Belfast Telegraph

Robin Swann: The Belfast Agreement was compromised and we're paying the price

The principles that underpinned the 1998 accord were rewritten at St Andrews, writes Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann

The lead-up to the referendum on the Belfast Agreement in 1998 was an interesting, challenging and difficult time for the people of Northern Ireland.

One when emotions, hopes, fears and aspirations were all running high, fuelled by the weight of expectation from many sources whether internal and external, local and international.

At the time I personally had difficulty with proposals contained within the Agreement - specifically around prisoner releases. But such was the range and depth of the Agreement that nobody would be happy with the document in its entirety.

It is also no longer possible to simply look back and exclusively categorise people as pro or anti-Agreement, as the arguments were complex then and remain complex now.

Once the referendum took place and the result was overwhelmingly in favour, I supported David Trimble and what he was trying to achieve. I knew that he wanted a Northern Ireland we could all be proud to call home, a Northern Ireland that would attract inward investment and a Northern Ireland that we could all share with a set of power-sharing institutions that had partnership at the heart of them.

The challenge and the goal was to make the Belfast Agreement and Northern Ireland work for everyone.

I believe that if the Belfast Agreement had been given the space to evolve at the pace of society - as was intended - then we would not be facing the political stalemate that we are today. Instead, its core principles were compromised and building a truly shared society took second place to party politics.

The main example being how some revelled in claiming that they had rewritten the Belfast Agreement at St Andrews.

In its 2007 manifesto, the DUP boasted: "The DUP has succeeded in rewriting the 1998 Belfast Agreement and making fundamental changes in the way in which we would be governed in Northern Ireland." Such claims are not only lamentable but have also been proven to have been very short-sighted.

The changes made at St Andrews totally corrupted the partnership model that was at the heart of the Belfast Agreement. The 1998 Agreement had given the most visible concept of power-sharing through the joint nature of the First and Deputy First Minister posts. This allowed for a joint office elected by the Members of the Assembly, to demonstrate it was a partnership, representing everyone, with both communities having their hands on the steering wheel.

St Andrews changed that to allow the largest party of the largest designation to appoint a First Minister and the largest party of the next largest designation to appoint the Deputy First Minister with the expectation that both could share an office. This has since led to every Assembly election following it becoming a sectarian headcount over who you want - or rather, don't want - as First Minister.

This may be fine for two parties who thrive on such elections, but it is not so easy to reconcile society.

Following the European referendum it has been frustrating to hear the Belfast Agreement heralded as being both a threat to and the saviour of Brexit, when neither is actually true.

The Belfast Agreement secures Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom so long as the majority of people wish this to be the case through the principle of consent.

It is welcome to hear many who opposed the Belfast Agreement at the time now cite the principle of consent every time they take on the Irish Government over its position on Brexit.

Although it must be recognised that if all unionists had taken their position in 1998 of standing outside the gates during the negotiations, then there would have been no principle of consent to rely on!

It is also the case that those who now say that the Belfast Agreement has failed - both here and in Westminster - need to be aware that any threat or dissolution of the Belfast Agreement also risks removing that core protection, and with it our security as an integral part of the UK.

It was never imagined, nor should it have been envisaged, that the Belfast Agreement in itself would be the solution to all of Northern Ireland's problems.

It was a crucial and critical step, but it was one that should have been followed by further steps that gave strength and security to our devolved institutions and confidence and reconciliation for our society.

Twenty years on the Belfast Agreement is not something that should be taken for granted.

It needed to be nurtured and nourished to allow it to grow, not abandoned to wither.

My party and I still believe in its principles - those of reconciliation, tolerance, partnership, respect and mutual trust. I believe in its vision for devolved institutions allowing the people of Northern Ireland to have locally elected politicians making decisions on the things that affect us directly.

I believe devolution and power-sharing are not beyond saving and should not be allowed to drift any further. But it is the case that we need to return to those core principles and focus on the relationships at the heart of politics, which is where we have fallen down.

This week offers a chance to reflect on how far we have come. Life is undoubtedly better now than it was in Northern Ireland 20 years ago. But we must also acknowledge that we are not where we could have been.

The Belfast Agreement presented an opportunity for hope and I believe we have a duty not to remove that hope from future generations.

Belfast Telegraph

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