Civil society and the Good Friday Agreement – 25 years on
25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, what role did civil society in Northern Ireland play in the peace process and what is their role in the present?
The 10th of April 2023 marked 25 years since the Belfast Agreement, more commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement, was signed. The Good Friday Agreement was a major step in the Northern Irish peace process. The agreement on how the country should be governed was made between the British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland. The agreement was designed to bring an end to almost 30 years of violent conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,500 people in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement (henceforth referred to as GFA) was based on the idea of cooperation between communities. Whilst the primary actors were political, civil society played a contributing role in the GFA and other elements of the peace process. This article will reflect on both the role of civil society, particularly religious leaders and communities in the process, and their role 25 years on from the Agreement.
The Troubles and peace process
Northern Ireland was created in 1921 and remained part of the UK when the rest of Ireland became the Republic of Ireland, an independent state. This created a split in the population between unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to stay in the UK, and nationalists, who wanted it to become part of the Republic of Ireland. From the late 1960s, Unionist and Republican armed groups carried out violent attacks that plunged Northern Ireland into a brutal conflict. The majority of those who died were civilians who were killed in random attacks across the sectarian divide.
Several violent incidents, including the Remembrance Day Bombing in Enniskillen in 1987, marked a turning point in the Troubles and spurred on efforts by some groups toward a political solution to the conflict. Many years of complex talks, broken ceasefires, and compromises led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Civil society and the Good Friday Agreement
As the world’s attention turns to Northern Ireland as it marks the 25th anniversary of the GFA, emphasis is on the ‘high politics’ – the paramilitary groups, parties, and governments which drove both the conflict itself and the post-conflict efforts to bring about peace. However, these actors were not exclusively responsible for consolidating peace. Indeed, the role played by civil society groups which worked to mobilise peace and reconciliation must be given credit. The contribution of civil society organisations, including religious communities, to the peace process has been largely overlooked. However, they played a very important role, in both the years preceding the GFA and post-GFA.
Professor Nukhet Sandal from Ohio University notes how the leaders of the four main churches involved did indeed work hard to bring peace to Northern Ireland, even when their institutions did not fully support those efforts. Some church leaders acted as advisors to political leaders, such as Catholic priest Father Alec Reid who helped to shape Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ vision of what peace could be.
From the late 1980s onwards, there was a great need for religious leaders to nurture hope in such uncertain times. Many church leaders from all denominations did this whilst also working hard to encourage a common identity. They condemned the violent nationalism promoted by all paramilitary groups. Some faith communities emphasised charity and forgiveness and provided a space for peace and reconciliation dialogue between Protestants and Catholics to take place.
It is clear that the relationships formed as a result of the work of civil society organisations and religious communities played a part in accelerating the peace process. Their work “inspired people to live out reconciliation in their daily lives.” This sentiment was reflected in the GFA’s commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community.”
25 years on
However, as Northern Ireland knows all too well, the peace process did not end with the GFA. Instead, the past 25 years have been a time of continued discussion, dialogue, and disagreement. But what role have civil society organisations played in the peace process post-GFA?
The Corrymeela Community represents the positive force that faith communities play in fostering dialogue across the divide. In 1965, Presbyterian minister Ray Davey founded the Corrymeela Community as a “way of building a more peaceful Northern Ireland.” During the Troubles, the Corrymeela Community welcomed people from different sides and built a network of individuals based on “trust and reconciliation.” Post Troubles and GFA, some people asked what the point of the Corrymeela Community was. Yet, questions about identity remain in the country and the Corrymeela Community continues to work through a variety of programmes to help both people find strength and “groups (to) learn how to be well together.”
What does the future hold?
At present, the country faces a variety of political and social challenges. There has been no functioning Northern Irish Assembly since May 2022, halting any political decisions. Brexit has and will continue to have a severe impact on the country. Moreover, the cost of living crisis is hitting Northern Ireland harder than other UK countries. These factors, alongside many others, mean that daily life is challenging and the future is a fragile thing for many in Northern Ireland.
The responsibility to support communities falls primarily on civil society organisations and faith communities. These organisations are both trying to deliver “meaningful social justice” in the absence of political leadership as well as continue “the work of peace which is unfinished.” Despite this, emphasis still needs to be put on reconciliation initiatives and ways for different communities to meet, such as integrated schools so that, 25 years from now, the narrative in Northern Ireland is a different, more positive one.
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 The Presbyterian Church, Church of Ireland (Anglican), Methodist Church and Roman Catholic Church were the main churches in Northern Ireland at the time.