Becoming First Minister - Reply to Nomination, Northern Ireland Assembly, July 1st, 1998

May I too start by thanking those who moved and seconded the motion. I am grateful to them and, indeed, to others for their remarks about myself. I was not my intention to speak, for I thought that in some respects it would be inappropriate to do so. I am not actively canvassing or seeking appointment.

The Ulster Unionist Party has always recognised and accepted its responsibilities. In my position in the Party I too have accepted and discharged responsibilities. However, it would be inappropriate for me to sing my own praises or induce Members to vote in a particular way. They must vote as they see fit.

Another reason for not commenting in this debate is that, in view of the situation in Northern Ireland – the past, the present and the future we hope to have -–there is a lot of things that should be considered. However in the time that is available today one can touch on just a few.

My colleague, Mr Taylor, has said that he hopes that we as a community are now coming out of the morass in which we have been stuck for the last 30 years. It is a hope that has not yet been realised. The morass that we have been in for 30 years has been one of political violence and terrorism on far too great a scale and from far too many quarters. Many of us have seen it far too close to ourselves. Reference has been made to a good friend of mine who was murdered. I was just a short distance away and I had to identify his body. Many other people have had that experience, so we know what we are dealing with. We know the reality of the violence from which this community has suffered.

The morass that we hope we are coming out of has been a morass not just of political violence but also of political impotence. By virtue of direct rule this community and its elected representatives were rendered unable to deal with issues that ought to have been dealt with. The community was disconnected from the body politic. That had a negative impact on attitudes and on the way the community operated. We hope that we are coming out of that morass too, but at this stage no one can say with certainty that success is guaranteed. We all know the problems that are dogging us, and we ought to realise that they could overcome us.

Coming out of the morass will not be a simple process. The problems will not all be solved overnight by the wave of a magic wand. We will have to work at it.

In the course of the debate a question has been put repeatedly. Of course, those who put it were not making a genuine inquiry. The question was not put by people seeking information or guidance; it was simply another cheap political stunt by people who cannot tell the difference between cheap political stunts and serious attempts to deal with issues. However, I will address it. David Trimble is merely one of 28 Ulster Unionist Members. All 28 have come here on the same manifesto - the same manifesto and the same position.

Those who put the question could have found the answer stated very simply in the manifesto. The relevant section begins

“Before any terrorist organisation and/or its political wing can benefit from the proposals contained in the Agreement on the release of terrorist prisoners and the holding of Ministerial office in the Assembly, the commitment to exclusively peaceful and non-violent means must be established. The Ulster Unionist Party will be using various criteria that are objective, meaningful and verifiable to judge whether this is being achieved.”

The manifesto sets out at length what those criteria are, and the relevant section concludes

“Ulster Unionists will not sit in Government with unreconstructed terrorists.”

The first important thing is to establish commitment to the democratic process. People must state that they will not, now or in the future, use violence to achieve their goals. They must commit themselves irrevocably to the democratic process. There are criteria by which that can be established, but the important thing is to keep sight of the objective and not allow ourselves to focus so much on one thing. We do not want to end up being hoist by our own petard.

The second important thing is to make reference to unreconstructed terrorists. A number of members who are here today have done terrible things. I do not need to elaborate, though I should say that the people concerned are not all in one corner of the Chamber. Many terrible things have happened in this society. People must accept responsibility for what they have done, and one always hopes that responsibility is also noted by the Government, the State and the legal process. However, those institutions are imperfect, and there are people who have done terrible things for which they have not been made amenable. Some of them are here.

We are not saying, and we have never said, that the fact that someone has a certain past means he cannot have a future. We have always acknowledged that it is possible for people to change. That is fundamental to one’s view of society. Indeed, if I were in the habit of using religious metaphors I could find many that would be appropriate. It is not my habit to mix religion with politics, if that can be avoided, but Members will realise what I am referring to.

Because of the situation in this society it is desirable that all members with a terrible past should change and should demonstrate that they have changed.

The Agreement that we have put in place is inclusive. But that is nothing new, for it stems from the proposals given to Tom King in 1987. Those proposals referred to partnership administrations based on proportionality.

Proportionality is inclusive, and it is right that should only apply to those who are committed to the democratic process. That was the position then and it is the position now. But it is an inclusive process. There is an opportunity for people to take part in it if they have shown that they are committed to peaceful means and democracy.

I underline these points not out of a desire to exclude but simply to underline the things that they need to do. The sooner there is a realisation of that need, the better. Beginning the task will enable this society to move together on a better basis. I am determined that it will move forward, and I do not want it to throw away the opportunity of this process to lift it out of the morass in which it has been stuck.

To people who ask whether the process will succeed or not I cannot give an answer at this stage, just as I could not give an answer to the same question during the talks. What I can say now, as then, is that the process will not fail for want of effort on the part of the Ulster Unionist Party. If people end up being excluded, it will be because of their own failure to meet requirements rather than because of any deliberate action on our part.

I hope we are coming out of the morass. We certainly deserve to, and we have the opportunity. There is something great to be gained by all sections of the community if we do so, and I am conscious, as is Mr Mallon, of the responsibilities that will come to us, perhaps very soon. I am conscious of our obligation to all of society to discharge those responsibilities, and I know it will not be easy.

There are going to be difficulties, but we have started on our journey. We have started on the long march towards a better future, and we are determined to continue despite any difficulties that present themselves. We are determined that it will succeed for the benefit of all society. It is this opportunity that must not be discarded now.

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