"Don't give in to terrorism, Mr Blair" - The Times, June 22nd, 1999

Despite the European election result, most British people still regard Tony Blair as having the potential to be one of the greatest British Prime Ministers. He is now fresh from his success in an honourable war. One fought for humanitarian reasons, not a war fought for oil or power or other forms of aggrandisement. He is riding high. But he is in danger of being brought low, of finding his integrity questioned and his honour besmirched. People in Northern Ireland, who last year believed him, are now beginning to lose faith. In Kosovo he correctly identified the democratic interest. He saw clearly who were the terrorists and successfully insisted that there be no deviation, no weakening in changes demanded of the terrorists. He has succeeded in obtaining a Serb withdrawal and the beginning of disarmament by the KLA.

But in Northern Ireland he seems to have lost that clarity of vision. There the political process has been at a standstill since Easter. Last Tuesday the Prime Minister went to Belfast and made a speech intended to show how the impasse could be resolved. He said that one issue remained. An issue, which he said, revolved round the question of trust, and he urged each side to demonstrate to the other that its distrust was ill founded.

Tony Blair’s approach has the appearance of being fair and even-handed. But on a closer look it is somewhat confused. “Unionism” he says “must share power with the Nationalist and Republican community … sectarianism is a thing of the past.” This passage is inaccurate and unfair. Inaccurate because it runs together Catholics, Nationalists, and Republicans as if they were all the same. Unfair because it suggests that Unionists have a monopoly on sectarianism. They do not. Sectarianism is unfortunately rife in Ulster. Many Unionists do exhibit it. But Nationalists can also sometimes be sectarian - the Republican campaign in the European election was based solely and entirely on a sectarian appeal to Catholics.

Despite a sideswipe at anti-Agreement Unionists the Prime Minister’s appeal is clearly directed to my Party, the Ulster Unionist Party. But it is simply not possible to say that we are sectarian or are refusing to work in partnership with others.

In the elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly last year we selected two Roman Catholic candidates. One, John Gorman, was elected for a 95% Protestant constituency with more votes than his Ulster Unionists running mates, the other, Patricia Campbell, polled strongly in another predominantly Protestant constituency. In the year since the election I, as First Minister of the Assembly have shared office with the Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon of the nationalist SDLP. During that year Seamus and I, and our two parties, one Unionist, the other Nationalist, have worked hard together to implement the Agreement.

Moreover I have repeatedly made it clear that we are prepared to work with Republicans, provided they too implement the Agreement. Indeed it is precisely because we are so prepared that we face so much opposition from other Unionists.

There is indeed only one issue left. That issue is the need for all the parties to the Agreement to be committed to peace and democracy. That need is spelt out again and again in the Agreement and is founded on the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993. The key word here is “committed”. Participating in democratic elections is not quite the same thing as being committed to democracy. Having a temporary peace or an armed peace is not the same as being committed to peace.

We do not even actually have peace now, just a lower level of violence than before the cease-fires. It must, however, be said that a significant amount of the current level of violence comes from anti-Agreement loyalists. They have been responsible for the recent murders of Mrs Elizabeth O’Neill and solicitor Rosemary Nelson as well of a large number of petrol and pipe bomb attacks on nationalist property.

Republicans have also been responsible for violence, but with this difference, virtually all the Republican violence is coming from the supposedly pro-Agreement Republicans! And the tempo of IRA violence is increasing. Last week the RUC double agent Martin McGartland was seriously wounded in Tyneside. He was very lucky to avoid being killed. In previous weeks three persons have been murdered in the Newry/South Armagh area. No one doubts that these were the work of the IRA. In total over the past year the IRA have been responsible for 4 murders, and at least 47 shootings and 113 beatings. Although, as they have not been claimed by the IRA, the Secretary of State studiously avoids blaming them. By continuing prisoner releases while exhibiting this “Nelsonian” approach to terrorist violence, the Secretary of State has lost contact entirely with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland and is increasingly losing contact with English opinion as well.

Many regard the decommissioning of weapons as largely symbolic. But it would go a long way to prove that Republicanism had changed, and against the background of continuing violence, the Republican refusal to do sob is insupportable. Tony Blair recognises this. In his speech he told Republicans that this requirement cannot be got around, but must be got through. Unfortunately he went on to give the impression that it would be enough if Sinn Fein made some sort of declaration or even an explanation of why they have not yet achieved actual decommissioning.

I must say that on this important matter a declaration of intent would not be sufficient. To see why one only need recall the original Mitchell Report on decommissioning made in January 1996. In that Report Senator Mitchell and his colleagues, including General de Chastelain, the Chairman of the current International Decommissioning Commission, said they were satisfied that the paramilitaries were genuinely committed to decommissioning. Three weeks later the Canary Wharf bomb went off, to be followed by other bombs in a year-long campaign of renewed IRA bombing. Consider also the present heartbreaking matter of the bodies of the “disappeared” – those abducted, secretly murdered and buried by the IRA. They announced that they would reveal the whereabouts of the bodies. The information they gave was inaccurate or untrue.

Even without this repeated demonstration of the unreliability of IRA statements, I would have to say that a mere declaration would be insufficient. It would not be believed by the Ulster British community. Their culture is one of few words, of believing that actions speak louder than words, and that “by their fruits shall you know them”. It is suspicious of those who rely overmuch on their words.

Finally the Prime Minister says that all this must be sorted out by 30 June or else! In briefings it is said that the Assembly will be closed or the Agreement abandoned. Closing the Assembly even temporarily will destroy the Agreement. Abandoning the Agreement at the beginning of the summer would be simply irresponsible. Worse it will be the government resolving the decommissioning issue against the democrats and in favour of the terrorists. It would be very sad for us all if a Prime Minister who had garnered so much credit for his country by opposing terrorism in the Balkans, should find himself, through understandable impatience, giving too much comfort to those who have not yet crossed the bridge from terrorism to democracy. In Northern Ireland, as in the Balkans, there is no alternative to sticking to the right course, no matter how difficult things may seem.

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