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Gerard O’ConnellApril 10, 2023
A view of the Lanark Way interface gates on Thursday April 6, 2023 which allow traffic to move between the Republican and Loyalist areas of Belfast, Northern Ireland during limited times of the day and which has been recently painted ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. (Liam McBurney/PA via AP)

On Easter Monday, Pope Francis marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which, he said, “put an end to the violence that had troubled Northern Ireland for decades.”

“With a spirit of gratitude,” he said, “I pray to the God of peace that what was accomplished in that historic step be consolidated for the benefit of all men and women of the Isle of Ireland.”

He made this call for a consolidation of the peace agreement as he greeted thousands of pilgrims from all continents in St. Peter’s Square on April 10, the 25th anniversary of the signing of that historic accord that brought an end to three decades of violence.

The roots of the conflict went back to the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 when the island of Ireland was partitioned and six counties in the north of the country remained part of the United Kingdom while the rest of Ireland became an independent state. The partition created a deep split between the mainly Protestant unionist community, who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the mostly Catholic nationalist community, who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland.

On Easter Monday, Pope Francis marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which, he said, “put an end to the violence that had troubled Northern Ireland for decades.”

Tensions between the two communities erupted in violence and armed conflict, known as “The Troubles,” in the second half of the 1960s, involving armed groups from both sides, including the Irish Republican Army and Ulster Volunteer Force, and British troops sent to Northern Ireland. The conflict led to the deaths of at least 3,500 people and deepened divisions between the unionist and nationalist communities.

Negotiations to end the armed conflict started in the 1980s and lasted into the 1990s. The talks involved eight political parties from Northern Ireland, as well as the Irish and U.K. governments.

Under the able chairmanship of U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the historic agreement was finally signed in Belfast on April 10, 1998. It was confirmed by subsequent referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with 71 percent of the population of the whole island voting to approve it. The agreement came into force on Dec. 2, 1999, opening a new future for all the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle.

The agreement included a treaty between the Irish and U.K. governments, as well as a more substantial agreement between the island’s eight political parties and the two governments. It is based on the idea of cooperation between the nationalist and unionist communities and involved the setting up of a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland representing the two communities. Significantly, the agreement accepted that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and would remain so until a majority of the people both of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. If that should happen, then the U.K. and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice. In this way, the agreement left the question of future sovereignty over Northern Ireland open-ended. According to a 2021 census, the population of Northern Ireland is 1.9 million, and for the first time, Catholics outnumber Protestants: 46 percent of the population is now Catholic, while 43 percent are Protestant or another Christian religion.

According to a 2021 census, the population of Northern Ireland is 1.9 million, and for the first time, Catholics outnumber Protestants.

Brexit caused a major problem for the agreement because Northern Ireland remained the only part of the United Kingdom that had a border with the European Union. The question of the border controls over goods arriving from the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland became a controversial issue because the E.U. insisted on instituting controls as part of the Brexit agreement. The question became a major issue for the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which sees the controls as separating Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, and the power-sharing in the government has been blocked since February 2022.

The present U.K. government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has reformulated the E.U. protocol by reducing border controls, but the Democratic Unionist Party has yet to accept that solution—known as the Windsor Framework—which has been approved by the U.K. parliament and agreed on by the European Union in February 2023.

A source who has been deeply involved in the peace process but did not wish to be identified because of the sensitivity of his position told America, “The Irish peace process is in a good and a bad place at the same time.” It is in “a good place” in the sense “there is no desire within mainstream republicanism to revert to violence to achieve political goals” even though “there will always be the romantic dissenters who will try to disrupt the process through use of violence.” It is in “a bad place” in the sense that “the internal unresolved issues within unionism since the signing of the agreement have erupted, thus paralyzing the leadership from doing what needs to be done.”

The source told America, “People often overlook the fact that the Good Friday Agreement is a work in progress; it is not a done deal. It is a stage in a process of achieving a durable agreement by working through politics rather than armed struggle.” But, he said, “I fear not enough attention was given to the core dissenters within the Democratic Unionist Party.” As a result, “the relationship between them and the U.K. government is one of deep mistrust.” He said their situation has not been helped by the role played by Boris Johnson both “before and after he became prime minister.“

“The Holy Father has shown great interest in our peace process and is always anxious to be kept up to date with developments here,” Archbishop Eamon Martin said.

Asked how he viewed Pope Francis’ remarks today, the source told America, “I think his message is spot on, but I doubt if it will help break the impasse given the identity of those involved at present in blocking the restoration of power sharing.”

The Most Rev. Eamon Martin, the archbishop of Armagh and primate of All Ireland, said of the pope’s words today that he was “very pleased” that “to mark the anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Pope Francis has included a prayer for lasting peace and harmony in Ireland.”

“The Holy Father has shown great interest in our peace process and is always anxious to be kept up to date with developments here,” he said. He recalled that when Francis visited Dublin in 2018, “he encouraged us to persevere in the work of peace and reconciliation” and “acknowledged on that occasion the huge efforts that had been made to reach the agreement and to find a peaceful settlement to end the conflict here, which, he said, had caused such ‘untold pain’ to everyone.”

“As we mark the 25th anniversary,” Archbishop Martin said, “Pope Francis would want us to redouble our efforts at finding solutions to our ongoing problems and to work earnestly at restoring relationships here in order to bring deeper healing and reconciliation on this island, and between these islands.”

“I am confident that his prayerful thoughts today will be welcomed by all people of goodwill,” he said.

Major events are being held in Northern Ireland this week in support of the Good Friday Agreement, and international leaders who made significant contributions to the achievement of that historic accord will be in attendance.

President Joe Biden will arrive tomorrow and will be welcomed by Prime Minister Sunak. They will be joined at the Agreement 25 celebrations in Belfast by former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Former Senator George Mitchell is expected to attend the celebrations, too, despite his serious health problems. Former U.K. prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major, together with former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern, all of whom played important roles in reaching the agreement, will also attend,

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