The politicians' consciences…

TWO politicians from very different backgrounds are looking back to the past this week (although that’s a common habit in NI politics), and examining their consciences. Former civil rights leader Austin Currie reveals how he questioned whether he had done the right thing during his Caledon ‘occupation’, given the horrific yet unintended consequences of his actions. Anti-Agreement unionist Jeffrey Donaldson’s struggle with his conscience on the eve of the Agreement’s publication is today’s extract from biography ‘Not By Might’ – but it’s not in the online News Letter– incredibly, given yesterday’s splash on the plot to oust Trimble. Maybe another Austin can set this to rights…

Nevertheless, the News Letter reports that on Good Friday 1998 a meeting of UUP officers was interrupted at a point of deadlock by a request from US President Bill Clinton to speak to UUP leader David Trimble.

Stephen Dempster writes and quotes from ‘Not By Might’:

The meeting was adjourned and during the breather, Ken Maginnis asked Jeffrey for a private chat in a side room.

“It was en amotional encounter because both had served in teh UDR and both lost friends and comrades as a result of terrorist violence. Ken maginnis identified with Jeffrey’s ‘understandable concerns’ but implored his to set them aside and back the leader nonetheless.

“At one point he broke down in tears as he begged him to consider his position very carefully for the sake of party unity.”

Jeffrey appreciated the argument, but responded: “Look Ken, that is all very well, but my conscience is more important to me than party unity.

“How can I leave this building and go out to walk the streets of Lisburn or Moira and look the people I represent in the eye and tell them this is a good agreement when I am sure it isn’?

“How can I urge them to support something which I believe in my heart to be fundamentally flawed? How can I?”

As they awaited the party leader, Jeffrey was in a dilemma and phoned his friend and mentor, former UUP leader Jim Molyneaux.

“You’ve got to be true to your conscience Jeffrey,” he said.

* * *

Paraphrasing, a vote by the party officers then followed – the ‘ayes’ had it “by the narrowest margin possible”. When Trimble left with his delegation to join the other parties in the conference room, Donaldson was asked to join him. He replied that it would be “farcical of me to endorse the Agreement”, before Trimble shrugged and went upstairs. Donaldson famously walked out around this point, and the rest is history.

The article ends with Donaldson asking: “What will history’s verdict be on my decision? What kind of price am I going to have to pay for obeying my conscience?”

* * *

And from a nationalist perspective, SDLP founder Austin Currie recalls in the Belfast Telegraph:

The question I ask myself time and time again

Had I known the consequences of what I intended to do, at Caledon, would I have proceeded with it? I have asked myself that question many, many times over the years.

Would I have gone ahead had I known, or even suspected, that the action I was about to take would initiate a process that would lead to the loss of nearly 4,000 lives?

Would I have gone ahead had I known that my intended action and other actions stemming from it would transform the political scene in Northern Ireland and destroy a political regime which, at that time, appeared permanent and unchallengeable; would I have proceeded?

These are some of the questions I have wrestled with for more than 30 years, particularly in the aftermath of barbarous events, such as have occurred at Enniskillen and Omagh, McGurk’s bar, Greysteel and Bloody Sunday, or when people personally known to me, such as Jim and Gertie Devlin, were murdered in cold blood.

The answer is ‘No’, I would not have proceeded if I had had knowledge of these things.

The injustices being suffered by the Catholic population of Northern Ireland were great and caused much suffering to individuals.

And the initial injustice of a nation divided by a foreign country against the wishes of the great majority of its inhabitants was also great. But none of these injustices justified the loss of a single life, never mind close to 4,000.

What occurred over the following three decades was not inevitable. The deaths resulted from the decisions and actions of individuals, organisations and governments.

The men, women and children who lost their lives in the Troubles did so because of hundreds of decisions, some intentional, others unintentional, which resulted in their deaths.

Amongst those many decisions were my own – taken in good faith, with all the available information at the time and always, I can honestly say, from a desire to put right the wrongs that proliferated in Northern Ireland, and yet, not all correct, not all productive, not all to be proud of.

It was not inevitable, I have repeated to myself so many times over the years.

  • peteb

    Reading the extract from Jeffrey’s Diary (aged 13 3/4), I keep getting the impression that Jeffrey has been taking his biography tips from Gerry Adams’ oeuvre – including the re-imagining of events to suit, and excuse, his current political predicament?

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Why, how do you remember it, peteb?


  • peteb

    “Look Ken, that is all very well, but my conscience is more important to me than party unity.”

    Would anyone seriously argue that this rememberance of things past is anything other than a self-serving statement constructed with more recent events in mind?

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Fair point…

    Wonder if the biog had to pass eyes in the DUP press office before publication?

  • peteb

    Given the ‘revelations’ on the plotting yesterday, Gonzo, there’s a lingering suspicion, in my mind, that the DUP press office might have had to pass it by Jeffrey’s eyes before publication. :o)

  • Sherlock

    Hi All,

    Donaldson’s contributions to his biographer amount to crap wrapped in obsessive self-justification. At long last people may actually realise how self-centred, petty and thin skinned he really is. Makes me glad to be an atheist.

    Best wishes,

  • Davros

    Austin Currie is a decent man. I hope his book does well.

  • willowfield

    was very surprised to read that, with hindsight, Austin Currie would not have taken the action that he did in relation to the Caledon housing scandal, in light of the Troubles that followed.

    I think he’s being too hard on himself. While I concur totally with him that the Troubles weren’t inevitable but were the result of individual decisions, I think his decision to protest the housing allocation was totally just.

    It was the decisions of others that came later – anti-O’Neill unionists’ decisions to oppose reform; police decisions to use excessive force to quell disturbances; violent nationalists’ decisions to begin a terror campaign – which were wrong, not his.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Hi Willowfield.

    Just wanted to agree totally with you. Which must be a first!

  • Billy Pilgrim


    I agree with you too. He is a great man, and one of the few who came through our recent madness with some credit to his name.

    I have read the book and it is a cracking read, highly recommended.

  • Davros

    How come ? I thought it hasn’t been published yet ?

    Austin was a genuine and honest man that we didn’t deserve. He sorted out my Student Grant for me in the Early 70’s.

  • Butterknife

    “Look Ken, that is all very well, but my conscience is more important to me than party unity.”

    or more likely –

    This is my chance to become leader. This Agreement hasn

  • Butterknife

    *ahum* FITT not Adams:P

  • Billy Pilgrim


    Gerry who? Gerry Fitt? Gerry Anderson? Gerry Rafferty? Gerry Adams? (!!!!)

  • Billy Pilgrim


    It’s launched today but I managed to get my hands on a copy last week. I could explain how but then I’d have to kill you.

  • Davros

    LOL … if you had to read the crud I’m struggling with at the moment you might welcome death 😉

    ” this concept is usually operationalized through concepts such as parsimony and reuse of resource inputs, output equities, intergenerational equities, environmental or perceptual carrying capacities and the internalizing of negative externalities”

    For me the Book of the Year so far has been “Walking Along The Border” by Colm T

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    “It was the decisions of others that came later – anti-O’Neill unionists’ decisions to oppose reform; police decisions to use excessive force to quell disturbances; violent nationalists’ decisions to begin a terror campaign – which were wrong, not his.”

    No mention of course of why the UVF had began a campaign of bombing and murder in 1966 that continued right up until Caledon and beyond. Maybe they are like Ulster Resistance and didn’t really exist at all.

  • willowfield


    Just for you: the decisions of the UVF in 1966 were wrong.

  • Davros

    Q: Why DID the UVF start up again in 1966?

    A: ?

  • willowfield

    I’m surprised nobody blogged the second instalment of Currie’s book. He made some serious allegations about Provo electoral intimidation in the 1981 Fermanagh & South Tyrone by-election. See the section entitled SDLP loser in Sands’ election.

    (Cue Provo apologists claiming that because no-one was convicted, it didn’t happen.)

  • Davros

    WF- I suspect that was because his allegations came as no surprise to anyone.

  • willowfield

    Have to admit I hadn’t heard the allegation about the intimidation of Noel Maguire.

  • Davros

    Were you surprised though ? 😉

  • willowfield

    Not in the least!

  • Christopher Daigle

    Interestingly, Brian Feeny, who claims to have been present at the SDLP meeting in 1981 when they decided not to field a candidate in the by-election, never makes an allegation of intimidation against the Republicans in his book about Sinn Fein.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    I’m re-reading that Donaldson extract now, and thinking “Mills and Boon… BAD Mills and Boon”.

    That image from ‘Folks on the Hill’ of Jeffrey talking to his typewriter also helps.