UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (right), US Senator George Mitchell (centre) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (left) pose with the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998, which brought peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Chung/AFP via Getty Images)

It has been more than two decades since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) peace deal – which signalled the end of decades of bloodshed during the Troubles in Northern Ireland – was signed in 1998. The deal has undoubtedly had a positive impact upon the country, bringing about a huge decrease in the levels of paramilitary violence, but the recent unrest in some loyalist areas shows that this peace is still fragile.

Recent issues linked to Brexit and festering political instability, which saw First Minister Arlene Foster of the unionist DUP resign after a motion of no confidence, have seen relations between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour, which is still part of the EU, shaken, while the future of the UK in its current guise seems under greater threat than ever. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need for a robust recovery strategy to protect Northern Ireland’s economy.

Pre-Covid and Brexit, Northern Ireland had come a long way. Reginald Maudling, a Conservative home secretary in the early 1970s, famously said at the end of his visit to the province: “For god’s sake bring me a large Scotch, what a bloody awful country!” Today’s Northern Ireland has seen huge progression in both its society and economy, with vast improvements across its tourism sector, education levels and quality of life.

So, what credit is due to the signing of the GFA with regards to this improved economic outlook and general transformation? What lessons can be learned from these successes that can be reapplied to solidify the future of Northern Ireland’s industries and for its people, for their quality of life. Investment Monitor investigates how many of the seeds that were planted by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 are still flourishing today…

Why did Northern Ireland need the GFA?

To chart the impact of the GFA, it is important to understand what came before. While political rancour and conflict with the British throughout the whole of Ireland goes back centuries, reaching a climax in 1916 with the Easter Uprising and then the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that created the Irish Free State but retained Ulster (now Northern Ireland) as part of the UK, the GFA was a response to a period of conflict in Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles’, which saw its beginnings in the late 1960s. The Troubles were a highly complex issue but can essentially be boiled down to being between the nationalist/republican side, who were largely Catholic and wanted a free and united Ireland, and the loyalist/unionist side, who were largely Protestant and wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the UK.

After numerous flashpoints in the mid to late 1960s, British troops were sent in to ‘keep the peace’ in Northern Ireland in August 1969, and the UK government took firmer control in the running of the country. At this time, violence and segregation became the norm across Northern Ireland, and a begrudging acceptance fell upon both sides that neither were accomplishing the goals they had set out to execute for their country. Even though many were fatigued by the consistent violence, the influence of the paramilitary groups on both sides was too big for anyone to effectively stand up to throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with bombing campaigns and tit-for-tat killings commonplace. When the 1990s were ushered in, the Troubles had claimed 3,000 lives, left tens of thousands injured and had resulted in an entire country being paralysed by fear.

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Dr Eamonn O’Kane, a reader in conflict studies at the University of Wolverhampton and author of a number of a books on Northern Ireland, sets the scene. “There’s a debate about when the peace process really began, but let’s just keep it easy and take it from the early 1990s,” he says.

“The peace process emerged slowly, and in many respects, surprisingly. There were two tracks running at the same time: you have got the so-called constitutional talks between the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, i.e. the ones that don’t advocate or support the use of violence (sometimes called ‘the bookmaking talks’). Then, unbeknownst at the time, there was also another process under way, often referred to as ‘the backchannel process’. This is where, at one remove, the British government were speaking to people close to the IRA and Sinn Fein. These two strands came together around 1993.

“The big thing about the peace process, certainly in the early days leading up from the early to mid-1990s, up until the GFA in 1998 , is the underpinning pragmatism of the process. It was about trying to persuade those who were using violence to stop.”

The agreement was negotiated between the eight biggest political parties in Northern Ireland at the time and the British government. The DUP, under the leadership of Ian Paisley, was the only party to oppose the agreement. The GFA was then put to a referendum, with Northern Ireland voting in favour, with 71% voting ‘yes’, while the majority in an equivalent referendum in Ireland was even more strident in its support, with 94% opting to ratify the agreement.

From this, the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up to act as a parliament for ‘local’ issues. Alongside this, a cooperation council was initiated and was designed to oversee issues such as agriculture and healthcare with both Northern Ireland Ireland working together.

There was also heightened collaboration between Ireland and the UK through the creation of the British-Irish Council, which was designed to bolster the relationship between the two. This relationship brought with it initiatives such as the offering of dual citizenship, peace-time security arrangements, reform of the Northern Irish police force and the demolition of security installations.

With the GFA and the road to a more peaceful future outlined, Northern Ireland – still dotted with ‘peace walls’ and pockets of divided communities – began its recovery.

Can the impact of the GFA be measured?

There is no doubting that these measures would have had, at the very least, a soft influence over Northern Ireland’s appeal to investors and businesses, but as economist Esmond Birnie explains, this impact and influence is very ambiguous. “It is impossible to prove [what the impact of the GFA has been] because the connections are all so complex,” he says. “It is the classic problem with economics, you can’t run experiments, you can’t see what would happen in the absence of something else.”

What can be deduced is that Northern Ireland has certainly seen recovery and growth across a range of socio-economic indicators, although Birnie highlights that a lot of these trends were present before the agreement was signed. “If you look at indicators such as inward investment, the number of tourists coming to Northern Ireland, and the general growth of the economy, there were signs that things were speeding up before 1998, in the earlier part of the 1990s,” he says.

One symbolic trend that had taken root in the early 1990s was the rise in integrated, mixed faith schools across Northern Ireland. Before the GFA was signed, between 1991 and 1998, the number of integrated schools saw its quickest rate of increase. This growth continued, albeit at a slightly slower rate, up until 2016, which is the last time there were gains by this measure.

Birnie says, “Whatever your view of educational policy – it is a complex area – what you could say from that data is that there is no obvious indication that the switch from direct rule from London to a greater degree of local political control actually accelerated the process. If anything, it suggests that it may have slowed it down.”

The breakdown of the Stormont government

The post-1998 brave new world of Northern Irish politics has not all been smooth running, however. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Assembly broke down in 2017 following the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal. Birnie reflects on the impact the devolved government that stemmed from the GFA has had. “There are all sorts of theoretical arguments to favour devolution,” he says. “The problem is analysing it. You can say there has been potential gains from having a regional government that can adopt policies that are appropriate and particular to the region.”

Inevitably, when you have got five parties rather than one or two it slows down decision-making. It makes it harder to avoid a lowest common denominator approach to policymaking. Esmond Birnie, economist

Birnie goes on to say that although the GFA technically gave more power to Northern Ireland to create bespoke policy, “in practice a lot of the time, that power was not used”.

The unique make-up of the Northern Irish parliament, which requires a mandated coalition to operate – a direct consequence of The Troubles, means that many feel that policies and strategies are slow to materialise.

“Inevitably, when you have got five parties rather than one or two it slows down decision-making,” says Birnie. “It makes it harder to avoid a lowest common denominator approach to policymaking, because there are mutual vetoes in the system and everything gets reduced to a very basic non-radical attempt to be non-offensive, which can make things quite slow and ponderous.”

O’Kane also states that the presumption of lasting peace in Northern Ireland by the rest of the UK could have also hindered progress for devolution. “[After the GFA is signed] for the average person in the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is now completely resolved – it is done and dusted,” he says. “This is why over the next decade, the on/off peace process, and as a result the difficulties in bringing about solid devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, sort of bemuses and bores the rest of the UK.”

O’Kane argues that subsequent breakthroughs towards greater devolution in Northern Ireland have had little coverage. Something that did make a splash, however, was the RHI scandal. It was an example of the Northern Ireland Assembly creating a more bespoke devolved policy, and its spectacular failure left a long-term wound within the Stormont government that would see a government shutdown between 2017 and 2020.

Birnie says of RHI: “There is at least one case when [bespoke policymaking] went horrendously wrong… That wasn’t an inspiring case study of our devolution. As a result, our devolved parliament simply stopped operating.”

Since then, Stormont government has been restored, but it is still plagued by doubt over how well it can operate under the added red tape of mandated coalition.

Hollywood (the other one) comes to Northern Ireland

Complex governance aside, a well-documented positive impact of the GFA has been the heightened security situation in Northern Ireland. It not only improved the quality of life for residents but encouraged growth in tourism.

Since 1999, the number of hotel rooms in Northern Ireland has almost doubled from 4,893 to 9,548. Before the Covid-19 lockdowns made their presence felt, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency reported that there had been steady growth in overall tourism between 2013 and 2019. In fact, between 2018 and 2019 there was an 8% increase in overall visitor spend when compared year on year.

Overall, trips taken by non-Northern Irish residents between 2013 and 2019 saw a 35.8% increase. Furthermore, the trips that are being taken are also significantly longer, meaning that more capital is being injected into these trips, with approximately £207m more being spent on them annually.

Steve Harper, executive director of international business at Invest Northern Ireland, speaks of the impact of this growth in tourism: “It has created employment right across Northern Ireland… You see the press talking about how Northern Ireland is an uncovered gem all the time.”

HBO was taking a risk [with Game of Thrones], because Northern Ireland was not known as a creative media force. Steve Harper, Invest Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s tourism sector has also received a boost from the country’s recent successes in the film-making sector, an industry that was all but non-existent before the violence was effectively shut down by the GFA.

Harper explains that there is a domino effect about Northern Ireland, where one investor or business takes “a punt” and the success they find usually encourages others in the field to follow. He cites HBO’s decision to film Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland as a prime example of this theory.

“HBO was taking a risk, because Northern Ireland was not known as a creative media force then,” he says. “So how did Northern Ireland get on that agenda? Well, people were interested to understand and hear about how the country had transformed itself following our Troubles. That opens doors.”

Harper recalls an example of the interest surrounding Northern Ireland working as an unlikely filming opportunity: “I can remember being on trade missions when I wasn’t working for Invest Northern Ireland in the early days of devolution. Doors were being thrown open to very senior leaders and countries around the world, just because they wanted to hear the Northern Ireland story. HBO was the same.”

Harper clarifies the link between the blossoming film-making industry and tourism: “The result of that is that people want to come and see where stuff is filmed and Game of Thrones is a particularly good example because so much of it is outdoors.”

Another soft influence on tourism resulting from the growing sector is the presence of big names from Hollywood. Bridgerton’s Rege Jean Page, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman have not only been spotted in Belfast during shoots but have sung the country’s praises on social media.

Bringing business to Northern Ireland

This loop, that Harper suggests HBO illustrates, of curiosity resulting in investment (and reinvestment) has emerged in other sectors in Northern Ireland.

More than 70% of investors that come to Northern Ireland go on to reinvest. That is a big piece of credibility for us – it is not a one-time trick. Steve Harper

Harper describes the financial and business services sector as another example. “The main players here in Northern Ireland date back [many years],” he says. “Citi has been here for 17 years, Allstate 23 years and Liberty IT 24 years – they were the first foreign-owned businesses to take a punt on Northern Ireland.”

Notably, Allstate and Liberty came to Northern Ireland the year before and the year of the GFA, respectively. Harper believes that access to talent was a key motivator for these companies setting up in Northern Ireland.

“To be honest, they came and set up with small numbers of people,” he says. “Citi, for example, back in 2004, came to create a 350-person IT support system, so it was not particularly risky. Today, it has more than 2,900 employees and Citi has doubled its workforce since 2013. It now includes all of the company’s foreign exchange markets, legal risk and compliance, HR and operations and, of course, technology.”

Harper highlights that these companies should provide would-be investors with a shining example of how Northern Ireland can factor into long-term investment plans.

“Those three were trailblazers and it sowed the seeds for others to think ‘they’ve come to Northern Ireland, and they’re starting to grow, there’s something we should be looking at there’, he says. “They have gone on to reinvest and that’s something we see regularly – more than 70% of investors that come to Northern Ireland go on to reinvest. That’s a big piece of credibility for us – it is not a one-time trick.”

While the development of the financial and business services sectors and the subsequent continuous appetite for reinvestment is undoubtedly positive, it is very difficult to quantify how responsible the GFA is for this success.

It could be argued that without the widely publicised reporting around the GFA and reform of Northern Ireland, that spike of curiosity that led to the initial interest in the region would perhaps not have been as potent. On the other hand, as Harper points out, it wasn’t just curiosity that led to the business services boom in Northern Ireland, it was the skilled workforce, which he says is the product of a high importance being placed on education. What influence could the GFA potentially had there?

Too much education, not enough jobs?

Of the impact of Northern Ireland’s political stability and its role in improving the country’s outlook across a number of measures, Birnie says: “The improvement in political stability was reinforcing trends that had already begun. What was very important was the fact that there was a period of government spending, across the UK, growing rapidly [in the late 1990s]. That continued into the first decade of the century – [under] the Blair government period. Some of that growth in the Northern Ireland economy, people may have attributed that to the GFA.”

Birnie is sceptical over this being a direct result of the GFA and believes it could instead be a mirror of what was already happening in the UK generally. “I think it was probably a spillover effect of the relatively rapid growth in spending on things like education and health by the London government, being felt in Northern Ireland,” he says.

Northern Ireland had a real problem with deprivation. This was exacerbated as a result of the Troubles because there was a disincentive for investment. Eamonn O’Kane, University of Wolverhampton

It could be argued, however, that this mirroring in government spending, through the connection between Stormont and Westminster, would not have necessarily occurred had devolution and the peace agreement never happened.

O’Kane does highlight that this uptake in spending and the importance being placed on education was a significant shift for Northern Ireland, when contrasted with the period previous to the GFA.

“There is a significant class element here and there was real deprivation, by almost all the indicators, in areas of both communities [Catholics and Protestants],” he says. “[That manifested in people] living below a certain level of income or average levels of qualifications. So Northern Ireland had a real problem with deprivation. This was exacerbated as a result of the Troubles because there was a disincentive for investment into Northern Ireland, given the continuing unrest and the economic woes that they faced.”

Harper explains that the desire to be well-educated is rooted in Northern Irish history. “We have got this history in education that if you wanted to get ahead, you needed to have an education,” he says. “If you wanted to get a job in England, because there were no jobs in Northern Ireland, the only way you are going to do that is to really educate yourself. So, there has been a drive for the importance of education from our parents and our grandparents.”

Harper adds that this materialised in Irish students going down traditionally academic paths such as medicine, accountancy and law. This created a pool of skilled workers with not enough employment.

“Our two universities pumped out so many law graduates that there was actually a surplus,” he says. “There were about 600 law graduates every year, who didn’t have spaces to go into local solicitors or further legal training. So what happens is that they either left Northern Ireland to work in other parts of the UK, or they worked in roles that didn’t require a law degree.”

Harper explains that Citi was the first to realise the potential in this ‘problem’ of too much education. “Citi brought some compliance teams across and started hiring some of these legal graduates and that started a bit of a gold rush,” he says.

As a result, companies such as Allen & Overy, Baker McKenzie, Herbert Smith Freehills and Factor Law (Axiom) came across to Northern Ireland and set up legal innovation centres.

Harper continues: “These 600 law graduates that couldn’t get into local solicitor firms to go and take their bar exams, and so on, now had these phenomenal global law firms to go and work in.”

Again, this drive to educate the population stemming from earlier generations and the increase in public spending may have occurred without the GFA. However, it is unlikely that had the violence not subsided to the extent it did, these companies would have considered Northern Ireland to the same degree as a location to set up shop, regardless of the accessible talent.

Harper explains that this talent pool continues to be a key asset to putting Northern Ireland’s Troubles behind it, and giving it a place on the map of global business.

“We still have got lots of capacity in the talent pipeline coming out of the universities every year,” he says. “We are right at the start of that and to begin with there was a little bit of hesitancy from our local legal firms. They would say: ‘Hang on a second, this is a small place.’ But these international companies coming in aren’t looking to do business exclusively in Northern Ireland at all, this is global work that they are doing from here.”

The pull of Northern Irish universities

Educational institutions have done more than contribute to the skilled workforce, they have also been very successful in attracting students and ultimately residents into Northern Ireland.

During the peace talks and in the initial aftermath of the GFA, non-Northern Ireland-born student enrolment into universities was dwindling. Between 1996 and 2001 it decreased by 24.5%. Although there has been some volatility, this has seen a general upward trend since 2001 up until 2019, increasing by 83.5%. The number of non-Northern Irish students enrolling has more than doubled during that time.

More recently, Northern Ireland has seen significant growth in the number of foreigners making the country home. Between 2004 and 2019, there was an overall increase of 56.8%. This stands in contrast to Northern Ireland losing many of its best and brightest to the UK mainland and other countries during the Troubles, as young adults sought to escape the violence and seek out job opportunities that were denied to them back home.

Harper says: “For many years, people had to leave Northern Ireland if they really wanted to grow their careers. So a lot of really smart people went off around the world; there was no career in financial markets in Northern Ireland. But we have started to see those diasporas come back and make investment into the country. This has happened to give something back, but it is also to take advantage of what we have going on here.”

Notably again, this trend could be found pre-GFA. Harper gives an example of the positive influence this has on Northern Ireland’s business sectors and the knock-on effect it has on investor appetite. “If you go back to 1996, Brian Conlon [who was originally from Northern Ireland] came back and set up his software business called First Derivatives,” he says. “Today it employs approximately 2,400 people and has 15 locations around the world, but that was Northern Ireland’s first unicorn.”

So there is an indication that at least some of this business success would have been possible without the GFA in place, given that the inception of Northern Ireland’s first unicorn predates the deal. However, Birnie has a note of caution for those who think that Northern Ireland has solved its business or economic woes, GFA or not, as he points to a larger and more consistent problem plaguing Northern Ireland – productivity.

Does Northern Ireland have a problem with productivity?

The Northern Irish workforce is known to be skilled and attract investment because of its high levels of education. Yet Northern Ireland has had a long-term problem with scaling up its productivity.

Between 1998 and 2018, there was a very slight growth in productivity in Northern Ireland following periods of volatility of 1%. It remains in the bottom half of UK regions for productivity, which is somewhat surprising given its success in scaling up its economy and educational credentials.

Birnie says: “I am arguing that this is a serious problem and that it has been a long-term problem. A lot of commentary about the Northern Irish economy inevitably focuses on short-term effects, be it Brexit, the protocol on Covid and political uncertainty. Obviously, all of those things are important, but there is an underlying story going back over the decades.

“When I say the Northern Irish economy had a low competitive [streak], what I am really referring to is labour productivity, or output per worker. It has been lower than the UK average for a long time, throughout the history of the state from 1920s onwards. There has only been a limited and gradual catch-up towards the UK average over that 100-year period and that has been disappointing.”

Birnie adds that although Northern Ireland has had many economic strategies since devolution, this has had little impact on increasing productivity. “It isn’t that we have had an absence of strategic thinking or government reports, or analysis and studies or reviews of the economy or industrial strategies or whatever,” he says. “There has been a weakness in terms of actually implementing.”

More generally this is a criticism that could be levied at many UK governments too, but where it becomes specific to Northern Ireland’s history is the country’s roots in deindustrialisation. Birnie argues that this left a workforce with lowered access to innovation, meaning they had to play catch-up.

“Given the decline of manufacturing and the lack of qualifications there, I think there are issues around management capacity,” he says. “There are also relatively low levels of research and development spending, and hence the likelihood is that innovation and the introduction of new products, and new ways of producing products, is slower in Northern Ireland than elsewhere.”

The mark of manufacturing

Northern Ireland was undoubtedly impacted by deindustrialisation in the latter half of the 20th century, given its rich history of manufacturing. From shipbuilding at the famous Harland & Wolff shipyard to the fabled tale of the DeLorean, manufacturing is woven into the economic fabric of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s economic growth has been born from innovation in sectors such as digital tech, financial and business services, life sciences. Steve Harper

However, O’Kane explains that the political problems born from The Troubles may have actually insulated Northern Ireland from the impact of Thatcherism and deindustrialisation.

“It has often been observed that, in many respects, Northern Ireland was spared some of the worst ravages of Thatcher’s deindustrialisation process or monetarism and the rest of it because of the country’s political situation,” he says. “The problem for the British government was the fact that more than anywhere else in the UK, Northern Ireland was reliant on public money. The worry was that if you reduced that significantly it would exacerbate the problem.”

Despite being shielded to some extent from this ravages of deindustrialisation, Northern Ireland shows a similar pattern with other UK cities that saw their manufacturing bases taken away, and that is the way in which it has innovated through industrialism.

Harper explains how the sector has evolved over the years. “Northern Ireland’s economic growth has been born from innovation in sectors such as digital tech, financial and business services, life sciences, and so on, but that then spills over into our traditional sectors of manufacturing and engineering.”

Northern Ireland has more than 80,000 people employed in manufacturing, proving the continuing significance of the sector to the country. Harper explains how innovation in one sector informs the other. “If you are working in data analytics for a financial services company, you could very easily be in data analytics at one of our manufacturing companies. The skill sets are actually complementary and there is a lot more crossover around those areas. Our role as an organisation [at Invest Northern Ireland] is really to continue to drive that innovation and our existing sectors. If we don’t continue to innovate, and those companies don’t continue to innovate, we will get overtaken by low-cost countries.”

This push for innovation and cross-pollination of skills is undoubtedly a common occurrence not just across the UK but on a global scale. When considering if the GFA had an impact on this push for innovation and for the continued success of the Northern Irish manufacturing sector, the significance could be placed on the impact it had on education, trade and the perhaps even the initial cushioning against deindustrialisation.

What is the legacy of the GFA?

So, what has been the lasting impact of the GFA, besides the dramatic reduction in violence and the birthing of devolution? First, the soft influence of safer streets, having a recovery story to share with the world and the manner in which the country could focus politically on something other than sectarian violence undoubtedly had a positive impact.

Northern Ireland feels far more prosperous, far more developed and obviously far more peaceful. Eamonn O’Kane

O’Kane says: “If you want to be very macro about it, the social and economic impacts are visible for anybody to see. You have only got to walk around Belfast and the Titanic Quarter in the new investment area. I am often struck by this whenever I go back over there, that it feels far more prosperous, far more developed and obviously far more peaceful.

“The obvious infrastructure of the Troubles is gone. You no longer have the very fortified police stations. Going into Belfast city centre, you don’t have the security gates, all of that is very different. So, on a macro level, the social impact is significant.”

O’Kane is quick to expel the myth that the GFA delivered full peace – this he explains is the micro level. “If you are living in certain working class areas in both the nationalist or unionist areas, the reality on the ground may not appear significantly different,” he says. “This is part of the problem because the GFA was arguably never likely to be a panacea.”

O’Kane explains that Northern Ireland can look at this with either a glass half-full or glass half-empty mentality. It can be widely considered that Northern Ireland is a better place today than it was throughout the Troubles, but there is still a need for further progress and continuing efforts towards a lasting peace.

“Northern Ireland is not necessarily in the condition that you would have hoped it would have been in when you were doing these deals in the 1990s,” says O’Kane. “There are myriad reasons for that. With the recent situation around Brexit obviously, things are very tense at the moment. But if you want to stay macro and look at Northern Ireland, it is so much better – you could comment on what a success this peace process has been.”

Birnie echoes this sentiment, but also looks toward areas that could be improved. “Northern Ireland today is a better place than it was during the heart of the Troubles,” he says. “I am old enough to remember that period, so I can say that – people are not being killed. There are obvious positives, but I think there have to be great questions asked about the 1998 agreement, particularly around the structures of government that it produced. We have not fulfilled the potential of all of that. So, things haven’t necessarily improved to the extent that many people hoped for back in 1998.”

The improvements to migration, tourism, education, investment and the economy and its sectors may be difficult to pin directly to the signing of the GFA. There are general trends outside political forces and government spending, and a rich history extending beyond the period of the Troubles, that created the genetic make-up of Northern Ireland.

What the GFA has undoubtedly shown, however, is the desire of Northern Irish people – on either side of the argument – to see their country reach a state of peace and prosperity. Northern Irish politics remain fractious and difficult to navigate, while the world is trying to heal from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the new trading landscape brought about by Brexit muddies the water further within the UK. These factors show that there is still a lot to accomplish in Northern Ireland, but the country is in much better shape to tackle any such hurdles than it was in 1998.