Rights after the revolution: Progress or backslide after the good Friday agreement?

Maggie Beirne, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is a negotiated settlement between the multiple political actors to the conflict in Northern Ireland.1 That human rights norms are central to its substantive content should not surprise observers. There has been general agreement that defining and causal features of the Northern Ireland conflict were the exclusion, disenfranchisement, and discrimination that accompanied the creation of Northern Ireland as a quasi-autonomous political entity in 1922.2 The GFA is a testament to a pattern of post-Cold War conflict resolution through political settlement in which human rights norms and institutions figure prominently in the negotiated texts.3 It also illustrates the broader point that human rights protection is integral rather than a hindrance to resolving conflict. This chapter explores how negotiated human rights provisions came to be embedded in the GFA. It posits that human rights protections were not simply parachuted into the agreement, but have consistently been offered as a partial means to unlock the conflict pattern. This approach is manifested through earlier political agreements upon which the GFA builds, notably the Sunningdale Agreement and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.4 The limited expression of human rights protections in these earlier politicalinitiatives explains their failure in part. Moreover, the U.K. government's consistent recourse to measures of positive legal reform throughout the conflict in Northern Ireland is evidence that the state understood the link between the need for human rights protections and conflict resolution. But the patchwork application of human rights norms in Northern Ireland has to be seen against a backdrop of continued state violations of human rights. Thus, the uneasy relationship between the state's management of the conflict, its role as an actor in the conflict, and its attempts to "solve" the conflict through legal and political means make analyzing the relationship between human rights protections and conflict resolution a complex proposition. Part of that complexity emanates from the fact that the democratic state is both complicit in human rights violations and responsible for creating the means to facilitate accountability for violations.5 We begin by examining the centrality of human rights protections to the GFA. We assess the significance of their inclusion in a negotiated end to internal conflict and analyze the relationship between the agreement's provisions for human rights protections and their translation into functionalinstitutions and law in the postagreement period. The next section addresses the manner in which human rights norms were gradually brought into the center of the political process in Northern Ireland. We then outline the agreement's provisions related to human rights and, finally, address the key issue of "underenforcement" of human rights norms in the postconflict period.6 Although we acknowledge that considerable advancement for human rights protections has been made in some areas, we contend that in other critical respects there has been a diminution of rights protection in the translation of the GFA's principles into law. This translation gap is testament to a wider problem experienced in many transitional societies: the underenforcement of human rights norms in the postconflict environment. 7 Underenforcement has occurred for many reasons, including the regrouping of political opposition to key reforms in the political settlement and the resistance to reform on the ground. Understanding this gap helps explain why human rights enforcement remains such contested territory in the postconflict context. We are particularly interested in exploring the extent to which the substance of political agreements is renegotiated through incremental weakening of human rights norms and institutions in the transitional context. Thus, the fourth section examines a perceived conflict between human rights demands and conflict resolution demands. It finds much of the debate unconvincing and unrelated to experiences on the ground.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHuman Rights and Conflict Resolution in Context
PublisherSyracuse University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)0815632053, 9780815632054
StatePublished - Dec 1 2009

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