Belfast Telegraph

Careful approach sealed the deal

Peter Robinson admits his party fell short in preparing its supporters for the historic St Andrews power-sharing deal

It is great to be able to be in Liverpool. It's good to get away - even for only a few hours - from the cut and thrust of everyday politics.

Every once in a while, it's important to reflect on what has been achieved and how far Northern Ireland has come.

Many books have been written on Northern Ireland politics and countless lectures given, but rarely have they reflected the views of those who opposed the Belfast Agreement in 1998, yet today lead the administration at Stormont.

The long, slow process of building a united and shared community in Northern Ireland has only begun, but I can say with confidence that the conflict of the last 40 years is finally over.

Even a decade ago, few, if any, would have predicted that the new Northern Ireland would be one in which the DUP and Sinn Fein would be the leading parties in government.

It's easy with the benefit of hindsight to look back now at the events of the last 15 years and second-guess the decisions that were taken during the process.

In 1997, the UUP were riding high; but by the time their centenary year was over - eight years later - they had been replaced by the DUP as Northern Ireland's leading party.

However, there was nothing inevitable about the rise of the DUP. In fact, most thought it more likely that the Belfast Agreement would mark the beginning of the end of the DUP.

But it did not take long within the unionist community for the shine of the agreement to fade and the contradictions at its heart to be exposed.

While the Agreement was supported in the May 1998 referendum and the Assembly elected in June of 1998, it was not until December 1999 that devolution commenced. Under the d'Hondt formula, arising out of the election results, the DUP would be entitled to nominate ministers for two government departments. We took the departments to which we were entitled, though we didn't take up our places at the table.

In effect, we used our ministerial status to better oppose the unacceptable elements of the Belfast Agreement.

By 2001, many unionists who had voted for the Belfast Agreement had grown disillusioned. What they had been promised had not been delivered. In the General Election of that year we ran a close second to the UUP.

Having witnessed the damage the UUP did to its credibility by going back on electoral commitments, we were determined not to make the same mistake. But it was vitally important that we would be seen to take a constructive approach and avoid the perception, pushed by our opponents, that we simply wanted to wreck devolution.

Over the next two years we published a series of policy documents with a view to laying the groundwork for agreement. There is no doubt that our task was made easier by the suspension of Stormont in October 2002 after the IRA spy-ring was exposed.

The combination of suspension, IRA activity, political collapse and our own growing credibility meant that when the 2003 Assembly election finally came, we were able to emerge as Northern Ireland's largest party.

We firmly believed that our election victory would make long-term agreement more likely even if slower to achieve. We believed that only when republicans were required to face the fact that they could not continue a dual political and paramilitary campaign would they make the decisive step away from violence.

Republicans would have to act unilaterally to end their campaign and decommission weapons. Sinn Fein would also have to publicly embrace support for the police.

This latter demand may have delayed agreement, but its resolution strengthened the process. Within a matter of months the process was once again transformed from near-collapse to the growing inevitability that devolution would be restored; it was just a matter of when. Yet we knew that there would be an initial electoral price to be paid. The failure of David Trimble to bring people with him had been his undoing and while we had internally agonised on the issues at the heart of the negotiations, I would admit the party fell short in preparing its support-base.

The process had been so slow and the final agreement reached so fast that there was a sense of shock when a deal was announced at St Andrews.

The return of devolution on May 8, 2007 was not the end of the story. Devolution would bring a new era and new challenges.

But I firmly believe that, by confounding expectations, defying our critics and, yes, by taking our time, we have made the peace that was ultimately obtained stronger and more secure.

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