A long-standing family committment meant that Basil McCrea was unavailable for today’s scheduled UUP disciplinary hearing. But while his party have been relatively quiet over the past 24-48 hours as flag protests have resurged, the Lagan Valley MLA has issued a statement tonight.
When I joined the UUP in late 2004 some were surprised by my decision. I had no particular ties to the party, no political connections at all in fact and the UUP were a party under pressure. A position confirmed the following year when the party lost all but one of its Westminster seats in the general election.
But it was precisely because the UUP was under such pressure that I joined. I had voted YES for the Agreement in 1998. I believed in it then, and I believe in it now.
Perhaps, there could have been better communication of the detail, perhaps there should have been a greater effort to sell the Agreement, but even with the benefit of hindsight, nobody has yet presented a better alternative.
There is a simple truth to Northern Ireland. We live in a divided society. There is no future for Northern Ireland that is not based on a shared future. There is no future for Northern Ireland that that will not require some accommodation with those with a different perspective and there is no future for Northern Ireland that will not involve ongoing political dialogue.
Some may have hoped that with the Belfast Agreement we could “draw a line in the sand” but we squandered that opportunity. The UUP paid a heavy price for failing to convince the electorate of the benefits of the Agreement, so too has Northern Ireland. The disaster of 2005 was seven years in the making. Internal divisions, disinterested partners and political opponents keen to manipulate the fears of the electorate for their own political advantage conspired to put the Belfast Agreement at risk.
Those same forces remain active today, colluding with each other to ratchet up tensions and create fears in the electorate for short term, selfish, political advantage with reckless disregard for our future. The hugely damaging controversy surrounding the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall was not an accident but a carefully orchestrated political manoeuvre designed with clear electoral objectives in mind.
Such tactics have used been used repeatedly over the years for base political advantage. Those that won the 2007 Assembly elections did so by ruthlessly exploiting the electorate’s fears, they promised a new deal, a better deal, “A Fair Deal” only to deliver more or less the same deal.
The party that once jeered at the Belfast Agreement now uses the language of a shared future from its conference platform attempting to reach out to non-traditional voters. Yet in other forums it argues for greater unionist cooperation to maximise unionist seats. Such cynical electoral manoeuvring should not be lost on the electorate.
Nor is the UUP the party it once was. Losing election after election the party has lost confidence in its ability to win an argument, any argument. It is tempted to retreat to the core and to seek safety in electoral pacts, joined candidates and greater unionist cooperation, oblivious to the fact that this will lead to its destruction as an independent political party.
The Ulster Unionist Party must not go down this route. It would be a betrayal of the Belfast Agreement and the people who stood with the party during the difficult years. The party should stand on its record, build on its vision of a shared future as described in the Belfast Agreement and make the case for a Union that is stronger when it is a Union for everyone. The constitutional position has been secured by the Belfast Agreement and the economic case has never been stronger, but respect for the cultural identity of all our citizens is essential if we persuade them of our good intent.
Unlike some in the party, I was not born an Ulster Unionist, I chose to become one. I have stayed with the party through thick and thin, and I will continue do so for as long as I am convinced that the party is committed to the vision and values set out in the Belfast Agreement. The Agreement was endorsed by the party and the people of Northern Ireland and is, as far as I am aware, still party policy.
Whilst the Belfast Agreement provides a solid foundation it has significant limitations. There is widespread disenchantment with a political process that is unable or unwilling to tackle any serious issue. Mandatory coalition within the executive has reduced the Assembly to little more than a talking shop. Political reform is required.
The public mood is for reform but any reform will require the presence of viable independent alternatives and a fundamental change in voting patterns. Those that want a shared future must realise that they too can cooperate to maximise the number of “shared future” seats and when adopting policy stances on the flying of flags or the naming of parks they are mindful of the views of the whole community. I hope that those that have been entrusted with leadership will provide just that. Sometimes, in the words of President Harry Truman “To be able to lead others, man must be willing to go forward alone.”