As a result of the Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, paramilitary groups on both sides were disarmed, political prisoners were released and a power-sharing government was eventually formed by republicans and unionists.
Exactly ten years ago the Northern Ireland peace process entered a new and definitive phase with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The concord provided for a halt to all paramilitary activity in exchange for the early release of political prisoners, and for the creation of a Northern Ireland Assembly with devolved powers. The underlying principle of the agreement was that “the constitutional future of Northern Ireland should be determined by the majority vote of its citizens”.
The Good Friday Agreement is often cited as an example of a successful peace process: both sides eventually gave up many of their original aspirations and the resulting agreement was put to referendum both in Northern Ireland, where 71% voted in favour, and in the Republic of Ireland, where 94% of voters gave their support.
Since 1998 numerous steps have been taken to consolidate peace in Northern Ireland and encourage harmonious relations between unionists and republicans. Practically all of the paramilitary organizations have now been disarmed and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has been established to ensure respect for the human rights of all Northern Irish people.
However, the rival factions still do not have full confidence in one another. The party of the current prime minister, Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is not taking part in official events to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreemnt. In fact, the DUP campaigned against the Agreement in the 1998 referendum, and remains sceptical over weapons decommissioning and early release of paramilitary prisoners.
The role of prisioners in the resolution of the conflict
Catalan production company Batabat marked the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement by filming a documentary entitled ‘Sunday at 5' that records the experiences of two Northern Irish prisoners who were enemies during the conflict and explains the role played by prisoners in the peace process.
Yesterday in Barcelona Seamus Kelly (of the Irish Republican Army, IRA) and Billy McQuiston (of the Ulster Defence Association, UDA) explained how the reconciliation process consisted in "talking and overcoming the past", as McQuiston said, in order to "review the perception that we had of each other". The former UDA member insisted that the peace process "never comes to an end", while the political process will always have its "ups and downs". Kelly for his part explained that former republican prisoners are "involved in the current political struggle, so they are active parts of the process". He is also convinced that it would be impossible now to go back on the peace process.