When the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed in 1998, many heralded it as the start of a new future for the troubled region of Northern Ireland. After decades of sectarian conflict known as 'The Troubles', the GFA was meant to mark a new turning point in relations between the Nationalists (predominantly Catholics) and the Unionists (predominantly Protestant). However, while the violence has undeniably died down, the GFA has not brought about the political unity that so many believed would come. Quite the opposite, politics in Northern Ireland is now arguably more divided than ever, with extremist parties at both ends of the political spectrum garnering increasing support.
Two key figures in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, John Hume and David Trimble, came from Irish Catholic Nationalist and Irish Protestant Unionist backgrounds respectively. The two parties that they led, John Hume and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), were viewed as moderate political parties, despite occupying differing ends on the political spectrum. Since the GFA, however, these parties have not enjoyed as much success as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, two parties which sit on the more extreme end of the SDLP and UUP. There has, in other words, been a notable shift to the more extreme end of both sides.
This political shift in the Northern Irish political landscape has been commented upon by Oxford Political scientist Geoffrey Evans who has remarked on how, 'the DUP and united Ireland supporters Sinn Fein managed to replace the more centrists parties in Northern Ireland after taking a more hardline approach to the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.'
This view is also shared by some citizens of Northern Ireland, as one lamented on the 20th anniversary of the GFA, 'far from bringing the perceived “both sides” closer together, the result of the Belfast Agreement has been to polarise the nationalist and unionist communities and to increase in popularity the more extreme parties'
The Good Friday Agreement has therefore not been the political success that so many believed it would be back in 1998. Far from encouraging a more centrist, united political landscape, twenty years later the electorate and political parties remain more divided than ever. Perhaps more worryingly, voters have eschewed the more moderate SDLP and UUP, so instrumental in forging the GFA, and have instead turned to the more hardline Sinn Fein and DUP.