Belfast Agreement: Jeffrey Donaldson Remembers

Jeffrey Donaldson
April 10, 2013

As 10 April 2013 marks the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement which is seen as a crucial step in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, PN Member Jeffrey Donaldson recalls the negotiations he was involved in.

The days and hours leading up to the Belfast Agreement will forever be etched on my mind. The final week began in earnest with the British and Irish governments tabling a draft version of an agreement.

The ‘agreement’ was heavily weighted in favour of the nationalist side, with substantial ‘all Ireland’ institutions that were clearly unacceptable to unionists. If implemented, they would have constituted the ‘embryonic all-Ireland government’ that Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews had spoken of during the negotiations.

This was undoubtedly a deliberate and classic negotiating ploy to force the pace of the final negotiations and give the nationalist side some ‘concessions’ to give away to unionists in return for the UUP accepting some of the more unpalatable elements of the agreement such as police reform and prisoner releases.

Following a tense meeting of the UUP negotiating team on the Monday afternoon, myself and a number of colleagues made clear that we should not be negotiating on the basis of this draft. In a portent of things to come, David Trimble chose to ignore our pleadings and within hours, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were assembling at Hillsborough Castle, with the British Prime Minister declaring that he felt “the hand of history on his shoulder”.

The days that followed brought further pressure, with the two Prime Ministers taking control of the process and George Mitchell effectively sidelined. As predicted, the nationalists gave way on the north-south institutions but the price paid proved high indeed.

The final evening was real ‘pressure cooker’ stuff. The talks continued throughout the night, with Sinn Fein faking a ‘walk out’ at one stage in order to coerce Tony Blair into accepting the prisoner releases over a two-year period. I recall driving home down the motorway to Moira for a quick shower and change of clothing on the Good Friday morning. As I travelled, I wondered what the rest of the day would bring.

Little did I know that the events of that day would be life-changing.

Late morning we received the ‘final version’ of the Agreement. The UUP team were asked to read it individually and then we met to give our considered view. John Taylor’s list of concerns mirrored my own on issues like decommissioning, prisoners and the RUC, but in the end, he decided to back David Trimble in assenting to the Agreement, whilst I chose not to.

The vote within the negotiating team was narrowly in favour of the party leader and thus began a split that was, in the end, to bring about the demise of the UUP as Ulster’s largest party.

With the parties assembling in the conference room to endorse the final agreement, I left the building to return to my constituency.

For me, the future was uncertain, but in my heart I felt that I could look my family and constituents in the eye and believe that I had done the right thing. The rest, as they say, is history.

Original source: The Newsletter

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