"Ulster and Unionism - Not a Failed Political Entity" - Speech to the 2000 Ulster Unionist Council AGM

Over the last few days the media have been given their favourite story - Ulster Unionist division, infighting and back-stabbing! Well we have had many votes. Now, let that be an end to it. I accept the result, let every-one else here accept the result. Who benefits from this division? Two groups benefit - Republicans and Paisleyites.

The DUP know that divided parties do not win. Without any credible policies of their own, they know they cannot beat us on the merits. They have been going through the motions of opposing the Agreement, while assiduously pursing every benefit they can gain under it. Even their own supporters can see through this pretence and are turning on them. Their only hope is to weaken and divide us.

They do not spend much time attacking republicans, but they spend a lot of time attacking us.

As for republicans, they are on the ropes. They thought they could manoeuvre their way through the Agreement and dodge decommissioning. In hindsight, it is clear that Pat Doherty gave the game away when he said that if, “come the end of January” there was no decommissioning, then no-one would bring the institutions down and that the British and Irish governments would not act.

He was been proved wrong. This party was ready to act. Our government intervened to suspend. Proving clearly that British sovereignty over Northern Ireland is undiminished and can be exercised against Dublin’s wishes. And have republicans obtained any comfort since? In truth very little. Even Bill Clinton, in whom they had invested so much hope, told them last Friday to stop playing games on the guns issue.

As always the republican’s chief hope is that unionism will volunteer for the blame and let them off the hook. We have shown again today that we are not going to fall for that one.

Both republicans and Paisleyites want us to think we are losing. That things are always getting worse. Of course there are problems. But don’t forget our successes.

This talks process began in 1996. We began under the shadow of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Frameworks document. What were republicans saying then?

They said that there would be no internal settlement – that there would be no return to Stormont – that the Unionist veto would be smashed - that there would be powerful free standing cross-border bodies. On each one of those points the republicans were worsted.

Look at it with their eyes. The Guardian, a good friend to republicans said yesterday,

“Unionism has won a string of extraordinary victories. It has persuaded its mortal enemy, republicanism, to accept the partition of Ireland as a political fact. The fact that Sinn Fein has elected members sitting in both an Assembly and Executive for the province is a historic achievement for unionism. Also the Republic of Ireland has removed the two articles of its constitution which staked a claim on the north and which served as a constant offence to unionism. That claim has been rescinded. Above all, republicanism has accepted that there can be no move towards its dream of a united Ireland unless the people of the province, including its unionist majority want it. All told, it is a remarkable record – judged in Unionism’s own terms.”

The former IRA hunger striker and Belfast IRA commander, Brendan Hughes agrees with the Guardian. In a recent interview he said,

“The things we cherished such as a thirty two county democratic socialist republic are no longer mentioned. No real change has occurred. A few republicans have slotted themselves into comfortable positions and left the rest of us behind.”

He then posed the question that must haunt Adams and McGuinniss,

“Think of all the lives that could have been saved had we accepted the 1975 truce. We fought on and for what? – what we rejected in 1975.”

Actually the position for republicans is worse than Hughes realises. He harks back to Sunningdale. But in constitutional terms what we now have is better than Sunningdale. Its Council of Ireland was an embryonic government of all Ireland, without the accountability to Stormont now written into the Belfast Agreement, and without the current recognition by Dublin of Northern Ireland’s legitimacy.

We must never forget our gains, while dealing with the continuing problems. Chief of these is the failure of Sinn Fein to discharge their obligations with regard to guns and to demonstrate their commitment to exclusively peaceful means.

In December we put them to the test. They failed that test.

Do we then sit back and use their failure as an excuse for doing nothing?

It is not in our interest to do so. The Unionist interest is in making Northern Ireland work. It is not in our interest to let it appear that this is a failed political entity. Of course we would like SDLP to proceed without them. That is not going to happen this side of May 22.

What are the republicans’ tactics now? In a speech two weeks after suspension Adams talked of the British and Irish elections expected next year. He talked of strengthening their position electorally, and then negotiating a new agreement.

His objective may be to come back after elections when he hopes to have replaced SDLP as the largest nationalist party in Ulster and perhaps hold the balance of power in Dublin.

There is no point sitting back waiting for that to happen. The obvious course is to go after the republicans and again pin them into a corner. To keep ramming home the lesson that it is their fault. That way we limit their scope for growth and encourage moderate nationalism.

We also must prepare for the return of devolution. There are lessons to be learned, even from our 10 week spell in office. First may I pay tribute to the work of the Ulster Unionist Ministers and Junior Minister who made a creditable start and given more time would have achieved much more.

Reg Empey worked hard to refocus the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment. He worked hard with Ministers in London to secure major support for Harland and Wolff’s bid for the Queen Mary. Both Reg and I have fully supported bids by Northern Ireland Companies to secure major contracts in the aerospace and electronics sectors. Decisions are due soon and I hope we will have good news.

At the DoE, Sam Foster began to set challenging targets for reductions in road deaths and to start the long overdue review of the planning service and local government. Michael McGimpsey had the difficult task of organising one of the completely new Departments at Culture, Arts and Leisure. He is determined to ensure that our Unionist culture is recognised alongside other cultures and the first result of this will be a celebration of the bi-centenary of the Act of Union.

The aggressive actions of Sinn Fein, particularly Barbara de Bruin caused much offence. But do not assume that she had won the fight over the Jubilee. She announced a new hospital when she did not have the money with which to build it. Any budget to provide for such would have had to come before the Assembly as a whole and be passed on a cross-community basis. There will obviously be a struggle between the Committees and Ministers, but the first skirmish will not determine the outcome of that war.

Actually de Bruin’s actions backfired. With SDLP support, at the last meeting of the Executive, we adopted a Ministerial Code which requires all Ministers to bring contentious decisions to the Executive for a collective decision. Where appropriate, decisions will require a cross-community consent therefore giving our Ministers a say across the board.

All this would be easier if the DUP turned up to the only Assembly committee they are boycotting. Typically in their flight from responsibility they boycott the most important committee. And there would be no problem if unionists had a majority in the Executive, which they would have, if it were not for the 8 wasted seats held by the McCartneyites and others.

There will be no shortage of future political battles to fight. For the republicans politics is a continuation of the struggle by other means. We cannot avoid these problems. But we must never doubt our capacity to cope with them. I believe that this party, and only this party has the ability to carry the unionist cause to success.

During the suspension of the Institutions we must use the available time to develop policy positions on important issues across all the Departments. Issues like the privatisation of Belfast Port, the eleven-plus, the crisis in agriculture, the review of public administration – and many others – require us to have clearly thought out positions. To achieve this I have asked Glengall Street to relaunch the policy committees involving representatives from the constituency associations, Parliamentary spokesmen and our chief Assembly Spokesmen. These need to start work quickly and I would ask for your full support and participation.

I have also asked Jim Speers to convene a working group to prepare for a review of local government. It is clear that the SDLP have already done extensive work on this issue, as on many others and we must be prepared. We must ensure that if and when we resume government we do so with our programme of government clearly thought out, and in a position to drive the administration forward.

We must also complete the process of modernisation - modernisation of our structures, and modernisation of our campaigning methods. We must broaden our base in membership. We must encourage more people to come into front line politics – as office-holders, as councillors as Assembly members and MPs.

One of the good aspects of the Assembly gave us the chance to put some good people before the public. But the line up could be strengthened. Obviously we need more women in prominent positions.

We must prepare for the local government and Westminster elections.

Some fear elections. Because they have come to believe their enemies propaganda. Look at the latest local government by election where Avril Swann had an excellent result. Remember opinion poll after poll has shown that at least 75% of Ulster Unionist voters support the Agreement, even more want things to work. A positive approach will win. As Avril’s campaign showed there are many of a unionist background who will come out in response to a positive campaign, but stay at home for a negative campaign.

This party prides itself on achievement. We are the people who built Northern Ireland. We are the people who want it to succeed. We know the importance of building for the future. There is no need for a backward inward-looking defensive attitude.

We know we can do it. So, let us go forward together and let us win together.

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