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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Northern Ireland: The Peace Process

Kristin Archick
Specialist in European Affairs

Since 1969, over 3,500 people have died as a result of political violence in Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. The conflict, which has its origins in the 1921 division of Ireland, has reflected a struggle between different national, cultural, and religious identities. The Protestant majority (53%) in Northern Ireland defines itself as British and largely supports continued incorporation in the UK (unionists). The Catholic minority (44%) considers itself Irish, and many Catholics desire a united Ireland (nationalists).

For years, the British and Irish governments sought to facilitate a political settlement. After many ups and downs, the two governments and the Northern Ireland political parties participating in the peace talks announced an agreement on April 10, 1998. The resulting Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) called for devolved government—the transfer of power from London to Belfast—with a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive Committee in which unionist and nationalist parties would share power. The agreement also contained provisions on decommissioning (disarmament), policing, human rights, UK security normalization (demilitarization), and the status of prisoners.

Despite a much improved security situation in the years since then, full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been challenging. For years, instability in Northern Ireland’s devolved government was the rule rather than the exception; decommissioning and police reforms were key sticking points. The devolved government was suspended for the fourth time in October 2002 amid a loss of trust and confidence on both sides of the conflict; this suspension lasted almost five years. During this time, London and Dublin led talks with Northern Ireland’s political parties to try to find a way forward.

On May 8, 2007, Northern Ireland’s devolved political institutions were restored following a power-sharing deal between the traditionally anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The DUP and Sinn Fein are the largest unionist and nationalist parties, respectively, in Northern Ireland and have long been viewed as the two most polarized forces in Northern Ireland politics. London and Dublin hoped that this deal would entrench the political settlement embodied in the Good Friday Agreement and produce a politically stable devolved government.

In 2008, tensions rose between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the outstanding issue of transferring authority for policing and justice affairs from London to Belfast. Given the sensitive nature of this portfolio, the parties had been unable to agree on its devolution at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. After protracted negotiations, the parties reached a deal in February 2010 paving the way for the devolution of police and justice powers in April 2010.

Successive U.S. administrations and many Members of Congress have actively supported the Northern Ireland peace process. For decades, the United States has provided development aid through the International Fund for Ireland (IFI). In recent years, congressional hearings have focused on the peace process, police reforms, and the status of public inquiries into several murders in Northern Ireland in which collusion between the security forces and paramilitary groups is suspected. Such issues related to Northern Ireland may continue to be of interest in the 113
th Congress.

Date of Report: January 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: RS21333
Price: $29.95


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