Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement was a peace agreement signed in 1998 with respect to the long-running conflict in Northern Ireland. A 65-page document, was welcomed by the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) (a socialistic nationalist party loosely tied to the British Labour Party) and the Sinn Fein (an Irish nationalist party), and overwhelmingly ratified by voters: 71.2% of people in Northern Ireland and 94.39% in the Republic of Ireland voted "yes" in accepting the Agreement.
There were many points in the Agreement, the most important being demilitarizing Northern Ireland and placing it on a path to democratic rule. An Assembly was soon elected in which Ulster Unionists won the most seats (28), the SDLP won 24 seats, and the Sinn Fein won 18 seats. Paramilitary prisoners were released.
Both sides accused the other side of failing to live up to the agreement, but no one wants to renegotiate or repudiate it. Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that the agreement "is the only show in town".
Progress has been made on each of the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Most notably, a new police force has been instituted; the IRA has decommissioned its weapons, and the security situation in Northern Ireland has normalised. Since 2002, when the last devolved government was suspended, the British Government, with Irish and U.S. support, continued to push Northern Ireland's main parties towards a power-sharing agreement. In October 2006, intense negotiations led to the St. Andrews Agreement, which set up a Transitional Assembly, as the precursor for the return of devolved government. Parties were given until 26 March 2007 to work out arrangements for a power-sharing agreement. As part of these negotiations, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) insisted that Sinn Fein endorse policing structures, a key U.S. objective as well.
In a historic move, Sinn Fein's general membership finally agreed to support policing in late January 2007. New assembly elections were held on 7 March, returning the unionist (Protestant) DUP and nationalist (Catholic) Sinn Fein again as the two largest parties. While party leaders Ian Paisley (DUP) and Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein) did not reach agreement on power-sharing in time for the 26 March deadline, they did hold a historic joint meeting that day. At the meeting, they agreed to begin a power-sharing government on May 8 with Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister. On 8 May 2007 Paisley and McGuinness took their oath of office in the presence of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and a bipartisan U.S. presidential delegation headed by Special Envoy Paula Dobriansky, who was accompanied by Senator Ted Kennedy.
While most attributes of government have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, responsibility for security and justice remains in the hands of the Parliament in Westminster. The St. Andrews Agreement envisioned devolution of policing and justice by May 2008. Other outstanding issues relate to continued paramilitary activities. While the IRA has completely decommissioned its weapons and is no longer considered a terrorist threat, a few loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary groups have thus far refused to stand down or decommission. While one large loyalist paramilitary group recently announced it has placed its weapons "out of use", it has not formally decommissioned them. There is also some concern about dissident republican groups who are believed responsible for a number of fire bombs in November 2006 around Northern Ireland.
The United States also is committed to Northern Ireland's economic development, and through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) almost $462 million was obligated to the International Fund for Ireland from 1986 to 2006. The fund provides grants and loans to businesses to improve the economy, redress inequalities of employment opportunity, and improve cross-border business and community ties.