Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: It's time to restore the factory settings of the Good Friday Agreement

Finally, after 21 years, all the main parties endorse the Belfast Agreement - even those who campaigned against it. Ignore St Andrews, Stormont House and Fresh Start and get back to basics, urges Mike Nesbitt

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement

In the land of "No Surrender", where a political inch is neither asked for nor given and the red lines are dominant and divisive, you might think change never happens. But it does. And while hope of agreement at Stormont remains something of a holy grail, maybe there are firmer grounds for optimism that you might think; or, at least, there is an area where all the main political parties finally seem to be on the same page: the pages of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Twenty-five years ago I flew to New York as part of an Ulster Television reporting team, tasked with covering a conference on Northern Ireland, which would feature the highest profile speech ever given by Gerry Adams. The-then Sinn Fein president had been given a 48-hour visa by President Bill Clinton, against the advice of the UK Government and his own State Department.

No doubt President Clinton was secretly hoping for an IRA ceasefire. What he got, on February 1, 1994, was a full-on assault on British policy. Under the heading of "The Unionist Veto", Gerry Adams said this: "The British Government's public justification for its involvement in Irish affairs is that the unionists have a veto; that is, that there can be no movement without the consent of a majority of the British-created statelet. This is a perversion of democratic principles... Accepting the veto means accepting there can be no progress.

"It means accepting the failed policy of partition and division... It had no political, democratic, or economic validity when it was created and has no such validity today."

Mr Adams returned to the theme in a later section, headlined "The 'Consent' Argument", where his position was thus: "The argument from Britain - that the consent of the unionist population is a precondition for any political movement - is entirely bogus and without a democratic basis."

Some 1,530 days later, on April 10, 1998, the same Gerry Adams, in the same position of leadership, accepted the consent principle, as Senator George Mitchell brought the tortuous negotiations to a successful close; the success later endorsed by referendums held simultaneously in both jurisdictions on this island.

Earlier that day, Good Friday 1998, I sat in the UTV studios watching live pictures of the Rev Ian Paisley leading a DUP delegation up Stormont's Prince of Wales Avenue and into the media Portacabin, where he railed against the prospect of a deal.

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Later, I interviewed him from our live point outside Castle Buildings.

He accused UTV of hijacking him en route to a spot on Sky Television, then told me to "go to your bed" when I tried to interrogate his anti-agreement position (I still regret not asking if I was being sent to bed on doctor's orders).

On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the agreement, in 2013, the Ulster Unionist Party invited a number of school pupils, who were born in 1998, to an event in the Park Avenue Hotel, where I spoke of my memories of the negotiations and what the agreement meant to me. Afterwards, I asked some pupils what they thought. One said it was fascinating: "I never knew the DUP were not part of the negotiations," she said.

She is far from alone. Last March, as Washington DC commemorated the 20th anniversary of the agreement, I was shocked by tributes some American politicians lavished on Ian Paisley for his part in securing the deal. In truth, he stood outside the crush barriers, as his supporters screamed "Lundy", "Traitor" and "Sell-out" at David Trimble.

The Belfast Telegraph followed Ian Paisley as he campaigned for a "No" vote in the Good Friday Referendum. Reporter Deborah Ross wrote of a rally in Keady: "A loyalist gathering in this largely republican area. Men, women, teenagers, toddlers, babies in prams, crowding the winding, country lanes. A drum and flute marching band. Smart red jackets. Glossy black boots. And the Rev Ian Paisley, up on the open-air platform, speaking mostly in capital letters, as he always does: "A lot of pressure was put on me to be here, there and everywhere tonight and a lot of people said, 'Why are you going to Keady?' I said, first, because I gave my word and, second, the outposts must be defended. If you don't cover your outposts, there is not much hope for the castle in the middle ... and I say to you, if there is one spark of traditional unionism in your soul, then you will say no to this document ... This is conspiracy. A conspiracy to destroy us. Say No.'" Huge cheers. Huge claps.

Yet, skip forward to the present day and the DUP now publicly embrace the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Why? Because of the principle of consent. Here's what current DUP leader Arlene Foster wrote in this newspaper on January 11, 2019: "The backstop fundamentally undermines Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. That runs roughshod over the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent."

You can be churlish and say it took them long enough, or you can take the positive. Frankly, to get Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the government of Ireland (who subsequently amended their constitution) to accept the consent principle was a quite remarkable achievement by David Trimble and his team.

Now that it is accepted by all, the time has come to return the Belfast Agreement to its factory settings, shred the corruptions engineered in subsequent agreements and start negotiating from the 1998 baseline. Even there, there may be more agreement that you imagine: the petition of concern needs radical surgery, to name but one aspect.

The only thing we need to surrender is the idea that compromise is appeasement. It's not. The only certainty we need to embrace is that no one is going away.

Be it five or 50 years from now, there will still be republicans, nationalists, unionists, loyalists and others on this little piece of earth.

The factory setting of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is to acknowledge that and work on building the relationships that are the fundamental foundation for progress.

Mike Nesbitt is Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford. He was the party's leader from 2012 to 2017

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