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Owen Paterson MP: Ten years on from the Belfast Agreement

Owen_paterson Owen Paterson MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, marks the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement with an analysis of its long-term effects.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. It was a turning point and we should not forget today the hideously difficult decisions taken by a number of courageous Conservative Secretaries of State, Tom King, Peter Brooke and Patrick Mayhew. With the support of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, they did much of the political heavy lifting before the arrival of Tony Blair on the scene. It would be churlish not to give him credit for concluding the negotiations but we should also remember with gratitude all who were involved, particularly the American and Irish Governments.

The Agreement was not perfect. Conservatives had substantial misgivings about the lack of any linkage between the early release of terrorist prisoners and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. The Democratic Unionist Party also had strong objections which it sought to address through the St Andrews Agreement of 2006. However, the 1998 Agreement remains the basic template for the accommodation that we see today in Northern Ireland.

So how has it worked? Reaching the Agreement was one thing; implementing it was another. From the very outset it was bedevilled by what were called ‘constructive ambiguities’, particularly over weapons. This vagueness was probably vital to having an Agreement in the first place. Enabling both sides to interpret key passages in their own ways inevitably made it more difficult to put it into practice. Perhaps those who hail the Northern Ireland peace process as the blueprint for conflict resolution worldwide should give more attention to this.

Most people involved in negotiating the Agreement believed that the core of any new Northern Ireland government would be the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. Yet republican intransigence and over indulgence of them by Mr Blair, simply pulled the ground from under both parties. As a result, Blair and Ahern had to make a second agreement, at St Andrews, in 2006.

Following belated action by the IRA on arms and eventual acceptance by the republican movement of the police, devolution was finally restored in May 2007. The relationship between the First Minister, Ian Paisley and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness has defied all expectations; the "Chuckle Brothers" have sent a spectacular message around the world that Northern Ireland has changed.

Next month, though, Ian Paisley will bring the curtain down on his remarkable political career. Northern Ireland will have a new First Minister. Having spent much of its first twelve months undertaking reviews, the Executive will need to start bringing forward concrete proposals to tackle some of the long-term problems facing Northern Ireland.

Politicians of all parties complain to me of gridlock in the system of government; decision making needs to be faster. We should also not underestimate that the Civil Service has held the ring on day to day matters for many years. It will take time for Ulster’s politicians who have all grown up in opposition to something, to learn the techniques of making difficult executive decisions. The recent compromise on new local government arrangements was welcome. However, whole areas of government activity have been bogged down in disagreement – education, water, rates and the sports stadium.

As I know from weekly visits to Northern Ireland, there is still a huge amount to be done. Parts of Northern Ireland also remain more divided than ever. I have seen peace walls being extended in contentious inner city areas; the number has increased to 46. The threat from dissidents remains real. So-called ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries have yet to decommission and remain involved in criminality.

The public sector accounts for around two-thirds of the Northern Ireland economy. Everyone agrees that this is far too high. Concerted action needs to be taken urgently to accelerate the growth of the private sector, which deteriorated through the Troubles. There needs to be a 25-year programme to expand the private sector. This is the only way to deliver the sustainable prosperity that will underpin a peaceful and stable society. Ideally, all Government announcements and decisions should be economy-proofed.

The Belfast Agreement served a vital purpose in getting bitter opponents to work together. Yet the institutions set up by the 1998 Agreement were dictated by politics, not administrative efficiency or good government. There are eleven government Ministers for a population of 1.7 million people; under direct rule there were five. All Assembly Members have to designate themselves ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’, reinforcing sectarian divisions. The Executive is a compulsory coalition of four political parties. There is no provision for a party to adopt the role of official Opposition even if it wanted to. I do not believe that this is right in the long term.

Of course the evolution of the institutions is primarily for Northern Ireland’s politicians to determine. Recently, one of the architects of the Agreement, Seamus Mallon, argued that the time has come to look again at the system of designation. I agree. There are other ways of ensuring that measures in the Assembly have to have broad cross-community support. For example, weighted majorities are better than labelling people.

As the Assembly beds down, politicians should examine whether there is really a need for the size of administration that we have in Northern Ireland. In addition, it would be much healthier for democracy if we could move from a compulsory coalition to a voluntary one, with a real opposition to hold the Executive to account. That would be a significant step on the road to ‘normalisation’ of politics.

None of this is to decry the efforts of Northern Ireland’s politicians, or the civil service. Not so long ago entering political life in Northern Ireland opened up the very real possibility of being murdered. We should be thankful that this is no longer the case. Nor are any of these ideas designed to exclude any part of the community from playing its full part in politics. I want all people in Northern Ireland to have a shared future.

The Belfast Agreement was a remarkable achievement. Not least it settled Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom based on the consent principle. Yet, as St Andrews demonstrated, it can be improved; the next stage in the process is to refine the institutions. The proposals I have set out would make for better government in Northern Ireland while remaining true to the core principles of the 1998 Agreement whose anniversary we are marking today.


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