The British-Irish agreement of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA ) came into force on this day in 1999. After two years of protracted talks, the GFA of 1998 had finally achieved a binding consensus among political rivals in Northern Ireland that had not been achieved, or even attempted on such a scale, before. The GFA was more inclusive than previous political agreements in that its negotiating body, the Northern Ireland Forum, was open to all parties, nationalist, unionist, republican, loyalist and centre. The GFA was formally agreed by the Irish and British governments and participating parties on April 10 1998. Under the agreement, the governments committed to putting the settlement to the people of the Republic and Northern Ireland in referendums to be held on May 22 of that year.
The GFA was lauded as the agreement that had the potential to end 30 years of war in the North. It was accepted that the northern electorate, especially unionists, might find it difficult to stomach and that it would find resistance among that community. Realistically, there was little fear that the southern electorate would reject the proposed changes that the agreement mapped out for the Irish Constitution, namely that Ireland would drop its claim to Northern Ireland and that it would participate in the British-Irish aspect of the GFA. That all the main political parties in the South campaigned for the necessary changes to the Irish Constitution, pointed to expected widespread support among the public.
However, despite the importance of the referendum and the possibilities it held, voter turnout on May 22 in the Republic was disappointing. Nationally, Mayo earned for itself the dubious distinction of recording the fourth lowest turnout of the 41 constituencies with only 52 per cent of the county’s electorate finding the time to vote. The turnout is all the more surprising as voters were also asked to vote on Ireland’s acceptance of the Amsterdam Treaty the same day. So, why the voter apathy in Mayo?
The local media in the county had covered the historical agreement and emphasised that despite our geographical remove, we were not bystanders, that we were all active participants. The National Youth Council of Ireland had launched its own campaign to encourage the 12,000 young people (under 25s ) eligible to vote in Mayo to make the effort and cast their vote. The Youth Council reminded students and those working away from home that the polls were to open on a Friday and would stay open for the extended time of 8am to 10pm. The the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, made direct appeals to the Mayo electorate to vote yes to the agreement so that support across a wide spectrum could be secured. The Taoiseach’s own party in the county appears to have struggled with the details of the GFA. Only after a lengthy discussion at a well-attended Claremorris Fianna Fáil meeting was the decision taken to endorse the peace deal. Reports that very few politicians were visiting the resulting referendum count seemed to demonstrate that local apathy toward the deal extended to the public’s elected representatives. For the first time since the Travellers Friend Hotel in Castlebar was built in the 1950s, the centre did not hold the election count. The count was instead moved to the De La Salle College in the town as the All-Ireland Line Dancing Championships had booked the hotel well in advance. At the count itself, quite a number of no votes were counted in Ballyhaunis and one Newport box had a sizable no vote. Those boxes were in the minority and of the 52 per cent who voted in Mayo, 95 per cent voted to accept the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution which was in line with the national average. But questions remain as to why such a significant question was not satisfactorily answered.