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Murdoch's Word of the Week: Good Friday Agreement

The agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations in Belfast on 10th April 1998 and annexed to the agreement between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of Ireland and done on the same date. Also known as the Belfast Agreement or the British-Irish Agreement.

The agreement covers constitutional issues, human rights, issues of culture, economics and social, decommissioning, security, policing and justice, and prisoners.

It also comprises three strands as regard the creation of institutions: (a) strand one - the creation of an assembly of 108 members for Northern Ireland, elected by proportional representation, and with authority to pass primary legislation; (b) strand two - the establishment of a North-South Ministerial Council to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland on matters of mutual interest; (c) strand three - (i) the establishment of a British-Irish Council (also known as the Council of the Isles) to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the people of the islands of the UK and Ireland, and (ii) the establishment of a British-Irish Governmental Conference to promote bi-lateral co-operation at all levels on all matters of mutual interest.

There is provision for the creation of implementation bodies on a cross-border or all-island level. The agreement provides for the dropping of the Irish constitutional territorial claim to Northern Ireland and the reinforcement of the previously agreed position that a united Ireland can only happen if agreed by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and if so agreed, both governments will give legislative effect to that decision.

Four supplemental agreements between the UK and Ireland were done in Dublin on 8th March 1999 in relation to the establishment of the North-South Council, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council, and the Implementation Bodies.

These Implementation Bodies were established in 1999 to implement, on an all-island basis and cross-border basis, policies agreed by the North-South Council. The bodies are: Waterways Ireland; Food Safety Promotions Board; Trade and Business Body; Special EU Programme Body; An Foras Teanga (the North-South Language Body); the Foyle Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission: British-Irish Agreement Acts 1999 and (Amdt) 1999. See also British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Act 2006.

The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the people in referenda held in both parts of the island of Ireland on 22nd May 1998. The amendments to the Irish Constitution arising from the Agreement were contingent on a declaration by the government that the State had become obliged to give effect to the amendments; this was delayed due to the delay in establishing the Assembly Executive, thereby necessitating the Declaration under Art.29.7 of the Constitution (Extension of Time) Act 1999. The declaration was made on 2nd December 1999: Iris Oifigiúil 7th December 1999.

There is no basis in law for the proposition that the Good Friday Agreement was incorporated in the domestic law of the State: O’Neill v Governor of Castlerea Prison [2004 SC] 2 ILRM 241.

All the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement were subsequently established. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Assembly Executive was temporarily suspended on 11th February 2000, pending a review, and in the meantime direct rule of Northern Ireland from London was re-imposed as from that date. The Assembly was subsequently restored as from 30th May 2000 following an IRA commitment to put its arms completely and verifiably beyond use.

Following a further suspension on 11th August 2001 and a restoration on 6th November 2001, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the power-sharing Executive were again suspended on 14th October 2002 and direct rule re-imposed because of a political crisis blamed on doubts about the republican movement’s commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means. This necessitated the British-Irish Agreement (Amdt) Act 2002 which enables the work of the North / South Implementation Bodies to continue, pending the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly was suspended from 14 October 2002 until 7 May 2007. As a result of the restoration of the Assembly, the 2002 Act has expired: SI No 218 of 2007. The Assembly was also suspended from 19th June 2008 until 27th November 2008.

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