1998 deal had good points but London failed to back Trimble

Morning View
Morning View

The Belfast Agreement is 20 years old today.

It was a seminal moment in the history of Northern Ireland.

Even Peter Robinson, a fierce critic of the 1998 agreement, writing on these pages today describes it as an anniversary to be marked (although, not, in his estimation, to be celebrated).

The deal split unionists. It is said that a small majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland voted for the accord, while a small majority of those who voted for unionist parties opposed it.

The difference between those two statistics is explained by the fact that the minority of Protestants who vote for non unionist parties overwhelmingly backed the agreement – as did all other sections of the population.

This newspaper took the then difficult decision to back the agreement, which caused much controversy and led to some lost sales. But the aspects of the agreement that were unequivocally good are not difficult to rehearse: the consent principle, the removal of the Republic’s territorial claim, the Sinn Fein acceptance of Stormont (they did not in fact sign the agreement but they did nonetheless accept Stormont).

Also, the North-South bodies operated in a largely non contentious way that effectively removed the old intrusive Maryfield function of the Irish government, that had followed the disastrous 1985 Anglo Irish agreement.

But while the core structures of the Belfast Agreement remain intact and are the only viable basis for devolution here, London’s failure to back David Trimble against IRA foot dragging in decommissioning and moving to wholly legal and democratic methods cost Mr Trimble his Westminster seat.

Latterly, after mostly working the system under Martin McGuinness, we have entered a perilous new dispensation in which Sinn Fein believes it can see Irish unity ahead and is pursuing a destabilising strategy that raises questions as to whether mandatory coalition can in fact ever work again.