Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

St Andrews gave us the real deal and hope for our future

The big achievement of the Belfast Agreement was to provide a catalogue of failure to be avoided in future negotiations, says Peter Robinson

Celebration is normally reserved for a period following a successful agreement. So I am amused at the backslapping and cooing over the thrice-suspended and ultimately collapsed and replaced Belfast Agreement.

Of course, those leading the self-congratulatory chorus are those who seek to link today's stable structures with their pitifully failed effort.

Since the Stormont parliament was prorogued in 1972, there have been a number of attempts to restore devolution in Northern Ireland.

Each of them failed, in turn, because they could not command support from within either the unionist or the nationalist community.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 was simply another such attempt and it collapsed and failed because it could not command support from within the unionist community.

From the outset, it was clear that even those unionists involved in negotiations were uneasy with its content.

Several held to their principles and walked away from the talks when the final shape of the agreement became clear, while pressure from prime ministers and presidents had to be exerted on others to finally bend.

What support there was within the unionist community was also temporarily and deceptively secured largely thanks to a massive government-funded, one-sided PR campaign.

The false promises and supposed guarantees given to the people at that time soon unravelled and unionist support quickly dissipated.

While prisoners were released, guns were not decommissioned. Terrorist and criminal activity continued, while support from republicans for the police, the courts and the rule of law was not only withheld, but their destructive campaign continued.

The Belfast Agreement failed to put in place any workable accountability measures, leaving ministers able to take decisions in their departments contrary to the wishes of Executive and Assembly colleagues and, on occasions, even in spite of specific democratic votes in the Assembly opposing their actions.

What the Belfast Agreement provided was a catalogue of failed and unworkable elements to be avoided in any subsequent agreement.

The task for those of us who opposed the Belfast Agreement soon moved from having to persuade people that the deal was unworkable and unbalanced to that of bringing forward proposals that could provide a fair and sustainable deal.

Our insistence on the introduction of accountability, the decommissioning of weapons, the ending of paramilitary and criminal activity and the absolute requirement for anyone in government to publicly support the police, the courts and the rule of law were the essential ingredients for stable and lasting structures.

Yet, at the time, we were constantly lectured that the Belfast Agreement was 'the only show in town' and that the changes we sought were a pipe-dream.

When the Belfast Agreement collapsed (as we had predicted) and public support moved in our direction, we succeeded, step-by-step, in achieving each of the conditions that were necessary for a successful arrangement.

For all of its failure, the Belfast Agreement period was a significant episode in Northern Ireland history in that it marked a willingness on the part of politicians to attempt to resolve age-old and deep-seated differences. And, though it failed, it signified that the climate was right to negotiate the fair and lasting settlement that has endured to this day.

Most commentators recognise that the more significant agreement was that which was negotiated at St Andrews and which, when tested at the polls, received overwhelming support from both sections of the community.

The truth that we all should have learned is that even a successful agreement only provides the parameters within which a shared society can be constructed.

That job must equally be capable of gaining support from both sections of our community and will take a great deal more patience, tolerance and understanding than has been displayed thus far.

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