Brexiteers using Belfast Agreement to further ‘ideological agenda’

Westminster hears criticism of Stormont’s ‘mandatory’ SF-DUP coalition

Belfast Agreement: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said a proposal to end the powersharing requirement was more than the “tinkering” its advocates claimed. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Belfast Agreement: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said a proposal to end the powersharing requirement was more than the “tinkering” its advocates claimed. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, has warned British MPs against undermining the Belfast Agreement, accusing Brexiteers of targeting it to further their ideological agenda.

Giving evidence before the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland affairs committee, Mr Eastwood said a proposal to end the requirement for powersharing between nationalists and unionists was more than the “tinkering” its advocates claimed.

“It is a fundamental change in what the Good Friday agreement represents. What the Good Friday agreement at its very core represents is peace. It is the first time we have properly had an accommodation between the peoples of this island and the peoples of our island in many a hundred years,” he said.

The Labour MP Kate Hoey, who this week called for a “cold, rational look” at the 1998 agreement, said her suggestion had nothing to do with Brexit, although it coincided with similar calls from other Brexiteers.

During Wednesday’s hearing she criticised what she called the “mandatory coalition” between Sinn Féin and the DUP at Stormont. “Basically, one party has a veto over another party. It is time that we stopped treating the Belfast Agreement as completely untouchable. I mean, after all, it was changed with the St Andrews Agreement,” she said, referring to the 2006 talks that led to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive.

“Moral blackmail”

Ruth Taillon, director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, in Armagh, told the committee that any changes to the Belfast Agreement must have the consent of both communities.

“I know there are those who would like to see the end of the Good Friday agreement, but it was voted in by referendum. The will of the people spoke some 20 years ago. I don’t think it can’t be looked at again, but it has to be looked at in the context of consent from the two sides,” she said.

Jamie Bryson, a loyalist blogger whose presence prompted the Alliance leader, Naomi Long, to boycott the hearing, said the agreement had not worked and called for direct rule from Westminster.

He said that, although the agreement provided “the context for an absence of violence”, it was moral blackmail to suggest it was necessary for the maintenance of peace. “If we get to the point where you can’t challenge a piece of legislation, if you can’t challenge a government policy, because if you do you must be in favour of violence, that’s moral blackmail,” he said.