Then formal presentation by DUP Deputy Leader Peter Robinson to the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Killarney on Monday went down very well. One member told me it was very statesmanlike. Many agreed that it was very clear and courteous. It repays full study and the entire text is here too.
Peter Robinson address.
We are unionists – by birth, by desire, by conviction – unapologetically, unflinchingly and unalterably. We are not nationalists who have lost our way. We are not a temporary aberration. We are not the past. We are the present and, like it or not, we are the future.
In case the presence of anyone here in Killarney, can be likened to those who came to see the talking horse – you’ll remember in the story how the people came for the novelty of seeing the horse speak not really to listen to what it had to say – I ask only that you take away this one message from the DUP about the future of Northern Ireland.
Unionists want a stable, peaceful and democratic future. We want to co-exist in Northern Ireland with those who share our homeland even those who hold a different, and conflicting, political ideal. We want to have a co-operative and harmonious interaction with our southern neighbours and we want to develop better relationships North/South and East/West. But let me be clear, none of the arrangements or structures to facilitate these ideals can be imposed or forced upon us. There can be no settlement which does not have our consent.
We accept the legitimacy of those who seek – using solely democratic and peaceful means – to advance their aspiration of a united Ireland. And with no less legitimacy we will – using solely democratic and peaceful means – oppose them.
Where conflicting constitutional positions exist the principle of consent must determine a territory’s constitutional direction and destination. However, in addition, agreement must be reached on how the conflicting parties order the governance of their territory within the constitutional parameters democratically decided.
The DUP is openly and eagerly a devolutionist party. We want to see an Assembly exercising the fullest range of powers and we want to see it happening at the earliest possible suitable moment. We have advocated setting the Assembly up with the highest level of responsibility which circumstances allow, short of executive devolution, until republicans complete the process of democratisation.
We hope when the Assembly meets on and after 15th May its members will seek to tackle the many vital issues which impact on our constituents whether they live in East or West Belfast or any other part of the province. A failure on the part of the Northern Ireland parties to reach agreements on these social and economic issues would not bode well for the future when powers are devolved. Equally a failure on the part of the government to give effect to agreements reached would call its credibility into question.
There has been much speculation and commentary in the press that the DUP’s intention is to delay executive devolution, seemingly for its own sake, and is content to simply be the largest party from Northern Ireland at Westminster.
No party would have more to benefit from a working Assembly. With over thirty MLAs we are the largest political party in Northern Ireland and would have greater influence than any other party over decisions taken in the Province. It is in our interests, and more importantly, it is in the interests of the people we represent, that when the conditions are right we have devolution returned to Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. We have nothing to gain by unnecessarily delaying devolution.
Equally we and those for whom we speak have most to lose if powers are devolved while paramilitary and organised crime continues by an organisation attached to a party of government. Collapse would be the inevitable outcome. That is why caution is compulsory and certainty is crucial.
There is much we want to achieve for all the people of Northern Ireland to create a prosperous, thriving and successful society. Of course delaying this opportunity denies people the benefits of local decision making. But you cannot build a prosperous, thriving and successful society upon shaky or unstable foundations. Let me make it clear. There can only be an Executive in Northern Ireland if it is formed among those who engage in exclusively peaceful and democratic politics.
Consistently – in policy documents and manifestoes we have emphasised that an Executive involving Sinn Fein is not possible unless the IRA has ended all its paramilitary and criminal activity and people are satisfied that this is permanent and not tactical.
Threats to by-pass the principle of consent and attempts to bully parties into submission will not advance the process or aid reaching a settlement. Deadlines will not change our position. Threats will not change our position. Government spin will not change our position. Media pressure will not change our position.
Our position has received the overwhelming mandate of the unionist electorate and it will not be abandoned. There can be no side-stepping or circumventing the issue of paramilitary and criminal activity. It cannot be talked away. It must be faced honestly and settled comprehensively.
The ability to bring forward the date of full devolution is in the hands of republicans. They know what they have to do.
Their record of moving quickly in the past has not been good. It took seven years after the Belfast Agreement to bring about substantial decommissioning; it took eleven years after the first IRA ceasefire to make a statement which came close to saying the war is over. Just as pressure has forced republicans to move in the past it is necessary again to ensure that the process is completed and cemented.
Considering that it has taken republicans years to take the steps they have, it is not unreasonable for unionists to exercise caution when assessing if we have completion and permanence. We will take as long as necessary – and no longer, to be sure that the republican campaign is over. After over thirty years of terror, we want to be sure that what we have is a real and enduring peace.
This week will see the latest report on paramilitary activity from the IMC. I am sure we all hope that it can report more progress. The usual leaks and attempts by the two governments to spin the report before it has been published have begun. That is usually a sign that the government want to deflect from some elements and accentuate other selected parts of the report rather than letting it speak for itself.
This approach only serves to diminish the credibility of the government’s judgement on these matters. If the report says it cannot give the IRA a clean bill of health, but that steady progress is being made, then let it say that. People in Northern Ireland will consider that to be welcome progress and will be patient in waiting for completion to come. If however, while the IMC is indicating there is still more road to travel the government is spinning the line that we have reached Utopia, then people will not believe them if and when eventually we reach the finish line.
I would, not unnaturally claim that the progress that has been made vindicates DUP strategy. The UUP policy of accepting Sinn Fein into government guns, paramilitary operations, criminal activity and all produced no incentive to end illegality. Instead it produced a “we’ll have our cake and eat it” approach, the evidence of which is plentiful and does not need to be rehearsed.
Who really believes that the IRA would have taken the steps that they have but for the fact that we were unequivocal in our demands that their activities were ended once and for all?
The DUP approach of holding out for completion and permanence is working – albeit with setbacks from time to time. Yes, their actions have been too slow so far and too often not done in the way that could command community confidence but their movement since November 2003 is far in advance of what had gone before.
Does anyone believe that the Ulster Unionist Party would have demanded the same level of completion that we have? Does anyone believe that the Government in both London and Dublin would have held out even as far as they did for republican acts of completion?
The record of history would suggest that but for the DUP victory republicans would have moved less and moved slower. Now is not the time to dilute the strategy or abandon it. There can be no acceptable level of paramilitarism or criminality. Every week holding out for completion and securing progress helps build a better society and produce an environment in which an assembly can last without suspensions and crises.
While it would be foolish to suggest that considerable progress has not been made, it would be dangerous to suggest or imply that this process has been completed. I cannot say if or when a judgement can be made that completion has been reached but if and when a prima facia case can be made we have committed ourselves as a party, in our election manifesto, to a consultation process within our community to ensure unionism is satisfied completion has been reached and that it is stable and enduring and not tactical and strategic. The Prime Minister pledged that people had to be satisfied that the IRA had completed its transition before an Executive including Sinn Fein could be formed. We valued that pledge and we intend to use the Prime Minister’s yardstick to inform our decision making process.
The requirement for an end to the activities of paramilitary organisations cannot be a one-sided process. The concentration is naturally on the IRA because of its connection with Sinn Fein and the issue of places in Government. But equally it is vital that the illegal activities of loyalist paramilitary organisations are brought to an end once and for all.
The unionist community is intolerant of all such paramilitary and criminal activity. We say it must stop and we accept no moral distinction between IRA criminality and Loyalist criminality.
Some people have suggested we are setting too high a benchmark. They say it will be impossible to stop individuals engaging in criminal activity and I am sure that this is right. That however, is not our litmus test. What we cannot accept is that any party which is in government should be inextricably linked to those who are sanctioning, organising, tolerating or benefiting from such criminality. This should not be exclusively a unionist position but a position that can be supported by everyone who wants to see a stable, decent society in Northern Ireland.
Understandably over the years constitutional issues have overshadowed the role that bodies such as this have played. It has been difficult to separate your role from the background of your formation.
The Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 left a bitter legacy amongst unionists and that continues to this day, with the refusal of any unionists from Northern Ireland to take up seats on this body. The Anglo Irish Agreement left a political wasteland for many years in Northern Ireland. Proceeding over the heads of the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland was a mistake which I hope no Government will repeat in the future.
Some of you will have heard or read of the attacks from members of the UUP on us for our visit today. I have no time for those unionists who were quite happy to set up and participate in unaccountable all Ireland bodies with Executive power, yet seem to have insurmountable difficulty in my colleagues and I simply addressing a body which has no executive decision making power at all. No intelligent unionist is opposed to a body of this nature providing it is perched on the branch of an acceptable tree. It must be set in the correct context – a context which is free of threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.
In 2004 we published a policy document dealing with Northern Ireland’s relationship with other regions of the British Isles entitled North South East West in which we proposed a British Isles Parliamentary Body.
There is no doubt that the historical, cultural and other interests of people living in the British Isles mean that on many issues all of us have much in common. There are also issues which are particular to two or more regions and it is also important that appropriate arrangements exist in such cases. As recently as December of 2004 we made it clear that in the appropriate circumstances, we were prepared to participate in a Parliamentary forum involving representatives from the UK and Irish Parliaments as well as the other legislatures within the British Isles. That position was reflected in paragraph 10 of the government’s proposals for a Comprehensive Agreement, which states –
“Following appropriate consultation with the British-Irish Inter Parliamentary Body the two Governments would encourage the Oireachtas, the British Parliament and the relevant elected institutions to approve an East West Inter Parliamentary Framework which would embrace all their interests. This framework would operate on an inclusive basis.”
That continues to be our position today and we support the involvement in such a body of representatives from the devolved and other legislatures. Where the DUP has agreed to the framework, within which an Inter Parliamentary Forum is placed, we will play a full and constructive role within such a body.
We have also made it clear that we are prepared to co-operate with the Republic of Ireland where it is in our mutual interest. As our Party said in our North South East West publication in 2004 –
“We are committed to participating fully in any arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which we agree as a result of the Talks process… In some instances co-operation with the Republic of Ireland will be to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. In other instances, competition will be in our best interest.”
The reality is that in seeking to attract investment there is likely to be competition between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is why we feel it is so important that the British Government creates a level playing field for Northern Ireland to compete, as the only part of the UK which has a land border with another EU Member state. We have pressed Government regularly on this matter. Our significantly higher level of corporation tax proves a significant disadvantage.
Unionist participation in cross-border initiatives is much more likely to be forthcoming if the initiatives are based demonstrably on what is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, rather than advancing an apparent narrow nationalist political agenda. Nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland would quickly find that if they adopted this approach, they would be much more likely to receive a positive reaction from unionists.
Mr Chairman, we came here today, not to seek approval for our position nor in expectation of winning converts, but rather to increase understanding of our position and our motivation.
While no party will more stubbornly resist settling for a talked-up illusion of peace, no party will more eagerly grasp the real thing when it appears. The DUP is serious and determined to make progress. The DUP is capable of and willing to give leadership. No one, Protestant or Roman Catholic who respects the law and embraces democracy has anything to fear from the DUP. What we gain for those who vote for us we will share with those who do not.
Nobody has more to gain from attaining both peace and robust political structures than a community which has suffered so much from terror and instability. Nobody deserves it more. Nobody desires it more. Nobody will contribute more to making it work.
Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.