Address to the British Irish Association, September 2000

Ten years ago – or indeed even more recently – it might have been difficult for an Ulster Unionist to look forward to the two hundredth anniversary of the Act of Union with anything more than nostalgia for past glories and former strength. The dominant point of view as revealed by one academic study in 1993 was ‘the dismal vision’. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 had encouraged a feeling among many unionists of almost inevitable decline in a scenario of creeping Irish unification.

The Belfast Agreement has brought about a radical reversal of fortune for Unionism through a balanced settlement with Irish nationalism. President Clinton, in a recent to trip to Kosovo, spelt out why our local settlement was a model for conflict resolution to other deeply divided societies:

Here’s the deal: they agreed to the principle of consent, majority rule, minority rights, shared decision making, shared benefits and ties to their neighbours that they have ethnic and religious ties to.

The President has a much better grasp of the situation and of the spirit of the Agreement than the President of Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams recently urged Unionists to see the benefit of being 20 per cent in a united Ireland rather than 2 per cent of a United Kingdom. Even Bob McCartney’s intellectual mentor, Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, is giving us the same advice! Mr Adams and Dr O’Brien both fail to see that the enduring strength of support for the Union is based on the desire to be part of a large multi-cultural, multi-national and multi-ethnic state rather than a larger bit of what has remained, until very recently, an unattractive catholic/nationalist monolith.

We welcome the signs of liberalisation, of the weakening of the Catholic Church’s ‘moral monopoly’. We admire the Celtic Tiger, though we note the continuation of social inequalities greater than those which exist in the UK and Northern Ireland. Ulster Unionists since the time of the meetings between Sir James Craig and Michael Collins have always desired the best possible relations with their southern neighbours. The Agreement has provided limited and accountable institutions within which that north-south dialogue can develop. Importantly, it has provided a balancing East-West dimension as well, re-establishing the two-islands framework lost in 1921. Rather than Mr Adams’ one-island monomania we share the perspective of Sir David Goodall that with the British-Irish dimension of the Agreement it might be ‘possible over time to transform the present prickly relationship between Britain and Ireland into one which more nearly reflects the closeness between our two peoples.’

At Stormont we are preparing our programme for government. It will represent an historic achievement. It is the first time in our history that the basic outlines of public policy have been set down by Ulster men and women from across the religious divide and from our main political traditions – unionist and nationalist.

In the Executive and the Assembly we can see the way that working together in a host of areas from job creation to improving standards of health care and from dealing with the problems of agriculture to developing the research capacity of our universities, can foster a sense of common purpose. We have begun to make Northern Ireland work in a shared and consensual way for the first time in its history. I have made it clear – whatever the failing of the past, we are determined this time to have a warm house, not a cold house, for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Despite the posturing of Sinn Fein and the DUP, that is the reality. In the Executive we are acting under authority that we receive from Her Majesty. When the Sinn Fein Chairman of an Assembly Committee reports out a piece of proposed legislation he is part of a process that ends with the Royal Assent. The antics of DUP with their ‘rotating ministers’ do a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland. Yet they do not conceal the fact that at all levels of the system, from the taking of salaries and facilities, to sitting in committees chaired by members of Sinn Fein and running their ministries, the DUP is an integral part of the system they denounce us for having had the courage to create.

The recent period has been the most difficult time in my leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. Last November the Ulster Unionist Assembly Party supported my decision to ask the Ulster Unionist Council for their backing for us to go into the government with republicans who had still not made one concrete move on IRA weapons. This was a tough decision to make.

It demonstrated what a baseless canard was the claim by Sinn Fein that Ulster Unionists “don’t want a Fenian about the place”. Many members of my Assembly Party had very good reason to be wary of Sinn Fein. Those who had served in the security forces had been the target of republican terrorists and had had their colleagues and friends murdered and maimed. Many had relatives and friends and neighbours murdered by the IRA on Remembrance Day at Enniskillen and at Kingsmill, County Armagh, simply because they were Protestants.

Some had been targeted by republicans because of their involvement in Unionist politics. Many knew Robert Bradford and Edgar Graham both murdered for defending the Union. Despite this they were prepared to share power with Sinn Fein. This displayed a magnanimity, and generosity of spirit which unfortunately has not yet been reciprocated by republicans. When we ‘jumped first’ and established the devolved Executive last November, the IRA just sat on its guns and did nothing with the result that the British Government had to suspend the Executive.

The Ulster Unionist Assembly Party reflects the best instincts of the broader Unionist community and the basic decency of the majority of the people of the province. However, these instincts and the decency of that community, were put on the rack by the Patten Report. It was an intellectually shoddy document: a product of third rate academic theorising about the best model for achieving a politically correct police force, regardless of the result in terms of police morale and effectiveness. Its political objective seemed to be to give republicans, who had lost their war to end partition, a symbolic victory over the RUC as compensation. The simple fact is that today, a year on, the fall out from Patten continues to threaten the survival of the Agreement, justifies our original caustic response.

We have made clear to the Government our objectives. These are not simply about the name and the badge. They are critically important as a clear reflection of the fact that the police are enforcing the laws of the United Kingdom and that the Agreement did not create some bi-national state, but recognised the continuing sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. They also relate to measures which would balkanise and politicise policing, reducing radically the police’s ability to deal with the real dangers of the development of a mafia state.

If the Policing Bill does not recognise the constitutional provisions of the Agreement, if it fails to face up to the crisis of an incipient mafia state, it will deal a fatal blow to the confidence of moderate mainstream unionism that the peace process is not simply about appeasing those who threaten violence. I have always insisted: We have to have a police force, which can protect the promise of the Agreement, a promise of a decent civic society in Northern Ireland.

The recent deaths and violence on the Shankill Road show the continuing threat from paramilitarism, as does the activities of those dissident republicans who, despite the universal denunciation of the Omagh atrocity, continue to import arms and plan more mayhem. In order to reach the goal of the final dissolution of all paramilitary structures, we need a strong and effective police force – and, yes, with a better religious balance, but not a politically correct one. I refuse to believe that the vast bulk of sensible Irish nationalists cannot see this basic point. I would also point out that some key SDLP concerns about police accountability would be met, if we achieved the return of policing powers to the Assembly.

All who endorsed the Agreement, especially our Executive partners, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, have a clear duty to support the Police Force.

Monsignor Denis Faul, a few days ago put his finger on the real point, the critical point that is being obscured by the heat being generated in certain quarters. At a Human rights conference in Armagh he said,

‘If young Catholics or Protestants form a conscientious desire to perform their civic duty by joining the Police, their decision should be respected and neither they nor their families should be driven from their homes. Young persons who wish to join the Police next year are not particularly worried about names, badges and symbols – they expect modifications: they welcome accountability, but expect those who murder and injure police personnel to be accountable for their actions. Young Catholics’ biggest worry is that they and their families will be harassed and driven out of their homes by paramilitary bully boys.’

Along the road to the final elimination of all private armies the tangled roots of criminality and paramilitarism must be excavated and destroyed. Drugs-dealing alone might not have been the cause of the loyalist feud on the Lower Shankill. But it and other forms of crime, including prostitution, finance the four wheel drives and the Caribbean holidays of many of these petty war-lords. The RUC needs to act quickly and decisively to put a lot more of these pseudo-patriotic, parasites behind bars.

The existing legal framework has proved insufficient for dealing with these dangerous residues of the Troubles. The British and Irish governments have failed to deliver on their promises to track down those responsible for the Omagh bomb. The legislation introduced in the immediate aftermath of the bomb has proved ineffective. The victims of Omagh and their relatives demand more than this. A strengthening of the state’s defences against such terrorist bands is necessary and should include a change in the law to allow the legal admissibility of wire-tap evidence.

The Belfast Agreement is a contract between the people of Northern Ireland. Of course, rather like Hegel’s ideal marriage it is a contract which aims to go beyond contract. What it aims to achieve is a condition of mutuality amongst the people of Northern Ireland as the basis of a stable political order. As in a marriage, though, mutuality cannot be achieved if the contract itself is not properly honoured.

What sort of contract did the Ulster Unionist Party believe they were negotiating in the course of the talks leading up to the Agreement in April 1998?

We made a number of clear distinctions, distinctions designed to establish the political space for an historic compromise with Irish nationalism. Three were vital to us. A distinction was made between acknowledging an Irishness of place which could be shared by both Protestants and Catholics and a politicised Irishness determined to destroy the entity of Northern Ireland. A further distinction was made between self-government, a general movement throughout Western European democracies to devolve power to the regions, and political exclusion from the United Kingdom and the substitution of an exclusively Irish context for decision making. Finally, a distinction was made between accountable and practical cross-border co-operation between the two parts of the island and co-operation driven ideologically by a nationalist political agenda.

Furthermore, our strategy was based on three key propositions. The first was that the principle of consent should govern the future of Northern Ireland and its relationships with the Republic. The second was that the notion of the British government “facilitating” Irish unity must be abandoned. The third was that in order to secure the proper political atmosphere the Irish government should remove the territorial claim in Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution.

We were realistic enough to know that if nationalists acknowledged unionist consent as the requirement for constitutional change then unionists would have to acknowledge nationalists consent to new arrangements within Northern Ireland. We knew this would have wide-ranging and often difficult implications for us. The contractual bargains were long and hard. My party remains convinced that the formal arrangements of the Agreement represent a fair deal.

Unfortunately, a substantial number of Unionists who accepted the Agreement subsequently have had severe doubts about the way in which the contract is being honoured.

They have observed a peculiar form of politics which goes by the name of the “logic of the Agreement”. This appears to mean that Unionists have to accept without demur whatever interpretation is put upon the implementation of the Agreement. Talking of the logic of the Agreement is often a convenient way of avoiding the requirement of mutuality. It also ignores the need for broad consensus – Patten was a classic example.

I still ask myself the question how on earth did we end up with a Human Rights Commission which does not include one identifiable supporter of the Unionist Parties which won 58% of the vote in the Assembly election. Such a blatant failure to respect the principle of consensus and mutuality has served only to weaken popular support for the Agreement.

Throughout the long negotiation of the Belfast Agreement we, on our side, were assured that there was one great prize to be won: nationalist Ireland would accept the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. This is, indeed, the explicit language of the new international treaty which is part of the Agreement.

But now it appears that some are unwilling to deliver on their side of the bargain.

Sinn Fein Ministers who are happy to serve under legislation which described them as exercising authority on behalf of her Majesty are, nonetheless, not willing to acknowledge official flag days in their departmental buildings. It may seem to be a rather footling reservation, but the effect on support for the Agreement within the unionist community is significant and it is significant for a good reason because it goes to the heart of the Agreement.

Either Republicans have given their consent to the political and constitutional arrangements of Northern Ireland or they have not.

I sometimes wonder whether Sinn Fein understands the Agreement. Recently Mr Adams said:

“We believe that the assertion of sovereignty [over Northern Ireland] by the British Government is contrary to the democratic wish of a majority of the Irish people”.

But the Agreement (Section 1, para. 33) asserts explicitly the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament over Northern Ireland. It was supported by large majorities in a referendum, both in the North and South. How can Mr Adams talk about a central proposition of the Agreement being contrary to the ‘democratic wish of a majority of the Irish people?’ when the majority of the people on the whole island voted for there being two Irelands. None voted more enthusiastically for this than nationalists, north and south!

Judging by the recent embarrassing leak of a British government document critical of Irish official attitudes on this issue, it would appear that Mr Adams in not alone in his error. I note, however that the Irish government is keen to deny that it has an unduly restrictive attitude towards the legitimate expression of the Unionist identity and tradition in Northern Ireland.

I think the words of our conference chairman, Sir David Goodall, provide a useful guide to any benign resolution of the flags issue. Writing in Parliamentary Brief in 1995, he observed:

“Terms like ‘identity’ and ‘tradition’ blur the hard edges of the real discussion between nationalists and unionists and conveniently obscure the fact that an essential element of their identity is precisely the Unionist sense of living on a territory which is part and parcel of the United Kingdom and not of the Republic. Talk of respect for unionist identity must include respect for the territorial element and not just its cultural and social carapace.’

I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State has done just this in his draft Regulations of the flying of the Union Flag in Northern Ireland. He has honoured the letter and spirit of the Agreement by specifying that the Union Flag must be flown from Government Buildings in Northern Ireland on designated Flag days as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We need a sense that the Irish government understands the full implications of this; that it is, indeed, still capable of being a stable partner with us in a process which, if successful can only bring enormous benefit to Northern Ireland and the Republic.

So despite all our achievements, we are, as I have said recently, still not out of the woods yet. We are far from it.

The legacy of thirty years of conflict continues, inevitably, to drag us back and threatens still to drag us down.

The media too has inevitably learnt bad habits from “the Troubles”. Last Friday, as First Minister of Northern Ireland with Finance Minister Mark Durkan, I attended in Edinburgh the Joint Ministerial Committee along with the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers, discussions with the Prime Minister which will be of considerable significance for the future government of the United Kingdom. Yet media interest in Northern Ireland was slight. Perhaps this is because, as yet, there is not a general understanding of how important JMCs are in involving all the devolved administrations in national policy making. But I suspect that in some media quarters there is too narrow a focus.

To take another aspect of this problem, let us say a Martian had came to settle in Northern Ireland two years ago and relied solely on the local broadcast media for information. The Martian would be forgiven for concluding that only the following people had been killed during the Troubles: those killed at Bloody Sunday; Pat Finucane; Rosemary Nelson and those killed by dissident Republicans at Omagh.

I do not wish to be misunderstood; any illegal or wrongful act by the security forces should be subject to the fullest proper scrutiny.

But the harsh truth is that over 3,636 people were killed during the Troubles. Republicans now on ceasefire killed 58.8 per cent of the total. Loyalists now on ceasefire killed 28.8.

The security forces total was 10.2 with the RUC share being 1.1 per cent. Do not forget the many thousands more who were seriously injured.

This has left us with a mass of human suffering and a public mood that can easily turn to sourness and bitterness.

We are in the process of attempting to manage a transition which puts these evil days behind us forever.

I wish it was more widely understood that this task will be made more difficult, perhaps even impossible, if the public forms the impression that the suffering of one group is more privileged than that of another. I think everyone who wants to see the Agreement survive should remember this.

As John Bruton expressed it at the Irish Association meeting in Belfast last Saturday, we have a Bloody Sunday Tribunal but not a Bloody Monday, Bloody Tuesday, Bloody Wednesday, Bloody Thursday, Bloody Friday or Bloody Saturday Tribunal.

One important proof that we are genuinely going to do things in a new way is decommissioning. We are glad that the IRA has delivered on its first confidence building measure and that the inspection of arms dumps has begun.

At the time of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 both governments insisted that a cease-fire was not enough: Sir Patrick Mayhew said weapons had to be made ‘available’, Dick Spring said “handed in”.

We have now at last made some progress along this road. But I have to insist, as has the Prime Minister, that what we have seen so far does not meet the requirements of the Agreement on decommissioning.

We shall have to see further substantial progress – otherwise we risk a sudden collapse in public confidence. We must remember that while we still have private armies in being, armed and equipped, uttering the sort of threat implicit in the RTE interview last week with the unrepentant Brighton bomber, that the Agreement has not been fully implemented, that its future is still contingent.

Do please remember, there is a bottom line on this. I have already demonstrated that Ulster Unionists will stick to that line. I do not want to have to repeat that demonstration, but do not doubt our determination.

But, I conclude, the promise of the Agreement is still there. I have spoken of an end to the cold war between North and South on the island, an end also to the cold war between the two islands - an end to the dreadful paramilitary violence of 30 years. Replacing it all with accountable and meaningful structures of Government that deliver peace, stability and prosperity.

Seamus Mallon has said: “Unionism and Nationalism have got to underpin each other. We have got to do it in terms of our everyday lives, because our strength as a people will only derive from our generosity and compassion to each other.” I strongly agree. It is in this spirit, and this spirit only that the battle to protect the Agreement can be won in the difficult and uncertain weeks and months which lie ahead.

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