Leading article

Good Friday Agreement referendum brought major changes

The referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, which took place on this day 20 years ago, was by any standards a hugely significant event.

Support for the proposals by 71.1 per cent of northern voters, on an extremely high turnout of over 81 per cent, with an even more overwhelming approval figure of 94.4 per cent simultaneously achieved in the Republic, demonstrated firmly that all sections of society were ready to enter a fresh political dispensation.

It also sent out the unmistakeable message that the agony caused by the Troubles of the previous three decades was finally coming to an end and paramilitary organisations on both sides of the divide had been told to leave the stage.

While it took another eight years for IRA decommissioning to be completed, with loyalists and some republican splinter groups retaining at least some of their weaponry, the sharp decline in levels of violence transformed life for ordinary citizens.

The work of the Patten Commission was also central in delivering the reforms which led to the creation of the PSNI and took policing into a new era.

While the devolved structures which were established at Stormont were initially surrounded by optimism, they quickly ran into a range of problems with one suspension after another unfolding.

The return of an executive in 2007 under the joint control of the DUP and Sinn Féin, as a result of the negotiations at St Andrews, had the backing of both the British and Irish governments, but also contained a range of contradictions.

It remained in place for almost a decade but was badly damaged by the outcome of the EU referendum in 2016 and eventually collapsed as a result of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal the following year.

With the Brexit crisis pushing the issue of the Irish border to the top of the political agenda in Dublin, London and Brussels, the short-term prospects for another restoration of the Stormont power-sharing arrangements look bleak.

Problems are piling up over health, education, planning and the economy, and relationships between the main parties have become steadily more strained.

However, the anniversary of the 1998 referendum is an appropriate opportunity to remind ourselves that we have come through much darker days in the past.

The spirit of the Good Friday Agreement will be not be easy to recreate but the result announced at the King's Hall 20 years ago demonstrated that nationalists and unionists can be prepared to commit themselves to the cause of peace and reconciliation even in the most difficult of circumstances.

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