Belfast Telegraph

Trimble warns Arlene Foster changing Belfast Agreement would be 'huge mistake' for unionists

By Victoria Leonard

Former First Minister David Trimble has said that a major overhaul of the Good Friday Agreement would be "very dangerous and foolish", after Arlene Foster claimed the 1998 peace deal was not "sacrosanct".

Former UUP leader Lord Trimble, who was awarded a Nobel peace prize for his role in creating the agreement, spoke out following an interview given by the DUP leader to the Daily Telegraph.

His concerns were echoed by another former UUP leader Sir Reg Empey, who said that Mrs Foster risked opening "Pandora's box" and was in "very dangerous territory."

In the interview, Mrs Foster praised Boris Johnson's "positive" Brexit vision and said it was wrong to suggest that the Good Friday Agreement couldn't be altered to accommodate a final Brexit deal.

She stated: "It has been deeply frustrating to hear people who voted remain and in Europe talk about Northern Ireland as though we can't touch the Belfast Agreement. Things evolve, even in the EU context.

"There has been a lot of misinterpretation, holding it up as a sacrosanct piece of legislation."

In response, Lord Trimble hit out at the DUP.

"Part of the reason why we don't have a functioning administration in Northern Ireland is because the DUP have abused the processes laid down under the Agreement," he said.

"The Good Friday Agreement has not outlived its purpose, what has happened is that it has been abused by the participants, and I think it would be a good thing for people to think of ways of ensuring that those abuses don't continue. That wouldn't be a major change to the agreement, it would be adjusting procedures or practises to repair the damage done after the last year and a half.

"I'm not happy with the way things have developed or how the agreement has been abused.

"There are some areas, such as the petition of concern, which could be used in a better way.

"It's not time for a major overhaul of the terms of the agreement - that would be very dangerous and foolish.

"Saying you want to reopen issues would be a huge mistake, particularly from a unionist point of view. It was such a good thing for unionism, a very good agreement.

"In all the days of the Troubles the best deal on constitutional matters ever offered to unionism was the Good Friday Agreement."

Lord Trimble also urged against changing the accord "at the drop of a hat".

"It's not a matter of saying we should abolish it," he stated. "It's 'can you be sure that it can be used in the spirit that was intended at the time of its making?'

"The Good Friday Agreement is as important and relevant now as it was 20 years ago.

"It's a basic constitution for Northern Ireland, and you don't change a constitution at the drop of a hat."

Meanwhile, Lord Empey accused Mrs Foster of using "very loose language" and called for her to "reconsider her position" as she risked "opening Pandora's box".

"Arlene, not for the first time, has used very loose language with regard to the Belfast Agreement," he stated.

"Of course policies are never for everyone, but if she opens up the Belfast Agreement that puts the constitutional position back on the table, and that's exactly what Sinn Fein wants.

"They never liked the constitutional settlement, they refused to participate in strand one, they have been calling for polls.

"What does Arlene think will be the outcome?

"There could be a border poll, a poll on a new agreement, anything. If she opens the Pandora's box all sorts of things will come out.

"Her attitude is reckless, highly dangerous, and I strongly urge her to reconsider her position.

"I think she has been playing into Sinn Fein's hands for the past couple of years.

"The whole ghastly mess at Stormont and her involvement in it gives Sinn Fein a huge opportunity.

"She's in very, very dangerous territory."

Lord Empey said he was "baffled" by Mrs Foster's comments, and added that "people have been using Brexit as a stick to beat the Good Friday Agreement".

"It's a very dangerous direction to travel, and the very fact that it is at the behest of unionists, I don't understand it at all," he continued.

"People have been using Brexit as a stick to beat the Good Friday Agreement.

"The way things have gone has been far from ideal and the DUP played a big part in pushing for Brexit.

"How could you improve on the constitutional arrangements we have? You can't."

Lord Empey suggested that the current Stormont impasse was due to changes made to the Good Friday Agreement by the St Andrew's Agreement.

"What we are operating now, and the reason we have the situation at Stormont, is that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement that were agreed and ratified by the people are not what we have today," he stated.

"They were changed in 2006 in the St Andrew's Agreement.

"The whole core was the partnership between the two sections of the community, and that was torn up. I would be in favour of going back to what was originally agreed, the partnership model."

The DUP had not responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said that "David Trimble hasn't been relevant for 20 years".

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