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Mark Durkan: I had hoped we would be further on following the Good Friday Agreement

Mark Durkan is regarded as one of the Good Friday Agreement's key architects. Two decades on from the signing of the accord, the former SDLP leader gives Political Correspondent John Manley his assessment of its impact and legacy

Mark Durkan believes the current political impasse partly derives from 2006's St Andrews Agreement. Picture Margaret by McLaughlin

THERE'S been plenty of water under the bridge since April 1998 when a 37-year-old Mark Durkan drafted elements of the Good Friday Agreement and helped negotiate the settlement that effectively drew a line under three decades of conflict.

In the intervening years, he's been an MLA, an MP, leader of the SDLP, a member of the Northern Ireland Executive, and Stormont's deputy first minister.

Since last May's snap Westminster election, when his Foyle seat was taken by Sinn Féin, the man regarded as having one of the sharpest minds in northern politics has been without office and without a mandate, spending more time with his family but still freely giving advice to those who seek it.

When he reflects on the accord he helped author, the Derry man is clearly disappointed that the optimism of the time hasn't translated 20 years later into a stable political climate and sustainable devolution.

He cites Martin Luther King's observation that "progress doesn’t roll in on the wheels of inevitability".

"Certainly I'd hoped we'd be further on but you should never assume that just because we have agreement and get everything in place, it means we’re going to move on in linear fashion," he says.

"Under the Good Friday Agreement the primary source of power for the devolved authority was meant to be the assembly but yet we have an assembly that can’t even meet until such time as two parties give an indication that they are going to appoint one of their members as a first minister and one of their members as deputy first minister – that’s not the way it was meant to be."

He believes the current impasse partly derives from 2006's St Andrews Agreement and the changes made to the power-sharing arrangements.

Mr Durkan argues that moving away from the assembly’s election of the first minister and deputy first minister was "very damaging".

He says he warned then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his British counterpart Tony Blair at the time but they persevered on a "needs-must basis".

"I said it was going to turn assembly elections into first-past-the-post for first minister, with all the tribalistic impulses that comes with that," he recalls.

"Remember, the only reason it was done is because DUP and Sinn Féin didn’t want to be in the Stormont voting lobby together voting for first minister."

The SDLP negotiator believes the St Andrews tinkering also helped fuel a later perception of "DUP arrogance" and some ministers' "disdain for the idea of being accountable to the assembly".

One element of the agreement's implementation that clearly rankles the former deputy first minister is the petition of concern, a mechanism originally designed as a protection for minorities but which became a veto that was rarely, if ever, deployed in the spirit under which it was conceived.

"Whole provisions around the petition of concern weren’t what was intended when it was written into the agreement," Mr Durkan says.

File photo dated 10/04/98 of former Prime Minister Tony Blair (right) former US Senator George Mitchell (centre) and former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (left) smiling after they signed the historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday April 10 2013. The Prime Minister has led tributes to the architects of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland on its 15th anniversary. David Cameron said the 1998 political accord which brought about devolved governance from Stormont after the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries declared ceasefires heralded a new beginning after decades of division and terrorism. See PA story ULSTER Agreement. Photo credit should read: PA Wire

"It was meant to be one of the proofing mechanisms that ensured due consideration of equality and human rights – it was never meant to be dead end veto."

According to the former SDLP leader, it was envisaged that the process for using the petition would also be much more complex than producing one of the pre-signed pieces of paper that are reputed to have been stored in a DUP drawer.

A special committee, liaising with the Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission, would have taken evidence and scrutinised the appropriateness of using the veto.

When the SDLP raised concerns initially Mr Durkan said the party was assured by the Irish government and Northern Ireland Office that the assembly's standing orders would make the appropriate provisions, but he concedes that in the end there was a "lack of attention to detail".

His concerns about the agreement's implementation extend to strand two, which deals with north-south relations.

The cross-border bodies were effectively neutered, he says, initially to protect the vulnerable Ulster Unionists and latterly under the auspices of austerity. He characterises the strand two element of the agreement as "go slow and stay low".

"There have been no significant advances and I do think there are serious questions about the strand two deficit," Mr Durkan says.

"Nationalists are going to wake up to the fact that strand two means a lot less than they believed it should and what will possibly bring that home to people is the post-Brexit scenario."

While he believes that the UK's decision to leave the European Union has done "fundamental damage" to the the Good Friday Agreement, he also feels Brexit makes the accord more relevant.

"You can’t look at the discolouration that has taken place in our political arrangements and institutions and say Brexit has nothing to do with that."

He argues that the "delicately layered acceptance around the principle of consent" is being abused by those who insist on "driving through Brexit" on their terms because the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU, while 56 per cent of people in the north advocated remaining.

Mr Durkan says the British government and DUP's imposition of Brexit creates an "underlying corrosive threat" to the agreement. However, he believes that rather than defending it like a "fragile ornament", it should be "be asserted in a very active way".

"Under the three-stranded arrangement, which even the DUP now subscribe to, Northern Ireland via devolution has the capacity to diverge from the rest of the UK in all sorts of ways," he says.

"Under strand two it has the capacity to align the north with the south – not necessarily in fully identical ways but in ways that are compatible and sensible."

The former Foyle MP believes it's time to revert to the agreement's "factory setting". He looks at Stormont's current impasse and feels that "we’ve had some unlearning".

"When we were working towards agreement, people had got a sense that you needed to be careful how far you turned objectives into a pre-condition, which is an easy stance, but that only paralyses politics by giving your counterparts a veto on your own position," he says.

"Back then people had learned to state positions without making them absolute preconditions but we’re in a phase now where objectives seem to be preconditions.

"If you just stand your ground and draw the same lines those lines become a rut and the only difference between a rut and a grave is depth and then we’re all stuck."

Mr Durkan also highlights the recent negotiations' focus on the two biggest parties, saying it reflects a "rot that set in early on in the life of the agreement".

"We saw this thing whereby the two governments have got into this rut where they could cook things between themselves and just work with the two biggest parties to the exclusion of others, which has led to more and more difficulty."

Initially, when decommissioning dominated the process, the former Foyle MP says they went "increasingly off-road from the agreement" with the two governments focussing on the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Féin.

"We used to warn the UUP when they thought they were screwing us but they ended up screwing themselves... later they were no longer being dealt with and it was Sinn Féin and the DUP who were then in the premium process," he says.

"That’s where the bad blood and bad politics came from."

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