Belfast Telegraph

Peers clash over claim Hain’s tinkering at St Andrews is root cause of deadlock

By Cate McCurry

Former Secretary of State Peter Hain has hit back after a peer claimed that changes made to the Good Friday Agreement are to blame for the Stormont crisis.

Northern Ireland Office special adviser Lord Caine - a key behind-the-scenes figure in a number of talks processes - made the comment on Twitter.

Lord Caine and Lord Hain became embroiled in the row after the recent talks to restore power-sharing broke down.

The Tory peer hit out after Hain said London and Dublin allowed Stormont to collapse.

Lord Caine said that changes made in the St Andrews Agreement over a decade ago were the "source of so many problems".

In a tweet to Lord Hain, he said: "Can't help reflecting Peter it was your changes to the 1998 GFA at St Andrews in 2006 and after that are actually the source of so many of the problems we face today."

Lord Hain denied what he described as a "false accusation".

"Changes to GFA at St Andrews were minimal, agreed by all the parties and operated perfectly well for 10 years," he wrote.

"DUP and Sinn Fein dominance only happened in the last parliamentary elections. Until then SDLP and UUP still there."

The Conservative adviser retorted: "Utter tosh and a completely self-delusional rewrite of history.

"You might want to ask which parties supported the additional clause on First Minister you inserted into the legislation which was nowhere in the St Andrews Agreement."

Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey also weighed in on the Twitter spat, describing Hain's comments as "totally incorrect".

He said: "Given what Lord Hain has been saying, I feel it necessary to enter this dispute and correct some of the statements made by Peter Hain, which are totally incorrect.

"Firstly, Peter Hain says that the changes to the Good Friday Agreement were minimal and agreed by all the parties. He is totally wrong on both counts.

"The changes to the Belfast Agreement were fundamental and completely altered the dynamics of the core element of the Agreement, which was painstakingly negotiated over many years and endorsed in a referendum by a massive majority."

He said the "core element" of the original Agreement was that the First and Deputy First Ministers were elected on a joint ticket in a cross-community vote, which encouraged them to work together.

"In other words both traditions had to walk up the aisle together in public to obtain their positions," he said.

However, the St Andrews Agreement replaced the joint ticket, with the First Minister now nominated by the biggest party and the Deputy First Minister nominated by the largest party of the second largest designation.

Lord Empey said the consequence of this change "has been to turn all subsequent elections into sectarian head counts, because since the DUP became the largest unionist party, successive leaders have argued that if they are not the largest party then Sinn Fein will become First Minister".

He added: "This change has prevented the development of 'normal politics' as we had hoped for and has trapped us in a time warp which has led to the present impasse and the most incompetent and I would say corrupt administration here since 1921.

"I cannot remember a time when the community has been so divided."

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who brokered the 20-year-old accord, slammed Brexit-supporting MPs who wanted to "sacrifice" the Good Friday Agreement as "sickening".

He said: "There is no political way around this dilemma.

"The continued failure of the Government to resolve the Northern Ireland question is an expression of it.

"And now that it is clear there is no way round it, there are politicians prepared to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement on the altar of Brexit and declare that the peace agreed in Northern Ireland is not, really, worth having anyway.

"This is irresponsibility that is, frankly, sickening."

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