The Northern Ireland Peace Process

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The Good Friday Agreement has dampened sectarian tensions and brought stability to Northern Ireland since 1998, but Brexit negotiations and local political paralysis are throwing the region’s hard-won gains into doubt.

Backgrounder by Charles Landow and Mohammed Aly Sergie

Last updated March 12, 2019

International Relations
A policeman in the rubble of the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Belfast. Henri Bureau/Getty Images


Northern Ireland, a long-contested region of the United Kingdom, experienced decades of conflict between the late 1960s and the late 1990s that claimed more than thirty-five hundred lives. The era, known as the Troubles, largely pitted the historically dominant Protestants against the Catholic minority. A peace deal struck in April 1998 created a power-sharing government that included political forces aligned with armed groups.More From Our ExpertsCaroline Bettinger-LopezCodifying #MeToo Into International LawCatherine PowellGender, Masculinities, and CounterterrorismElliott AbramsThe OAS Secretary General Tells the Whole Truth About the Cuban Regime

Twenty years later, most of the Belfast Agreement—usually called the Good Friday Agreement—has been implemented. Although paramilitary groups still exist, they have mostly disarmed, and to a large extent violence has ceased. However, with Belfast’s main political institutions suspended and Brexit throwing long-standing assumptions into doubt, Northern Ireland’s future is far from assured.

What has driven the conflict in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland’s modern period of conflict started in the late 1960s and lasted more than three decades. What started as a civil rights movement—Catholics protesting what they saw as discrimination by Northern Ireland’s Protestant-dominated government—deteriorated into violence, with the involvement of paramilitary groups on both sides and the arrival in 1969 of the British Army.

The conflict involved mostly Protestant loyalists, who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, against mostly Catholic republicans, who wished to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists shared their respective communities’ goals but tended to eschew violence.