Speech to the Annual General Meeting of the Upper Bann Ulster Unionist Association, January 29th, 2005

Ulster Unionist Party Leader David Trimble, speaking to the Annual General Meeting of the Upper Bann Ulster Unionist Constituency Association at Banbridge Orange Hall, 29 January 2005, said:

"In early December the Government issued what it called its "Proposals for a Comprehensive Agreement". Its use of the term "Agreement" is misleading for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has confirmed that not one word of the 1998 Agreement needs to be changed as a result. Nevertheless the DUP accepted the Proposals, subject only to there being a photograph of the weapons and material that would be decommissioned.

Among those proposals was a requirement that Sinn Fein and the DUP would during January engage in intensive negotiations to agree the modalities of the devolution of policing and justice powers. Meanwhile the Republican Movement was finalising plans for the Northern Bank raid. Indeed one of the Prime Minister´s right hand men was in Belfast, talking to republicans on the very day the raid occurred. It is a sign of the republicans´ arrogant belief that they are above the law that the raid would have gone ahead irrespective of whether the DUP agreed to reform the inclusive Executive or not. There could not be clearer evidence of republican bad faith.

Just after the Proposals were published the Irish government pointed out that the statement then issued by the IRA was unacceptable because it did not rule out criminal activity: the implication being that unless the omission was repaired, the Irish and presumably the British government also would not proceed. We also expressed concern about this as did some other parties. But the DUP were reported to be unconcerned.

One consequence of the concern expressed over criminality was that it put republicans on clear notice of this issue well before the raid. But the raid went ahead. The only conclusion possible is that given a choice between politics and criminality, the Republican Movement gave priority to criminality. Nationalists who lent their votes to republicans to encourage progress towards normality, only to now learn that they have given a mandate for crime, will want to think again.

For nearly seven years we and others have been trying to make the inclusive structures envisaged by the Belfast Agreement work. We knew that that not everything would be achieved immediately, but we insisted that there had to be clear evidence that republicans were engaged on a transition towards peace and normality, which would involve republican support for law and order, and we repeatedly made it clear that we could not continue in the administration without that transition progressing .

The failure of republicans to complete decommissioning together with their paramilitary and criminal conduct in Colombia, Castlereagh and Stormont and other cases led to the our ultimatum to the government and the subsequent suspension of the Assembly in October 2002 and the call for the clear completion of the process in the Prime Minister´s speech at the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office later that month. In that speech the Prime Minister spoke of republicans being at a fork in the road and of the need for them to make an unequivocal and irrevocable choice for peace and democracy.

A major effort by government in the spring of 2003 to get republicans to decide ended inconclusively. After extensive talks, we aborted a planned sequence in October 2003 because republicans failed to deliver on transparent decommissioning and because the IRA failed to stand up Sinn Fein words on the future peaceful and democratic conduct of the Republican movement.

Now in the aftermath of the Northern Bank raid, taken together with all republicanism´s failures over these years, we all have to face the reality that republicans have consistently failed to make an unequivocal choice in favour of the basic principles of the Belfast Agreement. To date they only offer more process, not completion and have repeatedly refused to reform themselves. For the government to continue to repeat some of the phrases in the Harbour Commission speech two and a quarter years later is to demonstrate a serious lack of policy or determination or both.

It is not acceptable for government to wait indefinitely for republicans to make up their mind. That simply punishes the whole community for the misdeeds of a few, and hands a veto on local democracy to a criminal gang.

For our part we have said that in our view the Unionist electorate would not support, or tolerate now or in the foreseeable future the formation of an Executive that would include Sinn Fein. This is not just a result of the Northern Bank Raid, but of all that has gone before, and in particular of the circumstances of the failures in October 2003 and early December 2005, which go beyond co-incidence and indicate some systemic failure with republicanism. I have added that if Mr Adams were to ask me, which he has not done, how he could rebuild Unionist support for such an Executive, I would reply that I have simply no idea how that could be done in the short term.

There is a reality here. Either we resign ourselves to direct rule for what might be some time, or we find another way forward. I prefer, I think we all prefer to find another way forward. A number of suggestions have been made. Some have referred to the so-called Prior Assembly that existed from 1982 to 1986.

Here we must distinguish between Prior as it actually existed and Prior as it was hoped it would have been. The former was a purely consultative body whose committees could call for papers and interview officials and make recommendations and to whose Assembly Ministers sometimes deigned to make statements. Prior was intended to be a process, called "rolling devolution". The consultative stage was just a first step the end product was a cross community executive with the Assembly being able to propose how it was going to get there.

I suspect that government today would be content with the thinking behind Prior as it was intended to be. Indeed there is no real need to revive it for if the parties here came forward with a consensus on how to restore a cross community executive the government would be delighted. Our problem is that there is no overall consensus. Sinn Fein stands outside the consensus that the Agreement´s insistence on peace, democracy and legality must be upheld, and there is not yet a consensus among the rest on how to proceed.

As to the consultative assembly, we have no shortage of consultation today. As for accountability, we have that too through mechanisms at Westminster, the Select Committee and the Grand Committee which did not exist in 1982. The need is for an Executive so that decisions can be taken by persons who are locally elected rather than by persons, no matter how well intentioned, with no organic connection with the community here.

There is a further factor. Some seem to think governments can change course at will. But both governments are constrained by the 1998 Agreement, which having been approved by an overwhelming majority in the referendum cannot lightly be set aside. For the Irish Government the problem is even more acute. They changed their constitution on the basis of the agreement and, in some senses, incorporated the agreement into that constitution. For them the absence of the central core of the agreement, namely the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive, is a major difficulty. For example, the North-South Ministerial Council cannot really operate in the absence of Northern Ministers. Their place cannot really be taken by Northern Ireland Office Ministers for they are part of the British executive. The Irish had a relationship with British Ministers in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. But they dropped that in favour of what for them was a better arrangement, namely a relationship with Ministers who really represented Northern Ireland, and in particular a relationship with unionists. For us, a return to the pre-1998 situation is a very real step back. For the Irish it is also in conflict with their constitutional changes.

This factor also rules out any reworking of the Assembly which does not have executive authority discharged by Ministers. So the DUP´s Corporate Assembly and its variants are not runners. They also are bad from a unionist perspective. Unionism today is saying that it cannot share power with Sinn Fein in an Executive. That stance is weakened if unionists say that they will share power indirectly or in a disguised manner through something like the Corporate Assembly. If unionists say that others will conclude that in time unionists will return to the inclusive Executive and, they will wait for that to happen. So, if we want others to move from inclusion as it has been practised to date, then we must rule out lesser forms of inclusive devolution.

But can governments who regard the Agreement as the bedrock of their policy move from inclusion? I think they can. The essence of the Agreement is that devolution should operate on a cross community basis. Yes, there was the d´Hondt mechanism which includes the major parties in the Executive. But the inclusion in the Agreement of a duty to exclude those not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means shows that an inclusive Executive was not an overriding requirement. It is a means to an end, and the end, I would suggest is a cross community administration among those committed to the Agreement´s fundamental principles.

At present it looks as if neither government shares this analysis or is prepared to follow its logic. Yet until they do the situation here will continue be stuck. For they must realise that the political position in Northern Ireland today is not what it was in 2002 at the time of Blair´s Harbour Commissioners speech. If republicans had responded fully and promptly then the inclusive Executive could have been reformed. But this is not possible today. We can however keep alive the essential spirit of the Agreement. But if we do not move now to do this there is the prospect that the situation will degrade further. Republicans made the mistake of thinking they could play with the process indefinitely. Government must not compound that mistake."

(January 29th, 2005)


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