A conversation between David Trimble and Alex Kane
This conversation began in a reaction by Trimble to the following concluding paragraphs of Kane’s column in the Newsletter
Alex Kane, Newsletter, 17 November 2009
In a letter to this newspaper on Saturday, Jim Allister responded to some questions I had raised in a previous column. Thank you for the courtesy and honesty, Jim. You make three points in particular with which I agree: “The only route into government is through the persuasion of other parties to agree a programme with them”; “If Sinn Fein are only democrats so long as they are in government, then they are not democrats at all”; “When the present unworkable edifice inevitably collapses it need not mean a reversion to direct rule.”
Actually, I suspect that a majority of the pro-Union community would agree with those points - which means that there is both an opportunity and a challenge for the next Conservative government; namely, to introduce the necessary legislation to bring full-blooded, unambiguous democracy to the Assembly.
David Cameron says he wants to be Prime Minister of the entire United Kingdom, so let him also be Prime Minister of a United Kingdom with equality of democracy, accountability and responsibility in each of the four countries. That, of course, will mean a willingness to face down Sinn Fein, but it’s upon that perceived willingness that he and the Conservatives will be judged anyway.
Yes, others can talk about the need for change in the mechanics of the Assembly, but Cameron may, in a matter of months, be in a position to deliver that change. So some pre-election steers on how he would bolster and promote good, accountable, fully democratic government here, would play well in pro-Union circles.
Trimble email contra Kane
Unionists should regard the Agreement as the constitutional settlement for Northern Ireland. They would be fools not to as in constitutional terms it embodies the best deal offered to unionists by any British Prime Minister in the last 40 years.
Therefore any change to key element of it has to have the same degree of consensus as was required to reach agreement in the first place. Making a major unilateral change would be a repudiation of the Agreement and its founding principle of consent. It would be a godsend to republicans.
David Cameron accepts the Agreement and understands this and Jonathan Caine will join me in keeping the party to the Agreement.
Furthermore exploring changes to the Agreement will seriously threaten the Conservative and Unionist project by ammunition to nationalists who suspect that it is just a cover for old communal unionism, rather than the civic unionism the project embodies.
It also will not work in practice. Voluntary coalition was a good idea in 1975. It would have worked then if Paisley under pressure from the element which now form the backbone of TUV had not turned turtle. Today it will not work. The SDLP did not support exclusion in 1997/8 when Sinn Fein were a minority among nationalist. It will not do so today when SF are the majority among nationalists. If they did then the nationalist electorate would consign the SDLP to oblivion, which the Church and many middle class nationalist voters are not now prepared to do.
In any event ask yourself, will we attract many Catholics to vote for us by threatening to “face down” the majority of nationalists.
17 November 2009
It would seem, then, that you accept that we are lumbered with a system which cannot be changed.
No formal, funded Opposition. No real accountablity. Ministers on solo runs. Veto and mutual hostility the keystones of the mechanics.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein and the SDLP will continue to preach a Shared Future doctrine which insists that unionism and republicanism can be treated as equals---and while that remains the case the walls will get higher and the 'us-and-them' divisions will prosper.
You know my difficulties with the Agreement. You and I talked about them at the very start and you did tell me that "the faults can be addressed further down the line." How, precisely?
Unionists will make a decision on whether or not to trust Cameron on their perception of how likely he is to back their cause---this is, after all, a Conservative and Unionists project.
How do we inspire voters with a mantra of "yep, it will be same-old, same-old, we don't want to rock any boats. So you're lumbered with a mandatory coalition in which Sinn Fein will retain their veto and pick off their targets one by one."
I have been very supportive of the UCUNF project. But we are going to be asked some tough questions about the difference that the link with the Conservatives will make. And I would wager a considerable sum of money that the increasing number of unionist/pro-Union people sick of what presently passes for government in Northern Ireland would like some signal that an incoming national government would make a serious attempt to address the real, very real, problems we have with the Assembly.
And, by the way, this isn't about winning over Catholics. This is about presenting a vision and version of Unionism which promotes the values and democratic realities which exist elsewhere in the UK---or at least to push for something as close as possible.
But here is the bottomline question: Between 1989 and 2007 the Conservatives made no breakthrough in NI. What's the magic ingredient for 2010?
thanks for your reply for which I will give you an answer later in the day. But I'm off now for the state opening.
18 November 2009-12-04
There are two main issues, the evolution of the Agreement and the nature of the Conservative and Unionist project.
On the Agreement, I use the term "evolution" deliberately. The Agreement can change - it expressly recognised that by providing for reviews, but that change can only come about by the same processes that created it, ie when there is a sufficient consensus. It is folly to think that change can be unilaterally imposed against the wishes of either a majority of unionists or a majority of nationalists. Tearing up the Agreement in that way would put the constitutional position back on the table.
Nor would it actually change the make up of the NI Executive. While SF remain the majority nationalist party it will not be possible to put together a NI administration without them. While that is the case the only effect of switching from a compulsory to a voluntary coalition would be the exclusion of UU and SDLP. And if you want that result it can be realised tomorrow by their resignations.
On the project your test is whether Cameron will back the unionist cause. How is that cause to be defined? Is it the Union or "facing down" nationalists? The project has the potential to widen and deepen the union. I know that large numbers of Catholics are effectively little "u" unionists. I was talking to several at last night's Queens University Association London event, where I was speaking on this matter. But big U ethnic unionism will exclude them and force them back into ethnic nationalism.
The project was never about lining up the Conservative party alongside ethnic Unionism, but about replacing political structures based on constitutional and national issues, with politics based on social and economic issues using the same party structures that operate elsewhere in the UK. Incidentally for this we need the participation of Labour as well as the Conservatives. Between them Catholics can be offered something better than SF to vote for.
Insofar as SF have a veto they have it because of their vote. Reduce that vote and you eliminate the veto. Then change can come organically. My view of the project at least has a real chance of producing change. The view you seem to espouse can only return us political instability.
On the Assembly, the problem is that the Brothers Grim cannot govern. The answer is not a return to direct rule but by giving the electorate an alternative. We need to be preparing that alternative for an Assembly election could be on us very quickly. And on this, and the other matters mentioned above, flirting with the TUV takes us in the wrong direction.
19 November 2009
A majority of unionists would be thoroughly opposed to what Caitriona Ruane is doing; a majority of her Executive colleagues are opposed; a majority of her Education Committee is opposed; a majority of MLAs is opposed----and the reality is that nothing can be done to stop her. Indeed, we only have a selection process because our grammar schools have been forced to opt out and do their own thing. In other words, they have been let down by both the DUP and SF.
I suspect that a growing number of people, from all political persuasions, are pretty fed up by the sort of government we have now. That disenchantment will manifest itself in an ongoing downturn in voting (particularly within mainstream unionism), which will, probably, allow SF to top the poll---and thanks to the DUP's stupidity at St Andrews and the arrival of the TUV on the scene, enable SF to take the post of First Minister. And I'd love to see the unionist who would sign up to the post of Deputy in that scenario!!
To use Paul's phrase, the 'Garden Centre Prods' are appalled by the amateurish nature of our present devolution. What might attract them to the polling booth is some sort of hint or indication that it would be actually possible to address and resolve the inherent flaws. The last big effort was St Andrews, but, as I wrote at the time, 'it has simply made matters very much worse.'
As I keep saying, I am supportive of the UUP-Conservative project, I'm just not sure what the USP is supposed to be? The promise of a Cabinet seat for a UUP MP or Peer. The promise of inside influence with the next government. But what about addressing the elephant in the room---the travesty of what passes for government in Northern Ireland?
It's almost ten years since we kickstarted the Executive in 1999. I don't see any incentive for Sinn Fein to reach a voluntary decision on Opposition and accountability, so where, exactly, is the room for 'evolution?
You say that the UUP and SDLP could resign from the Executive tomorrow. But where do they go? There is no formal, funded, official Opposition in the Assembly--another issue I have been banging on about since 1998.
David, you know very well that I don't want political instability. I am simply asking questions which I think need answered if the UCUNF project is really to take wings.
And I'm not advocating any sort of flirtation with the TUV. Indeed, in a previous column I said that I thought that the TUV was in precisely the same position as was the DUP between 1998 and 2006. It has no real alternative to what exists now.
You ask what is our USP. It is simply that we are bringing them normal politics - moving away from communally based constitutional politics to politics on socio-economic issues.
At the Westminster election we can say a vote for us will help to get rid of Gordon Brown's government and a vote to any other party in NI will make absolutely no difference.
At the Assembly election (which might even come before the former) we must offer an alternative to the brothers grim. And when, hopefully soon after Labour does its duty and campaigns in NI, the British national parties form a significant element in the Assembly, then a different way of forming an administration can be contemplated without causing a crisis.
This route to change will work sooner and better than the effusions coming from Robinson, Allister et al.
Sorry for delay in reply - much of yesterday and today spent going to and from Torbay in support of local candidate, who will get elected. As always on these trips there is considerable support for unionism and pleasure with the conservative and unionist linkup.
21 November 2009
Correspondence posted 1 February 2010
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