An Immediate Assessment - Speech to the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, April 17th, 1998
When this Talks process began in earnest, in September 1997, I made certain promises to the people of Northern Ireland. I promised that I, and the Ulster Unionist Party, would only sign up to an agreement predicated on the acceptance and recognition, in law and practice, of the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom; that democracy must be restored to Northern Ireland; that the Irish Republic's territorial claim to Northern Ireland, as contained in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, would have to be abandoned; that the UUP would not agree to any form of North-South relationship which would establish a structure leading to an embryonic all-Ireland government; and that any relationship between Northern Ireland the Republic had to be contained within a British Isles framework, reflecting the totality of relationships within these islands.
I, and the UUP, have kept all those promises. The new Agreement reached at Castle Buildings is a disaster for Sinn Fein-IRA. Violent republicanism has failed to 'smash the Union'; in fact it has failed in all its stated objectives. Instead, Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom has been secured; the Act of Union, the fundamental piece of legislation defining Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom remains firmly in place; there has been the recognition of the consent principle by all shades of constitutional nationalism; a Northern Ireland Assembly will be established; the illegal territorial claim to Northern Ireland in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution has been removed and the South now accepts the legitimacy of Northern Ireland; the North-South Council has no executive powers, but instead a sensible North-South relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, based upon practical co-operation and mutual respect; the Anglo-Irish Agreement has been terminated and the Maryfield secretariat will be disbanded; there is to be a British-Irish Council recognising the totality of relations within these islands integrating Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the British and Irish governments.
The question Sinn Fein-IRA and its supporters need to ask themselves is this: did their 'Volunteers' serve long prison sentences for a North-South Ministerial Council, subject to a Unionist Veto and accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly, to discuss teacher qualifications?
The people of Northern Ireland are not fools. They can see that we have achieved all that we wanted in the constitutional arena. They will not listen to those voices who cry out 'treachery' and accuse us of selling the Union, whose primary objective is the destruction of this Party, whatever the consequences this would have for the future of Northern Ireland. They are the very people who have deserted the battlefield, who have no vision for a Northern Ireland secure within the United Kingdom. What is their alternative? The truth is they have none except the status quo; and that means the continuation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement; no control over our destiny; and a continual dilution of the Union. How ironic it is to see Unionist opponents of the Agreement making strange bedfellows with Sinn Fein-IRA.
Unlike others, who ran away from the fight, the UUP attended the Talks because we felt that the best way to defend and promote the cause of the Union was not by abstention but by fighting for our cause from within the Talks process; too often we have seen the wishes of the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland ignored and the imposition of so-called solutions, such as the Anglo-Irish Agreement, upon them. Sinn Fein-IRA wanted Unionists to leave the Talks process, in the hope that once again it would be left to the two Governments to impose a settlement on the people of Northern Ireland. By staying in the Talks the UUP thwarted this policy and represented the true interests of the pro-Union people.
What mattered most to the UUP negotiators above all else, was that the Talks process be used as a vehicle to strengthen the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For the first time since 1972, the people of Northern Ireland are to have the democratic deficit removed. For the first time in 26 years it will be for the people of Ulster to determine their future. No longer will we at the whim of Secretaries of State who neither care nor understand our Province.
In assessing the Agreement we should distinguish between those parts which relate to structures and those parts which relate to politics. The sections on constitutional issues, the Assembly, the new British Irish Council, North/South relationships these all relate to government structures which will be in place for some time while governments and policies come and go. When we talk of accepting the Agreement we think primarily of the structures. And we accept them. We have got the structures as good as they could be. They are safe. The Union is secure. Dublin cannot dictate to us. The British Isles dimension has been established.
On policies it is different. We are not bound to accept the policies that this Labour Government is pursuing. They are not so good. By policies I mean the so-called equality agenda, policing, prisoners and so on. On these we have pressed the Government for changes. We have already achieved some changes and we will continue to press for change.
It must be obvious that we are in a better position to achieve change in those policies within the new structures than without them. Obvious too, that if we reject the new structures we will have less chance of influencing and changing Government policy. Indeed these policies will go on without us! But we have already achieved change.
The policing section of the Agreement was rewritten to recognise the RUC's position and avoid two-tier policing. The RUC will remain a 'unitary force' with delegation of authority and responsibility remaining, ultimately, with the Chief Constable. Paramilitaries will not be recruited to the police or any reserve or auxiliary. We have sought and obtained an undertaking that that records of convictions for scheduled offences will not be expunged for this purpose. The 'independent 'Commission, with a small 'i', with a Scottish judge, a Canadian or Australian or New Zealander, and a Northern Ireland judge. Finally, there will be no reduction in the RUC's strength so long as the threat from Republican terrorist groups continues.
On the Government’s commitment to promote Irish, we ensured the few but crucial words, “where appropriate and where people so desire it”.
On the so-called equality agenda, the new human rights commission to take this forward will, unlike the present Commission, have “membership from Northern Ireland reflecting the community balance”.
On prisoners, a policy which is a blatant interference with the judicial process for political reasons, the scheme is more complex than first thought. Releases will be on licence and if violence returns they will cease and if released persons re-offend or present a risk to the public they will be recalled to complete their sentences.
This leaves the most sensitive area of a commitment to peaceful means. It would be quite wrong for paramilitaries to benefit from this agreement if they have not signed up and done their part. I am not talking about cease-fires, but about an unequivocal end to violence and for it to be clear that the 'war' is over.
Without this there should be no early release of prisoners and equally representatives of paramilitary related parties should not benefit from the proportionality rule in the new Assembly. On both these issues there are links in the Agreement. But they should be stronger.
The agreement explicitly links decommissioning to the requirement that those in office must be committed to democratic non-violent means. We were concerned that this was not robust enough. So we obtained an assurance from the Prime Minister, that if before executive functions were transferred to the Assembly, it appears that this provision would be ineffective, he will support the necessary changes. Before we reach that point legislation has to be enacted and standing orders drawn up. So we will have the chance to toughen this up ourselves.
But in case we fail and in case the Prime Minister lets us down, let me make it quite clear that any attempt to ease into office paramilitaries who have not proved a commitment to peaceful means by decommissioning or other equally effective means will precipitate a crisis in the Assembly. We will not serve alongside such persons.
This Agreement is the culmination of a process began by the current leader of the DUP and my predecessor, Lord Molyneaux, in 1988 when they wrote to the then Secretary of State, Tom King. We have succeed in replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement with a British Irish Agreement, as proposed separately by the UUP and the DUP in the 1992 Talks, which is a unique structure that allows all parts of the British Isles to consult and co-operate. The Irish Republic will be coming back into a formal relationship with all of the United Kingdom. But, just like any cross border co-operation between the Assembly and Dublin, it is voluntary. The Agreement is absolutely clear. All co-operation is subject to the authority of the Assembly and accountable to it. There will never be a meeting without a Unionist present and meetings must be unanimous.
These talks were about the principle of consent and the reality that the Union will continue for as long as that is the wish of the greater number of the people in Northern Ireland. We have been prepared to take on board the concerns of those within Northern Ireland who do not share our philosophy in order to produce a settlement which is fair and just for all the people of Northern Ireland without sacrificing our principles. In order to reach a settlement, the SDLP and the Irish Government have had to lower their horizons. As we expected Sinn Fein showed no evidence of compromise at the Talks. As both Governments and all the political parties at Stormont, with the exception of Sinn Fein, admitted, the settlement arising out of this process is a partitionist one based on the principle of consent. The Britishness of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, which lies at the heart of the matter, has been recognised by all of constitutional nationalism. It is for the people of Northern Ireland to determine the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.
We have sought and secured a permanent settlement not agree to a temporary transitional arrangement. More than that we have copper-fastened partition. The Union is secure.
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