The St Andrews Agreement was an agreement between the British and Irish Governments and the political parties in relation to the devolution of power to Northern Ireland. The agreement followed multi-party talks held in St Andrews, Fife, Scotland from October 11 to October 13, 2006, between the two governments and all the major parties in Northern Ireland, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin. It resulted in the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the formation (on May 8, 2007) of a new Northern Ireland Executive and a decision by Sinn Féin to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland, courts, and rule of law. The aim was to revive the peace process which had stalled since the Belfast Agreement.
By enabling the inclusion of the DUP, which had opposed the Belfast Agreement, the St Andrews talks were able to achieve the goal of an inclusive, multi-party settlement. At St Andrews, former enemies sat down and faced each other across the table. Subsequently, former enemies are cooperating and working together, even with those whom they previously denounced and demonized, due to assurances and mechanisms ensuring social justice written into the Agreement. Behind this lies a long process during which some compromises were made by different parties. Real progress only became possible, however, when weapons were surrendered and a way was found to bring the parties together in genuine dialogue to empower the disempowered and to address genuine social grievances.
The St Andrews Agreement was a stage in the Northern Ireland peace process that began after the outbreak of communitarian violence known as The Troubles in the late 1960s. Since the creation of the Northern Irish state by the Partition of Ireland in 1921, the minority Roman Catholic community which also favored union with the independent Republic of Ireland were systematically discriminated against by the Protestant majority, which supported the union with Great Britain. Parliament, the police force, the civil service and many local governments were controlled by the Unionist parties (also known as Loyalist), whose members were Protestants. What began as a Civil Rights, non-violent movement was replaced by armed conflict and para-military organizations from both sides. The Northern Ireland Parliament was suspended in 1972, when the British government took direct control. British troops were stationed in Northern Ireland in an attempt to keep the peace.
Efforts to negotiate between representatives from both sides were for a long time hindered by allegations that leaders of the largest Republican party, Sinn Féin, were implicated in terrorist activities. Until all parties agreed to disarm, to use diplomacy to resolve their differences and to negotiate an equitable solution, progress was impossible. From as early as 1973, power-sharing was on the table with the short-lived Sunningdale Agreement in December. This saw the Parliament briefly re-open with devolved powers but by May 1974, the experiment had collapsed. This was largely due to a strike by Loyalists.
The first breakthrough was the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 by then British Prime Minister, John Major, and then Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. Britain agreed that it would be the people of Ireland who decided on any future constitutional arrangements while Ireland dropped its territorial claim to the North. It was also agreed that Sinn Féin would be welcome at the negotiating table if it renounced violence and decommissioned weapons. Behind the scenes, John Hume of the smaller republican SDLP party had been encouraging Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin to accept these terms. The ban of broadcasting Adam's voice, in place since 1988, was then lifted. Sinn Féin joined official talks. However, this infuriated the leader of what was at the time the smaller Unionist Party, Ian Paisley, so much that his Democratic Unionist Party withdrew. In 1995, the former United States Senator, George Mitchel was invited to draw up principles on non-violence, which participants in the planned round table, all party talks would have to affirm. By June 1996, talks were underway. On April 10, 1998, the Belfast Agreement was signed.
This set out principles to devolve power to a new Assembly with a consocial democratic constitution. The police service would be re-organized to facilitate equitable participation by both communities. Other measures to address social and economic inequality would be put in place. The DUP were not signatories, however and continued to oppose the initiative. Referenda, though, North and South of the border approved the Agreement. The new Assembly and power-sharing executive were established in December, 1999 with David Trimble as First Minister. By October 2002, working relations within the Executive across the parties had broken down and Britain suspended devolution. It was now imperative to resolve remaining issues between the two sides. A major issue surrounded Sinn Féin recognition of the new police service but it was also important to bring Ian Paisley's DUP to the table. In 2005, calling for a re-negotiation of the Belfast Agreement during the election campaign, the DUP won more seats than Trimble's UUP. This meant that Paisley, renowned for his anti-Catholic convictions, had a claim to be First Minister. For the largest Loyalist party to remain outside the process would be undemocratic. The St Andrews talks, from October 11 to 14, 2006, aimed to revive the failing Belfast initiative. Paisley accepted assurances that Sinn Féin would co-operate with the new policing arrangement and took part in the talks. Earlier, in May he had turned down the offer of becoming First Minister still refusing to cooperate with Sinn Féin.
Key elements of the agreement included the full acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) by Sinn Féin, restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a commitment by the DUP to power-sharing with republicans and nationalists in the Northern Ireland Executive. The governments' plan envisaged the devolution of policing and justice powers within two years from the restoration of the Executive. The parties were given until November 10, 2006, to respond to the draft agreement. The first and deputy first minister would be appointed on November 24, 2006. Paisley would almost certainly become First Minister; his Catholic Deputy, under the Agreement, would have joint and co-equal powers. There was a target date of March 26, 2007, for a new executive to be up and running, after a general election on March 7, 2007.
The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which implemented the agreement, received Royal Assent on November 22, 2006.
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain called the agreement an "astonishing breakthrough" on BBC Five Live.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that if the deadlines set by the two governments were not met, "the plan falters and there will be a move to plan B with no more discussions."
Ian Paisley said "Unionists can have confidence that its interests are being advanced and democracy is finally winning the day." He also said "Delivering on the pivotal issue of policing and the rule of law starts now."
Gerry Adams said that the plans needed to be consulted on, but restoring the political institutions was an "enormous prize."
Reg Empey, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party described the agreement as the "Belfast Agreement for slow learners."
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Mark Durkan said welcome progress had been made towards restoring the power sharing institutions.
Alliance Party leader David Ford said the outcome was a mix "of challenges and opportunities."
The United Kingdom Unionist Party's leader Robert McCartney is reported to have rejected the power-sharing arrangements of the new agreement as undemocratic.
Introducing the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill in the House of Lords, Government spokesperson Lord Rooker said that failure to follow the timetable would see the Northern Ireland Assembly dissolved.
The Joint Statement of October 13 stated that the governments had "asked parties, having consulted their members, to confirm their acceptance by 10 November." On that date, a Sinn Féin statement said that on November 6, "the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle mandated the party leadership to follow the course set out at St. Andrews and to continue with the ongoing negotiations to resolve the outstanding issues" and that they "firmly believed that all of the outstanding difficulties can be resolved." The DUP statement said that "as Sinn Féin is not yet ready to take the decisive step forward on policing, the DUP will not be required to commit to any aspect of power sharing in advance of such certainty." Although neither statement constituted "acceptance" of the agreement, both governments maintained that there was sufficient endorsement from all parties to continue the process.
The Joint Statement stated that "the Assembly will meet to nominate the First and Deputy First Minister on 24 November." In the days preceding the Assembly meeting the two governments said that it would be sufficient for the parties to "indicate" who their nominations for First and Deputy First Minister would be. When the Assembly met on November 24, Ian Paisley said that "circumstances have not been reached that there can be a nomination or a designation this day," adding that "if and when commitments are delivered, the DUP would enter government." Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, nominated Martin McGuinness for the post of Deputy First Minister. Following the unexpected adjournment of the Assembly. Mr. Paisley, in a statement, said: "Everyone already knows that in those circumstances after they are delivered I would accept the first minister's nomination." Both governments maintained that this was sufficient indication for the process to continue.
The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 stated that following an election to the Assembly on March 7, 2007, ministerial offices to be held by Northern Ireland Ministers would be filled under the d’Hondt system on March 26, 2007. If the ministerial offices could not be filled on that date, the Act required the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make an order dissolving the Assembly, and the St Andrews Agreement would fall.
On January 28, 2007, a special Sinn Féin Ard Fheis approved a motion calling for devolution of policing and justice to the Assembly, support for the police services, An Garda Síochána and the PSNI and criminal justice system, the appointment of party representatives to the Policing Board and District Policing Partnership Boards, Sinn Féin Ministers taking the ministerial Pledge of Office, and actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the police services in tackling crime. At the same time, it mandated the Ard Chomhairle (National Executive) to implement the motion "only when the power-sharing institutions are established and when the Ard Chomhairle is satisfied that the policing and justice powers will be transferred. Or if this does not happen within the St Andrews time frame, only when acceptable new partnership arrangements to implement the Good Friday Agreement are in place."
The DUP gave a cautious welcome to the move, but without making any overt commitment on the devolution of policing and justice by May 2008. On January 30, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach confirmed that Assembly elections would go ahead as planned on March 7.
In the Assembly elections, the DUP and Sinn Féin both gained seats, thus consolidating their position as the two largest parties in the Assembly. Peter Hain signed the order to restore the institutions on 25 March, warning that if the parties failed to reach agreement by midnight the following day, the Assembly would be closed down. Members of the DUP and Sinn Féin, led by Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, met face-to face for the first time on March 26, and agreed to form an executive on May 8, with the DUP giving a firm commitment to enter government with Sinn Féin on that date. The agreement was welcomed by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. On March 27, emergency legislation was introduced into the British Parliament to facilitate the six-week delay. The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement No 2) Bill was passed without a vote in both the Commons and the Lords and received Royal Assent, as the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2007, the same evening.
In the weeks following the agreement between Paisley and Adams, the four parties—the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP and the SDLP—indicated their choice of ministries in the Executive and nominated members to fill them. The Assembly met on May 8, 2007, and elected Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. It also ratified the ten ministers as nominated by their parties. On May 12, the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle agreed to take up three places on the Policing Board, and nominated three MLAs to take them.
On December 8, 2007, while visiting President Bush in the White House with the Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, said to the press "Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything—not even about the weather—and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there's been no angry words between us. …This shows we are set for a new course."
Paisley surprised many by working cordially with his Catholic-Republican colleagues until choosing to retire in June 2008. He was succeeded as First Minister by Peter Robinson with McGuinness continuing as Deputy who also now enjoys a positive, cordial relationship with the Robinson. Once the DUP agreed to join the Executive, people who had previously denounced and demonized each other sat down at the same table, due to assurances and mechanisms written into the peace Agreement.
The peace in Northern Ireland remains fragile. To last, justice will need to be delivered to all citizens and earlier discrimination replaced by an equitable social-political culture. What has been achieved is due to a willingness to compromise, to renounce violence and to embrace diplomacy. Willingness, too, to address the genuine causes of conflict regardless of the fact that violence often obscures this, becoming an end in itself. By finding a way to include everyone in the St Andrews talks, progress became a possibility. In situations where parties refuse to talk, ways of bringing them together needs to be explored as a priority.
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