Blog Post - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfast, Bogotá, and Beyond: The Good Friday Agreement as a Model for Conflict Resolution?

| Apr. 07, 2023

The Good Friday Agreement is often hailed by scholars as the definitive paradigm for resolving intractable conflicts, and its 25th anniversary presents an opportune moment to evaluate its efficacy as such. While the GFA has undoubtedly provided inspiration for those hoping to resolve entrenched conflicts, the extent to which policymakers can directly apply its specific strategies remains unclear. 

One contemporary case that unambiguously traces its roots to the GFA is the Colombian peace process, which ultimately achieved a formal agreement between the government and insurgents in November 2016. Similar to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Colombian government confronted a well-organized paramilitary insurgency in the FARC. During the Cold War, the FARC and IRA even maintained a loose alliance. In a twist of fate, JuanManuelSantos (MC/MPA ’81),  who later became President of Colombia and Nobel peace laureate for his efforts to end the Colombian conflict, witnessed The Troubles firsthand.

Santos first encountered the FARC’s ally, the IRA, in December 1974. As he strolled through Piccadilly one evening, a bomb planted by the IRA detonated nearby. Although uninjured, Santos recounted feeling disheartened by the prospects of reconciliation between the British government and the IRA, which in turn made him skeptical about the possibility of resolving the conflict in Colombia. However, he was a close observer of the 1998 GFA and its implementation in 1999. That same year, he co-authored a book with Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister who had been instrumental in the GFA. In it, he outlined an agenda that would eventually become the cornerstone of Santos’s political career. Central to this agenda was a vision of a peaceful Colombia, inspired by the pragmatic centrism embodied in the Good Friday Agreement.  

After drafting Colombia’s peace agreement, Santos traveled to Northern Ireland to express gratitude for the GFA not only as “a great inspiration” but also for providing a blueprint with concrete policies that could be refashioned in Colombia. Among the many “elements of the Northern Ireland peace process” that Santos “applied in the Colombian peace process,” as he put it, were inclusive negotiations with the FARC, amnesty for some political crimes, extensive international involvement, and public input through a plebiscite.  

Although the adaptation of the GFA to Colombia proved largely successful, the effectiveness of individual components varied. One that was adopted, the inclusion of Cuba as host of the negotiations, significantly contributed to the success of the peace process. As a communist nation, Cuba’s ideological alignment with the FARC made the rebel group more confident in the process’s fairness and legitimacy. Similarly, during the 1990s, America’s involvement in the GFA helped assuage the IRA’s initial mistrust of the British government but caused unease among unionists, who sensed a distinctly American political affinity for the Irish cause.  

A crucial factor bolstering the GFA’s credibility was its overwhelming endorsement through plebiscites in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, where the Agreement garnered 94% and 71% of the votes, respectively. The resounding level of support provided a compelling electoral mandate. Conversely, when the Colombian government’s agreement with the FARC was subjected to a national vote, the people rejected the proposal by a slim margin of 0.4%. Despite ultimately being passed by the legislature and signed into law, the peace plan did not succeed in being enacted through direct democracy. As interest in employing the GFA as a model for resolving conflicts whose “roots are sectarian…[and] the product of post-colonial partition” increases, recognizing limitations such as this becomes crucial.  

Many observers have proposed utilizing the Good Friday Agreement as a model to resolve the enduring conflict between Israel and Palestine, as well as the dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. To assess whether historical contexts are sufficiently similar to warrant applying the lessons of one to another, the late Harvard historian Ernest May urged analysts to carefully outline the similarities and differences before reaching any conclusions. And while it is true that these conflicts similarly stem from post-colonial partitioning, the comparison overlooks a crucial difference emphasized by British historian and policy advisor John Bew: the IRA was on the brink of defeat. Contrary to the prevailing ‘stalemate’ narrative, Bew asserts that “there is incontrovertible evidence that counterterrorism operations were taking a heavy toll on the organization. In military terms, it was a movement that was squeezed and weakened, and which had lost momentum.”  

The appropriate, though unexciting, lesson from the Good Friday Agreement is that the insurgent group in question must prefer political solutions to violence. This realist foundation underlying reconciliation in Northern Ireland is persistently overshadowed by a narrative of enlightened idealism, as if adversaries simply came together to amicably resolve their differences. This could also clarify why the application of the Good Friday Agreement has been successful in states dealing with communist insurgents, who lost their power base with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as opposed to warring ethnic or religious groups, which have grown significantly in strength in the decades following the GFA. 

No agreement is a one-size-fits-all solution to deeply-rooted conflicts, but the Good Friday Agreement exemplifies how intensely violent conflicts can reach peaceful resolutions. So while its specific provisions may not be entirely transferable, the overarching symbol of forging an imperfect compromise, rather than holding out for Irish reunification, holds implications for the resolution of modern conflicts, such as Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine. Acknowledging the GFA’s limitations and the need for nuance in applying its lessons to other conflicts, the Agreement nonetheless remains an inspiring symbol of peace and a valuable case study from which applied historians can derive insights for contemporary conflict resolution. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Gaber, Peter.Belfast, Bogotá, and Beyond: The Good Friday Agreement as a Model for Conflict Resolution? .” April 7, 2023,

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