Irish Peace Process — Important People

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Who Was Who in the Irish Peace Process
Key Players behind the Good Friday Agreement

by Ann Marie Imbornoni

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The Good Friday Agreement of Apr. 10, 1998, was the result of years of negotiations, both secret and open. One reason for the lengthy timetable was the large number of people involved in the talks, including representatives of the various political parties of Northern Ireland and representatives of the Irish and British governments.

Here are some of the key players:

Gerald (Gerry) Adams
Leader of Sinn Fein, political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

b. 1948, West Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Adams became politically active in the 1960s, joining Sinn Fein and working to end discrimination against the Catholics of Northern Ireland in areas such as housing and employment. Interned by the British during the 1970s for suspected terrorism, Adams was elected president of Sinn Fein in 1983. The same year, Adams was also elected a member of the British parliament from West Belfast, but, refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the British queen, he never actually took his seat in Westminster. Although he did not formally renounce violence until 1997, Adams actively sought to involve Sinn Fein in peace talks beginning in the late 1980s. In Jan. 1994 the Clinton administration signaled its belief that Adams was working for peace by granting him a 2-day visa to speak in New York. Some months later, following the declaration of an IRA cease-fire in Aug. 1994, the order prohibiting Adams from speaking on British radio and TV was lifted (previously his statements could only be read on air by actors). Subsequently Adams achieved international prominence as the chief contact with the IRA during the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. In Dec. 1999 Adams received a seat in the 4-party 12-member Northern Irish cabinet. Since then, the Irish parliament has been suspended four times, the last time in Oct. 2002. It remains suspended today. Sinn Fein's reluctance to disarm was a major reason the government faltered.

But on July 28, 2005, the IRA announced that it was entering a new era in which it would unequivocally relinquish violence. The statement said that IRA members have been "instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively political means" and that "all IRA units have been ordered to dump arms" and "to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use." In late September, the Irish Republican Army made good on its promise to give up all its weapons, and their disarmament was verified by an international mediator. Some Protestant groups, however, continued to doubt the veracity of the IRA's claims.

Patrick B. (Bertie) Ahern
Prime minister of the Republic of Ireland 1997-.

b. 1951, Dublin, Republic of Ireland.

Elected to the Dáil Éireann in 1977, Ahern held a number of positions within the Fianna Fáil political party before being unanimously elected leader of the party in 1994. In June 1997 he was elected taoiseach (Gaelic for prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland, following in the footsteps of his mentor Charles Haughey. Ahern has been especially active in pressing for an end to the violence sponsored by the IRA and other paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. He has also supported the Republic's main concession in the peace agreement, namely that the Republic of Ireland would relinquish its goal of a united Ireland.

Tony Blair
Prime minister of the United Kingdom 1997-.

b. 1953, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

A practicing lawyer from the mid-1970s, Blair was elected a member of the British parliament for Sedgefield in 1983. After assuming the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994, he set about reforming the traditionally socialist minority party into a more centrist organization, which won a landslide victory in the May 1997 general election. Consequently Blair was voted in as prime minister, the first Labour Party member to hold that post since 1979. Just two weeks after his election, Blair made a high profile visit to Northern Ireland and gave the go ahead for preliminary talks between government officials and Sinn Fein, giving new momentum to the peace process. He later attended meetings with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in Oct. and Dec. 1997. (The Dec. meeting at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, was the first meeting there between a British prime minister and a leading Irish nationalist since David Lloyd George met with Michael Collins in 1921.) The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 marked the first considerable achievement of Blair's Labour government.

John Hume
Leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party 1979-2001.

b. 1937, Derry, Northern Ireland.

A former teacher, Hume became active in the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. In 1970 he helped found the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the largest Catholic party in Northern Ireland, becoming its leader in 1979. Hume was elected to the European parliament in 1979 and to the British parliament in 1983. A longtime advocate of all-inclusive government in Northern Ireland, he served in a short-lived coalition government during the mid-1970s and helped shape the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which sought to establish another power-sharing government in 1985. He also worked to promote Northern Ireland's economic interests, particularly among American investors, in the hope that more jobs would lead to prosperity and less conflict. In 1988 he began a series of private talks with Gerry Adams of the rival Catholic party Sinn Fein, which led into the peace negotiations of the 1990s. Following the Good Friday Agreement of Apr. 1998, Hume was elected to the new Northern Ireland Assembly; however, he stepped aside for health reasons and let a fellow SDLP member assume his role as first deputy. With David Trimble, Protestant leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Hume was a co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. He stepped down as leader of the SDLP in Nov. 2001.

John Major
Prime minister of the United Kingdom 1990-1997.

b. 1943, London, U.K.

Formerly employed in the banking industry (1965-1979), Major ran unsuccessfully for parliament twice before winning a seat as a member for Huntingdonshire (now Huntingdon) in 1979. Having served in a number of important posts, including foreign secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, he succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader and prime minister in 1990. Major's government gradually lost popular support, however, despite a win in the national elections in 1992 and an economic recovery in the mid-1990s. He resigned as leader of the Conservative Party after losing the 1997 general election to Tony Blair's Labour Party. It was during Major's tenure, however, that a peaceful dialogue was initiated with Sinn Fein. Major, along with Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds, was also instrumental in engineering the Downing Street Declaration (1993), in which both countries agreed to cooperate in finding a peaceful, mutually agreeable settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Peter Mandelson
British secretary of state for Northern Ireland 1999-2001.

b. 1953, Hendon, U.K.

Elected to parliament in 1992, Mandelson held a variety of posts, including secretary of state for Trade and Industry. He was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland in Oct. 1999. The British government's senior official in Northern Ireland, Mandelson suspended the new home rule government in Feb. 2000 after the IRA failed to make significant progress toward disarmament. He resigned his post in Jan. 2001 following allegations of his involvement in a "cash for passports" scandal.

Martin McGuinness
Chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

b. 1950, Derry , Northern Ireland.

McGuinness became involved in the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and joined Sinn Fein in 1970. During the peace negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, he served as the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein. In 1997 he was elected a member of the British parliament for Mid-Ulster. In late 1999 McGuinness, along with Gerry Adams, was elected to a cabinet post in Northern Ireland's new coalition government. Although it was widely believed that McGuinness was once a commander in the IRA, he long denied being a member of the terrorist group. Then in May 2001, McGuinness revealed that he had in fact been second-in-command of the IRA in Londonderry around the time of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.

George Mitchell
U.S. lawyer and politician.

b. 1933, Waterville, ME.

An attorney in government and private practice during the 1960s and 70s, Mitchell ran unsuccessfully for Maine governor and served as a federal district court judge before he was appointed to fill the U.S. senate seat vacated by Edmund Muskie in 1980. Considered a liberal Democrat, he was reelected in 1982 and 1988. He was named to the senate committee that investigated the Iran-contra affair in 1987 and became the senate majority leader in 1989. Following his retirement from the senate in 1995, Mitchell was tapped by President Clinton to serve as economic adviser to Northern Ireland. Mitchell's quiet, patient manner and grasp of the province's political complexities won over Irish and British politicians alike, and Mitchell was asked to chair the multiparty peace talks opening in Belfast in June 1996. After nearly two years at the negotiating table, Mitchell announced that an agreement had been reached on Apr. 10, 1998.

Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam
British secretary of state for Northern Ireland 1997-1999.

b. 1949, Watford, U.K., d. 2005.

A member of the Labour Party since 1969, Mowlam was elected to the British parliament in 1987. Appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland by Tony Blair when the Labour Party came to power in May 1997, Mowlam's first priority was to obtain another IRA cease-fire (one had lasted from Aug. 1994 until Feb. 1996) so that Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, could participate in multiparty peace talks. A cease-fire was achieved in July 1997. Despite her easy-going manner and popular appeal, Mowlam was subject to the fury of both Catholics and Protestants over the handling of the controversial Orange Order parade through a mainly Catholic area of Portadown, County Armagh. The blockade of the parade route by police and the British Army in July 1998 sparked violent protests across Northern Ireland, and many Catholic homes and businesses were attacked. She was appointed minister for the Cabinet Office, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1999. Mowlam was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1997 and continued on in politics until 2001.

Ian Paisley
Protestant cleric and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

b. 1926, Armagh, Northern Ireland.

Ordained in 1946, Paisley cofounded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951. During the 1950s Reverend Paisley gained notoriety for speaking out against Roman Catholicism, and during the 1960s, when Catholics began demonstrating for civil rights, he denounced the movement and organized marches in opposition. As a result he served 6 weeks in jail in 1968 for unlawful assembly. In 1971 Paisley cofounded the Democratic Unionist Party, which led the opposition to the coalition government established under the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973-1974. Similarly Paisley has also staunchly opposed other arrangements that appear to weaken Northern Ireland's union with Britain or give the Republic of Ireland any say in Northern Ireland's affairs, including the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Paisley has been a member of the British parliament for North Antrim since 1970. Between 1999 and 2002, the rocky power-sharing years of the Northern Irish parliament, Paisley seemed to fade in influence. But in Nov. 2003 legislative elections, his party had a resurgence. Frustrated by the inability of moderate Unionists to create a lasting government, and infuriated by Sinn Fein's seats in the Northern Irish government, the hard-line, uncompromising Unionist was in the ascendency.

David Trimble
Leader of the mainly Protestant Ulster Unionist Party.

b. 10/15/44, Bangor, Northern Ireland.

A former university lecturer in law (1968-1990), Trimble joined the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1970s and rose to become its leader in 1995. Early on in his political career Trimble sought to end British direct rule of Northern Ireland, but he rejected the idea of a power-sharing arrangement with southern Catholics such as the one established by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. His hardline unionist stance helped him attain the leadership of the UUP, but after the election he agreed to join in peace negotiations chaired by former U.S. senator George Mitchell. Shortly after the signing of the momentous Good Friday Agreement in Apr. 1998, Trimble was named first minister of the new coalition government's executive cabinet. His peace-making efforts were rewarded in Oct. 1998 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Catholic leader John Hume. In Nov. 1999 Trimble made a heroic effort to keep the peace process on track by relenting on the unionists' longtime "no guns, no government" policy and agreeing to let the nascent government form before the IRA disarmed. Despite this gesture, the government was suspended by the British from Feb. to May 2000 because the IRA failed to begin turning over their weapons. Trimble resigned as first minister in the power-sharing government on July 1, 2001, as a protest against the IRA's continued refusal to decommission its weapons. However, on Oct. 23, the IRA announced that it had begun to disarm, and Trimble regained his former post in a vote rerun on Nov. 6, after narrowly losing his reelection bid in the initial vote a few days earlier. Trimble has been a member of the British parliament for Upper Bann since 1990.

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