Jeffrey Donaldson: Blurring the Lines Between Democracy and Terrorism

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By Jeffrey Donaldson

18 November 1999

First, Alistair, I would like to thank the Friends of the Union for inviting me to give this Lecture. I have been a member of the Friends of the Union since its inception, and I have always believed this organisation has an important role to play in drawing together those of us who espouse the cause of the Union throughout the United Kingdom. I see a developing role for such a body in the future, as a forum in which Unionists can come together from all corners of the Kingdom to promote the benefits of the Union against a rising tide of nationalism which seeks the dismemberment of the Union.

The goal is simple, keep the ball in the air for the longest amount of time….

It is especially a privilege to give the Lecture this evening because it is a memorial to the late Ian Gow. I came to know Ian Gow when he was a Conservative Member of Parliament who took a huge interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland. He was a strong advocate of the Union, and he won my admiration when, shortly after the Conservative Government entered into the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Irish Republic, he resigned as a minister in that Government in protest at what had been done. When you have someone like Ian Gow who has principles that mean more to him than the advancement of his political career, it speaks highly of the integrity of the man. Oh that we had more people like Ian Gow in politics today!

Ian Reginald Edward Gow

11 February 1937 – 30 July 1990

 Member of Parliament (MP) for Eastbourne

assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)

I don’t think that Ian Gow would have been comfortable in the politics of the spin-doctors. His was a belief in the truth – in speaking the truth and standing for the truth. Our thoughts and best wishes are with his family tonight – with Dame Jane and other relatives. We recall fondly his contribution to the Friends of the Union and indeed to the Union itself. Ian, like other advocates of the Union, met his end in an untimely and tragic way, a victim of the politics and the violence of the republican movement.

Tonight I have entitled my lecture ‘The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Blurring the Lines between Democracy and Terrorism’. The Union means a lot to me – not just the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not just the Union as an Ulster Unionist, but all of the Union. As an Ulster Unionist I see perhaps the greatest single threat to the Union today not coming from republicanism or nationalism but from the European Union. I see our sovereignty, our national identity, being squeezed by the European Union. I see the prospect of a single currency which will strip us of economic independence – surely one of the more powerful elements in national sovereign independence. I see so-called subsidiarity being promoted by the European Union, where power is taken from the centre and passed down to the regions. Not that I am against government which is close to the people, nor that I am against accountable government, but I recognise that the objective in denuding national parliaments and governments of their power is to weaken them against the ever-running tide of European integration. So I am a Unionist, but not a ‘Little Ulster’ Unionist. I believe in the Union in its broadest sense, and I watch with sadness sometimes as I see so-called constitutional reform presented as providing better government when it does not. That is only to dress it up, to persuade people that what is happening is not really what is happening.

‘The Northern Ireland peace process’. There are times when I hesitate to use the words ‘peace process’, because I am not convinced that the end of the process will be peace. There are times when I think the word ‘appeasement’ is more apt. The background to this process is long and deep and complicated. Any student of Irish history will always find a difficulty in choosing a starting-point from which to carry out an analysis of the politics of that island and the politics of Northern Ireland. I chose as my starting-point tonight the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, but I do not for a moment pretend that this was the beginning or the end of anything. Since my theme tonight is ‘Blurring the Lines Between Democracy and Terrorism’, I think it is important that we understand the nature of the process. Republican violence has never been mindless, as some have suggested. Republican violence is part of a very carefully thought-out strategy – a strategy which is designed to put pressure on our Government to make the concessions which will eventually lead to their goal of a united Ireland. That violence has taken many forms and has changed and evolved over the last thirty years. Before Sunningdale we had high-intensity violence by republicans in Northern Ireland of a very deep, bitter sectarian nature. We recall the events in the early 1970s – the Kingsmill Massacre, in which ten protestant workmen were taken from a bus, lined up along the road and murdered in cold blood – Bloody Friday, and all the other tragic events which took place at that time – high-intensity violence. The Sunningdale initiative was an attempt to create a constitutional compromise, but it failed because Unionists would not accept the all-Ireland dimension of Sunningdale. They saw in it the Trojan Horse which would put them on the road to a united Ireland.

After Sunningdale, the IRA became more strategic in its violence. They began to see that a ‘simple’, if one can use that word, sectarian campaign would not of itself achieve the results that they wanted, because ten protestants murdered in South Armagh did not make much impact on the British Government at Westminster. They began to single out military and security force targets because they reckoned that this would have a greater impact. They hoped that a steady stream of body bags returning to England would swing public opinion on the mainland towards the idea that Northern Ireland should be abandoned – that it was not worth the sacrifice. So there was a campaign by republicans against the security forces.

But in the early 1980s they then switched their attention specifically to the Government itself. We all recall – and those of our friends who are with us today who are members of the Conservative Party will recall – the bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton. That bomb, perhaps more than any other single event in the history of Republican violence, speaks of the link between the political process and terrorism. The IRA calculated that by attacking the Cabinet of the British Government, it was striking at the heart of British democracy, and that the impact of that event would have repercussions which would benefit their cause for years to come. Just before – indeed just months before the Brighton bomb – Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, in response to the report of the New Ireland Forum, declared that the three options set out in that Forum – joint authority, a federal Ireland, and a united Ireland – were all non-starters. There was the famous press conference where she said ‘out, out, out’ to those three options. So the IRA’s bomb at Brighton was a deliberate response to her attitude to the New Ireland Forum report. The Brighton bomb was followed soon after by the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I recall the words the Prime Minister uttered at Hillsborough on the day she signed that Agreement. She said ‘I am doing it because of the violence.’ Here we have the clear link between the violence of republicanism and the political process.

Of course the IRA noted those words. They noted the success of what they had been about, and so they continued with their strategic campaign directed against the Government. They switched to economic targets such as the City of London, and the impact was devastating. Alongside the attacks on the economic targets, there then began a dialogue known as the Hume-Adams discussions or the Hume-Adams process. John Hume, the leader of the SDLP – the larger of the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland – began a negotiation with the leadership of the IRA which would lead to an understanding between the SDLP, Sinn Fein/IRA and the Irish Government, bringing about the formation of what is now known as the Pan-Nationalist Front. The Government then entered into secret negotiations, or secret discussions, with the IRA. Again we recall how the Prime Minister of the day, John Major, said it would turn his stomach to talk to the IRA, but we know that at that time his Government was engaged in secret dialogue with the leadership of the IRA. The culmination of Hume-Adams and of the secret talks with the Government was the Downing Street Declaration. That was followed by the first IRA ceasefire, and then continuing discussions about how negotiations could begin. At this stage we had the emergence of an issue which would in time come to dominate much of the process. That issue was decommissioning.

After the first ceasefire, the negotiations did not get off the ground because the Government of the day said that there must be a start to decommissioning before Sinn Fein/IRA could enter those negotiations. Finally in early 1996 the IRA declared that they had had enough, and they exploded the bomb at South Quay and ended their ceasefire. This was followed by the General Election and change of Government in 1997. Very quickly the new Government dropped the requirement for decommissioning up front, and what became known as the Mitchell compromise – created by former US Senator George Mitchell – was adopted. The Mitchell formula proposed that decommissioning should take place alongside the talks process, and that in return for a reinstatement of the IRA ceasefire Sinn Fein would be admitted to the talks. So in the summer of 1997 we had the second IRA ceasefire, and in September of that year the commencement of negotiations which included the representatives of the republican movement.

At this stage I want to remind you of the commitments which were given by the participants in those negotiations at the beginning of the talks process. They were known as the Mitchell principles, again drawn up by Senator George Mitchell, who by this time had been appointed chairman of the talks process. Let us recall what the representatives of Irish republicanism signed up to – committed themselves to – at that point. They pledged themselves to a ‘total and absolute commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues.’ Now bear in mind this is 1997. They signed up to the following:

• ‘To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations’.

• To agree that such disarmament must be ‘verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission’.

• To ‘renounce for themselves and to oppose any effort by others to use force or threaten to use force to influence the course or outcome of all-party negotiations’.

• To agree to ‘abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations’.

• To ‘resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in attempting to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree’.

• And finally to ‘urge that punishment killings and beatings stop, and to take effective steps to prevent such acts’.

That was 1997. That is what the republican movement signed up to at that time. Is some of the language familiar? I think that some of the leader writers have forgotten these things, because it appears to them that all this is new – ‘seismic’, even!

And so we have the negotiations leading to what became known as the Agreement – the Belfast Agreement, to give it its official title – or the Good Friday Agreement, for its advocates. Of course decommissioning did not happen alongside the talks. When it came to the final agreement, I can only describe the outcome on decommissioning as a classic fudge. I voted against the Agreement, because I believed there were fundamental issues that were fudged, and I believed that the Agreement did blur the line between democracy and terrorism. Nothing since has convinced me that I was wrong. But I claim no monopoly on wisdom, Mr Chairman.

The Agreement was a classic political compromise. In return for the removal of Articles 2 and 3, the territorial claim of the Irish Republic over Northern Ireland – which are not yet removed, but will be, we are told, soon – Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act, which is supposedly the claim of Britain over Northern Ireland, would be amended. We had the establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly in return for the establishment of a North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, which would bring together the two Governments and the various devolved assemblies and legislatures throughout the United Kingdom. We also had a recognition of the principle of consent, and of the right of people to pursue the goal of a united Ireland. There was provision for a referendum, should the Secretary of State determine that there might be a mood within the community in favour of a united Ireland.

Alongside this constitutional compromise, we had confidence-building measures within the Agreement, including the prisoner release scheme which was one of the reasons why I chose to vote against the Agreement. In addition to the provision within the Agreement for the early release of terrorist prisoners, there were proposals for reform of policing and the criminal justice system, for a reduction in the security infrastructure, and for the decommissioning of terrorist weapons.

Let us just for a moment dwell on those aspects of the Agreement, starting with prisoner releases. Yesterday, the three hundredth terrorist prisoner was released early in Northern Ireland. I cannot begin to explain to you how it feels for the families of the victims of terrorist violence who watch the murderers walk free, having served so little of their sentences. Let me give you one example – that of my constituent, Michelle Williamson, whose father and mother were murdered with seven other innocent people on the Shankill Road in 1993. Michelle’s mother and father had gone to the Shankill Road to do some shopping. They were in Frizell’s fish shop when the bomb exploded. Thomas Begley, the IRA bomber, was killed by his own bomb. Sean Kelly, his accomplice, was injured but survived and was subsequently sentenced to nine life terms in prison for nine murders. Sean Kelly will be released in July next year, having served seven years in prison. That is less than one year for each murder he committed. It does not do much to build the confidence of the victims of terrorist violence.

Reform of the police – the Patten Report – is now a matter of fact and has been introduced into the equation. I do not support many of the proposals in the Patten Report. I believe that the proposal to change the name of the RUC to the Northern Ireland Police Service is an insult to the integrity of the men and women who have defended Northern Ireland against terrorism. I believe that the proposal to change the insignia is, again, simply an act of appeasement. When one considers that the insignia is composed of the harp, the shamrock and the crown, symbolising as they do both traditions, I think only those with the narrowest of views would believe that the badge is inappropriate. The proposal to remove the Union flag from police stations is, again, part of the process of stripping Ulster of her British identity. Then there are the District Partnership Policing Boards, where Sinn Fein/IRA will have seats and will have a major influence on policing in Northern Ireland. Would you like to be living in West Belfast where the District Partnership Policing Board will be run almost exclusively by the representatives of the IRA? They will put on Armani suits by day and take decisions about how much money the police should have, and put on their balaclavas by night and go out and beat people up, rob banks, peddle drugs, and carry on every other illicit activity in which they are engaged.

There are aspects of the Patten Report which we welcome – the training college, efforts to recruit more Roman Catholics into the RUC. Would that the IRA would call the dogs off because that, more than anything, has prevented the decent Roman Catholic people of Northern Ireland from coming forward to join the RUC. Intimidation is the problem here, not sectarianism. And the sacrifice of the RUC – I do not know how Chris Patten could have compiled the Report he did, and held so many public meetings throughout Northern Ireland as he did, and not have recorded the sacrifice of the RUC within his Report. Mr Chairman, when you reduce your police service and your criminal justice system to the level of mere bargaining chips on the gambling table of conflict resolution, then you do blur the lines between justice, democracy and terrorism.

That brings me, finally, to the current situation. Decommissioning is the word on everyone’s lips. On the day that the Agreement was signed, the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, wrote a personal letter to my party leader. In that letter he said – and I quote – ‘I confirm that in our view the effect of the decommissioning section of the Agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June, is that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away.’ That was the 10th of April 1998. Mr Blair went on during the referendum campaign which followed the Agreement to pledge certain things to the people of Northern Ireland, including that those ‘who use or threaten violence would be excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland’. And on the day of the referendum itself he said this: ‘Representatives of parties intimately linked with paramilitary groups can only be in a future Northern Ireland Government if it is clear that there will be no more violence and the threat of violence has gone.

That does not just mean decommissioning, but all bombing, killings, beatings, and an end to targeting, recruiting, and all the structures of terrorism’. That was Mr Blair’s test of whether people were committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. On that basis, many people in Northern Ireland voted for that Agreement because they believed the word of the Prime Minister, and the pledges he wrote on the wall. Can I just remind you that he also said ‘prisoners kept in unless violence is given up for good’. Three hundred prisoners released – has violence been given up for good in Northern Ireland? This summer we have seen the IRA ‘doing what it does best’ – the murder of Charles Bennett, supposedly a member of the IRA – tortured, beaten and executed. This summer the IRA was caught gun-running from America. Instead of disarming, they have been re-arming. Instead of decommissioning, they have been recommissioning arms. Do you think Mr Blair’s test has been met? I do not.

So Ulster Unionists are faced today with a stark choice – whether to stand by our manifesto pledge to the people of Northern Ireland, which requires that the IRA begins to decommission its illegal weapons before an executive is formed, or to share power with the representatives of a fully armed terrorist organisation who have failed to declare an end to their so-called ‘war’. The choice is between maintaining a clear line between democracy and terrorism, or the blurring of that line. The reality is that Mr Martin McGuinness, former Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA, is one of the two ministers who will be nominated by the Republican movement. Within days, Martin McGuinness is set to become a minister in the Government of Northern Ireland, and not a single bullet will have been decommissioned by the Provisional IRA.

This week we have had two statements, one from Sinn Fein and one from the IRA. The Sinn Fein statement – I shall not bore you will the details – does not really say anything new. In fact much of the language is the language that I quoted to you from the Mitchell principles. Gerry Adams said a year ago – and I quote – ‘the conflict must be for all of us now a thing of the past – over, done with, and gone.’ He says the same in this statement, but since he first said it the IRA have murdered five people, engaged in countless punishment attacks, and imported more guns from America. Surely words have got to be matched by deeds. Our party, the Ulster Unionists, have long held the view that the decommissioning of illegal weapons is essential to demonstrating a clear commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. I do not believe that these statements issued by Sinn Fein/IRA have proved in themselves that such a commitment exists on the part of republicans. The IRA statement is short. There has been no declaration that the so-called ‘war’ is over. There has been no firm commitment to actual decommissioning by the IRA. There is no timetable on offer for decommissioning. There is no start date. The IRA have merely agreed to appoint someone to talk about decommissioning, after the political institutions have been established, with no guarantee of anything else. Martin McGuinness has been the interlocutor on behalf of Sinn Fein with the International Commission on Disarmament for the past eighteen months. Are we going to see anything more from republicans than Martin McGuinness was able to produce in the last eighteen months? The question remains.

In short, there has been no clarity or certainty from the IRA that decommissioning is going to take place. Furthermore, the absence of a clear legislative fail-safe mechanism to remove Sinn Fein/IRA from office if they default on decommissioning is a matter of grave concern. A scenario where the democrats are punished equally with the defaulters is totally unacceptable. What will be our reward for taking the risk of ‘being hung out to dry’ for weeks with Sinn Fein ministers in our Government and no decommissioning? Our reward will be that by the end of January next year, if there has not been decommissioning, we get kicked out of office along with the IRA. It does not sound like a good deal to me.

I appreciate how difficult this decision is. But I am convinced that the Ulster Unionist Party must choose to stand by its pledge to the people. Mr Blair has broken his pledges. Are we going to follow suit? We should not break our word by breaching what is a fundamental democratic principle. We should not leave the negotiating table until the commitment to peace and democracy is firmly established by republicans and is backed up by tangible evidence. Mr Chairman, there can be no place for the gun at the table of democracy. Martin McGuinness, minister in the Government of Northern Ireland, brings with him one hundred tons of illegal IRA weapons. He brings with him a private terrorist army. Can we be sure that what we get – what is supposed to be stable government in Northern Ireland – will in fact be stable under those circumstances?

I want to see peace brought to these islands, and especially to the people of Northern Ireland. I want to see progress and stability. But if the price is blurring the lines between democracy and terrorism in this way, then I suggest that it is a price that is too high. I believe that the IRA must and should deliver on the obligations which are placed upon them, weak those these are in the Agreement, and begin the process of actually decommissioning their illegal weapons. I think this is the least the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to have after thirty years of terrorist violence, and it must apply equally to the loyalist paramilitary organisations. Since, however, it is only the IRA who stand to gain the spoils of political office in the Government of Northern Ireland, then the responsibility rests heaviest on their shoulders. Without disarming them, without an end to violence, they should not be permitted to sit at the table of democracy. It was John Hume who said ‘no guns under the table, and no guns outside the door.’ Where are you today, John Hume, when we need your help?

I hope we will get decommissioning and disarmament and peace and progress in Northern Ireland, but unless we make it clear that democracy and the rule of law and justice are paramount, and that we cannot mix them with terrorism, I shudder to think of the kind of society that we are going to build for that place, that part of the United Kingdom that is called Northern Ireland.

Questions & Answers
In reply to a question from John Wilkinson MP regarding the role played by the Conservative and Unionist Party in helping to defend the Union under the present circumstances:

I feel very strongly that those of us who believe in the Union ought to work together more closely than we do. As regards the Conservative and Unionist Party, it is true that there have been divisions and differences of opinion within your party on the Agreement and its implementation, but it has been helpful to have your support on issues such as the prisoner releases, decommissioning, and reform of policing. At the same time, I think there is a need for Conservatives to examine how far they are prepared to go with this process in terms of blurring the lines between democracy and terrorism. If you believe that this can be contained within Northern Ireland, and that the precedents you create in Northern Ireland will never have a relevance to other parts of the United Kingdom, then I suggest that that may not be the case. For that reason it is important that as parties of the Union we take a more holistic view than we do at present on these issues.

I personally would like to see the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists becoming more proactive, not only on issues relating to the Agreement, but on the Union itself. I think that there is within Unionism in its broadest sense, a lack of cohesion and coherence in terms of presenting the benefits of the Union, and we ought to be doing more in response to the rising tide of nationalism post-devolution in the United Kingdom. So I think there is more that can be done, and as I said earlier, I see a developing role for the Friends of the Union as a forum in which Conservatives and Unionists and others can work together.

It is true that Conservatives have a dilemma at times when they see a division within the Ulster Unionist Party, because if they back one side against the other, then that can create problems. So the best thing that Andrew Mackay and his team can do in the next eight to ten days as we run up to the special meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council is to stay out of that debate, because this is one debate which has to take place within the Ulster Unionist Party.

Whilst there must be a temptation to follow the lead of Mr Mandelson, who is inviting those whom he thinks might be wavering to come along and have an audience with him to see whether he can persuade them of the merits of the deal which is on offer, I think the Secretary of State needs to be careful, because there is something deep down within Unionism that is resentful of being told what to do. In the context of the present situation, while individual Conservatives are free, of course, to express their views on what is on offer, I do not believe that it would be proper, or in the best interests of Unionism, for the Conservative Party to take a collective view on the debate within the Unionist Party. The splintering within Unionism is a problem which we need to address, and I do not want to see that exacerbated at this difficult time.

In response to a question about the effect of recent events on electoral support for the Ulster Unionist Party:

It is true that since the Agreement the Ulster Unionist Party has endured its worst-ever electoral performances. In the Assembly elections we had our second-worst-ever performance in electoral terms, and in the European elections this year we recorded our lowest-ever vote. So we are suffering the consequences of a deviation in respect of a number of principles, and will continue to suffer as a consequence. I have no doubt that if the Ulster Unionist Party votes to back this deal, that it will cost us dearly in terms of support amongst the Unionist electorate in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt whatsoever about that. If the gamble that is being proposed does not come off – and if, come the end of January, no guns have been handed over and there is not a process of decommissioning – then the Ulster Unionist Party will be in serious trouble because the Northern Ireland electorate is a very unforgiving electorate. Jim Molyneaux, my predecessor, will tell you that following the implosion of the Unionist Party at the time of Sunningdale and the split that took place then, it took us ten years to recover.

Now, if this issue is forced through and there is a split in the Unionist Party, I am not convinced that we will ever fully recover from that split. So I do believe that we ought to think long and consider very carefully the road upon which we are about to embark. Not only are we gambling with fundamental democratic principles, such as the question of whether it is right to sit in government with the representatives of a fully-armed terrorist organisation, but we are gambling with the very future of our Party. Everything else has been gambled on the table of conflict resolution. I am far from convinced of the merits of gambling with the Party itself.

In response to a question about the feasibility of implementing a policy of integrating Northern Ireland more fully into the United Kingdom, as an alternative to further devolution:

Of course it is possible, but I do not think this Government has any intention of doing it. This Government, far from being a Government which believes in integration, is a Government which has set about a process which could lead to the dismembering of the United Kingdom; therefore integration would be anathema to their great constitutional plan. You talked about the Council of Ireland concept, and it is true that consistently, the policy of the Northern Ireland Office has been to create all-Ireland institutions. They hope that such institutions will create a dynamic which will lead to a rolling and evolving process, which in turn will lead perhaps in the first instance to a federal Ireland. When Sinn Fein/IRA had their conference which was convened to consider the Belfast Agreement, in speech after speech, the IRA delegates pointed to the North-South Ministerial Council as providing a dynamic to achieve their objective.

But that is not where the dynamic rests in itself. You see, I do not believe that republicans have forsworn violence, or the threat of violence. The dynamic to create and evolve those North-South institutions into something which will achieve their objective of some kind of 32-county Irish constitutional framework also involves the use and the threat of violence. Republicans have not given up the basic concept of revolutionary politics, which is that ‘victory comes from the barrel of the gun’. That is still there, and that is why I come back to what I said before. We could debate the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, and we could debate their relevance, and we could debate their purpose, but for republicans that purpose cannot be fulfilled without, in my opinion, the republican movement retaining the dynamic of violence to inject into that equation, and to use it to further their objectives. That is why taking the gun out of the political equation is so important. Removing the gun is removing their revolutionary power, and that is why it is so crucial that we achieve that objective.

In reply to a suggestion that government by an elected assembly might be better than the current situation, followed by a question as to whether decommissioning might cause splits within the republican movement:

Well, I do not believe that this Government lacks interest in Northern Ireland – this Government has a fascination with Northern Ireland. Maybe it has grown weary of that fascination, but the Prime Minister has for long periods been preoccupied with Northern Ireland. He sees for himself the prize of being the man who brought peace to Northern Ireland, and Miss Mowlam – formerly revered in some circles – perhaps finds her profile in that regard diminished a little. Nevertheless the Government still does take an interest in Northern Ireland.

Of course an assembly is important to Northern Ireland, because we have a huge gap in terms of local government. The system of local government we have in Northern Ireland is totally inadequate – it is the equivalent of the English parish council system, and we do not have the same powers as English district councils, let alone the county councils. There is a democratic deficit which needs to be addressed. So I want to see an assembly that will fill the gap in local government in Northern Ireland.

In terms of decommissioning and splits within the republican movement, the republican movement has already split. We have the so-called ‘Continuity IRA’ and the so-called ‘Real IRA’. They have been gaining ground, and there have been defections from the Provisional IRA to both these organisations. I think the best that Unionists are likely to get from republicans is a token act of decommissioning. It will be sold to the so-called ‘volunteers’ as simply a tactical manoeuvre to advance their political cause. Maybe one of the reasons why they were re-arming during the summer was to fill the gap created by a token act of disarmament. So I do not believe that the IRA is going to decommission all its weapons as set out in the Agreement by May next year. I do not believe that they are ever going to decommission all their weapons. I think there might be a token gesture, but since it will be sold as a tactical manoeuvre that in itself will not split the republican movement. It will be engineered and managed very carefully indeed by the leadership of the republican movement. I stress ‘if it happens’ – and there is no guarantee that we will even get that token gesture.

In response to the suggestion that Sinn Fein might suffer politically if it failed to deliver decommissioning:

Between the Agreement and the European elections this year, we did not get a single bullet decommissioned by the IRA. Yet in the European elections this year, Sinn Fein recorded its best-ever electoral performance. I do not believe that Sinn Fein will suffer electorally if it fails to decommission its weapons, especially if it delivers a token gesture. Indeed, I think that is all that the nationalist community – those who want to see decommissioning – will expect, and I do not think there is any great desire within the nationalist community to see total decommissioning by the IRA. So they will not suffer electorally, either in Northern Ireland or in the Irish Republic. The only circumstance in which I believe they would suffer electorally is if they returned to full-scale violence. I do not believe the IRA will return to full-scale violence even if this process collapses tomorrow. They are in the present phase engaged in what is called ‘the tactical use of the armed struggle’, and thus the threat of violence used tactically is sufficient for them at the moment, because they believe that there is a greater dynamic in the political process – whether that process is through the present Agreement or through something else.

Replying to a question about why the Ulster Unionists have not made greater efforts to work for local government in Northern Ireland:

The Ulster Unionist Party, under Jim Molyneaux’s leadership, did have a policy which was about the restoration of local government. Jim Molyneaux worked closely with the late Airey Neave in developing the Conservative Party policy on Northern Ireland in the 1979 election, and just prior to the murder of Airey Neave. Indeed, many people have suggested that Airey Neave was deliberately murdered by the INLA in order to stymie that policy, because it would have resulted in Northern Ireland being more closely and fully integrated into the rest of the United Kingdom.

I do not believe that having an assembly in Northern Ireland and giving more power to local councils are necessarily mutually exclusive. Northern Ireland is a small place, with a population of 1.6 million, and therefore I can see value in having an administrative assembly operating as an upper tier of local government, with more power being given to district councils at a lower level. So I do not believe that we have to regard an assembly as being inappropriate for local government. I think we could still have an assembly as part of a local government system, operating on a Northern Ireland-wide basis. There are local government issues which can be dealt with on a Northern Ireland-wide basis, because you are talking about a small area. After all, many of the regional councils in Scotland – before they were abolished – and the county councils here in England managed populations which are in excess of the population in Northern Ireland.

In response to a question as to whether any pressure had been exerted on Mr Donaldson and his colleagues to drop their opposition to the draft Agreement:

Well, I can certainly rule out the official Opposition. There has been no pressure from the Conservative Party on me or on any other Ulster Unionist that I am aware of. Certainly the Secretary of State, Mr Mandelson, has been doing his best to ‘persuade’ – I think that is the word he would use, rather than ‘pressurise’ – people into adopting another course. He has not has any success with me so far – nor is he likely to. As for other organisations, I have had one or two letters and ‘phone calls from individuals.

Nevertheless I think over the next few days what you will see in Northern Ireland is the intervention of the BBC – you had it this morning with the Chamber of Commerce of Northern Ireland on the radio telling us what a great thing this deal was, and tomorrow it will probably be the trade unionists, and on Monday it will be the churches, and on Tuesday someone else. BBC Northern Ireland, which is the broadcasting wing of the Northern Ireland Office, will make sure there are sufficient voices collected over the next few days to put the case in support of the deal. We will have statements made, and advertisements, and all sorts of things exhorting us to support the deal that is on offer. I have no doubt about that. The Northern Ireland Office are nothing if not subtle in the way they go about these things.

In reply to a question about the accusations which will be made against those who vote against the draft Agreement:

There is no doubt that this will happen – and the Secretary of State is at it already – you know, ‘you people are against peace, and you are going to wreck the prospects for peace’ – I have no doubt whatsoever that we are going to have such accusations thrown at us. Do I believe this wrecks the chances of devolution? Do I believe that if we vote this deal down then there is no chance of decommissioning taking place? Well, one simply does not know whether decommissioning is going to take place under the deal that is proposed anyway. There is no guarantee of decommissioning under this deal, not even a suggestion that decommissioning is going to happen under this deal, and I have already said that the best that is going to come out of this deal on decommissioning is a token gesture.

Are we risking devolution? I think in the short term it is true that voting down the deal would delay devolution in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that it would mean that Northern Ireland would never have devolution, in the sense that we will not ever have local government. I believe that we will, because the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to have the same system of government that applies in every other part of the United Kingdom. So yes – on devolution, the failure to get agreement now may delay it, but I do not think it wrecks the chances of Northern Ireland ever having devolution. I do not believe that for a moment. I expect that we will come under fire from the Secretary of State and others and be accused of wrecking the chances of this, that and everything – I suspect that we will be described as ‘forces of conservatism’. But there are principles that are worth conserving in a democratic society, and I think I have outlined some of those principles for you tonight.

Responding to a question about whether he was satisfied with the current leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party:

I know that the media are very tempted to turn this into some kind of personality contest, but I believe that if we get into issues of leadership, we divert attention away from the fundamental principles that are at stake here. When you divert into a personality battle, you provide the opportunity for others to avoid answering very important questions about what they are embarked upon. For me, this is not a question of leadership, and who should lead the Unionist Party. It is about what the policy of the Party should be. The Party has a policy at the moment – a policy unanimously agreed by its Executive. That policy is that we will not sit in an executive with Sinn Fein/IRA until they have begun to decommission their illegal arms.

My view is that the Party should stick with that policy. The view of others is that we should change that policy. There will be a debate and a discussion, and a decision will be taken. I do not think that decision should be based on who should be leader of the Party – it should be based on the fundamental issues at stake in terms of the decision that has to be taken, and the consequences that flow from that decision.

In response to questions about unity amongst Unionist Parties, and about Unionist publicity:

I have no doubt whatsoever that the splintering and divisions within Unionism have seriously weakened our ability in terms of the negotiations, and in terms of our participation in the political process. I personally would like to see greater cooperation between Unionist Parties. When you are confronted by a pan-nationalist alliance as we are, then it is very difficult to deal with and to counteract such an alliance when within your own movement there is deep division. So yes, there is no doubt that division has contributed significantly to the difficulties in which the Unionists find themselves today.

As regards the Irish Republic, you said that there is widespread support for the republican cause – I assume that you mean by that the idea of a united Ireland rather than the use of violence, because I know that in the south the vast majority of people are opposed to republican violence. So yes – in terms of publicity, we are up against the most effective, efficient propaganda machine in these islands, in the shape of the republican movement. It is also the best-financed propaganda machine in these islands. Millbank Tower pales into insignificance compared with Connolly House, in terms of the resources available to them and their ingenuity in turning what is a very poor case into a very powerful propaganda presentation. And yes, Unionists have been slow to evolve in terms of presenting their case.

But I think you can see today that Unionists are more proactive and have improved in terms of putting their case. I think they have. A lot of effort has been made to take our case beyond the confines of Northern Ireland. Alistair touched on this at the beginning of his remarks. We are improving. But there is a long way to go – there is no doubt about that. One of the problems that we have is that of defending the status quo – Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom. It is always more difficult to present the status quo in positive terms than to present the need for change. So I accept your criticism. I believe there can be improvement, but I also believe there has been progress in the way that we present our case.

In response to a broad question asking where Mr Donaldson thought that the Unionists ought to go next, how to get there, and how Unionism could work more effectively:

Well, if you’d like to invite me to deliver the tenth Ian Gow Memorial Lecture ….!

It is a fair question, of course, and the purpose of my lecture tonight was analytical, trying to describe how we got to where we are today. In terms of where we want to get to, a lot depends upon how this process develops. Indeed, the next couple of weeks could be fundamental to the direction that Unionism takes in the future – and to the shape of Unionism as well. Thus I cannot give you an easy answer to this question. Unfortunately one has to say that one is so involved in fire-fighting at the moment that it is difficult to construct a strategy to take us somewhere else, when one has to do something about the current process and one has to work within the confines of the current process.

I am concerned about where we go – I think that is fairly clear from the remarks I made earlier – and so I think that perhaps after the next few weeks or indeed the next few months, as we see how things proceed, we will be in a better position to consider where Unionism goes in the future.

I could spend a long time setting out my vision for the Union – what I would like to see for the people of Northern Ireland, and how I would like to see Unionism evolve in the future. But I am afraid that this would be a rather academic exercise until we first deal with where we are today. Until we have sorted that out, I am afraid we cannot determine the future direction of the Union.

© Jeffrey Donaldson and Friends of the Union.
First published February 2000

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