The Belfast Agreement: a historic deal is under threat

Two decades after it was signed, the agreement that underpins the peace looks vulnerable

The determination of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, allied to the patience of Senator George Mitchell, pulled enough people over the line to make the Belfast Agreement possible 20 years ago.  Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/Reuters

The determination of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, allied to the patience of Senator George Mitchell, pulled enough people over the line to make the Belfast Agreement possible 20 years ago. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/Reuters

 

The 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement is being overshadowed by the fact that the institutions established under its auspices have been in abeyance for over a year and there are serious doubts about whether they will ever be restored.

It would be a profound tragedy if the 1998 agreement, the culmination of decades of Irish-British diplomacy and negotiations with all the relevant parties, was to go the way of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973. This cannot be allowed to happen as the consequences are too awful to contemplate. The Belfast Agreement has underpinned the peace and there is a risk that without it violence could creep back.

In a timely intervention last week former first minister Peter Robinson pointed out that people would have to get back around the table again if solutions were going to be found. “We can’t allow all that has been built up over the past years to be lost,” he said. Hopefully his former colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and all of the other major actors in the process will heed the advice of a vastly experienced politician who has come on a long journey since he entered politics in the 1970s.

Over the past year everybody has made mistakes. Sinn Féin should not have collapsed the institutions in the first place and the DUP should not have walked away from the compromise deal they came within a whisker of agreeing in February. The two governments have not covered themselves with glory either; the Irish by raising the spectre of a united Ireland at an inappropriate moment and the British by pursing a hard Brexit agenda. A paradox of the current impasse is that despite collapsing the institutions Sinn Féin is now anxious to have them restored while the DUP has moved in the opposite direction with many in the party indifferent about their future.

Finding a formula that will allow both parties to work together again is an enormous challenge but all sides can take encouragement from the way the Belfast Agreement emerged despite even greater obstacles 20 years ago.

At that time the sheer determination of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair allied to the patience of US Senator George Mitchell pulled enough people over the line to make the agreement feasible. This time around the two governments are preoccupied by Brexit but that issue is also crucially linked to the future of the agreement.

One of the reasons for the failure to get final agreement on the draft was that DUP leader Arlene Foster was unable to bring her Westminster MPs and a good chunk of her grassroots supporters with her. She will need a concession of some kind to restore her authority.How that can be done given that Sinn Féin probably went as far as it could go last month is the conundrum. Courage and leadership are required.

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