On 10 April 1998, the parties in Northern Ireland together with the Irish and British government signed the Good Friday Agreement which paved the way for the establishment of new government structures for Northern Ireland. In the lead up to reaching this historic deal, the US administration along with the Irish and British government had spent many years finding common ground between the opposing parties in Northern Ireland. At that time, Northern Ireland was marred by violence from both the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries like the UDA and the UDF. Both prime ministers of the time, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, dedicated an enormous amount of time to bring the parties together.

Bill Clinton had sent a special envoy, George Mitchell, to support this drive. When the Good Friday Agreement was finally signed, twenty years ago today, all parties involved were aware that it would pave the way for a peaceful Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly was subsequently established, allowing power-sharing between the parties and delivering self-governance to Northern Ireland.

2017 Suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly

But why isn't the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running now? Since early 2017, the Northern Irish parties have been unable to restore the Assembly. It collapsed when the late Martin McGuiness resigned as deputy first minister, following what he called "crude and crash bigotry" against his party by the DUP. The then First Minister, Arlene Forster, had refused to step aside for an investigation into the controversial "Renewable Heat Incentive" nick-named "cash for ash" to be carried out.

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Since then, talks have been fruitless, with Sinn Fein insisting on Irish language rights as well as moves toward marriage equality. Ever since the DUP stepped in to prop up Teresa May's government, Sinn Fein has been critical of the British government's role as an independent broker. The Good Friday Agreement legally obliges the Irish and British government to act as an independent intermediary between the Nationalists and the Unionists. After the deal between the Tories and the DUP had been struck, the Sinn Fein leadership stressed that the coalition deal was in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

Brexit adds further tensions over the border issue

As Brexit negotiations between Britain and the EU continue, the Irish Border issue remains one of the most difficult hurdles. Despite assurances from both governments that there will never be a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, many believe that the British government has so far failed to come up with a viable solution.

According to the Guardian, sources have stated that current proposals are very similar to those tabled last August. These included technological solutions and were dismissed by the EU as "magical thinking." Difficulties remain over border checks, tariffs, and regulatory issues in relation to agricultural, pharmaceutical, and food products. Suggestions made by the EU that Northern Ireland could remain in the Customs Union were categorically dismissed by Teresa May.

George Mitchell, who was instrumental in brokering the Good Friday Agreement, has spent the last few days in Ireland and Britain to mark the 20th anniversary of this historic deal. According to the Times, he has urged the British and Irish government to remember what is at stake during Brexit negotiations.

"It's the future of their economies, it's the possibility of resumption of conflict or of a reversion back to a time nobody wants to go back to, except for a very thin fringe element on both sides. I think that means that they have to come up with reasonable and acceptable compromises." - George Mitchell (The Times)