Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
Twenty-five years ago, mine was a lonely voice against the Belfast Agreement. Opposition to that accord was confined to the DUP, one or two UUP politicians (including Jeffrey Donaldson) and The Daily Telegraph.
In the event, more than 70 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland, including most Unionists, backed the deal.
It was not easy to stand against the consensus. The agreement had a kind of meme-like impetus behind it, and critics were dismissed as against progress or even against peace.
My scepticism had nothing to do with nostalgia. On the contrary, I had long pined for power-sharing. Being of Scots Presbyterian heritage on one side and Ulster Catholic on the other, I felt I had a personal stake in the reconciliation of the two traditions.
No, my worries were more prosaic. I didn’t like the fact that the deal would put most politicians in office most of the time, that there would be no meaningful opposition, no mechanism to turn the rascals out.
I feared that Northern Ireland would become a cartel democracy, an institutionalised racket where two tribes would pay off their supporters with subsidies and sinecures. I worried that a place that had once been a by-word for industriousness and enterprise, a place where life had moved to the rhythm of linen-mill shuttles and shipyard hammers, would sink even deeper into public-sector dependency.
I fretted too that encouraging parties to register as unionist or nationalist would freeze in place the polarisation it was supposed to overcome.
As the referendum of May 1998 loomed, my querulous complaints, and those of my fellow Telegraph columnists, were drowned out by Ian Paisley’s stentorian bellows. His reasons for opposing the deal were very different from mine. He objected in principle to power-sharing, as he had done for 30 years.
Except that, in the event, his position turned out to be anything but principled. The moment the DUP overtook the UUP – the moment, in other words, that he personally stood to benefit by becoming First Minister – he swallowed his reservations. Most of his party followed him, leaving only that sea-green incorruptible Jim Allister to act as their bad conscience.
Since then, opposition to the Belfast Agreement has become an even more minority pursuit – except, though you don’t often see this reported, among ordinary voters: a majority of Unionists now say they would vote against the deal.
Perhaps they sense that the promises made 25 years ago have not been fulfilled. In particular, the normalisation of politics – ultimately, the replacement of the unionist/nationalist divide with a more conventional Left/Right split, as was the case in Northern Ireland before 1885 – has not happened, despite the hopes of both David Trimble and Tony Blair.
Don’t get me wrong. Northern Ireland has been utterly and benignly transformed since the end of the Troubles: Belfast’s semi-derelict dockyards are now the Titanic Quarter; streets such as Cornmarket, once dangerous and dingy, are as handsome as any in the kingdom; sectarian murals have become tourist attractions.
We can argue endlessly about whether the Belfast Agreement was a cause or a consequence of the peace – I am convinced that the key development was the IRA’s realisation that its terrorist campaign was futile. But we can’t argue that Northern Ireland is not incomparably happier than it was.
It does not follow, though, that the Belfast Agreement was the only, or the best, mechanism for government after 1998. Yes, it has been tweaked in the intervening 25 years, and some of its most egregious anti-democratic flaws have been addressed.
But we are still left with the spectacle of the two big parties propping each other up, like exhausted boxers in a clinch, each supposedly pummelling the other, but both quietly content with a system that keeps the perks flowing.
One alternative might have been radical localism, always a good idea in itself, and especially useful when you are trying to avoid politics breaking down along ethnic or tribal lines. Cantonalism has worked a treat for Switzerland. There were other possibilities, too.
But none of that matters now. Ireland, from Britain’s point of view, is the story of one missed opportunity after another.
We are stuck with a flawed arrangement, which one side saw as a permanent settlement, and the other as a transitional phase.
But it has become almost impossible to criticise that arrangement. Indeed, the deal is revered as Holy Scripture. Almost literally: refer to it by its correct name, rather than as the Good Friday Agreement, and you are liable to be ticked off.
Yet, 25 years on, the whole arrangement still has a provisional feel. The idea that politicians would move on to arguing mainly about tax or immigration has proved illusory. Elections are still dominated by the question of which country to belong to. Northern Ireland remains dependent on external subvention.
The gunmen, who were rejected by large majorities in both communities during the Troubles, have acquired a hideous retrospective glamour. A party that remains linked to a private militia is on the verge of being in office on both sides of the border.
No: let’s not pretend that this was the best we could have done.