Speech by the Rt Hon David Trimble to the 2003 Ulster Unionist Party Conference


"We meet amid uncertainty. Will there be an election? When will it be? Will it lead to the restoration of Stormont? Will republicans finally do what should have been done years ago and complete the transition to peace and democracy? Those are only some of the questions we face.

I will try to address them, but before then some comments on the proceedings so far.

First, a warm welcome to Paul Murphy, who is here as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and as representative of the major national party. His presence here, like that of guests in previous years, is a reminder that we are not just a regional party. We participate fully in the national politics of the United Kingdom.

May I say Paul, that we welcome your party’s decision to stop discriminating against the people of Northern Ireland in the question of membership. It is a matter of simple justice. It is a small step towards more normal politics. At some time we will have to reflect on how our position on normal bread and butter issues should evolve, and also on our relationship with national politics.

May I also say Paul, that I hope your party’s decision to stop discriminating will be followed by your government’s decision to stop discriminating in police recruitment.

Before Paul’s speech we had a good debate on terrorism. Paul may not agree, but many here see a difference between the Government’s attitude before and after the attacks on the two towers and the Pentagon on 9/11. Be that as it may, what is important is that the Government make it absolutely clear that as far as they are concerned the next few years will not be like the past. That there will be no excuses for paramilitary violence such as "internal house-keeping" - that foot dragging on decommissioning, on commitments to peace and democracy, will not be tolerated.

Which of course brings me to the question of what is required for a restoration of the Assembly. In our Ulster Unionist Council resolution in September 2002 we said it had to be clear that the transition to peace and democracy was "proceeding to a conclusion". In its Declaration this April, the Government said that "it must be clear that the transition … is being brought to an unambiguous and definitive conclusion." Our Party Executive, in its comprehensive resolution on the Joint Declaration a fortnight ago, "emphatically endorsed" that statement.

That resolution also called for acts of completion from republicans. Acts which would deal with decommissioning, paramilitary violence and the effective winding up of paramilitary organizations. But we did not, as some suggest, say that every jot and tittle must be complete before we would proceed. Neither the Government’s formula nor ours say that everything must be done first. Rather both envisage a sense that paramilitarism coming to an end soon. And perhaps the most important aspect of that sense is an acknowledgement by republicans that the Belfast Agreement is a settlement - that it provides the full and final closure of the conflict.

I came across some recent focus group opinion research that interestingly looked particularly at the views of working class Protestants and anti-Agreement Unionists. Its key finding was, "the ‘war’ is over, but the battlefield needs cleared up". A huge part of clearing up is being honest and candid, but also being charitable.

We are waiting to see if these acts of completion will be done. The issue is simple. Republicans know what has to be done it has been absolutely clear since April. They need to make up their mind. Society cannot be expected to wait for ever.

"Republicans may regard these as huge steps, huge concessions to unionism. But we would say to them, these are not simply unionist demands. This is what the Agreement sets out again and again as its overriding objective.

These are the reasonable expectations of every member of a modern society. The folk on the streets of Andersonstown and the Creggan want peace and democracy just as much as we do. And here in Armagh, people want to be able to live their lives without being kidnapped and murdered if they have offended a local paramilitary boss. And while we think of the recent kidnapping and suspected murder of a local Catholic lad by mainstream republicans, we also remember the abduction of two Protestant boys after a night out in Tandragee and their gruesome murder by loyalist paramilitaries.

It is simply right that all these things should end.

But then comes the concern, what concessions are republicans demanding for their good behaviour?

There is, linked to the Joint Declaration, a repeat of the proposals concerning fugitives from justice, the so-called OTRs. A foolish promise made by the Prime Minister at Hillsborough in 2000, when he had not been fully advised. We have so far successfully blocked that, and, if the Liberal Democrats retain a shred of their integrity, will continue to do so.

No reasonable person objects to human rights, equality of opportunity and normalization. These are matters, referred to in the Declaration, which, if handled properly, would not appear to the man in the street as concessions. Problems arise mainly because the government is not handling matters sensibly - a prime example being the proposal to close all the army bases in this county! We continue to urge a more sensible and sensitive line on this and other matters.

The matter which republicans have raised most often is policing and justice. Their desire is to see early devolution of these matters. In principle we too want devolution and would hope to see that happen within the lifetime of the next Assembly. But public confidence is crucial. It needs to be seen that the Assembly is sufficiently robust and durable. The public also needs to be sure that the Assembly and its Ministers, individually and collectively, are capable of handling these responsibilities.

Acts of completions would address the issue of durability. Support for policing, and participation on the Policing Board, which are part of the working out of these acts, would further build the necessary confidence. The Assembly could then address the issue of how it would discharge responsibility for policing and the detailed steps by which that responsibility would be transferred.

But I have to underline that it is simply absurd for people to have any responsibility for policing if they are linked to a private army! So much as we would like to see it we cannot support the devolution of policing until Sinn Fein have resolved to support the police and the IRA have taken the inevitable step, consequent on such support, to wind up, or transmute their organization into something entirely peaceful and democratic. So any timescale for devolution is a timescale for these other matters.

Remember, devolution cannot occur without a vote in the Assembly on a cross community basis – so it requires unionists to vote for it. So, it is not just that this matter cannot be rushed. It is the final copingstone that can only go into place when all else is complete.

It is part of the huge paradox of politics today. Republicans are so keen on having Stormont, that they are prepared to change the whole nature of their movement, to give up the bad habits of their lifetime, not for a united Ireland, but for a share of power within a Northern Ireland that remains unambiguously part of the United Kingdom.

No wonder they try to camouflage this change by suggesting that a united Ireland is just around the corner. Their favourite camouflage was demographic change. Until publication of the latest census figures made it clear that such change was a daydream. Today, elsewhere in Armagh they are publishing a paper on building a united Ireland through something they call planned integration. Well they can plan all they like, but it can’t happen without our consent, and we prefer to remain simply British.

The Government has said that, when they are satisfied that there will be acts of completion, which will enable the resumption of the Assembly, they will call an election. If that requires important decisions by us, those decisions will be subject to debate and democratic decision by our Executive and Council. I have never yet taken a major step without consulting the Party, and I am not going to start now.

If there is an election then you can be sure that the DUP will launch a vicious attack on us. But have you noticed while we have been negotiating how quiet the DUP have been? This is the Party that now says it wants to negotiate. But when there is a negotiation going on it has nothing to say. I do not expect them to be immediately knocking on Mr. Adams’ door. Well anyway not in public. But you might wonder why they have not been to see the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister. Do they have a position on decommissioning, paramilitarism and devolution? They can’t just say they’re against it all. If they are against everything there is nothing to negotiate.

Saying you want to negotiate means there is something you want so much that you will compromise. But don’t expect them to be honest and tell the public what those things are. The loudness of the DUP campaign is to divert attention from the truth they cannot tell.

But we know what they are doing. Six years ago they refused to negotiate and set out to destroy the Agreement that we created. Now they want to negotiate. But they have by their conduct accepted the Agreement and everyone knows that the mantra of renegotiate is just a fig leaf for that acceptance.

They are trailing along behind us taking advantage of our hard work, hoping that when that work is completed, they can nip in and snatch the fruits of our labours. But if they were to succeed it would be a disaster for unionism. Does anyone think that the DUP are capable of making the hard choices that life often demands? This is the party that has never shouldered responsibility, that has always been in opposition. It has no achievements, no ideas, no alternative, no hope, no leadership.

Across Northern Ireland, working class communities share in the desperate experience of deprivation. But the experience of the Protestant working class is quite distinct. For example in levels of educational underachievement; population decline; paramilitary influences; physical degeneration. Many Protestants in working class areas feel left behind.

That is not to ignore the achievement of some community projects in some Protestant areas. Rather it is to address the urgent need to tackle the weak community infrastructures in other Protestant working class areas.

The DUP - full of phony promises. Fuelling fears and ducking responsibilities, never put food on anyone’s table, never created any jobs or improved anyone’s quality of life.

The DUP won’t be re-negotiating the length of the dole queue, or the hospital waiting times, or the social deprivation that surrounds and entraps so many decent people.

There are people working on this issue. People with their roots in these areas.

The group I am referring to is the Government recognised ‘Community Convention and Development Steering Group’. The work of this group was the keynote of the announcement made yesterday by John Spellar MP on proposed pilot community conventions for Protestant working class communities. We have been happy to help this work progress. Many of its ideas grow out of our experience in North Belfast.

Together we have set about refocusing on key issues, such as:

Connecting real politics to local community needs;

Developing proper effective local capacity building;

Identifying opportunities especially for young people, for women and the unemployed;

Exploring means of creative expression through arts and culture;

And planning for the physical and environmental renewal of disadvantaged communities.

Now don’t say that a devolved Assembly is not worth the effort!

It is traditional at Conferences and Annual General Meetings to appeal for party unity. After the summer I spent a week touring round the constituency associations. One message came over again and again. Our biggest problem is the mixed message, the constant infighting. Only a fortnight ago we made considerable efforts at the Executive to agree a position. In doing so we were making it easier for the three MPs to resume the whip. Now they refuse. They say Roy is unreasonable in asking them to abide by the whip.

In September the Ulster Unionist Council by a clear majority called on them to take the whip and abide by its decisions. They may also recall that when they were selected they undertook, and I quote:

"I will join the Ulster Unionist Parliamentary Party and accept the Ulster Unionist party Whip. … I will support fully the policies and objectives of the Ulster Unionist Party. "

Gentlemen, would you please decide whether you prefer to be independent members or if you really do want to be part of a political party?

When I became Leader of this great party it was clear that successive British administrations had little understanding of, and no sympathy for, Ulster Unionism. Throughout the whole period from the prorogation of the Stormont Parliament in 1972, one by one, the signs, symbols, touchstones and benchmarks which had defined and fashioned Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom, had been removed, blurred or weakened. Indeed, matters had become so bad for unionism, that in November 1990, Secretary of State Peter Brooke said:

"The British Government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland."

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration, the Frameworks Documents, the secret talks with the IRA, the yielding to one republican demand after another, the exclusion of unionism from a say in its own future, the easing of Northern Ireland into a sort of constitutional limbo, the relentless pressure on unionist leaders to tolerate the upending and skewing of democratic standards and practices - that was the legacy of Direct Rule. Nationalism believed its final triumph was just around the corner.

Sinn Fein’s policy was that partition was inherently bad and needed to be ended. The unionist veto had to be ended. The British needed to announce a date for withdrawal. They rejected reform within Northern Ireland. An internal solution they said only served to try and make British rule more acceptable - "Stormont is not a stepping stone to Irish unity." There would be no involvement by Sinn Fein in any form of government which legitimised the British presence.

All that has changed. Eight years ago we were marginalized. Even when John Major needed support from the UUP, he still managed to negotiate with the IRA and deliver both the Downing Street Declaration and the Frameworks Documents. Now this party is recognised as being central for the future of Ulster. Now this party is respected throughout the Kingdom. Northern Ireland is recognised, unambiguously, as a full component part of the Kingdom. The Ulster roots and outlook of Colonel Tim Collins and Lord Hutton are noted with approbation by the national press. Notions of joint authority have evaporated. This very week nationalists have complained that Bertie Ahern has been too close to our position.

Whatever happens to the Belfast Agreement in the next few months, one thing is certain; Ulster Unionists are stronger now than for decades. Just a few weeks ago, the combined efforts of the DUP MPs with our dissidents and one dissident Tory failed to make an impact on the legislation which our Executive endorsed last fortnight. Meanwhile, we, working with many others in parliament, obtained improvements to the Bill, which would have been greater but for the idiosyncrasy of some Lib Dem peers.

Unionism cannot act unilaterally. We are not in a position to determine our future alone. The Union is a two-way process and if it is to be secured and strengthened then it must be with the support of Westminster and the UK Government. That is a simple fact of life. No-one can march into 10 Downing Street and demand that their agenda, and their agenda alone, be satisfied.

When we say we are simply British, we say we are content to operate within these realities. We also say we are comfortable to be where we are. Confident in ourselves and our ability to work with our fellow citizens. Quietly proud of our role in the world and how our society can be inclusive of other identities and cultures.

The efforts of this party---and it was a party effort, I could not and would not have done it alone---have, for the first time in a generation, secured parity of esteem for the Ulster Unionists. People listen to us in a way that they did not before. Our voice is heard, our message is understood and our position is supported.

My prime objective when I became leader was ensure that the pro-Union case is heard and that unionism is returned to the very heart of the political process both here and at Westminster. I believe I have done that.

I have been an inclusive leader. At every level of this party, branch, constituency, executive, officer and UUC, those who have had reservations have had their say. No-one has been denied a voice and no-one can say that David Trimble has acted secretly or unilaterally.

I have done my best, in the most extraordinarily difficult of circumstances, to hold this party together. And please, look at the figures. People keep running down this party, but in 1996, 1998 and 2001 we beat the DUP. We beat then in the Forum, Assembly, General and Local Government elections. And if we hold our nerve we will beat them again, and again and again. I am not afraid of the DUP. I am not spending my time looking over my shoulder at them. This party has nothing to fear from the DUP for the DUP has nothing new or useful to offer the pro-Union community. Where we have been, they will follow. That is the nature of the DUP, that is the history of the DUP. That is the difference between the leadership offered by this party and the opportunistic platitude offered by the DUP.

It is easy to point out the difficulties. It is easy to claim that things would have been so much better if only we had done this or that. It is easy to paint a picture of a political utopia in which everything reflects your own political preferences. It is not so easy to deliver the alternatives, or to lessen the demands of your opponents.

My personal ambition, and my party political ambition, is to secure an inclusive, embracing and working settlement for Northern Ireland and all of its people. I believe that this party has acted with courage and with honour and I believe, too, that the risks we took were worth it.

I am proud of this party. I am proud to lead it. I believe that what we are doing secures the Union, serves the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland, and we do that best by being ourselves, simply British."


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