Engaging Reality - Speech to the Young Unionist Conference, October 3rd 1998


Peter, thank you for the introduction. May I apologise for the fact that I’ve only just arrived here at this tail end of your conference? I’m afraid life these days is getting increasingly hectic and the matter, which has been absorbing most of my time today, is the Bill to implement the Agreement. It completed its Commons stages in July and goes into the House of Lords this Monday. The Bill, when it left the Commons, did so in an unsatisfactory state.

The Government indicated during the Commons stages that it was willing to accept amendments. The Northern Ireland Office has been consulting with us on this matter over the last few weeks and one of those consultation meetings occupied the entire morning. I proceeded from that to have a meeting with our party in the House of Lords. There was a one hundred per cent attendance of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Lords, I’m happy to say. I gave them a detailed briefing on the Bill. There are a large number of important changes still to be made to the legislation. Indeed, between the meeting with the NIO and the briefing with our Parliamentary Party in the House of Lords, I didn’t quite find time to squeeze in lunch. But I know I am fully within the tradition of Young Ulster Unionist Conferences by standing at the podium with a glass in my hand.

Something else, of course, in terms of tradition is that I found it quite entertaining earlier this week, to attend the Labour Party Conference with a number of colleagues Events proved and will continue to prove that there are no control freaks in the leadership of the UUP. We do not aspire to the same degree of control there as well. However, that is by way of introductory comments and also by way of apology for my late arrival and that apology will also have to serve the fact to the disappointment of the media here there is no text but merely some observations.

I thought what I would do is to reflect on things generally. I’m sure you have heard the comment that Harold Macmillan made years ago after some seven years as Prime Minister. He was asked what was the most difficult thing he had to cope with. Macmillan replied in his usual mock-Edwardian manner by saying “events dear boy, events”.

The most difficult thing to cope with, the most difficult things to deal with are events. Now anyone who is the position of political leadership, Prime Minister or whatever, obviously hopes to have some influence on events, hopes in some way to shape events, to create events. But no one is totally in control. While he may hope to shape events, to create and influence events, he is also at the mercy of events. He cannot choose what happens elsewhere in the world and nor can we: nor can we choose the situation with which we have to deal. We have, at all points, to respond to our actual situation.

The old Irish joke told of a man who, when asked how to get to a particular destination replied, “well I wouldn’t start from here”. It is an old joke and on some occasions it even gets a laugh. But the whole point about it is that it is a totally inappropriate comment. If you are going to a particular destination, you can only start from where you are; you cannot start from an imagined position, from an idealised position only from what is then your “here”.

Starting from where you are in terms of reality that has been our position throughout the last few decades. We know that at each stage we have to engage with reality, we have to deal with the concrete situation we face that we have to start from where we are. While we wish to influence and to shape events, while we wish to bring things about, we have to bear in mind that we are not the only actor and we have to deal with what happens elsewhere as well.

I went, a few weeks ago, to Armagh, at the request of Danny Kennedy, our Assembly member for Newry and Armagh, who was establishing a constituency office there. I’m delighted to see that service being available now for the people of that constituency and particularly for Unionist voters who have not had that sort of service in the past. I was struck by one comment that Danny made in speaking to the Ulster Unionist Party members present on that occasion. He reflected on the last number of months and said, “You know, it’s been a white-knuckle ride”. It has indeed been a white-knuckle ride - the events leading up to the Agreement at Easter, the referendum, the Assembly elections, the problems in the summer and, of course, the tragedy of Omagh in the autumn.

But when you are on such a ride, the sensible thing to do is to hold on. It is foolish to jump off or allow yourself to be thrown off. Indeed, those who do will inevitably then find themselves left behind and be in a bit of a mess. So when events come that are not the events you wanted or expected, you cannot jump off: you are on that ride and you have got to see the matter through or else you opt out. Of course, as Harold Macmillan discovered when he was Prime Minister – in office, you cannot opt out, you do not have the luxury of irresponsibility, like it or not, you have to cope with what is there.

The event that has caused the greatest problem to Unionists in recent years is the adoption by the Republican Movement of a different political approach. When the Republican Movement was wholly involved in terrorism it was simple enough, we knew what we were dealing with, we had lived with it year in year out, and our response was straightforward and simple. But then they changed their approach. Now we can discuss it, analyse it and argue about the nature of that change. Was it just as republicans would now represent it? Or was it was a series of changes as they adjusted to events as they happened? But it clearly has caused a challenge to Unionists to decide how to respond to the different approach adopted by the Republican Movement.

It was Martin Smyth who first drew attention to this change. It was on 12 October 1993 that he hinted at an end to republican violence. He said, “if Sinn Fein is showing good faith not to try to impose their will upon a majority people by terrorism, then there are those within Northern Ireland who are prepared to discuss with them what is best for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.” The suggestion that there could be an IRA cease-fire, an end to IRA violence and that Unionists could then talk to Sinn Fein came as a surprise. Martin, of course, put various qualifications on that relating to a cease-fire and disarmament. But it was a shock to many unionists who were accustomed to the on-going terrorist campaign and had categorised Sinn Fein and the Republican Movement simply as mindless terrorists.

But we ought to bear in mind that the campaign of violence was not going to go on forever: it was always going to end at some point. Now we would have liked to see it end in the unambiguous defeat of terrorism. But the ending has not, so far, been as clear-cut. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the reason for the change of approach by the Republican Movement was precisely because its leadership could see that their campaign was failing. They had developed the technique of the large car bomb very well. They could move bombs into our provincial towns; they could cause enormous damage costing eight to fifteen million pounds in compensation a time. They still had the capacity to kill. The number of operations, however, that they could run were steadily being reduced and the claim made by successive Chief Constables that four out of five Republican attacks were foiled appears to have been true. Anyone who doubts that need only read the account of the West Belfast Republican-turned-informer, Martin McGartland, in his book "Fifty Dead Men Walking”, or to read the very good book based on the diaries of Phoenix, one of the senior RUC officers killed in the Kintyre helicopter crash. The latter sets out Phoenix’s firm belief that the RUC were, on top of the problem and slowly grinding down the IRA.

Undoubtedly, the IRA were not winning. They could do damage but they could not “drive the British out”. The Republican Movement thought that their war of attrition would eventually bring about the disengagement by the British Government. Unfortunately some Unionists seem to think the same. But they should remember there is absolutely no objective evidence to support that view at all. A very significant fact about the last 25 years is that there has never been a political movement in England, for disengagement from the United Kingdom that had any significant political support. There was a few groups, largely Irish émigrés, loosely associated with the Republican Movement, but never with any significant political support and now of declining influence. There has never been a popular movement in England to call for disengagement. Do not confuse this fact with the response to opinion polls showing that most people would like to see the army withdrawn from the streets of Ulster. These are two different issues. In any event, a popular political movement is one that gets off its backside and goes out and tries to do something and to influence policy and that has never happened. That is the mark of the failure of the Republican terrorist campaign.

Behind the change in policy or tactics by the Republican Movement in the early nineties, was a realisation that their campaign was failing and that if the campaign continued then the only future was the slow decline and extinction of that campaign. I think that they decided that, while the campaign still had some life in it, they would try and cash it in for political advantage: some political concessions or developments. That, basically, is the origin of the so-called peace process, the Hume/Adams process, call it whatever you will.

We in the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Unionist community as a whole, were confronted with in the early nineties with this change of approach and had to respond to that change. Now, may I digress again for a moment by considering how you could respond to such challenges? There are a number of different ways in which to respond.

One of the characteristics in other Unionist parties is that their response usually is to set out idealist, impossible, fundamentalist positions because they do not seriously intend ever to do anything or engage seriously. One can do that. But that is withdrawing from reality. It is deciding that you are going to cling on to your own position irrespective of what is happening because you don’t actually intend to do anything. You are never going to be challenged by events. You are going to be just simply a party of permanent opposition. The resulting advantage is freedom from worry. If you are never going to do something, you will never have to take responsibility for things, or worry about getting it wrong. For even if you do make a mistake it will not matter because nothing was done, it was merely a matter criticism, a matter of words.

That has never been the position of the Ulster Unionist party. It is not a party of permanent opposition. It is a party that is actually trying to achieve something for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland and does not do that in a narrowly partisan manner. It is part of the heritage of this party. Because this party was, for a long time, the party of Government here in Northern Ireland and that has left an imprint on the psychology of this party. This is a party which believes it has responsibilities to people and tries to do something. Consequently it knows it has a responsibility to engage and not to indulge in posturing or the adoption of impossibilist positions.

A number of responses were possible to the changed situation. I remember a Parliamentary colleague saying at the time that we should simply to adopt a particular position and then present “a stone face” to the opposition. In effect he was recommending that we should not try to achieve anything and revert to saying “no” all the time. Now, there could be situations where we would be justified in doing that. I can remember when it was believed in this party that, if we closed down the avenues that Government was trying to explore, they would then be driven back to what we believed to be the only valid position that could be adopted, to the particular outcome we wanted, because there would then be no other way they could go. I know that there were people who thought that and at the time there was a reason for thinking that that was a viable strategy. That strategy was adopted for a while, but it led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. But closing down various options in the hope of driving them back to a democratic route did not work. The government went a different way, one that hadn’t been anticipated because it had not happened before. So simply saying “we adopt a stone-face to these challenges” does not necessarily get you where you want.

Another approach is to simply engage tactically. To a large extent, this is what I remember doing together with those who were involved in the 1975 Constitutional Convention. The United Ulster Unionist Council, which went into the Convention as a coalition, did so not expecting there to be agreement. Its original strategy was one of saying - “Let us present to those engaged in the process, and the public generally, a reasonable face. Let us show that we are reasonable men with reasonable proposals. Let us argue them through, debate them, not so much with the intention of seeking agreement, but of convincing Government that we are the reasonable people so that when deadlock is reached, the Government will then implement our reasonable proposals rather than someone else's”. That is what I call a tactical engagement. At that time it seemed to be a viable approach. Indeed some might say that our engagement in the talks in 1991 and 1992 were also essentially motivated by the same approach of trying to convince society and Government that we had reasonable proposals which we expected Government then to implement. It very nearly worked.

I have said on many occasions that I do not think it is realised how close we were to agreement in 1992. The reason why we did not get an agreement in 1992 was demonstrated by the other major participant in the talks when he turned and said to Jim Molyneaux “You must realise my problem Jim, I cannot agree to a system of administration in Northern Ireland based on an elected body”. We thought that statement was an ace card for us. It demonstrated who was reasonable and who was unreasonable. Indeed, I do remember the time when the then Prime Minister, John Major, had that conversation reported to him, he turned around in amazement to the Minister of State, Micheal Ancram, and said, “Did he really say that”. Ancram said, “Oh yes he did and he repeated it several times later”. The Prime Minister then said “Well then, that’s that isn’t it”. We thought, listening to that conversation, “Well there we are, this shows that there is only one sensible way to go”. We thought that that meant that the Government was going to move as we wanted. But matters did not turn out the way we thought.

The Government did eventually bring forward proposals. The proposals it eventually brought forward were the Framework Document. So that approach adopted did not work either. The problem that both of the two approaches I have mentioned, of the stone face and the reasonable face, is that they are essentially passive. They hope to operate by inducing a particular reaction by others, but that reaction does not necessarily operate as expected.

It reminds me of a quotation that I have used many times, that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. It might start off as planned but once you have engaged with your opponent, the plan will inevitably have to change because your opponent does things, the situation then may change and your plan may not survive that engagement. One must remember that a plan is merely the tactics that are used to achieve an objective. The objective is what counts and if the plan does not survive contact with the enemy, then the plan should be modified, if necessary to keep the objective in view.

The important point that I draw from this, generally speaking, is that it is not good enough to be passive, to adopt a tactic or an approach that consciously or deliberately leaves the decision in the hands of other people. At the end of the day, the more sensible thing to do is to be seriously engaged in the situation that you are in because you have to deal with that situation, you have to respond to it, to try and change it in the ways desired.

But you can only do that by getting engaged seriously in it. You cannot be a spectator, you cannot be someone who deals purely with an idealistic situation or an idealised situation or a situation as you would want it. You have to engage with it as it is. It is not always the way you like, and you can never be certain exactly how it is going to work out, but you have to engage. There is another crucial point. You have to engage with a degree of self-confidence. This latter point is a serious reproach to many Unionists. Perhaps it shows that the Republican campaign had more success than we realised. Many Unionists now seem to lack confidence in their arguments and in their abilities. Many have fallen into a self-pitying mode of saying “everybody is against us, we are doomed to defeat and it doesn’t matter what happens it is bound to fail”.

But it is not necessarily so. There are no inevitabilities about these matters except, of course that if you do not try you certainly will not succeed in doing anything. That is inevitable. But as to the outcome of an engagement, there are no inevitabilities. History does not operate on fixed lines. I learned that at an early stage, again in the early seventies. I remember at a time before I became actively involved in politics, arguing with a gentleman about the future. I made the awful blunder of saying to him that the tide of history might be moving in a particular direction. He jumped down my throat, told me I did know what I was talking about and left me with the instructions to go away and read Karl Popper’s “The Poverty of Historicism”. I did, and I recommend it to others. You’ll be glad to know that the gentleman, who advised me to read that book, was a member of Vanguard. That influenced my decision to join Vanguard when I entered politics in the first place. That will give you an idea of the quality of the political discourse at that time.

There are no historical inevitabilities. It is, at the end of the day, up to ourselves, our own abilities. Our efforts can sometimes achieve and I believe that the efforts that we have made over the course of last year have achievements to their credit. I will not go into them now because they are there and they speak for themselves. In those efforts we have not departed significantly, either from our own basic principles ourselves, or indeed from what other Unionists have done in similar circumstances.

Martin Smyth had predicted that an IRA cease-fire would have to be followed up eventually by direct discussions with Sinn Fein. I decided recently that I would respond to the request by Gerry Adams for a direct personal meeting. After that meeting, I very deliberately stood in the Great Hall in Stormont, to meet the press, in front of the statue of James Craig. I referred to James Craig’s example, thinking primarily of what he did in 1922. Under pressure from London, he agreed to direct talks between himself and Michael Collins, the leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the major figure in the IRA, and the Minister of Defence in the Provisional Government established by Sinn Fein in Dublin. The first meeting took place in London and Churchill described afterwards, how when the two gentlemen came face to face, he said that they “glowered magnificently at each other for a quarter of an hour, before speaking”. The discussions that have been taking place recently in Stormont were perhaps a little more mundane.

The circumstances at the time of the Craig/Collins meetings and the subsequent Craig/Collins pacts, however, were quite different to those at the time of my meeting with Adams. The more important of these agreements, that of 30 March 1922, was a comprehensive attempt to deal with a whole range of matters concerning Northern Ireland. It began with the grandiloquent statement that “Peace is declared today” and included what could, not unfairly be described as a joint committee to deal with policing matters. Of course, there were doubts as to the good faith of Sinn Fein, even then. Indeed Collins tried to double-cross Craig. While Collins was making agreements with Craig for co-operation on security matters he was, at the same time, supplying guns to the northern units of the IRA to be used in Northern Ireland against Craig’s government. This was suspected at the time but it did not lead Craig to break off the engagement or to walk away from the situation. He held his nerve until such time as it became clear who was cheating on whom. Indeed, significant aspect of the outcome of these agreements was that after the breakdown of the pact, the Tarrant report on the events in Belfast in the summer of 1922 made it clear who was responsible. In the end the political victor from that encounter was undoubtedly James Craig.

Now, history will not necessarily repeat itself this time as circumstances differ somewhat. But those events do show that the present circumstances and present challenges are not entirely new. Unionism has confronted challenges of this nature before. The actions of James Craig were controversial at the time within the party just as current actions are also controversial within the party. James Craig knew that he had to respond to the events, not in terms of what he would like to see, but in terms of what events actually were and the response that he brought did involve a genuine, serious engagement with reality. We have taken some risks, but Craig took much more. He could do so because he had bags of confidence in himself and in the movement of which he was head. I would love to see a modern, vigorous, self-reliant, self-confident Unionism. I would love to see us recovering the spirit of former generations. I would love to see a real belief in our own ability to represent ourselves and to respond to the circumstances. I think that many Unionists still have confidence in their cause. But it is somewhat distressing to find that there are Unionists who lack it.

I’ve dealt so far with important general principles. I am not going to go through the events of the last six months in detail. That would involve reopening of the discussion on the Agreement, how it was arrived at, whether it was just exactly the right balance or not, and so on. Those issues are now over and, rightly or wrongly, we have an agreement. Rightly or wrongly, that Agreement has been endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland and, rightly or wrongly, that Agreement has been endorsed by the Ulster Unionist party. So we proceed on that basis.

Now the Agreement is not guaranteed to work at all. I was asked, on the way in, by a journalist what my reaction was to a comment apparently made this morning by Willie Ross on whether the new administration would work. Willie was somewhat pessimistic about it, I believe. But, you know, his point is valid and may be accurate as to the future. It might very well be that the Assembly, in practice, turns out to be unworkable. I do not know. That risk is certainly present when there are elaborate provisions to protect minorities.

Incidentally, remember that we too are a minority, we have only twenty-eight seats out of the one hundred and eight in the Assembly. The Agreement does contain extensive provisions to protect minorities. That could lead to deadlock in the Assembly and deadlock could lead to breakdown. So it is possible that Willie’s pessimism will be right. Of course, the elaborate provisions to protect minorities are there because they were necessary in order to reach an agreement. Without them there would not have been enough confidence to reach Agreement. Indeed, in the last stages of the negotiations, it was certainly in my mind that these elaborate provisions for minority protection could be advantageous to us because we may also need to be protected.

So as a general proposition that these elaborate arrangements may not work is not without some validity. It is possible they may not work. The question then is what approach do you adopt? Do you use this possibility as an excuse to walk away? Or, because this will benefit people here, do you say that we will see whether they will work, whether they can be made to work? Then, if it turns out that there are problems, we will see if the problems can be cured and appropriate changes made.

The latter is my approach. There may be difficulties in operating the new institutions, but I have no doubt that the new institutions are very solidly in our benefit. Consider the alternative. Who really wants to put their hand up for another 25 years of Direct Rule? Who really thinks that life would be better under Mo Mowlam than under, well, Seamus Mallon and David Trimble? I am obviously prejudiced in my view as to the answer to that particular question but that is the alternative. Those who wish to return to Direct Rule are entitled to advance that proposition but I do not know that it will be popular.

When I say that there is no guarantee that things are going to work, that also applies to the issue at the forefront of everyone’s mind today. There is no guarantee that we are going to get over the present hurdle. That issue goes to the very heart of the present arrangements. It is the need to maintain the legitimacy, the integrity, of the Agreement. All of it is founded on a commitment to peaceful means and the democratic process. The question of the inclusion of Sinn Fein, whether in talks, in the Assembly or whatever, can only be based upon the proposition that they are moving from terrorism towards the democratic process.

When Martin Smyth first predicted a cease-fire and talks with Sinn Fein, he made it clear that we would need to be sure that republicans were genuinely moving from terrorism towards normal politics. Of course we know what that means. It means acceptance of the democratic process, acceptance of the consent principle, carrying these out in practice. Nobody can truly say that they are committed to the democratic process and to peaceful means while they are still insisting on holding to a private army with a huge arsenal. That is why, throughout this process, we have insisted on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapon and why we will continue to insist upon it.

The issue hasn’t gone away, it never was going to go away and it has to be resolved and it has to be resolved satisfactorily. There is only one way to do that. Some people have proposed various forms of fudge and, mudge. There was a time when the parties engaged in fudge and mudge – principally the British and Irish governments - could enforce those fudges on other parties. But the issue is not now going to go away. It cannot now be sidelined as it was during the inter-party talks. The reason is simple. From the time of the Assembly election, a series of events has been set in train. We have had the first meeting of the Assembly. It has started to make the necessary arrangements for structures so as to provide for the transfer of functions to the Assembly. And of course, once that transfer occurs, the Assembly has to actually run an administration. Those events cannot seriously be delayed significantly. They are following their course. The train is on the tracks, it is heading down to a particular destination and the issue of participation in that administration cannot be postponed indefinitely, nor can it be avoided. It is not possible to work round this issue; it only can be worked through. And there is only one way, at the end of the day, when it can be worked through and that is to see paramilitary decommissioning actually happening.

Now that is the position that we have adopted, that is the position I have reiterated, almost on a daily basis. It gets a bit boring to repeat oneself so much, but I don’t intend to change the message.

The Ulster Unionist Assembly Party is quite determined on this matter. My view is that there is only one way in which this will be resolved, that is by the Republican Movement actually commencing the decommissioning of its weapons. I think the reality is bearing in on them. This we have seen in the calls this week for decommissioning from the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, Seamus Mallon and John Hume. We have seen it also in statements from Bertie Ahern and, when Bill Clinton spoke in the Waterfront Hall he put decommissioning first in his list of things which have to be done. After Omagh, there is no significant segment of opinion anywhere that can see any reason why anyone should hold on to semtex, detonators, to hundreds of weapons. There are no excuses for these. I do not think that society is going to allow a handful of men, who are only one element of the Republican Movement, to destroy this process and defeat the hopes that people have invested in it. I think Seamus Mallon is right when he says that this issue is not going to be allowed to destroy the process: I do not think society is going to allow Sinn Fein to destroy the process over the head of this.

Peter, by virtue of being First Minister Designate, I have moved through several offices this summer, starting off with the great joy of occupying a room in that lovely block in Castle grounds from which we longed to escape for so long. Then I was moved up to Stormont, first to the second floor and then down to a room on the ground floor - a very nice comfortable room - but I do remind myself that the last Unionist elected representative to occupy the room was Brian Faulkner. It is a sign of achievement as well as a warning.

This party has endured a white-knuckle ride; it has come through it and survived it. It can point to achievements in terms of changing the context politically within Northern Ireland - changing the terms in which we engage with others and enhancing the standing of this party nationally and internationally, giving it a chance to now begin, in concert with others, to shape the future of Northern Ireland, knowing that the constitutional destiny of Northern Ireland, and its future, is in our hands. It is in their hands of the people of Northern Ireland, and in those of no one else. We have that, now clearly underwritten. That ought to give us the confidence to meet the challenges and to make the changes. To borrow another Labour Party slogan, I’m quite sure that in the present circumstances, if we keep on proceeding as we have done, I am quite sure that things can only get better.


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