The Atlantic

The Center Isn’t Holding in Northern Ireland

More than 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the moderates who championed the peace deal no longer have any significant political power.
Source: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty

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

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