Twenty years on, the key challenge is how we can make changes that only are seen to be fair and balanced

Peter Weir is a DUP MLA for Strangford, he writes for Slugger about his thoughts of the Good Friday Agreement.

On Good Friday, twenty years ago, I found myself present at a central point in our history, not just as an observer but as a participant, albeit a minor one. I was in Castle Buildings as a junior member of the Ulster Unionist talks team. I was one of the so called baby barristers, a group of younger members of the UUP whom David Trimble had invited to participate in the multi party talks, a decision with hindsight he maybe later regretted. I was under no illusion as to my place in the pecking order, having on one occasion represented the Party with a fellow UUP barrister at a meeting with Tanaiste Dick Spring, to the obvious seething resentment of the Irish Foreign Minister who felt being presented with the UUP ‘C team’ was an insult beneath his dignity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Talks had moved at glacial pace for most of its two years, only really focusing on the end game in the last two weeks, and reaching a frenzy in the 72 hours or so preceding Good Friday . The main UUP talks room resembled a form of political squat with papers everywhere and attendance swelled by a number of Forum and Executive members. Despite this, until very close to the deadline any agreement seemed a long way off, with the smart money on an other unresolved stalemate like other talks such as happened in the early 1990s.

Yet on Good Friday, it soon became clear that not only was an agreement probable, but it was one that would divide unionism in general, and the UUP in particular. I found myself opposed to the leadership of the Party which I had been a member of for over a decade. Given the UUP was a very broad church, containing devolutionists and integrationists, liberals and traditionalists, economic right wingers and left wingers, young Turks and old stalwarts, this was neither surprising, nor the first time I was out of step with the leadership, but the depth of division was of a different order. Indeed as the final draft was divided amongst the UUP talks team, with each member reading the section they had been involved in, and then the wider document, through a quirk of fate I can claim to have been the first to have read the Agreement and felt I couldn’t support it, and indeed as I had spotted a small mistake in the final draft, can claim to be the last to achieve a change in the text.

Like many in the right of the Party, my main concern had been the potential scale, structure and momentum of North-South arrangements. Yet this is not what worried me most on Good Friday. Perhaps we made the mistake of fighting the battles of the last war. Of greater concern to many unionists, including myself, were early prisoner releases, the threat to the RUC, and the fudge over decommissioning and its role in entry to Government. This issue remained unresolved for nearly a decade, and became the key example of constructive ambiguity which was so central to the Agreement. Without constructive ambiguity it is unlikely a deal could have been reached in 1998, allowing different parties to sell often conflicting narratives to their supporters, but it was also the Achilles heel of the process haunting politics time and time again. While most of these issues have become now historic facts, and will not be reversed, they remain the main reasons why I believe it was right to oppose the Agreement.

These problems were obvious on Good Friday, and it soon became clear as a friend perceptively mentioned a week later, that the structures of the Agreement would reinforce the position of whichever party within each community could be seen as being the strongest voice within that community. The splits within the UUP were also evident on day one. Despite the frustrations of other parties at the seemingly endless delays on the day, as the UUP internally debated whether to sign up to the Agreement, it was apparent to me that most of the UUP leadership team was determined to back the Agreement from the very start. It is a myth that hand written notes from Tony Blair or a phone call from Bill Clinton tipped the balance. The real delay was a futile attempt to build a pro-Agreement consensus within the UUP rather than dithering over achieving a majority.

In addition to the limitations of constructive ambiguity, some of the other lessons of the Agreement only became more apparent with the passage of time. Firstly, to obtain political stability any deal requires equal support from both communities. The Belfast Agreement gained the support of all but the most intransigent nationalist and republican, but only about half of unionists. Even this level of support was only attained through the promises of the still credible Tony Blair, and dissipated over time as disillusionment set in.

Secondly, few of us realised at the time, as attention focused on prisoners, decommissioning, policing etc, that the Agreement structures established the central paradox within devolution. This is a system which has been simultaneously both stable and unstable. Ultimately the lessons of the last twenty years shows that no matter the crisis, all roads eventually lead back to devolved power sharing, but it is also true that even in the good times, with the sun our back, we are never far away from the next crisis threatening collapse.

Thirdly, despite the divisions of Good Friday, few appreciated that it would be the seismic division in unionist politics leading to the full re-alignment of unionism, albeit a slow burning one taking a number of years. While a few within the UUP got over the initial shock and rowed back into supporting the leadership and the Agreement, more who were initially willing to give it a chance came to oppose it. The bulk of the right wing of the UUP and others came to co-alesce with the DUP and unionism reformed itself along the divisions generated by the Agreement. While the enmity has largely gone, the political sea change within unionism has remained.

Finally, while some pro-Agreement UUP and SDLP politicians saw the Belfast Agreement as a final settlement, others saw it more accurately as a process. If there is a lesson to be learned over the past two decades it is that politics is rarely a full stop and more often at most a comma, or as my former leader Peter Robinson put it once a never ending relay race. As such we should not see the Agreement, or more pertinently the political structures, as an unchangeable sacred cow, but something that needs to adapt over time. Twenty years on, the key challenge is how we can make changes that only are seen to be fair and balanced, but also deal with one of the key flaws of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and provide good government for everyone in Northern Ireland which is stable and enduring.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.