Struggle for Peace: The Belfast Agreement

The Labour Government’s success in securing the Belfast Agreement 25 years ago was a huge transnational effort that required close collaboration with the Irish Government, the USA, the EU, and senior international figures.

It was also bipartisan. Labour pursued the work of Tony Blair’s predecessor, John Major, who advanced the agreement’s key formula that the UK has “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”  It means the UK will enable the people of Northern Ireland to leave rather than selfishly upholding the union regardless.

It accompanied the “consent principle,” which recognises Northern Ireland as a legitimate rather than artificial entity. The latter view drove decades of paramilitary terror for “self-determination by the Irish people as a whole” while the IRA saw itself as the island’s legal army. In the end, separate referendums in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic endorsed the Belfast Agreement in 1998, a genius suggestion by SDLP Leader John Hume.

Peace comes dropping slowly; decades in this case. It flowed from better British and Irish infiltration and signals intelligence that dramatically curtailed IRA operations from the early 1980s, notwithstanding later ghastly “spectaculars” in Great Britain.

Sinn Fein’s electoral growth reversed the dominance of the “army” over the party and rendered the strategy of “an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other” counter-productive. Successful reforms to include Catholics in the governance of Northern Ireland helped. Trade unions bravely opposed workplace sectarianism.

An often neglected factor was the work from the late 1980s of resolute and popular anti-terror peace organisations run by Irish and British people together. The movement’s imaginative and dogged initiatives mobilised public opinion to declare that paramilitaries had no mandate for violence: not in our name.

A principal player was the Peace Train Organisation, whose patron was Irish President Mary Robinson. It was supported by most parties and civic society groups such as the unions. It ran seven trains of hundreds of people between Belfast and Dublin to oppose IRA disruption of the line. As organiser of a Peace Train to London in 1991, I met railway union leader, Jimmy Knapp who pulled out all the stops with British Rail.

All this activity exacerbated combat fatigue within communities and emboldened resistance to paramilitary kneecapping, murder, and exile.

Labour backed Major but was somewhat ambiguous on the endgame. Its policy since 1981 had been unity by consent though some stressed one over the other. The peace process required the defeat of residual anti-partitionism and a few fools playing footsie with the Provos.

Many peace activists disagreed that ending partition was the answer to the Irish question and feared that unification by duress would alienate unionists and widen conflict. Activists heeded Irish left-wingers who often had an IRA background but embraced class rather than nationalist politics.

Growing support for stabilising Northern Ireland before anything else defied the view that internal reform was illusory. In an occasionally nasty debate anti-partitionism proved flimsy as inertia and romantic radicalism as well as fighting to the last drop of someone else’s blood were challenged.

Such views had deluded IRA leaders that Labour would be a soft touch and prolonged their armed struggle, as former Provo leader Sean O’Callaghan told me. Ironically, IRA actions did more to undermine Irish unity than unionism.

My view in the then influential Tribune, during the 1994 Labour leadership election, was that Labour must now reassess its Northern Ireland policy and listen to the Irish left. It could better promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland if neutrality on the border was combined with a comprehensive peace package that addressed all the causes of the conflict.

Blair rapidly adjusted Labour’s policy in 1994, replacing a veteran anti-partitionist as shadow Northern Ireland Secretary with Mo Mowlam whose first speech was to the cross-party peace group I chaired.

This course correction allowed unionists to see Labour as a partner. The agreement wouldn’t have happened if they suspected Labour would terminate Northern Ireland in some way.

All these factors drove an imperfect but necessary agreement to end an apparently intractable conflict, which claimed 3,500 lives with continuing profound physical, psychological, and fiscal effects.

It illustrates there can be no no-go areas in Labour thinking on such complex issues. We cannot just grasp the past as if nothing changes. Even were partition wrong, the following century altered the historical equation. That applies to other ancient conflicts. Without healthy revisionism we condemn the party to being a bystander or worse.

The physical border in Ireland became increasingly porous and invisible. The agreement allowed nationalists to feel they weren’t trapped in what unionist leader David Trimble called a “cold house” while unionists retained the British link without fear of forcible constitutional change. About a third of Northern Ireland people now identify as either mainly British, Irish, and Northern Irish respectively.

However, Brexit turbulence has lifted Irish unification for some. The agreement permits a border poll if UK ministers assess it will pass the 50% plus one threshold, which looks less wise after the narrow EU referendum result of 2016.

It seems improbable that the Irish Republic will shoulder the estimated £10 billion annual cost of Northern Ireland. Those who support unity in the South baulk at this or possible changes needed to accommodate the North.

Veteran Belfast writer, Malachi O’Doherty concludes his deep and delightful book, Can Ireland Be One?, by insisting on “deferring my decision until I have read all the terms and conditions.” 

Former Democratic Left leader Proinsias De Rossa dismisses a border poll when 100 peace walls still divide Northern Ireland. One bisects a school playground while under 10% attend integrated schools.

De Rossa argues that the agreement “embedded a constitutional settlement for peace on this island fit to last for the next 100 years and more.” We should be wary of superficially tidy solutions in a potentially explosive tinderbox.


Gary Kent will address an academic witness seminar in Belfast next month on the Peace Train Organisation, supported by the Irish Government. He advocated Yes to the Belfast Agreement in Belfast and Dublin in 1998.

This is the third in a series of columns covering Labour’s foreign policy challenges. The author, Gary Kent, studied International Relations, has been a Labour member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987 where he has focused on Anglo/Irish and Anglo/Kurdish relations. He writes in a personal capacity. 

If you enjoyed this piece, check out Gary’s previous piece Iraq: What should the West learn from its interventions?