Post-Agreement Ireland: North and South - Speech to the Irish Association, November 1st, 1998

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to the Irish Association in Co Wicklow, surely one of the most beautiful parts of this island - outside Ulster, of course. It is also one of the most religiously mixed areas outside Ulster, the Roman Catholic and Anglican communities living side by side in harmony. I understand there are even Orangemen here! I’m not sure, however, about the prevalence of Presbyterians.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with Northern Ireland perhaps may not know that the same harmonious relations appertain in many parts of Northern Ireland also.

It is a particular privilege to address you on the 60th anniversary of the Association’s foundation. I admire its work, born as it was very much in the Northern unionist community. Through difficult years the Association has kept open channels of communication and has made a serious contribution to the establishment of better relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, between the two parts of this island, and between Britain and Ireland. It is a record of quiet achievement of which you can be justly proud.


I was honoured to be asked to speak at your 1990 conference in Malahide and have spoken to the Association since in Northern Ireland, most recently in Portadown last year in the period leading up to the annual service and parade at Drumcree parish church.

Sadly, the situation in Portadown remains unresolved. I urge all involved to look to the wider interests of community relations in North Armagh and the effects the lack of cultural tolerance and agreement are having on the good name and the economic livelihood of Portadown.

Portadown has until relatively recently been a town with good community relations. The only way forward if they are to be restored is for the intransigence of the leaders on the Garvaghy Road to end and for the give and take that previously existed to be restored.

Shared Histories

Despite all the difficulties and dangers in the current situation I am pleased to be able to speak at a moment which is still so hopeful for the people of this island, North and South. I do not intend before an audience such as this to dwell on the Belfast Agreement and how it was arrived at. On the contrary, your conference is entitled “Post-Agreement Ireland, North and South”. Tonight, I intend to try to look forward but with an eye to the past.

Earlier this month both parts of this island commemorated in a unique way the sacrifices made by Ulstermen and Irishmen on the battlefronts in Belgium and France and, in particular, the 80th anniversary of the end of that bloody conflict which touched almost every family in Ireland.

While the focus was very much on remembrance, the significance of the ceremony at Messines in terms of reconciliation on this island was plain to see. For too long everyone on this island has underplayed the contribution of men from here to the war effort, not only in the 1914-18 war but in the Second World War as well.

I salute the part played in healing the divisions between those whose families fought with the 36th (Ulster) Division and those in the 16th (Irish) Division by HM The Queen and, in no small part, by President McAleese who has built on the example of President Robinson in a remarkable way.

Entrenched Divisions

1998 is also the 80th anniversary of the 1918 election which is regarded by some as defining the politics and history of this island. In recent decades it has been used to justify a sectarian campaign against unionists in Northern Ireland. If the political divisions in Ireland were an inevitable consequence of that election result, demonstrating as they did the very different aspirations of the people here, the last thirty years have done much to entrench those divisions in every sphere of life to a degree no-one at the time of Partition envisaged or desired.

I would refer to Sir James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and a man often unfairly portrayed as narrow and partisan. In 1926, after the recognition of Northern Ireland in the 1925 Agreement, he spoke in a way echoed by modern unionism:

“For future time the North and the South have got to live together as neighbours and the prosperity of Northern Ireland does undoubtedly affect the prosperity of Southern Ireland and a peaceful and prosperous Southern Ireland reflects on the North…

“Therefore, a man is short-sighted indeed and no patriot to his country who would see one portion standing out prosperous, rich, happy and content if, on the other side, he was to see despondency, poverty and going down the hill instead of going up. So it is for the Government of the South and the Government of the North to turn their hands rather from the matters which have divided them in the past to concentrate on the matters which affect the welfare of the people in their own area with a view that the whole of Ireland, and not one part of it alone, may be prosperous.”

Changes of Attitude

This was a remarkable aspect of Craig’s thinking. After all, as the Nationalist MP Stephen Gwynn observed only three years earlier, “Sinn Fein honeycombed the British service in Ireland with persons who thought it honest to conspire actively against the Government which paid them. One cannot expect Sir James Craig and his ministers to have forgotten that nor blame them for acting on the memory.”

Later relations between North and South were soured by problems over recognition and allegations on both sides of bad faith. In particular the coming to power of Fianna Fail sent North/South relations into nose-dive, forcing Craig to respond to De Valera’s more aggressive nationalism. Often the context of the famous statement held against Craig is malevolently omitted. I will give it to you in full:

“In the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.”

I have spoken more recently of a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people. That is the offer the Agreement makes to all of us. Anyone who wishes to take up that offer in good faith will find me a willing partner. The main concentration must be on economic and social issues and on healing the deep wounds and divisions of the last 30 years.

Developments in Northern Ireland can be facilitated by developments on the rest of island. Mainstream unionism recognises that the South has changed. Not only has the Republic itself evolved in a gradually more pluralist direction but, above all, the Irish Government has stopped asking the British Government to act as a persuader for Irish unity. This request was in the rhetoric of not only De Valera but Sean Lemass, Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey, too. To Albert Reynolds great credit, he formally abandoned the notion in 1993 and John Bruton and Bertie Ahern have built on this with credibility. And I want here to acknowledge the crucial role of Bertie Ahern in this year’s achievements.

Potential for Co-operation North and South

Economic co-operation, we trust, is no longer advanced as a strategy for creeping unification. After the Agreement there is no longer any need to engage in such tactical manoeuvres and a growth in co-operation is consequently possible.

However, it would be misleading of me if I did not caution against unrealisable expectations with regard to North-South implementation bodies. These do have a role in certain small, discrete areas - the sort of areas given as examples in the annex to the section of the Agreement on North/South issues. Animal health and waterways are but two. The successful example of the joint management of the Erne/Ballyshannon waterway is one we want to build upon, for instance.

At the same time, the potential for cooperation between the departments and in the business, voluntary and community sectors is considerable. In this regard, I particularly mention the potential for tourism. The last 30 years have impacted negatively worldwide not only for Northern Ireland but for the Republic too. The large hotel chains have not been slow to realise the benefits of the new situation. The market is a much more responsive instrument than government and executive agencies have played no part in this development.

I warn against those who seek to rewrite history, who see history rolling inexorably in one direction. It never has done, nor will attempts to nudge it succeed. Such attempts in the past have proved disastrous and positively frustrated useful mutual gains. That is a lesson which must be learned if sterility is not again to inform North/South relations.

Is it not better to say: “This area has proven potential, let us see how we can build upon it,” rather than, “This was on the agenda in 1965 and 1973 and the situation now demands more”? Perhaps there were sound economic reasons why those schemes were not successful rather than political malevolence at work.

Ending the Cold War

I have spoken of the end of the ‘cold war’ on this island. As the Taoiseach said recently in Edinburgh, “We have a new dispensation in Ireland that is democratically validated and from every point of view legitimate. There is also provided a democratic means of resolving fundamental constitutional differences both now and in the future and any attempt by anyone to return to violence will be firmly crushed.”

We look forward to continued valuable exchanges with the Republic on a wide range of issues bilaterally and in the British-Irish Council. We also have much to discuss, including also our colleagues in Great Britain, on issues such as fisheries, transport and tourism. I would particularly like to encourage more people from Northern Ireland to visit the Republic, and equally more from the Republic to visit Northern Ireland, because I am certain we can both feel secure, in our identity and personally, on either side of the Border in the new situation.

In future, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have distinct political personalities of their own. We all hope that the move towards devolution across the UK will lead to a new spirit of co-operation and friendship between the different component parts of these islands.

I am intrigued to hear Bertie Ahern say that he believes the British-Irish Council may become in time a loose confederation, fully respecting sovereignty of course, like the Nordic Council. We cannot be prescriptive. But once the new Parliament in Scotland and the Assembly in Wales are in place, the value of the British-Irish Council should not be under-estimated.

A Broader Unionism

Ending the cold war need not involve any sacrifice of fundamental principle. I am delighted by the recent successes we have had in broadening the base of support for the Union. It never ceases to amaze me that the media ignored the fact that two Catholics stood as Ulster Unionist candidates in the Assembly elections, one topping the poll. Had this happened in the last Assembly election in 1982 it would have been regarded as epoch-making. Perhaps it is good that neither within the Ulster Unionist Party nor in society as a whole was it regarded as remarkable in 1998.

As the first President of this Association, Lord Charlemont - a distinguished Unionist Minister of Education said, “The Union does not exist for the sectarian prejudices of Unionists.”

Unionists can sometimes act defensively. We can be inclined to see ourselves as inhabiting an embattled enclave in these islands. Certainly the experience of the last 30 years has encouraged and reinforced that attitude. But there is another, more important side to unionism: the belief that all the different people of these two islands - English, Welsh, Scottish and from our own island too - share far more than divides us; a belief that there is as much value in continued and various diversity as their is in mutual conformity; a belief that all will gain from being freely associated together within a wider union. They are inclusive beliefs not unique to our part of the island of Ireland.

We mean no ill will towards this State when we, who are unionists, say that the Union is in the best interests of all the people, politically, culturally, socially and, in no small part, economically.

Shared Pain

For all the disputes there have been over the years in relation to security co-operation we do not belittle the impact the Troubles have had on the Republic. We remember the Dublin and Monaghan bombings - now admitted by the UVF - the deaths of several members of the Garda Siochana, and most recently, that those three little children from Buncrana were among the 29 murdered in Omagh.

The Troubles and security measures have entailed a high cost to the Republic’s citizens in purely financial terms. Peace brings obvious economic benefits for Northern Ireland but there are benefits for the Republic too, particularly as the proportion of GDP spent on anti-terrorism measures falls.

I was pleased to be able to endorse the package of legal measures announced by Bertie Ahern earlier this year following the Omagh atrocity. I understand the concerns some have about legislating in response to outrage, but the new legislation brought the law on to a comparable plane, North and South.

At the same time as seeking to deter acts of terrorism, the new climate has allowed cautious movement to decrease the visible security presence and the routine inconvenience it can involve. Those travelling from Northern Ireland will have noticed the total removal of the Cloghogue checkpoint outside Newry and the Garda checkpoint at Drumadd.

But, caution must be the watchword. Our aspiration to a completely peaceful future must not cloud our judgement. Several terrorist splinter groups are openly not observing ceasefires. The ceasefires in place are not nearly as comprehensive as we would hope. Not only do loyalists and republicans indulge nightly in fascist thuggery directed against their own communities - at a higher rate than at any time since the Agreement - but other indications are not encouraging for the immediate future.

No Room for the Politics of Threat

Above all, we must not be blind to the reality of the situation in relation to the Provisional IRA, an organisation, in many respects, better equipped than the Irish Defence Forces and still with the capacity to perpetrate a thousand Omaghs - enough to flatten every town on this island.

The IRA and Sinn Fein have said that they do not believe that the Agreement is the basis for a lasting settlement. Martin McGuinness has openly said, “The Agreement is not a peace settlement”. And, while it was to be welcomed in as far as it went, John Bruton was absolutely correct to point out that Gerry Adams’ statement about violence being “a thing of the past, over, done with and gone” was aspirational rather than definitive. We are still entitled to ask: “Is the war over?”

If anyone in the Republican Movement still holds to the notion that a better deal is on offer if they collapse the Assembly, they must be disabused of it.

I said on the steps of Castle Buildings on Good Friday that it was time for the Republican Movement to announce its “squalid, dirty little war” was over. We are still waiting for them to take that opportunity.

Let me be quite plain: those who say you sleep sounder at night knowing there is a pike in the thatch are wrong. You won’t in fact sleep soundly with it on your conscience and how the heck do you think your neighbours will sleep?

The Republican Movement claims that there is no requirement to decommission even within the two year time span. That position is untenable in terms of the Agreement. Moreover it is intolerable to us and, to both the British and Irish Governments. There can be no progress towards an executive role for Sinn Fein while they maintain their “No, Nothing, Never” policy.

The Agreement is explicit on this. In the declaration of support on the very first page, the parties to the Agreement reaffirmed their

“total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.”

This requirement is repeated three times in Strand One and, in paragraph 25 is linked to exclusion or removal from office. That paragraph is then explicitly cross-referenced to decommissioning. Could anything be clearer?

So long as no start has been made towards the total decommissioning of all the terrorist arsenals a constant, an implied threat remains. A threat made explicit when Martin McGuinness wrote recently in the Irish Times that the fact that the guns were not now in use was of immense significance. “Not now” were his very words, words laden with menace.

Consider also the way Donegal Celtic players were intimidated from playing a football match. These are the methods the Republican Movement is still prepared to use. There was a secret ballot. It did not go Sinn Fein’s way. Then the hard men were deployed.

Is this to be the future? Of course not!

I sometimes wonder whether Sinn Fein’s leadership have read the Agreement, or, if they have understood and internalised its contents. Let me give an example. Only a few weeks ago, Gerry Adams called for the British Government to “look beyond current policy and encourage new thinking leading to a change in that policy. The aim of democratic Irish opinion, democratic opinion in Britain and internationally must be to seek a change in British policy of one of upholding the Union to one of ending the Union.”

Is Gerry Adams talking about the same Agreement as the rest of us? Did he overlook Page 2 of the Agreement on constitutional issues where it speaks of “the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland”?

Towards a New Stability

The constitutional status of Northern Ireland is not a mere policy emanating from Number 10 or Millbank. It is the reflection of majority opinion in Northern Ireland, validated by 85% of all the people of Ireland, North and South. I trust that when this sinks in and when the Sinn Fein leadership explain its implications to grassroots republicans, the forces of the state on both sides of the Border are prepared for the possible reaction.

Gerry Adams is free to argue for a change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, but once you accept the legitimacy of the state, you are not only obliged to do so non-violently and through the democratic process alone. You are also obliged to recognise the validity of the organs of the state. For instance, you are free to argue for changes to the RUC but you cannot sign up to an Agreement which accepts the legitimacy of Northern Ireland and at the same time not recognise Northern Ireland’s police.

It has been necessary for me to dwell on these matters for the last few minutes. It needed to be said. But do not get the wrong impression. We are not pursuing an exclusionist strategy. With regard to Sinn Fein, as I said at the first meeting of the Assembly – and I was looking directly at them when I said it – we have never said that people with a past do not have a future. I also said that in the Assembly there are a lot of people who have done terrible things in the past and they are not all in one corner of the chamber.

We are open to new relationships, changed relationships, and it is clear that Ulster Unionists are ready to embrace new relationships within Northern Ireland so long as it is done with integrity.

Some other unionist parties are not prepared to do so yet. They protest too much their adherence to the purity of their policies. But we know them well. A sense of humour would not go amiss; nor would an ability to see themselves as others see them.

Daring to Hope

Only a fool would argue that change is not inevitable, in every sphere of life. In post-Agreement Ireland we must not lose sight of where we came from nor pretend that over the last 30 years we have all fought from morally equal positions.

In future, though, armed only with mutual respect, respect for human rights and a commitment to the rule of law, post-Agreement Ireland, North and South, stands on the verge of a new millennium and of a brighter future for the next generation than was the case for the last.

We have a clear choice. There is way marked out for our island. It contains the potential for unparalleled prosperity, peace and justice for all.

There is another way. It was described by Oscar Wilde in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It described the experience of many over the last 30 years:

“Something was dead in all of us
And what was dead was Hope”

In 1998, we rekindled Hope. In 1999, we will deliver on it.

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