British government cannot change the Belfast Agreement, Coveney says

Sinn Féin says DUP leader showed a ‘reckless disregard’ for peace process

There are no circumstances under which the Government would support changing the Belfast Agreement to secure a deal on Brexit, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney responded to DUP leader Arlene Foster’s insistance that the peace deal was not sacrosanct when he spoke to reporters at the launch of the 2017 Irish Aid annual report on Tuesday evening.

“One of the reasons why the commitment that was given last December was so comprehensive was because the Irish Government, and indeed others that were concerned about the impact on the peace process, on the Good Friday Agreement, of Brexit, was a real concern,” he said,

“And so, the British prime minister [THERESA MAY]to her credit has given very clear commitments and guarantees around protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and also has committed to a backstop which is about ensuring that there is no danger of a physical border infrastructure re-emerging on the island of Ireland.”


He said this would continue the positive work that had been done in the last 20 years since the Belfast Agreement was endorsed by people in the Republic and Northern Ireland.

“The other thing to remember here is that this is an agreement that is the people’s agreement; it’s not owned by any one political party, or group of political parties, or governments for that matter,” he said.

“It is a treaty that is lodged with the UN. It’s not a piece of legislation that can be changed by one government. So the British government can’t unilaterally change the Good Friday Agreement and I don’t believe that the British government wants to do that.”

He said it was important not to get a legally operable text on the backstop over the next month or so.

“Under no circumstances will the Irish government support changing the Good Friday Agreement in the context of Brexit,” Mr Coveney said.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has accused the DUP of showing a reckless disregard for the Belfast Agreement.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald insisted the 1998 accord between the UK and Ireland must not become a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations.

She reacted angrily after Mrs Foster suggested the terms of the agreement could be altered in efforts to strike an EU exit deal.

"Today's comments by DUP leader Arlene Foster on the Good Friday Agreement are unacceptable and reveal a reckless disregard for the peace process, prosperity and progress," said Ms McDonald.

Critics of Brexit have warned of its potential to undermine aspects of the international treaty, including its provisions for cross-border co-operation and rights protections.

The DUP campaigned against the Belfast Agreement when it was resoundingly endorsed in referenda on both sides of the Border in 1998.

Elements of the deal have been altered by subsequent political agreements in Northern Ireland, such as the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mrs Foster said: "It has been deeply frustrating to hear people who voted Remain and in Europe talk about Northern Ireland as though we can't touch the Belfast Agreement. Things evolve, even in the EU context.

“There has been a lot of misinterpretation, holding it up as a sacrosanct piece of legislation.”

In response, Ms McDonald called on the Government to make clear that the terms of the deal would be protected.

“It should be remembered that Arlene Foster left the UUP, which supported the Good Friday Agreement, to join the anti-agreement DUP,” she added.

“It appears the DUP leader has learnt nothing over the past 15 years.”

The latest row between the DUP and Sinn Fein comes amid the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland following the collapse of the powersharing institutions in early 2017.

“The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the vast majority of people north and south,” said the Sinn Fein president.

“It is the people’s agreement and not a chip to be bargained with as part of any Tory/DUP Brexit deal.

“Brexit is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. The actions of the DUP and their deal with the Tories is bad for our economy and undermines the rights of citizens.

“The DUP should commit to the full implementation of the Good Friday, and other agreements, rather than seeking to undermine them.

“This would unlock the pathway to re-establishing the political institutions and safeguarding the interests of all the people in the north.”

The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) enshrines the “consent principle” that Northern Ireland’s position within the UK can only change if a majority of the region’s citizens vote for it.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann claimed Mrs Foster's comments potentially undermined that principle.

“Arlene Foster’s comments on the Belfast Agreement are strategically shortsighted,” he said.

“The DUP may have been happy to corrupt the 1998 agreement for their owns ends at St Andrews, but I cannot believe the DUP leader has been so careless as to throw it open in such a haphazard way which is of no benefit to unionism.

“The reality is that the principle of consent is what binds us to the United Kingdom, it is the best settlement for unionists and should be sacrosanct.” Additional reporting PA