19 There was a third smaller party, the United Kingdom Union Party, which was largely the platform of a prominent Protestant MP from Northern Ireland, Robert McCartney. The conflict in Northern Ireland – the troubles – in its violent form, spanned three decades, from 1968 to 1998. It claimed the lives of thousands of people and even more victims, who affected Catholics and Protestants; paramilitaries and civilians in the north; British security forces deployed in Northern Ireland, England and the European continent; and British civilians who were attacked by the IRA in England. The violence has caused billions of dollars in economic damage and left deep social and psychological scars. It has its roots in the complex history of Ireland`s relations with Great Britain, particularly in the colony that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the division of the island between the Irish Free State and the “province” of Northern Ireland, the six counties of the north of the island which, in accordance with the provisions of the treaty, withdrew from the Irish Free State. The source of the conflict in Northern Ireland was partly political – the legacy of the dispute between Irish nationalists over whether the division of Ireland should even be temporarily accepted. It was also social and economic. While Catholics made up most of the island, Protestants were the majority in the six provinces of Ulster. For historical and geographical reasons, the counties of Ulster were more industrialized and prosperous than the rural South, and wealth and political power were largely controlled by Protestant elites9. In this regard, there are important similarities with the way in which the Dayton process shaped the substance of the Dayton Accords that ended the fighting in Bosnia.
Both trials included the hard men who fuelled the conflict, resulting in agreements that similarly froze sectarian identity within the colony, thus continuing the underlying conflict. In both cases, hopes were dashed that time and public pressure would lead to an evolution of political arrangements away from their sectarian roots. As leaders of our respective parties, we have said that our task of reaching agreement on a peaceful and democratic agreement for all on this island is our main challenge. Northern Ireland political parties that approved the agreement were also invited to consider the creation of an independent advisory forum, which would represent civil society, with members with expertise on social, cultural, economic and other issues, and would be appointed by both administrations. In 2002, a framework structure was agreed for the North-South Advisory Forum, and in 2006 the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to support its implementation. The vague wording of some so-called “constructive ambiguities” helped ensure the adoption of the agreement and delayed debate on some of the most controversial issues. These include extra-military dismantling, police reform and the standardisation of Northern Ireland. After marathon negotiations, an agreement was finally reached on 10 April 1998. The Good Friday Agreement was a complex balancing act that reflects the three-strand approach. Within Northern Ireland, it has created a new de-elected assembly for Northern Ireland, calling for executive power to be shared by parties representing both communities. In addition, a new North-South Council of Ministers should be set up to institutionalise the link between the two parts of Ireland.
The Irish Government has also committed to amending Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the Republic, which appeal to Northern Ireland, to reflect the aspiration for Irish unity through purely democratic means, while accepting the diversity of identities and traditions in Ireland.