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The Good Friday Agreement: 4 questions answered

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The Good Friday Agreement: 4 questions answered

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It’s 20 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement, known as the Good Friday Agreement, which eased sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland. But how much do you know about it?

The Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement was a deal to help bring to an end to 30 years of deadly armed conflict between Republicans and Loyalists known as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The painstaking negotiations lasted two years involving most of Northern Ireland’s political parties as well as the British and Irish governments. Though the signing came down to the wire on April 10, 1998, the historic agreement established a consensus for peace and the future direction of the region.

The agreement focused on areas like justice, policing, culture and civil rights with the main result being the creation of a new parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The new government would see power sharing between Unionists and Nationalists to decide on local issues previously made by the UK government in London.

The agreement also set up a council to develop co-operation on areas like farming and health that would benefit both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and a British-Irish council to promote the relationship between Britain and Ireland.

There was a return to peace-time security arrangements and the removal of security installations. All illegal paramilitary groups also had to destroy their weapons.

Whilst the deal is widely respected it has been controversial, particularly the early release of prisoners in jail for violent crimes linked to the Troubles.

A referendum was held on both sides of the border with the agreement being accepted by an overall majority.

The largest political party in Northern Ireland is currently the DUP, which did not support the deal at the time.

What does it have to do with Brexit?

Brexit would create a land border between the UK and the EU for the first time. With the UK leaving the Customs Union and Single Market rules dictate that customs check would need to be put in place.

However a so-called “hard border” would jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement, which did not foresee the prospect of either country withdrawing from the EU.

How could the situation evolve?

There are more border crossings between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland than there is between the EU and all of the countries to the east of it. Many citizens of both countries pass between the 275 land border crossings numerous times per day.

During the Troubles, however, only 20 of these were open on the 300-mile border, a situation which would not be tenable today. A new customs border with checks would be against the spirit and intent of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Brexiteer camp have tried to play down the issue of the border, with Brexit Secretary David Davis talking vaguely of the solution being “a whole load of new technology”.

However, last month the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee expressed its concern over progress, pointing out the absence of a technical solution anywhere else in the world that could be adopted to render the border invisible.

What are people saying?

Some have started to question the need for the Good Friday Agreement with Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner reported to have branded it a “shibboleth”, a Hebrew word meaning a belief in a long-standing custom that’s no longer important. The Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson also tweeted an article in February that asserted the Good Friday Agreement had “run its course”. However, both men were met with strong criticism.

Last month Tony Blair told Euronews: "They [Brexiteers] are saying this now because anything that stands in the way of Brexit — and the Good Friday agreement is a complication for the Brexit people - they are prepared to get rid of it even if it means that the peace in Northern Ireland is put at risk. It's a totally irresponsible position."

This has been echoed by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wrote in an op-ed: “There are some who argue that the agreement has outlived its usefulness. They are wrong. Countless people in Northern Ireland are alive today, rather than in early graves, because of it. The last thing we can afford to do is become complacent, or delude ourselves into thinking our work is finished. In fact, 20 years later, crucial components of the agreement still have yet to be implemented.”