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In 1998, unionists and nationalists agreed to end decades of fighting. The progress since has been dramatic, but frictions still remain, from the partisan gridlock in Belfast to the economic malaise over Brexit

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A peace mural stands in a loyalist area of Belfast on April 4, six days before the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that ended hostilities between unionist and nationalist forces in Northern Ireland.Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Katy Hayward can still remember the relief she felt when the Good Friday Agreement was finally signed in Belfast by the leaders of the United Kingdom and Ireland on April 10, 1998.

The peace deal marked the culmination of a long and bitter effort to end decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that killed more than 3,700 people and injured 47,500. The agreement promised a “truly historic opportunity for a new beginning” and created a set of novel institutions, including a legislature, based on power sharing and cross-community consensus.

“There was a very real sense of change and hope for the future,” recalled Dr. Hayward, who is now a professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast.

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Prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of Ireland sign the peace agreement on April 10, 1998.Reuters

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the agreement, or GFA, and there will be a host of events to commemorate the occasion.

Dignitaries ranging from King Charles III to U.S. President Joe Biden, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton will visit Belfast to reflect on the accord.

Dr. Hayward said there is much to celebrate about the GFA and the lasting peace it has brought. She moved from England to Londonderry as a teenager in 1995 to study at Ulster University. At the time, British soldiers patrolled the city’s streets, and Dr. Hayward remembers walking by a police station shortly before a bomb exploded.

People were wary of the GFA at first, she said, but once it was signed and approved by substantial margins in referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland, the changes began to take hold. “Democratic and peaceful means of expressing political differences became a reality,” she said.

But she and others caution that many of the agreement’s aspirations have yet to be realized and Northern Ireland still faces a number of difficulties.

The finely balanced power-sharing government has collapsed, living standards continue to lag the rest of Britain, and last month Britain’s security service, MI5, raised the terror level in the province from “substantial” to “severe” because of increased attacks by dissident republicans.

“The Good Friday Agreement has probably not been implemented as some people envisaged,” said David Phinnemore, a professor of European politics at Queen’s. “I suppose the peace process is still a work in progress.”

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Pupils play last month at the Bangor Integrated Nursery School in County Down. The formerly Protestant institution recently joined a growing list of schools that have officially integrated Catholics and those raised in other faiths – a process encouraged by the GFA.Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

Parts of Belfast are still separated by ‘peace walls’ between historically Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods. A new mural on one of the gates honours 25 years of the GFA. Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail; Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
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A model depicts prison life at the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum in Belfast. The museum is named for a member of the Irish Republican Army who served time in Armagh prison.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

One of the biggest challenges has been putting the agreement’s key principle of cross-community consensus into practice. Many of the core provisions in the text rely on agreement between nationalists, who want reunification with Ireland, and unionists, who support keeping Northern Ireland within the U.K. But finding that common ground can be all but impossible at times.

The two main parties in the legislature – the nationalist Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party – have effective vetoes over key measures, virtually ensuring that one or the other can paralyze the government. Since 1998, Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government for almost nine years because of a lack of consensus between the parties. Most recently the assembly was suspended from January, 2017, to January, 2020, after Sinn Fein withdrew, and the legislature hasn’t met since February, 2022, because of a boycott by the DUP.

The dysfunction has made it difficult for ministers and other officials to pursue long-term policies, which economists say has held Northern Ireland back.

According to a recent study by researchers at Queen’s, the “peace dividend” of the GFA has been limited. The stability created by the agreement has improved employment, boosted wages for low-income workers and attracted some new investment in financial services, tourism and film production, the study found. But productivity and gross domestic product per capita still lag the rest of the U.K.

“Northern Ireland has not made any improvement in the past 25 years on productivity, which is the key to better wages and better living standards over the long term,” said David Jordan, who co-authored the paper. “So without that improvement, the economy is just going to stay relatively similar to where it is.”

Dr. Jordan said Northern Ireland has problems in areas such as skills training, education and infrastructure that date back to before the sectarian violence. “But a lot of these fundamental issues just haven’t been addressed because we haven’t had stability with political institutions to put in place longer-term policies and plans,” he said.

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Protesters rally at the Carrickcarnan border crossing in 2019 during the long period of uncertainty about Brexit and Northern Ireland's role in it.PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

Brexit has imposed still more challenges.

Britain’s departure from the European Union raised questions about trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The GFA removed all barriers along the Irish border, and Britain and the EU have committed to maintaining the free flow of goods and people.

To accomplish that, both sides struck a trade deal that effectively ties Northern Ireland to the EU’s regulations so that goods can continue to move freely between Ireland, an EU member state, and Northern Ireland.

However, that has infuriated unionists who argue that many products moving into Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain face customs checks to ensure they comply with EU rules. They say that has cut the province off from Britain and increased the possibility of Northern Ireland reuniting with Ireland.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and EU officials recently agreed to modify the trade pact, but the DUP has said the changes don’t go far enough. In protest, the party has refused to take up its seats in the legislature.

“Brexit has certainly heightened concerns among unionists that the Good Friday Agreement isn’t working for them, and they feel quite concerned about the future of Northern Ireland in the U.K.,” said Dr. Phinnemore.

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Murals honour unionist paramilitaries in the largely Protestant Belfast neighbourhood of Shankill Road.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

There have been calls to change the GFA’s consensus requirement, particularly in light of the growing number of people – estimated at almost 40 per cent – who describe themselves as neither nationalists nor unionists. “The ‘neither’ group is becoming a much larger proportion of society,” said Dr. Phinnemore. “And some would argue that that’s not reflected in the way in which some of the arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement actually operate.”

Dr. Hayward said it’s fair to ask whether it makes sense to give Sinn Fein and the DUP the power to shut down the government when they hold only 27 and 25 seats respectively in the 90-seat assembly. “Should we be thinking in different ways about how to ensure that the democratic institutions function in a way that best reflects the majority in society?” she asked.

But she acknowledged that any reform would require consent from both communities. “And will we ever find ourselves in a situation where they would be willing to concede so much in terms of the power that they exercise?”

“And hence, we just go back round and round.”

Dr. Hayward teaches students about the GFA and encourages them to think of it as a living document that they own. Many of the principles enshrined in the agreement – reconciliation and the protection of civil, social and economic rights – are still exciting to read, she tells her students. “And the fact that they haven’t been realized yet is cause for action and agitation, rather than despair,” she said. “And that’s what I would like that generation to feel – that they do have a right to expect that, because 25 years ago that was the commitment made by all the parties.”

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