Belfast Telegraph

Unionists must not decide to reject the Belfast Agreement

We need a return to the original legislation of the 1998 deal, says Lord Empey

Not everyone was in favour of the Belfast Agreement
Not everyone was in favour of the Belfast Agreement
Unionist leader David Trimble (second from left) leads party colleagues (from left) Reg Empey, Ken McGuinness MP and Jeffrey Donaldson MP

Almost two decades on from the Belfast Agreement, which was endorsed by 71% of the electorate, it is important to remember the intensity and strain that surrounded the negotiations and ultimately the deal.

The previous three decades had seen our people butchered on a daily basis, society had broken down and we had politicians who at that point would still not speak a word to each other.

The Agreement involved parties stretching themselves more than they would ever have previously imagined, with the ultimate goal of making sure that future generations did not have to endure the lives that we did. The final document was a bitter pill for many to swallow and ourselves and the SDLP paid a high electoral price.

Yet, even 20 years later, it is still clear that the Belfast Agreement gave unionists in Northern Ireland the strongest possible arrangements for retaining our position in the United Kingdom.

The principle of consent, the three stranded approach and the Republic of Ireland giving up its territorial claim put our future in the hands of our people and meant we could go forward with confidence.

So I would caution those who now seem to be cheerleaders for the demise of the 1998 Agreement that they risk inadvertently playing into Sinn Fein's hands.

To say that the Agreement has nothing more to offer is to play fast and loose with Northern Ireland's constitutional future. Gerry Adams has never accepted the principle of consent. Why would we throw that away?

It also put in place institutions that would have grown in time with society, as trust and respect developed. But then Sinn Fein and the DUP got their hands on the steering wheel and we now have institutions that have only earned contempt from our society.

The foolish changes made at St Andrews in 2006 to the process for identifying the First and Deputy First Minister, has seen every Assembly election since descend into a sectarian head count.

The 1998 Agreement spelled out that the First and Deputy First Ministers were to be elected on a joint motion by the Assembly with cross-community consent.

This was the bedrock of the partnership model that we spent years negotiating. It was replaced to accommodate the late Ian Paisley, as he did not want to have to vote in a joint resolution for himself and the late Martin McGuinness.

Instead the First Minister would come from the largest party and the Assembly would have no role. All subsequent elections were on the basis that if you don't vote for DUP you would get Martin McGuinness as First Minister.

Even worse, there is no legal difference between the two First Ministers - their powers are equal. So the Agreement that we have now is not the Agreement that we voted for in 1998. We should go back to the original legislation which the people voted for in 1998.

It has been totally laughable to see Sinn Fein falling over themselves now to paint their party as defenders of the Agreement.

Declan Kearney, seemingly in his new role as Chief Revisionist, claims that the Agreement has been under threat from political unionism from the day it was signed. What would he know? Let no one forget how Sinn Fein sat on their hands in 1998. They played no role in the Strand One negotiations that set the vision for Northern Ireland and our devolved institutions. Indeed, there was not even a whimper from them about an Irish Language Act. They never even asked for one.

Sinn Fein's lack of involvement in Strand One negotiations does explain their almost constant misinterpretation of the Agreement. The notion that, in lieu of an Assembly and Executive, the default position for Northern Ireland is joint stewardship has no basis in fact. In the event of direct rule, the UK Government is only obliged to consult Dublin - not govern jointly with Dublin.

That said, the reality is that devolved government at Stormont remains the best outcome for local people. Locally elected politicians making decisions on our health service, education system and infrastructure will provide the best outcomes in the long term.

A lesson that should be learned by Sinn Fein and the DUP is that you can't simply legislate your way out of every problem.

A "Respect Act" does not mean there will suddenly be respect amongst politicians, or society. The totally unnecessary and pointless insults being flung at the Irish language by the likes of Gregory Campbell have totally backfired on the DUP.

Why is it necessary to belittle somebody's heritage? All this has done is to consolidate more people behind Sinn Fein with the result being the 'Agreement that never was' being published by Eamonn Mallie February 21 showing that the DUP were having to eat their words and break every promise they made over the Irish language!

You cannot spend over a year pitting two communities against each other and just because you've decided it's time to go back into government, expect society to flip a switch and go back to how things were.

But perhaps this is why it wasn't the DUP and Sinn Fein who led the way in 1998.

Belfast Telegraph

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