Lord Trimble of Lisnargarvey - Speech to a fringe meeting at the 2006 Conservative Party Conference

Iain Dale in extending the invitation to me to speak at this event suggested that I say something about political parties in Northern Ireland. This is a subject that I considered when addressing the Conservative Conference some years ago, and I am happy to return to it.

Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and, as a Unionist, my most fundamental objective is to –strengthen the union. Yet in terms of political parties, Northern Ireland is clearly apart from the rest of the United Kingdom. You would be forgiven for thinking that from a Unionist perspective, this is quite wrong and that it ought to be the objective of all Unionists to bring Northern Ireland wholly within the United Kingdom’s political set-up.

There are, of course serious reasons for the differences. These go back to the origin of the Ulster Unionist party, which are to be seen, not just in the growth of Irish nationalism, but in Gladstone’s sudden abandonment of the Union.

That crisis produced a realignment in British politics. It saw Conservatives and Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists coalescing to fight for the following 40 plus years under the simple title of “Unionist”. In Scotland it saw a marginalised Conservative party become a major, often the majority, party under the same name. And in Ulster, local Conservatives, Liberals, and some members from a trade union and labour background came together to form the Ulster Unionist party. But remember, right there at the birth of this movement, is the need to respond to a threat that came from one of the parties of government in the United Kingdom. You see this too in the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905, prompted by a scheme floated by some in the government of the day.

The arrival of a devolved Parliament in the 1920s reinforced this distinctiveness, but did not create it. This distinctiveness was a rational response to the continuing siege of Northern Ireland by Irish nationalism and continuing tendency within some elements here on the mainland to be weak on the Union.

But as I said to this Conference in 2001,

“it has this disadvantage - politics in Northern Ireland are based on a nationalist framework of reference. Parties are based on the fundamental issue of whether they are for or against a united Ireland.

“Compare Scotland. Parties there are based on a British framework of reference. The major British parties are there providing to the Scottish people the full range of British politics and then, alongside them there is a Scottish nationalist party. To a British person who wants to see and take part in British politics, the Scottish model is preferable to that we have in Northern Ireland.”

In 2001 my primary objective was to get the Assembly firmly settled and then it would have been my aim to end our arms length relationship with national politics. I thought that the latter would become practical politics for three reasons.

First, the Belfast Agreement in 1998 had finally settled the constitutional issue. That was clear to me on 10 April 1998 and it is even clearer today. The Irish state has dropped its irredentist claim in favour of recognition and co-operation. Irish nationalism, north and south is content with the present structures. Oh, some republicans continue to dream, but they know in their heart that their last and longest assault on the realities of Northern Ireland was a bloody failure, wasting thousands of lives. It is also clear that there is now no significant element in the British state that will try to compel Northern Ireland, whether it wills it or no, to leave the United Kingdom.

Secondly, the establishment of the institutions of the Agreement, with their inclusion of the representatives of northern nationalism, would meet their sense of identity and end their sense of grievance with both unionists and the British state. It would also, I thought within a short time, facilitate their greater involvement within British public life to match their increasing involvement in the British economy and society generally.

And, thirdly, that greater involvement would become necessary as they appreciated the inevitable limits of devolution. It is not possible, given the nature of British society, economy and fiscal structures to have wide differences on governmental policies from one region to another. The major decisions on taxation, expenditure and public policy are and will continue to be made centrally. Of course there is room for devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and certainly a need for more subsidiarity in England, preferably in the shape of a revitalised local government. But there is a need for everyone to be fully represented and involved where those major decisions are made. This last point also needs to be reflected on by folk here in England.

In a few weeks we will know whether the Assembly will function, or perhaps disappear for a maybe a decade or more. In any event my view of the order of priorities has changed since 2001. Indeed it is one of my biggest regrets that the opportunities that arose at that time were not taken. It is not generally known that at that time there were discussions about the creation of a parliamentary alliance between out two parties that would have achieved my oft stated objective of putting Ulster Unionism at the heart of British politics. As so often there were what seemed to be good reasons at the time for proceeding with deliberation, but events conspired against us, and now we are where we are.

So where do we go from here? Well, we should welcome a little progress. Labour is about to allow its members in Northern Ireland to form branches. It seems, however, that they are going to fight a pointless rearguard action trying to deny them the right to put up candidates. Someday someone in the Labour party will explain exactly what motivated their extraordinary refusal of basic civil rights to everyone in Northern Ireland while hypocritically and wrongly lecturing us. I am sure the explanation will be wholly discreditable to them, but my imagination is baffled. I see the move has been criticised by Brian Feeney, the eccentric nationalist commentator. This should reassure Labour that they are on the right road!

What should conservatives do? Given the recent eclipse of my party by the DUP, some might ask if Conservatives should look in that direction. But the DUP is not a normal party as that term is understood in British politics. In case you feel I might not be wholly objective in saying this, let me quote from a recent article by Dr Clifford Smyth - a former deputy leader of the DUP and a biographer of Ian Paisley, writing about the DUP in the August 2006 issue of Parliamentary Brief -

“The DUP is comparable with parties in the Republic of Ireland, particularly Fianna Fail. Both the DUP and Fianna Fail exhibit a form of ‘democratic centralism’ similar to that in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Both parties are unforgiving towards those who speak out of turn, or buck tight internal discipline. Including … jettisoning party candidates who have lost favour. Under PR, party bosses can allocate to a candidate a ward in a multi-member constituency where he has little prospect of gaining sufficient votes …

“Paisley himself fulfils a role not unlike that of an Irish chieftain of old, commanding total loyalty from his tribe. He combines the roles of an Old Testament prophet and a politician.

“Kinship plays a crucial role, with both wives and offspring standing for election. They build on the vote-catching prowess of their relative … Another similarity with parties in the Republic is the ingrained parochialism which militates against creative thinking. This indicates that Paisley’s party could accommodate itself to Ireland’s political culture.

“The progressive faction of the DUP may have a more pragmatic view of the future. Would they be willing to make the adjustment to an all-island solution, an idea first mooted by Desmond Boal, a key figure during the party’s formative years?”

The same idea was mooted not long ago by Conor Cruise O’Brien then a colleague of Bob McCartney, a one time self styled liberal unionist whose stock in trade now is to attack Paisley from the right. In addition a number of the younger DUP have been heard privately musing on the power they would have in an Irish parliament. It is a huge paradox that many voted for the DUP, thinking they were voting for harder line unionists, but they are in fact supporting a party whose leader once publicly flirted with a united Ireland and some of whose members do so privately today.

This is not as strange as it might seem when you consider other aspects of the DUP. The party is the creation of the permanent leader of the Free Presbyterian Church – that is the Ulster variety, a very different one from the Scots “wee frees”. In Ulster Free Presyterians provide the hard core of party activists and the social and religious views of that Church permeate the party, to the extent of ruling out the idea of it working closely for any period with those who do not share those views. On social issues these are people not just out of touch with modern Britain, but out of sympathy with it too. This is helps to explain why the more traditional society to their south sometimes looks tolerable.

I do not wish to labour the particular socio-religious outlook of the DUP. Everyone will have their own opinions on it. It has provided their bedrock support over the years. It is my view that given a choice between that bedrock support and the broader based support the DUP have gained in recent years the leadership of that party will stick firmly to the former. This may be their Achilles’ heel. For example, we can tell from opinion polling that the most liberal population group in social terms in Northern Ireland are young protestant women. The same polling tells us around 80% of them voted DUP in 2005. We can surmise they did so to show the extent of their disgust with the behaviour of republicans and what the London Editor of the Irish Times calls Mr Blair’s congenital inability to face down Sinn Fein. We can imagine what will happen if that disgust cools and they come up against the reality of the DUP’s attitudes on other matters.

Conservatives may decide to continue as they do in terms of having members in Northern Ireland who are organised and contest some elections, and I would not want to suggest otherwise. And I see that you have picked up a couple of good new members recently. But such individual actions are not going to produce a realignment.

Turning to the November deadline, the Government purports to be optimistic that republican decommissioning, with the continued improvement in the quality of life and diminishing levels of criminality, expected to be confirmed by Wednesday’s IMC report and a move of some sort by republicans on support for policing will enable the DUP to be pragmatic. And it may be that there is a shift in the popular mood in that direction and that the pragmatic wing of the DUP is inclined to move. But will the fundamentalist bedrock of the DUP move? I doubt it. For them this is a matter of good versus evil. Do not expect a debate within that party. There the Fuhrer prinzip obtains.

What will be the fall out? The government has no “plan B”. But others have. Republicans and may be the Irish also will press for some form of joint sovereignty dressed up as joint management. That may be resisted by government, but a collapsed Assembly and a refocused nationalism will represent a major strategic reversal for unionism and grave risk to stability. The Review of Public Administration which is now taking the form of a sectarian carve up of Northern Ireland will only make things worse.

In June, in my maiden speech in the Lords, I posed the question, is the government’s priority in Ulster to produce an inclusive executive or a normally functioning society?

If it takes the latter as its lodestone, then concentrate on policing, reducing criminality ending, ending its toleration for “community justice” and working to provide healthy local political structures.

The latter, in a post November context, would include ending those features of direct rule that distance the people from involvement in their affairs, enhancing further local government, but on a fairer and more decent basis than the Rooker carve-up.

The “Plan B” should be one that treats everyone in Northern Ireland fairly and equally and treats them all as if they were truly British citizens, so that they could all have the chance of contributing their talents on the greater political stage that Britain provides.

And I would still hope, as I have hoped over the years, that our two parties could find ways of working closely together, so that I and my colleagues could lend our support to the very welcome and long overdue resurgence of this great Conservative and Unionist Party.

(October 3rd, 2006)


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