement accepted that the talks would not create a united Ireland, but they contributed little to the actual negotiations leading to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which were essentially driven by the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. (52) 'Sinn Fein contributed but little to the political details - 'in the dunces corner' as one Irish official put it. But with great tactical brilliance, Adams moved rapidly to embrace the Agreement and claim ownership of it against those who had actually made it.' (53) It was at the margins rather than at the centre that the Provisional movement contributed to the negotiations, mainly on the issue of prisoners release, the Irish language and policing. The Belfast Agreement fell well short of the minimum demands that would have to be met before Sinn Fein would sign any agreement. (54)

The core of the Belfast Agreement is that in exchange for republican and nationalist de facto acceptance of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and of the principle that the Union will continue as long as a majority of the people in the North support it, and also of the Dublin government’s amending of articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, the British government would replace the Government of Ireland Act and unionists would be required to accept power sharing with nationalists in the North as well as cross-border cooperation. Other elements include human rights and equality legislation; prisoner release, policing reform and the decommissioning of weapons. (55)

In terms of the central issue of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the circumstances in which a united Ireland could be brought about, the Belfast Agreement ensures the Union is "copper-fastened and protected". (56) The Belfast Agreement (Strand I, paragraph 33) contains a formal and explicit reiteration of British sovereignty.

It states that
"It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland". (Constititional Issues, Annex A, Section I, paragraph 1)
The British state thus made it clear that the unionist veto shall remain in place and has strengthened the partitionist ethos underlying that veto by having it enshrined it in the revised constitution of the 26 counties. (Constitutional Issues, Annex B)

The people of Ireland can exercise their right to self-determination but "this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland ". (Constitutional Issues, 1.ii.) This does not incorporate or concede the classic right of self-determination.

As legal scholar Austen Morgan notes:
"It is clear that the United Kingdom did not concede that the Irish people (in two states) had a classical right of self-determination. This is evident in the idea of separate referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, of two conditions precedent to a united Ireland and not simply a numerical majority in an all-Ireland vote." (57)
This represents the best deal unionists could possibly have won and hardly represents an advance for republicanism. In the words of Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister:
"This offers unionists every key demand they have made since partition eighty years ago...The principle of consent, no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people, is enshrined. The Irish constitution has been changed...A devolved assembly and government for Northern Ireland is now there for the taking. When I first came to Northern Ireland as a Prime Minister, these demands were pressed in me as what unionists really needed. I have delivered them all." (58)
The Sunday Business Post in an editorial argued:
"This is no deal for nationalist Ireland. It is likely to copperfasten partition on this island for many years to come, perhaps for decades. This year, 1998, is the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. Ironically, it is also the year which will witness the greatest erosion of Irish sovereignty since the Act of Union was passed." (59)
For constitutional nationalists, such as former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, the Belfast Agreement marked "the high-water mark of Irish national democratic expression." (60) However, from a traditional republican point of view, there was a fundamental democratic deficit at the heart of the whole process which led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

First, it was the British state -democratically unaccountable to any Irish constituency- which determined the parameters of the negotiations, restricting them to those of the Downing Street Declaration, the Framework Document and the Mitchell Principles. The paramount principle espoused in those documents, to which all participants in future talks had to pledge their adherence and commitment, is the principle of consent. Therefore, all participants to the process were committed to partition before the talks commenced. It is thus questionable whether the Belfast Agreement could be said to have been ‘freely negotiated’.

Second, the political package on offer was subordinate to the British state’s approval. The Belfast Agreement had to be accepted and ratified by Westminster before it was presented to the people of Ireland for acceptance or rejection. An external power had the power of veto over the sovereignty of the people of Ireland, leaving aside any objections they may have. The commitment to the ‘people on the island of Ireland alone’ is therefore completely meaningless given that there is no self-determination without ‘external impediment’.

Thirdly, there were two referendums held on 22 May 1998 in two different states for different purposes and different sets of questions. (On polling day 22 May, the question on the ballot paper in the North was ‘Do you support the Agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?' ’The turnout of 81.1 percent was the highest of any poll in the North since 1921. ‘Yes’ vote secured 71.1 percent and ‘No’ 28.9 percent. 96 percent of Catholics voted ‘yes’ but only 55 percent of protestants. In the south, turnout was 55.6 percent, ‘yes’ 94.4 percent and no 5.6 percent) The fact that they were held concurrently did not make them a single event and even less an act of self-determination, with the Six County referendum having the power of veto over that to be held in the Twenty Six Counties.

As legal scholar Austen Morgan points out:
"It is a travesty to claim that the people of –geographical- Ireland voted for the Agreement in an all-Ireland plebiscite. " (61)
For those three reasons, the "triple lock", the Agreement was not an exercise in self-determination, but instead was a copper-fastening of partition. For those three reasons also, the fact that the referendums were carried by a big majority of those who voted in the six counties (71%) and an even larger one in the twenty six counties (94.5%) does not refute that there was a democratic deficit in the whole process.

On 10 May 1998 the Belfast Agreement was approved 331 for and only 19 against at a special Sinn Fein conference. How can one explain that the bulk of 'relatives of dead IRA volunteers, former hunger strikers, ex-escapees, former prisoners, as well as thousands of supporters' (62) remained supporters of the Provisional movement and its leadership despite it turning republicanism on its head?

It is "thanks to the loyalty factor " as Brendan Hughes pointed out. (63) Loyalty to the movement is a decisive factor.
'The response to democratic republicanism has always been a plea to stay within the army line…The republican leadership has always exploited our loyalty' noted Brendan Hughes in a famous interview. (64)
With such mindset, that the movement must remain united becomes an imperative. (65) This is evidence of the primacy of organisational unity over unity around political principles. It is the Irish version of the social democratic maxim "the movement is everything and the principles nothing". (66) Once the movement is more important than principles, Republicanism becomes whatever the leadership of the movement said it is. "Thus Republicanism that declared ‘No Return to Stormont’ in 1997 was still Republicanism when it meant Executive ministries at Stormont in 1999." (67)

The intervention of prisoners in support of the leadership was also important. (68) Had the Provisionals not backed the Belfast Agreement, the prisoners aligned to the movement would have had to spend long years in jail, but thanks to the 1998 Agreement, 242 of their prisoners in the six counties and 57 others in the 26 counties would be eligible for release within two years. For Gerry Adams, "released prisoners are the best ambassadors for the peace process". (69)

This is to be contrasted with what an IRA spokesperson stated in 1975: ""Suppose we get the release of all detainees, an amnesty and withdrawal of troops to barracks, we are still where we started in 1969." (70)

Finally, as Henry Patterson writes, " ‘war-weariness’ helped create a basis for republicans settling for a partitionist fudge in 1998 ". (71)

Local and international media hailed the Agreement as a ‘new dawn’. One of the key reasons for referedum’s results is that the 1998 Belfast Agreement was promoted by ‘manufacturing consent’ -- as Chomsky would have put it -- that a "No" vote meant a vote for violence and a "Yes" vote as a vote for peace, manipulating opinion polls and relegating dissenting voices to the margins. (72)

"Information Strategy"
, a British government document written by Tom Kelly, formerly of the BBC and Director of Communications at the Northern Ireland Office at the time of the Agreement outlines the government's strategy for getting the right result through campaign of blatant media manipulation designed to flood Northern Ireland with positive stories about the peace deal. (73)

The "Yes" Campaign also called in the assistance of top advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, who designed their billboard campaign free of charge. Saatchi & Saatchi was credited with winning the 1979 election for the UK Tory Party, and branding the Thatcherite project in the 1980s. Many people voted ‘yes’ because they were war-weary and thought they were voting for peace. (74)

However, to think that republicans who were calling for a ‘no’ vote were against peace and for violence is wrong. The problem as Bernadette McAliskey notes is that the aim of the process " is to eradicate republicanism, not violence ". (75) The irony of it all is that some republicans who seriously questioned the politics of the ‘process’ seemed to be among the few who genuinely supported the ‘peace’ – it was the ‘process’ that they opposed, not the ‘peace’. (76) Anti-Agreement republicans would also emphasize that while they are for peace, they are not for ‘peace at any price’ ; and in the view of Republicans opposed to the Belfast Agreement the 1998 treaty is precisely peace at the wrong price.

The real question is not ‘peace’ but ‘peace on whose terms ?’ In this case it is peace on British terms. By copperfastening and protecting the Union, the Belfast Agreement reinforces rather than removes the cause of conflict and therefore will not bring lasting peace. It is not peace with justice but an unjust settlement as the right of self-determination of the people of Ireland as a whole is "subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland ". As David McKittrick writes, they " disapprove of the peace because it is bringing the wrong sort of peace. " (77) The term for a peace in which justice is subordinated is ‘pacification’. This is why it is more accurate to speak of a " pacification process " rather than a ‘peace process’. (78)


(51) Tony Blair, Hard work came after the handshake – building trust, The Irish Times, 4 April 2008
(52) Cfr. Thomas Hennessey, Negotiating the Belfast Agreement, in Brian Barton and Patrick J Roche (eds), The Northern Ireland Question: The Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp.38-56
(53) Paul Bew, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, Oxford University Press, 2007, 549. See also Paul Bew, The Triumph of the Belfast Agreement, in Brian Barton and Patrick J Roche (eds), The Northern Ireland Question: The Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 240-241.
(54) As set out by Gerry Adams in an Ireland on Sunday article on 8 March 1998. Amongst the ‘minimum’ criteria were powerful cross-border bodies immune from the northern assembly, the disbandment of the RUC and no weakening of Dublin’s constitutional claim to the North. See also Gerry Adams, Change needed for North’s transition, The Irish Times, 13 March 1998
(55) The Agreement: Text of the Agreement reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations on Northern Ireland (Cmnd.3883), Befast : HMSO, 1998. (Available at: See also Austen Morgan, The Belfast Agreement: A Practical Legal Analysis, London: The Belfast Press, 2000
(56) Austin Currie, All Hell Will Break Loose, Dublin: O Brien Press, 2004, 434
(57) Austen Morgan, The Belfast Agreement and the Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland, in Brian Barton and Patrick J Roche (eds), The Northern Ireland Question: The Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 86
(58) Blair’s Dawn Call kept the heat on Trimble, The Sunday Times, 4 July 1999
(59) Editorial, This is no ‘deal’ for Nationalist Ireland, The Sunday Business Post, 12 April 1998
(60) Dan Keenan, ‘Criticism I can take. Things that are dishonest I find a lot harder’, The Irish Times, 6 February 2010
(61) Austen Morgan, The Belfast Agreement and the Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland, in Brian Barton and Patrick J Roche, The Northern Ireland Question: The Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 90
(62) Danny Morrison, A time to build trust, The Observer, 22 April 2001
(63) Ed Moloney, Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland, London: Faber and Faber, 2010, 291
(64) Interview with Brendan Hughes, Fourthwrite, Issue 1, Spring 2000
(65) See for example the articles ‘United We Stand’ as well as ‘Forward in Unity’ in An Phoblacht Republican News, 7 May 1998
(66) Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, London: Verso, 1998, 89
(67) Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein and the SDLP From Alienation to Participation, London: Hurst & Company, 2005, 261. Gerry Adams made this remarkable admission in 2000: "So coming into the current situation, all of you have read Lewis Carroll and may see the making of a Lewis Carroll novel at what is happening at the moment...We are now faced with the prospect that a British Government is going to bring down Stormont on the back of a Unionist demand, and Irish Republicans are running themselves ragged, trying to stop them from doing it. I saw a Sinn Fein picket at Glengall Street (Unionist headquarters - LOR) saying 'Don't Collapse The Institutions of Stormont!' How did we get into that position?...We went to a special Ard Fheis of our party, and then we went to another special Ard Fheis of our party, and we turned policy on its head. We did it because we listened to what the Unionists were saying, we did it because we wanted to make a real practical symbolic concession to Unionism, and we did it because we wanted to continue with dialogue in a space that they were comfortable in." (John Brewer (ed), Talking To One's Opponents, Armagh: Centre for the Social Study of Religion, 2000, 22)
(68) Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, second revised and updated edition, 2007 pp.480-483
(69) Jonathan Powell, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, London: The Bodley Head, 2008, 100-101
(70) Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, The British State and the Ulster Crisis, London: Verso, 1985, 84
(71) Henry Patterson, Inevitable deal would be mix of clarity and vagueness, The Newsletter, 6 February 2010
(72) Cfr : Thomas Taafe, Images of Peace: The Newsmedia, Politics and the Good Friday Agreement, in Jorg Neudeiser and Stefan Wolff (eds) Peace at Last? The Impact of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland, New York: Berghahn Books, 2003, pp.111-132. See also Ed Moloney, The Peace Process and Journalism, in Britain & Ireland: Lives Entwined II, London : The British Council, 2006, pp.64-84 for a sharp and critical analysis of the media during the peace process.
(73) Full text of the document:
(74) Bernadette Hayes and Ian McAllister, Who voted for peace ? Public support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Irish Political Studies, 16 (2001), pp. 61-82
(75) Bernadette McAliskey, Where Are We Now In The Peace Process? The Irish Reporter, February 1996, 28
(76) Anthony McIntyre, The war may be over, but the violence still lingers on, The Scotsman, 3 November 2000
(77) David McKittrick, The afterlife of the IRA : The dissident groups bent on shattering the peace in Northern Ireland, The Independent, 8 November 2008
(78) Chris Gilligan, Peace or Pacification Process? A brief critique of the peace process, in Chris Gilligan and Jonathan Tonge (eds), Peace or War? Understanding the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Aldershot : Ashgate, 1997


  1. Liam, have found this fascinating reading.

    Recently I was speaking to a friend who now lives and works in the Basque country.
    I asked him, did the Basque people actually believe the Sinn Fein spin that, we actually achieved some sort of victory here and he told me they did.

    I accept the believe that, political power is the end goal for most revolutionary movements.
    In the case of the 'mainstream republican' however, it was political power at any price.

    Adams had to ensure that he would be portrayed as a facilitator rather than a bit player.

    It is still hard to believe that these events were played out before our very eyes and many of us still could not see the betrayal or the extent of it.

    I really do not know, whether it is the truth or the extent of our own naivety that people like me find so hard to swallow?

  2. once again the bold liam thinks that the peace process begins and ends with the good friday agreement, or to use liams and the unionist term, the belfast agreement, wonder what thats all about,
    the war then peace process started with the first shots, and will continue to the end of the last brit guns in IRELAND,

    liam says that SINN FEIN kept a low profile during the negotiations, how does he know,
    well he listens to what crown supporters say, and he quotes them regularly
    he also quotes stupid intellectuals and a sunday newspaper to help him out.

    there is no mention to the change in equality law at stormont, the unionists plus the stoops plus the brits now support an agreement which removed the crown from the assembly to the police, no mean feat,this was not available in 1975, did no crown supporter tell you this liam, is this why you do not know.

    republicans were able to negotiate freely in 1998, trimple was under the impression that republicans would not take their seats, so he signed, he got a nobel prize, before he got the boot, now sir reg is for the chop, the u.u.p was bluffed, its what good negotiaters do.

    walking into a crown free assembly was a totally new ball game,
    there was an issue or two to sort out, the assembly is a handy vehicle for those who love equality,
    the brits were brought in from the cold to be a persuader for peace.

  3. Fionnuala: I recommend reading this:

    Investigador Ramón y Cajal de Ciencia Política,

    The article shows the fundamental misunderstanding of the "Irish model" in the Basque country

  4. loruairc,
    Thank you so much for this, I have just finished reading it.
    For years I have been puzzled as to why the Basque people still flock to Sinn Fein.
    Ramon's analysis provides a very articulate and viable explaination.

  5. Nuala,

    ‘It is still hard to believe that these events were played out before
    our very eyes and many of us still could not see the betrayal or the
    extent of it .. I really do not know, whether it is the truth or the extent of our own
    naivety that people like me find so hard to swallow?’

    This sums up the dilemma faced by so many of us. Denialism is so widespread in our daily existence and what is in front of our noses is what we tend not to see. Very few of us do not slip into it at some point. I think it is human nature to have a blind spot in relation to the things we cherish. Look at our own children – very hard to have the view of them that the neighbour has!! I was chatting to a Shinner recently of all people, and ventured an opinion which he proceeded in front of my eyes to take apart. And I thought to myself ‘HTF did I not see that?’ It happens Nuala – all the time and everywhere.

  6. Liam, this is a comprehensive and persuasive debunking of the GFA from a republican perspective. Concise but incisive

  7. I have recently come accross this book:
    Jonathan Tonge, The New Northern Irish Politics? London: Palgrave, 2005
    On page 47, Professor Tonge writes that "the 1998 referendum was not an exercise in Irish self-determination but rather a limited device for partial codetermination."
    Further on he explains that:
    "given the aggregate preference for Irish unity...the claim that a single-option referendum that excluded this option from the ballot paper...constituted a true exercise in Irish self-determination is dubious. assuming, not unreasonably, that the electoral process is designed to facilitate the unfettered will of the people, a UK election in which the Labour Party appeared as the only choice on the ballot paper could hardly be called a democratic contest. None of this is to dismiss the symbolic importance of borth parts of the island voting on essentially the same topic for the first time since 1918, when of course the result of a genuine exercise in Irish self-determination was ignored. Rather, it is merely to puncture the grandiose claims made about the 1998 referedums, which in fact were limited exercise in codetermination in that no alternative choices were put to the people, for pragmatic reasons and perhaps for fear of producing the 'wrong' result." (pp.50-51)

  8. Liam,

    in the 1990s Martin Mansergh, knowing that SF were looking a way out, began developing differing definitions of self-determination to provide some cover. It was clear back in 1995 that SF felt the need for some flexibility on the matter. Vincent Browne was at the time reported to have said something should be done like covering the mouth with the hand and mumbling something indecipherable in order to give SF a way out. At the RDS in 95 I made the point that self determination was moving in the direction of the nation determining that the North would only be part of it when the North agreed. I think that is where we are at now.