"Time to Focus on the Future" - Speech at the Annual General Meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, Balmoral, Belfast, March 20th, 1999
Sir Reg Empey, Joan Carson and I have just returned from Washington, after what I think has been our best reception ever. There was general recognition of the key role, the crucial, constructive role, of the Ulster Unionist party over the last year.
While in Washington I bought George Mitchell’s book on the talks, which had just been published. It was interesting to read again about the arguments at the beginning of the talks over the chairmanship, the rules of procedure, the ground rules and so on.
Particularly interesting was George’s comment on these, “Trimble’s tactics had worked.” Here is his comment on others’ tactics. “The decision by Paisley and McCartney to quit the talks was predictable. Yet, if their objective was, as they repeatedly insisted, to end this process, then their walkout was a fateful error. Reaching agreement without their presence was extremely difficult; it would have been impossible with them in the room.”
I am sure that judgment is correct. It underlines the truth about the DUP. They are not really interested in succeeding with their policies. Their real interest is in striking postures, in scoring points. They care more about that than on whether unionism is winning or losing.
We, on the other hand, focussed on the big picture, on the long-term interests of unionism and on building a better future. And we have achieved something! Here is George’s final assessment of me at the end of his book.
“Every day of the nearly two years of the negotiations was for him a struggle to avoid being thrown off balance. Attacked daily by some unionists for selling out the union, criticised often by some nationalists for recalcitrance, he threaded his way through a minefield of problems, guided by his intelligence, his sure grasp of the political situation, and his determination to reach agreement. I believe that, in the end, Trimble did the right thing for the right reason: he saw the opportunity to end a long and bitter conflict.”
That is the bigger picture. That is the long-term goal – ending conflict, building a better future. Now, we stand on the threshold of creating a new Northern Ireland. It is tantalisingly close. Its realisation depends on the full implementation of all the Agreement.
The same determination and dogged hard work that we displayed in the talks has been applied steadily through the last year. We have successfully negotiated all the outstanding aspects of the institutional arrangements for the Assembly and the associated north/south and British/Irish Councils.
But at no stage have the anti-Agreement parties, four of them now! done anything to help. Worse, their division has robbed Unionism of a sixth ministerial position on the Executive.
Now we are near the end of the transitional period. We are ready for the transfer of power to the Assembly. We look forward to proceeding on an inclusive basis – a basis where through the broad executive or the comprehensive committee structure all elements in the Assembly can work together on this great project.
All the work needed to be done to enable the institutions to go live has been done. But on one issue there has been no progress, the commitment that all parties to the Agreement gave to “the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations”.
The statement issued yesterday by Prime Ministers Blair, Ahern and President Clinton rightly focuses on General de Chastelain’s “vital work to achieve progress on decommissioning”. But progress has yet to be achieved. That is why the three leaders called for implementation of all aspects of the Agreement, which, of course, includes actual decommissioning.
The reason for disarmament is quite simple. In Washington I met a congressman who said to me that many people in the US had difficulty understanding the need in a country awash with guns in private hands. What really mattered, he said, was whether there was a genuine commitment to the Agreement.
I replied that of course the underlying question was a commitment to the fundamental requirements of peace and democracy and I continued, “If there is a real commitment, then dealing with the weapons could not be a problem. But if dealing with the weapons is a problem then that implied that there is not a genuine commitment to the Agreement. And if there is no real commitment then we all have a problem.”
It is time for the problem to be resolved. As Bertie Ahern said, in the referendum we did not vote for an armed peace.
There is no alternative to the Agreement. None of the noes, whether republican dissident or self styled union firster, has produced one. And society throughout the British Isles does not want and will not tolerate a return to violence. So, it is not a question of whether, but when. For us the sooner the better. Then, after the credible beginning of the decommissioning process, we can all begin to leave the troubles behind.
It is time to focus on the future. Time to focus on the challenges and opportunities of devolution. It will transform the politics of Northern Ireland.
Already we are working on the programme for government.
There are so many challenges. Reforming the non-government structures. Sifting through the various Boards and Quangos to keep what is necessary and restore accountability. Facing up to hard choices on schools and hospitals, but this time making the decisions democratically. Using the greater access to European institutions to help Ulster’s agriculture through the inevitable changes to the CAP.
Above all we have the challenge of an economy distorted by the effects of thirty years of violence and instability. An economy that has too high a dependence on public sector spending. The public sector accounts for nearly 60% of gross domestic product and one third of jobs. Obviously this will change.
The private sector also has challenges. Too much is still in low value added area which are vulnerable to cheap foreign competition.
There is only one long-term solution. A shift into high tech high value added areas, an emphasis on economically self-sustaining activity, an end to the grant culture. It can be done.
The great success story of the last decade has been the entrepreneurial skills of Ulster folk. Small businesses started by local people have one of the best growth records of any part of the UK. They have consistently outperformed their equivalents in the Republic of Ireland, consistently adding 2-3,000 jobs a year.
Small firms now employ some 30% of those in manufacturing, compared to 10% twenty-five years ago. This is where most of the growth in the economy has come from. The skills are there. They need to be encouraged. They need to be spread more widely. We must not fear competition. We have world-beating firms here, but we need many more of them.
At the end of the day our greatest resource is our human capital. We are rightly proud of the quality of our education. We can rightly claim that our school leavers are, on average, better than those in any other part of the British Isles.
But the average conceals problems. Too many come out with poor attainment, few skills and low self-esteem. While maintaining the best aspects of our system, we must raise the floor. Education, training, skills must be the watchwords.
With the Agreement there is an enormous reservoir of goodwill for Northern Ireland. This together with our own resources can be used to transform our economy.
This Monday, in Washington I attended the announcement of a computer software service centre for Europe to be based in Belfast. High value jobs. Mr. Kim, the owner of the parent company spoke of how impressed he was by the Ulster work ethic. He said he saw Northern Ireland economically as the Hong Kong of Europe! We can do it.
The wounds and divisions of the past year must now be ended. Real Unionist Unity must start here in this party. Only a strong single Ulster Unionist party can provide for the future. Running the new administration will be difficult enough without self inflicted wounds.
The Agreement is a long-term investment in the future that has the potential to transform the face of society in Northern Ireland.
It secured Unionism’s constitutional objectives. It guaranteed the Union through the principle of consent. An equitable and fair administration with nationalist participation will strengthen our future within the Union.
It replaces the Anglo-Irish Agreement, abolishes the territorial claim and brings cross border co-operation under the aegis of the Stormont Assembly.
Unionism in the past twelve months has gained more international respect and recognition than it has in the past thirty years. We have countered Republican propaganda despite all its resources and networks. We did it because we have the better case.
Take a drive around Belfast. Look at the Waterfront development. A project started by Ulster Unionists and SDLP on the City Council. We all remember the comments of Sammy Wilson when he criticised our Fred Cobain and christened the development ‘Cobain’s folly’.
Already we have a prominent and prestigious development, generating new life and new revenue in the city. The BT Tower, the Hilton hotel, the apartments, with more business and leisure development to come. By 2001 investment there is projected at half a billion and jobs at 10,000.
All of this built from a wasteland by the drive and dogged determination of Ulster Unionists in co-operation with nationalists in the City Council.
There are some parts of the Agreement which are difficult for us. But they are mainly short-term. As we enter the new millennium, those with misgivings will see the future under the Agreement is much better than the last 27 years under direct rule. The time has come to take control of our future. We must not let it go.
Monsignor Denis Faul on Talkback on Tuesday in the aftermath of the murder of Rosemary Nelson said that the killing re-inforced the need for an end to all violence
He said ‘I believe the majority of people in the catholic community have moved on. They believe now in the alternative to violence, which is education, hard work and respect for the rights of others.’
I agree. It is time to move on. Time for all of us to move on.
This Ulster Unionist party is ready, the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland are ready, ready for the hard work of building a Northern Ireland of which we will be proud!
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