It Happened in May
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
On 16 May 1997, Brit Prime Minister, Tony Blair, visited Northern Ireland and gave the go ahead for exploratory contacts between government officials and Sinn Féin. Working alongside US Special Envoy George Mitchell, Martin McGuinness was one of the main architects of an agreement that would bring peace to Northern Ireland. A year later, in May 1998, on a visit to Dublin, members of our National Board, including Ed Wallace, George Clough, Dave Burke, Bob Collins and myself were invited to the State House for a discussion on that new agreement, which had just been reached the month earlier on Good Friday, 10 April. They requested the AOH to organize Irish-American support for the agreement that would come to be known as The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) for it called for an honorable end to 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. The month of May was also significant for it was ratified in a referendum on 10 May 1998, as members of Sinn Féin voted to accept that peace agreement, effectively acknowledging the north-south border. The agreement set up a power-sharing assembly to govern Northern Ireland by cross-community consent. It also called for a number of institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The agreement was made between the British and Irish governments and eight political parties or groupings from Northern Ireland; the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the GFA.
The agreement recognized 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. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice. The agreement also confirmed a commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community”. The multi-party agreement specifically recognized “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity”, especially in relation to the Irish language, Ulster Scots, and the languages of other ethnic minorities, “all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland”.
On 19 May 1998, SDLP leader John Hume and his Unionist counterpart, David Trimble, joined U2 on stage at a concert in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to drum up support for a massive Yes vote in an upcoming referendum on the agreement. On 22 May, the Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed in two referendums: North (71%) and South (94%). On 24 May, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams signaled that the war was over and that the gun could finally be removed from Irish politics.
A date of May 2000 was set for total disarming of all paramilitary groups. This was not achieved leading the assembly to be suspended on a number of occasions as a consequence of unionist objections. A series of rounds of decommissioning by the IRA took place in October 2001, April 2002, October 2003 and in July 2005 the IRA finally announced the formal end of its campaign. Loyalist decommissioning did not immediately follow.
The deal proved difficult to implement and was amended by the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006. Key elements of that agreement included the full acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) by Sinn Féin, restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a commitment by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to power-sharing with Irish republicans in the Northern Ireland Executive.
On 8 May 2007 the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness marked the end of almost four decades of conflict as they were formally appointed First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, British prime minister Tony Blair and other dignitaries, including former US president Bill Clinton and US Senator Ted Kennedy, witnessed the creation of a power-sharing government led by political polar opposites of the DUP and Sinn Féin. This was the first time that Northern Ireland was run by a government in which the main nationalist and unionist parties agreed to operate together.
In June 2009, the UVF announced it had completed decommissioning and the UDA said it had started to decommission its arsenal. However after the death of Ian Paisley a number of scandals regarding DUP leaders led to Party resignations and on 17 December 2015, Arlene Foster became leader of the DUP and served as First Minister with Martin McGuinness. Another round of DUP scandals led to McGuinness resigning as Deputy First Minister on 9 January 2017 in a protest over a DUP debacle in which businesses were given a financial incentive to burn resources needlessly and power-sharing collapsed. It has been 20 years since AOH leaders sat with Dublin politicians and promised to support the GFA. God knows, we are still trying.