"My Challenge to the DUP" - Belfast Telegraph, September 2000

On September 12, Ian Paisley wrote in this paper about unionist unity. I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond. I believe in unionist unity. There is more to unite unionism than there is to divide it. There are many issues on which unionists can and must co-operate.

But, unfortunately, far too often the degree of common ground between the two main unionist parties – my own party and the DUP – is not harnessed for our collective good.

Let me take three issues that unite us to illustrate my point. First and foremost must be the Union itself.

Regardless of the differences of emphasis, all unionists are agreed that for as far as anyone can see into the future, the link with Great Britain will continue to be in the best interests of the Northern Ireland population, socially, economically and culturally.

The interests of a diverse and, at times, conflicted society like Northern Ireland are best ameliorated within a liberal, multi-ethnic society like the United Kingdom.

The alternative – absorption into a homogeneous society like the Republic would, almost inevitably, result in a loss of freedom and pluralism.

Fortunately, the Agreement secures Northern Ireland’s future on the basis of the consent principle. But unionists still need to work together to safeguard the Union and our British identity.

Second, the police. The vast majority of unionists appreciate the steadfastness, courage and noble traditions of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The men and women of the RUC have been at the forefront of the resistance to a generalised descent into paramilitarism over the last 30 years.

They delivered the relative peace we enjoy today and, for that, they deserve our heartfelt thanks.

But it is foolish to pretend, as the DUP do, that police reform and the Patten Report were a direct result of the Belfast Agreement. Not only did the Government commit itself during its first week in office in 1997 to radical changes to the RUC, but the Patten Commission most notably on the issues of symbolism, did not stick to the terms of reference in the Agreement.

Faced with the position Chris Patten placed us in, unionists should have been standing shoulder to shoulder in order to rectify his mistakes.

Sadly, the DUP have not pulled their weight. Instead of putting down and trying to win support for amendments at Westminster as the Ulster Unionists have done, the DUP preferred to simply concentrate their fire on us. This damaged relations between us but, importantly, it did not help the cause of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and society as a whole.

Thirdly, the flying of the Union Flag is of crucial importance to all unionists. It is the ultimate visible symbol of sovereignty flowing from the Agreement, reaffirming as it did that Northern Ireland’s constitutional future lies in the hands of her people.

While the DUP hued and cried, it was the Ulster Unionists who successfully pressured the Secretary of State to introduce legislation to regulate the flying of the national flag. Very soon the results will be there for all to see. The Union Flag will fly on all the flagpoles on Government buildings on the same designated days as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

That kind of influence is not accidental.

Ulster Unionism, by demonstrating that most members of the majority tradition are basically a generous people, has gained in terms of influence not only at Westminster but more generally. And this increase in influence has not been achieved at the expense of fundamental constitutional principles.

We said we would accept nothing less than self-determination for the Northern Ireland people. We have it. We said we would insist on a limited, accountable cross-border relationship with the Republic, which is not driven by ideological imperatives. We got it. We said we would demand the removal of the Republic’s territorial claim. We achieved it. We sought the restoration of accountable democracy in an Assembly. We achieved that on the basis of partnership.

The honest truth is that Northern Ireland cannot operate on the basis of all power residing in the hands of one community. More than that, Northern Ireland operates better when the creative talents of all her people are employed in governance.

If the DUP wants to prove that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity by wrecking an Agreement which nearly three-quarters of society here approved – with all the likely effects in terms of a hardening of nationalist opinion – then that must be, for me, a point of departure.

I agree that the Executive does not reflect society here. But I must ask whose fault is that? Unionists should have been in a majority.

If the DUP and others, who fought the elections as so called United Unionists had remained United Unionists instead of abandoning that stance on the day of the first sitting of the Assembly then, the balance in the Executive would be 7-5 not 6-6.

There are more than enough divisions in unionism with two parties competing for unionist votes. Splitting the vote as many as seven different ways cost unionism a majority in the Executive. Even as things stand, unionism is punching below its weight because the DUP – while sitting on every other committee of the Assembly along Sinn Fein – abdicate their responsibilities when it comes to the one really important committee.

Ulster Unionists, them, have good reason to be bitter about the behaviour of our unionist cousins. We cannot forget who divided unionism in the first place, and not just politically.

For all the past resentments, though, I will continue to work for unionist unity so long as that unity is based on a policy and a strategy that will achieve progress for unionism instead of stagnation.

The key question is however, will the DUP accept that it is time for Northern Ireland and unionism to move toward and engage fully in the structures of government? As David Burnside said last week, unionism cannot start from a preferred position. We deal with the situation as we find it today.

We are fighting on a unionist unity platform in South Antrim because we want unionism generally to unite. But this will not happen unless the DUP can make up its mind. It cannot continue forever pulling itself apart over whether to say no to everything in Paisleyite tradition, or to take up the reins of Government, albeit half-heartedly, scared stiff of taking responsibility in the Executive.

The unionist community wants unionist unity. But it will not happen until the elements within the DUP and wider unionism accept that we must work together in the Assembly to maintain all our long-term interests. The days of unionism in permanent opposition to government are over. We must take charge of our future now and chart it wisely.

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