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Tony Blair took too much of the credit for 1998 agreement: Trimble

By Allan Preston

Tony Blair gives himself too much credit for securing the Good Friday Agreement, former UUP leader David Trimble has said.

Lord Trimble, who became First Minister when the historic peace deal was agreed, responded to comments made by the former Labour Prime Minister on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning.

Recalling his role almost 20 years on, Mr Blair said the wave of optimism that followed his landslide election victory in 1997 was a major factor in reaching the breakthrough.

"When we came to power the peace process was in embryo form and had broken down and shortly after my first days in office there was the murder of policemen in Northern Ireland," he said.

"If someone had suggested doing that in year seven or eight of the Government I would have said, 'That's just too impossibly ambitious, I've got more experience now and know that sort of thing can't be done'.

"Whereas it was a confluence of events and circumstances, and leadership by the way from people in Northern Ireland, that gave us the ability to do it."

"It set in train the process but took another, frankly, nine years to deliver it properly."

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Lord Trimble said the delay was due in part to Mr Blair's failure to enforce the agreement.

"There was a hiatus. In 2002 the institutions collapsed and they did so because of two factors," the Nobel Peace Prize winner said.

"One, because the republican movement was not delivering its share of the bargain.

"We did force them to start decommissioning but they had only just started it.

"They weren't wholly operating from the terms we set out in the agreement.

"The other factor which led to the hiatus was the agitation of the DUP - whose criticism that this was a one-way street just delivering concessions to republicans - was given credibility by Blair's personal failure to enforce the agreement."

Part of the conditions for power-sharing at the time was a commitment from leaders to use their influence to make paramilitaries on both sides decommission their weapons over two years.

"It was up to the British Government to insist on that and Blair failed to do so," Lord Trimble said.

Asked how important Blair's election victory was to the success of the deal, he said: "He gives himself too much credit.

"I will give him credit that when he first became Prime Minister he came straight to Belfast immediately and gave the republicans an ultimatum."

"He said to them, 'The settlement train is leaving, I want you on that train but if you're not there it will leave anyway.'

"It was that ultimatum which brought republicans to the table.

"That and the fact the security forces were having their success in dealing with it.

"But I do give Blair credit for effectively applying pressure to republicans."

He continued: "But after that he didn't apply the same degree of pressure to them about enforcing the agreement.

"That is the big criticism of him and his comments on Radio 4 are side-stepping that failure on his part."

During his interview, Mr Blair also said it showed how "weird" politics can be, as in 1998 the DUP protested against power-sharing and Sinn Fein never signed it.

In fact, no parties signed the deal, which was passed by a cross-community vote from which Sinn Fein abstained.

"The vote was carried because of the SDLP, the majority nationalist party at that time," said Lord Trimble.

"They resisted the ferocious pressure that Sinn Fein placed on them in the last day and night for them not to commit to the agreement.

"It also explains the ferocity with which Sinn Fein attacked the SDLP afterwards, as the SDLP had forced them into the agreement."

Nearly 20 years on, Stormont has collapsed once again, with the DUP and Sinn Fein unable to agree on many issues.

"The present situation at Stormont is really quite outlandish," Mr Trimble said.

"Sinn Fein are a party with less than a third of the Stormont seats (27 out of 90) and yet they are effectively vetoing the existence of the Assembly.

"That is not sustainable. I pointed out to the Government before the summer ways in which they can side-step that."

He concluded: "History has shown that the republican movement only moves under pressure.

"If they're not under pressure they'll pursue their own self-interest without regard to the common good.

"So I will give credit to Tony Blair for applying pressure in 1997.

"In 2002 I applied pressure to them which got them to start decommissioning.

"Later on when republicans moved it was largely pressure coming from the White House, but that story's not yet been told."

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