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.