Belfast Telegraph

Mallon and Trimble differ on need for London to stay neutral

By Noel McAdam

A former First Minister and deputy First Minister are split over whether the Good Friday Agreement requires the Government to remain neutral on Northern Ireland.

The 1998 accord had pledged that "the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality".

However, some have raised concerns that this could be threatened by a Conservative-DUP link-up.

Lord Trimble and Seamus Mallon, who were First and deputy First Minister after the agreement, differed in their verdicts on the situation.

Lord Trimble, the former UUP leader, insisted: "No. The Government has never been neutral."

But Mr Mallon from the SDLP, who served with Lord Trimble for three years, stressed: "Absolutely. Yes."

Both did agree that the days ahead - amid further negotiations between the Conservatives and the DUP - are fraught with risks.

The almost 20-year-old Agreement has been feted for its "constructive ambiguity" which allowed unionists and nationalists to interpret its language in different ways.

But, as co-signatories, both the London and Dublin governments have come to be seen as the guarantors of the Agreement - demonstrating what has been called "rigorous impartiality".

Enda Kenny said yesterday that in his last few days as Taoiseach, he had spoken to Prime Minister Theresa May and voiced concern the Agreement is being put "at risk".

Mr Kenny tweeted: "Spoke with PM May - indicated my concern that nothing should happen to put Good Friday Agreement at risk & absence of nationalist voice in Westminster" - a reference to the SDLP losses and Sinn Fein abstentionism.

Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, who is expected at the Stormont talks, said: "The objectivity of both governments, and both governments working strictly in accordance with our legal responsibilities under the Belfast Agreement, the Irish government as co-guarantor, indeed the British Government as co-guarantor ... is important."

Lord Trimble said: "The Government has never been neutral and that was made very clear when there was an attempt to get the Government to become persuaders for a united Ireland.

"The Government is about upholding democratic principles, All of this has got nothing to do with the Agreement, but it has got everything to do with good government.

"In relation to dealing with Northern Ireland, the Government has to be equal with all the parties. But that is not the same thing as being neutral on basic principles."

But Mr Mallon said it was "most certainly the case" that the Agreement required both Governments to be neutral - and therefore he could not see London as an impartial chair when they are involved in talks with just one of the parties involved.

"The British Government will have to make a decision," he said.

"The Irish Government will have to decide its position and it is certainly not going to be helpful in terms of the negotiations to restore devolution."

In relation to the ongoing DUP/Tory talks, he added: "The integrity of the government's position in relation to ongoing negotiations and decisions is essentially damaged."

Lord Trimble said a lot of uncertainty existed.

"It would be lovely to find out what is really going on but we don't know. This is fraught with problems for both sides - there are people gearing up to criticise the DUP over its past and so on, and the Government is wary some of that could stick to itself," he added.

"And the DUP are nervous about being in a situation where they have to take responsibility or blame for Conservative measures. The memory of what happened to Liberal Democrats (in coalition with David Cameron) indicates that they are nervous."

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