On the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and as Northern Ireland reaches another crossroads in its turbulent history, Martin Dillon, author of the The Shankill Butchers, insists sticking to the spirit of the peace accords is the only way to prevent a return to the dark days of the Troubles.

It is hard to believe the Northern Ireland Troubles, or what the IRA called its Long War, formally ended two decades ago, promising a bright future for the people of Ireland. The source of the optimism was the Good Friday accords reached between the people of Ireland, the London and Dublin governments and paramilitaries on April 10, 1998.

It was agreed that the main principle of a peaceful way forward would be a devolved government that would ensure a sharing of power between the warring political factions. It would enshrine the rights of a modern political structure, promising justice and equal opportunity for all.

Herald View: Brexit must not betray the Good Friday Agreement

There were other equally important features of what quickly became known as The Good Friday Agreement, including weapons decommissioning and the principle of consent, meaning the Irish Republic would remove its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. Subsequently, referendums held in both parts of Ireland overwhelmingly approved the Good Friday deal.


Hopes were high immediately after the agreement that a lasting peace would emerge following decades of turmoil. Picture: Sion Touhig

For the first time in almost a half century the people of Northern Ireland felt the dark shadow of terror was being replaced by the promise of peace and equality.

Throughout the island there were was a sigh of relief and growing euphoria a seemingly intractable conflict was over. The two communities in the North could get on with governing and the result would be an economic climate in which money would flow into the Province to rebuild an economy battered for by terror, especially by the IRAs bombing of cities and town centres.

The agreement attracted approval from most of Northern Ireland’s political parties, with the exception of the Democratic Unionist Party led by firebrand preacher, the Rev Ian Paisley.

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On the sidelines of the politicking that led to the deal there was a belief the DUP would eventually come in from the cold. That happened in a manner that would have been unthinkable for those who had lived through the Troubles.

In fact, the agreement was deemed a success when two bitter enemies, Mr Paisley and former IRA leader, Martin McGuinness, put aside some of the barriers that had separated their communities and presided over a new parliament at Stormont. Their relationship was so close the media gave them the moniker “The Chuckle Brothers.”

When one looks back at the difficult times the agreement faced early on, one would still have to say it held tight to the principle the only way forward was a sharing of power in a devolved government. Only by working together to build a future would the divisions of the past be made less an obstacle to a brighter future.


Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, left, talks chairman US Senator George Mitchell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair celebrate agreement.

Seeing Sinn Fein in the Stormont parliament working alongside the Democratic Unionist Party convinced many of the architects of the Good Friday protocols they had created the ideal formula to transform a society with the kind of historical divisions only seen in the Balkans or the Middle East.

As expected, money flowed into Northern Ireland, much of it from the British Exchequer, and a transformation took place. I recall visiting Belfast and being astounded by the scale of the rebuilding of devastated infrastructure. Nevertheless, I was not entirely seduced by it.

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There remained a deep undercurrent of sectarianism that the agreement had failed to remove. That was a reality obvious to those of us who had studied the society.

I suspected many of the negative elements that defined the Troubles would not vanish overnight. The two communities might authorise their politicians to share a parliament, but if the communities themselves still remained separated and defined by a ghetto mentality with mental and physical barriers hope would fade.

Sadly, most children still attended separate schools, and the old issues of why flags and yearly marches could spark riots as quickly as one might brew a cup of tea proved troublesome to those trying to promote a better way forward.


US President Bill Clinton praised the efforts of George Mitchell in success of the talks.

Few people understood that political agreements did not of themselves lead to peace, prosperity and understanding. The framers of the Good Friday accords chose to confront the big issues as they saw them; issues such as the creation of a devolved government rooted in principles of consent and respect and better relations between the British and Irish governments.

Perhaps they felt that a devolved parliament would eventually legislate to deal with the hard issues of conflict such as education, policing and social justice.

They expected, I believe, such a parliament to institute a sustained policy to ensure the spectre of paramilitarism was confronted until the cult of the gunman was removed from the culture of both communities.

Herald View: Brexit must not betray the Good Friday Agreement

Those and other issues were not truly addressed by the agreement, and nor was the need for the families of victims of the Troubles to have answers to how and why their loved ones died, and why perpetrators were too often not identified or brought to justice. I always felt this was a matter that lay at the heart of healing the society, but it was given little prominence.


Negotiators Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, front, and Martin McGuinness, left, took part in talks.

I also believed it was naïve to expect the paramilitaries to fade into the background, though I hoped those elected to political office would renounce any affiliation with the gunmen.

That has not happened and some paramilitary groups such as the UDA have continued to exert pressure on political representatives.

At the same time, organised crime has blossomed and so too fringe paramilitary bodies who dispense their own justice.

It also has to be admitted that expecting politicians rooted in a sectarian political history to exercise power with careful attention to the needs of the society was way too much to expect, especially when one takes into account that many of those political figures lacked the experience of running a devolved administration.

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Therefore, one could reasonably conclude that the agreement was indeed flawed. That, nevertheless, does not mean it was not a vital component to bring a formal end to the conflict. I have been dismayed by some British pro-Brexit Tories arguing lately that it is time to scrap the agreement. In favour of what?

For all its flaws the Good Friday Agreement is all the people of Ireland are left with to avoid a return to the politics of old. No matter how bleak things look presently while the major parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, lack the courage and the common sense to share power and fulfil the purpose for which they were elected, those of us who experienced the Troubles know it is a fiction to think a better agreement than the one of 20 years ago can be created in a post-Brexit era.

I believe most people in Northern Ireland would prefer to stick with the Good Friday template with all its faults. It is, however, vital people in the Province focus on issues such as schooling that lie at the heart of finding ways to avoid any return to the past. Children from the two traditions have to meet each other at a formative time in their lives so they can understand that what unites them as human beings is more significant than what divides them.

People have to think about how they vote and who gets their vote. Is it going to be someone interested in promoting bitterness or a progressive candidate concerned with real issues?

There is a tendency for people in Northern Ireland to decry their fate without accepting that each person has an obligation to vote to advance the society. Following traditional voting patterns has proved destructive. That is clear from the fact that voters on all sides have gifted themselves politicians who have acted in the most self-aggrandising fashion, refusing to fulfil their obligation to share power and exercise it with prudence and fairness.

There is always the real possibility that a society in conflict, especially one that has lived for decades immersed in division, will not return to violence if the men in the shadows are encouraged into the limelight. Make no mistake about it, the historical tendency in Ireland to revert to the bomb and the gun remains a real risk.

A post-Brexit hard border could be the spark to reignite the bonfire of fear and bitterness that categorized the Troubles, thus erasing the Good Friday Agreement.

Those Tory voices who have called for the Agreement to be put in cold storage never felt the heat of conflict over half a century in Ireland. They owe it to people in Northern Ireland to be more circumspect when making pronouncements of that nature. In their eagerness to get rid of the agreement I detect cynicism and ignorance.

The only bulwark against Northern Ireland revisiting its past is an agreement that was always going to have flaws.

Herald View: Brexit must not betray the Good Friday Agreement

This one was built more on hope than certainty it would inevitably lead to a political metamorphosis. Radical change in conflict societies requires time for healing, for growing a positive understanding of the past, and for the emergence of politicians devoted to the genuine and not traditional needs of all people.

My raw fear is that Northern Ireland is at a crossroads in a fast changing political environment. I think the Good Friday accords offer a way forward if people are able to work together, and politicians are prepared to take themselves off the hooks on which they have been hanging.

Without the agreement there is no framework to prevent the past revisiting the Province so a flawed agreement is better than a vacuum. We all know where vacuums lead. Nowhere.

Author and journalist Martin Dillon recorded many of the most heinous atrocities that afflicted the “Troubles”, including the acclaimed books The Shankill Butchers, The Dirty War, and God and the Gun.