Alex Kane - Why I backed the Belfast Agreement

I HAVE been regarded for so long, and by so many people, as a cheerleader for the Belfast Agreement that it may come as a surprise to some of you when I admit that I came close to not supporting it.

My initial doubts weren't based on the difficulties which caused problems for so many others in the unionist community.

I always knew that the RUC would be the target of reform and name change, irrespective of whether or not there was an Agreement.

Similarly, with prison sentences already much reduced and every likelihood that the Government and Sinn Fein would use early release as a bargaining chip for ceasefires (again, regardless of an Agreement); it struck me that a process of even speedier releases wasn't a strong enough argument to vote against the Agreement.

Decommissioning wasn't a big issue for me either. The fact that Sinn Fein/IRA was prepared to buy into an internal settlement and be part of a devolved administration within the United Kingdom was a clear enough signal for me that their "war" was, to all intents and purposes, over.

Indeed, I thought – and wrote so at the time – that tying guns to government was to Sinn Fein's advantage and would "only end in tears for the UUP".

Sinn Fein in government wasn't a real problem, either. Obviously, I would have preferred it if the IRA had been wiped out and Sinn Fein hadn't been a player in local politics.

But we all knew that the reality was different in 1998 and that there would be no devolution package which excluded Sinn Fein. Anyway, I thought, better a Sinn Fein inside the structures, over which we had some sort of veto, rather than a Sinn Fein concluding its own private deals with the British Government.

Accountability

No, the big problem for me was the lack of accountability and the absence of a proper mechanism for a formal and effective Opposition.

I also had difficulty with a mandatory coalition as opposed to a purely voluntary system. Fair enough, the parties were able, if they wished to, to opt out when d'Hondt was triggered; but with no role for an official Opposition, what advantage lay in opting out?

The DUP tried to have the best of both worlds in December 1999, taking their Executive seats while not attending meetings of the Committee; but in truth there wasn't much else they could do.

One of the key negotiators of the original Agreement told me, a few years ago, that there was no particular desire to build in Opposition structures at the start, because there was a fear that it would allow the DUP (and maybe even Sinn Fein) to do "very real damage at the early stages". Lack of the Opposition option more or less forced the four main parties into government.

My other fear about mandatory coalition and lack of Opposition was that there would be no incentive for the parties to move away from their seemingly entrenched positions; and little or no prospect of the nurturing and development of "normal" politics built around socio-economic policies.

In other words, it seemed likely that a sectarian headcount would remain the basis for politics.

So, what finally convinced me to endorse rather than reject the Agreement?

Article 36 of the Agreement, which provided for a review of the structures two years down the line (meaning that Opposition could be reassessed); my absolute conviction that Sinn Fein/IRA would end up in any other Agreement anyway and that rejection in 1998 would lead to something worse a few years later; the fact that we were already suffering from the ongoing outworking of the real Plan B – the gradual greening of local politics thanks to the Anglo-Irish Agreement; the failure of unionists to produce anything else between 1974 and 1998; and, the antediluvian and increasingly absurd antics of the DUP, UKUP and UUP refusniks. The UUP strategy may not have been perfect, but it was vastly superior to that offered by its unionist opponents.

Grave concerns

Almost a decade on, do I have any regrets about supporting the Agreement? I still have very grave concerns about the continuing lack of accountability and Opposition.

I cannot understand why the DUP failed to deal with the issue at St Andrews; although it may be something to do with the fact that they didn't want the SDLP and UUP to have an internal vehicle which would have left the DUP stranded in government with Sinn Fein.

But, as it is so often the case with the DUP, self-interest took precedence.

Has the original Agreement (and I don't concede the argument that St Andrews is noticeably different from it) been good for Northern Ireland? Yes, this is a better country than it was in 1998.

There are huge problems remaining but I am convinced that they can be resolved.

Has the Agreement been good for the Union? Again, yes. Northern Ireland is more secure now than it has been for decades and the republican agenda has been fundamentally holed.

Has the Agreement been good for unionism? That is a more difficult call to make. The UUP tore itself apart; the DUP has unexpected internal tensions; the TUV is a new focal point for division; and the overall unionist vote is continuing its downward trend.

Maximise turnout

What is essential, now, is that the unionist parties get their act together and increase and maximise the pro-Union turnout.

That will not happen under the banner of a united unionist party, for a merger between the UUP and DUP would probably deter core supporters from both parties from voting.

Also, a united unionist party would make it extremely difficult to run with the Opposition option later, for unionism couldn't leave government in the hands of nationalists alone.

There are distinct and separate roles for the UUP and DUP to occupy. By all means cooperate to prevent the fielding of too many candidates depriving both of winnable seats; and cooperate to ensure an increase of unionist votes in every constituency.

But, apart from that, the DUP and UUP should pursue their own paths and policies.

It is absurd to believe that one unionist party could meet the manifesto and policy needs of the entire pro-Union electorate, particularly if the constitutional question doesn't remain at the forefront of the electors' minds.

There are challenging times ahead for unionism.

The DUP and UUP must both begin to look like they understand that reality and set out a very clear strategy for jointly and separately meeting the challenge.