Tony Blair warns against changing terms of Good Friday Agreement to overcome DUP Stormont veto

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The Good Friday Agreement should only be changed with cross community consent in Northern Ireland, former prime minister Tony Blair has warned.

he ex-Labour leader, who played a pivotal role in negotiating the historic deal in 1998, said there was a case for reforming the devolved power-sharing structures at Stormont, given the regularity of governance collapses in the region in the 25 years since.

The arrangements incorporate a system based on mutual veto powers, enabling blocs of unionist and nationalist MLAs to stop moves that otherwise command majority support and, in extreme circumstances, pull down the institutions and prevent them operating.

The DUP is currently exercising its veto to blockade Stormont in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

In 2017, Sinn Féin collapsed the ministerial executive amid a furore about a botched green energy scheme.

The current UK government has faced calls from some of the DUP’s main rivals, particularly the cross community Alliance Party, to change the rules to allow the majority of MLAs to get back to work.

However, in an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday deal, Mr Blair cautioned against any move to alter the veto system to circumvent the DUP stance and reinstate powersharing, saying reform could only come if it was supported across the different traditions in Northern Ireland.

“People often ask me whether there’s a case for reviewing the Good Friday Agreement, the institutions, the way one party essentially can veto the process, and I always say to people that of course there is a case for reviewing it and, in time, maybe that review process will yield a change,” he said.

“But I don’t think you can yield a change that’s going to work unless it brings the communities together.

“And one thing I’ve learned about Northern Ireland is that there’s a difference between the ideal answer and the realistic answer.

“The ideal answer may be that you change the whole system, for example, by the way you choose ministers or have the executive up and running.

“But the realistic truth is if you were to act, for example, in direct contravention of a large part of unionist opinion, it wouldn’t work, it just wouldn’t work.

“So, yes, in an ideal world the politics of Northern Ireland would be historically different, but they’re not, you’re in the real world and in the real world, of course, I think we should keep the agreement under review the whole time.

“But I don’t think it’s possible to change it unless you get the most important elements in Northern Ireland politics in agreement.”

He said change could not just be “top down” and needed to involve an element of “bottom up” endorsement by grass roots communities.

“The basic agreement in its essence, which is fair treatment for all parts of the community in return for the principle of consent (on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status), I think that that will always remain.

“But how you adjust the way you manage institutions, the different strands, obviously that can change, can be adjusted in time, but it will have to be by agreement,” he said.

Reflecting on the Good Friday negotiations, the former prime minister said the leaders of 1998 offered a lesson to the current generation.

“It was agonising (the talks process), but it’s an interesting reflection on politics that it works best when leaders are prepared to say even to their own supporters things that are uncomfortable.”

While the accord largely ended the violence in Northern Ireland, Mr Blair acknowledged there is more work to do to secure true reconciliation.

“One of things I learned about the peace process is you can create an agreement, and you can create a legal framework, and you can do the reforms and pass the laws, but that’s not the same as two communities trusting each other,” he said.

“And I think it just takes time, it takes quite a lot of time.”

He added: “I think there’s still a lot of reconciliation to happen.

“But at least if there’s peace and, if we get back to some form of political stability, I think you’ve got the right circumstances for that reconciliation.”

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