DUBLIN—Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, signed in Belfast 21 years ago this month, was hailed as a triumph of moderation, a hard-won compromise ending 30 years of bloodshed.
So deep were divisions, so entrenched the centuries-old feud between Catholics and Protestants, that many on the island of Ireland thought peace was impossible. Little wonder that two of the architects of the deal—John Hume, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a mainly Catholic nationalist group; and David Trimble, of the mostly Protestant, conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)—were jointly awarded that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Alongside them when the deal was signed were two of their senior advisers, Mark Durkan and Dermot Nesbitt, as well as the British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. All were moderates, representatives of a new political center that not only held together, but had won a great victory.
And yet in elections only five years later, Hume, Trimble, Durkan, and Nesbitt were eclipsed in the very legislature they had created, outflanked and outvoted by groupings that appealed instead to more tribalist instincts. Their fall, in some ways, presaged shifts seen more recently elsewhere in Europe, as far-right and far-left forces have railed against outsiders, argued for communities and countries to close in, and eschewed compromise in favor of ideological purity. Rather than promoting moderation and reconciliation, the Good Friday Agreement instead pushed Northern Ireland’s voters on both sides of the sectarian divide away from the center, and toward the extremes.