The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and Transformative Change: Promise, Power and Solidarity

Rory O'Connell, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Lina Malagón

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In 2023 the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement marks its twenty-fifth anniversary. For many the Agreement projects a global image of a successfully concluded end to conflict. However, key aspects of the agreement remain under-enforced or simply undelivered: in particular, provisions related to significant and wide-ranging guarantees addressing human rights and equality of opportunity. As a result, socio-economic and cultural deficits persist, undermining the capacity to achieve a ‘positive peace’. In this article we address the question of how transformative the Agreement and associated reforms have been in addressing the root causes of the conflict and the structures that underpinned it. In doing so, we deploy Clara Sandoval's typology of different forms of societal change – ‘ordinary’, ‘structural’ and ‘fundamental’ – to guide our thinking and analysis, and tackle the most fundamental of questions in peace agreement literature and practice: whether, in fact, peace agreements can undo the fundamental causes that trigger and sustain violence. The article outlines the transformative promise of the Agreement, the multiple interlocking factors that have undermined that promise and the role of civil society in sustaining that transformative potential. Our conclusions point to a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes the ‘ordinary’ in transitional settings and a caution against the hyperbole of the transformative. We view transformative change as slothlike in its emergence, specifically grounded in progressive and cumulative re-orderings that can accompany peace processes. Rather than a moment of radical change, transformation follows from the cumulative impact of symbolic gesture, specific legal provision, procedural practice, mechanisms of accountability, and an engaged and vibrant civil society.
Original languageEnglish
JournalIsrael Law Review
Early online date9 May 2023
Publication statusPublished online - 9 May 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding information:
Research for this article was supported by the UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) as a project in the Research Hub on Gender, Justice and Security, led by the London School of Economics.


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