Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

How the ground was laid ten years ago for St Andrews' tenents

Which - the Good Friday Agreement or the St Andrews Agreement - will stand the test of time? Or will, as Political Correspondent NOEL McADAM suggests, the latter become subsumed by the former?

The man most likely to become next First Minister, Peter Robinson, this week argued the DUP has "buried" the Belfast Agreement.

Yet those gathering in Belfast today to mark its 10th anniversary at a special symposium argue it is awake, rather than a wake.

The divergence of interpretation continues on the tenth calendar anniversary of what became colloquially called the Good Friday Agreement.

But will it be marked in another decade or enjoy some sort of official silver anniversary, come 2023?

Or, on the other hand, will the St Andrews Agreement, mooted by the DUP as the successor to the GFA, do a birthday lap of honour in even five years time - or is it arguably more realistically viewed as an adjustment, rather than replacement, of the GFA template?

While the GFA secured a majority of unionists in the Referendum, it must be remembered how quickly support slipped away in the face of the release of prisoners and RUC reform.

Much of the campaign for a 'Yes' vote had appeared half-hearted, and even some who championed hardest privately accepted the Agreement was flawed.

And even if it wasn't the immediate intention, the Agreement lit the fuse on a process which would bring the political extremes centre-stage.

It could all have been so different. In terms of the favoured Irish parlour game of 'if' and 'but' politics, had the Provisional IRA done more to bolster David Trimble and disarmed in the first two years, even had Trimble proved able to secure the internal reforms which would have prevented his party's tail wagging the dog, perhaps that very narrow unionist majority which had voted in favour of the Agreement would have grown.

Trimble appears to accept the post-Agreement difficulties were not inevitable. The policing issue should not in retrospect have been left to a Commission of outsiders. But the real problem, he has argued, was decommissioning.

"There was implicit linkage in the agreement, the two-year period for prisoner release paralleled the period for the completion of disarmament. Had the government insisted on that linkage, and it was clearly open for it to do so under the Agreement, then the implementation of the agreement would have gone smoothly," he has said.

Future DUP manifestos can be expected to talk up St Andrews, though none of the parties signed up to the Agreement, with the DUP long insisting it remained the sole property of the two Governments. Even this week DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson talked about the agreement "which followed" St Andrews in an Irish Times article.

The key difference, however, is, of course, the Referendum. While St Andrews faced its own electoral test last year, the election based on the original GFA only followed an all- island-of-Ireland plebiscite.

The St Andrews document represented some significant advances for unionism, expanding east-west links to compensate for "north-southery" and strengthening the structures hampered by 'stop-go' politics.

Yet a leaked written account of a meeting in Lurgan in October 2006 showed how the DUP had difficulty selling St Andrews even to its core supporters. There had been "fundamental changes" to the Belfast Agreement, the leadership argued, a DUP veto including north-south decisions and influence on all Government decisions.

Jim Allister, still more than six months from quitting the party, argued St Andrews only 'amended' the GFA whose "fundamental structures" were still very much in place. The issues of the mandatory coalition and the joint nature of the offices of First and Deputy First Minister had not been addressed.

With the still-disputed circumstances of SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie's axing of funding to a UDA-linked 'conflict' project a possible exception, the current Executive has seen relatively few 'solo runs' by Ministers which the DUP has cited as evidence of improved accountability.

Former First Minister Lord Trimble has continued to insist, however, that the last Executive adopted a procedure in practice allowing any three Ministers to block a decision or proposal.



As the new Executive holds its latest meeting today, internal tensions persist.

The worry is the price for restoring power-sharing and devolution was to bolster the vetoes of the main parties. But one thing is certain: St Andrews would have been impossible without the changes wrought by its bigger brother.

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