Fermanagh Ulster Unionist AGM: Liam Clarke

[Liam Clarke was guest speaker at the Fermanagh Ulster Unionist AGM. He kindly made his speech available for republication:]

First though I’d like to say how much I‘ve enjoyed the opportunity to get down to Fermanagh. For some years my parents and I lived just up the road in Omagh.

Before that, when we lived in Dundalk, my father and I made fishing trips to Lough Erne. More recently my parents had a mobile home at Castlearchdale which they often lent my wife and children for short breaks. I must say that I found the spires around here anything but dreary.

It’s one of the nicest parts of the world and Enniskillen is a beautiful town, even if the Omagh man in me does have mixed feelings about the hospital.

One of the differences that stands out over many years of visiting the area is how much life has improved since the violence stopped. The checkpoints are gone, the fear is largely gone and the place appears to be thriving.

We can’t forget the 112 people who died here during the troubles, most of them Protestants and members of the security forces, according to the University of Ulster database on the troubles.

We can’t forget individual atrocities like the Enniskillen bomb, launched on Remembrance Day in a direct attack on the unionist identity.

But it’s also right to learn the lessons of these events and to notice how much things have moved on. Eoghan Harris once described the unionist community in the border areas like this as “the back that wore out the lash.”

Fermanagh unionists are people who went through the worst that could be thrown at them and came out the other side without being beaten down.

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Tomorrow President Barak Obama gives the annual state of the union address. His own life and his position as the first black president, the son of an immigrant, is a powerful expression of the American dream.

So his presence says something. But he has problems to deal with, a busted economy and two wars as he put it himself. Maintaining the union, in the American as well as the Irish sense,

  1. Means making it deliver for people.
  2. It means solving problems quickly and efficiently as they come up.
  3. And it means being able to move on after a decision is made.

It’s all in marked contrast to the pettiness of the big parties at Stormont. Their emphasis seems to be more in using their difficulties for leverage with Gordon Brown.

Brown and Cowen are learning the difference between a summit at Hillsborough and a circus. When you go to the circus the clowns don’t gather round you to whinge and beg.

Last week the threat level of the executive collapsing had just risen to “severe”. Judging by Conor Murphy’s comments this morning it is now edging towards “imminent”.

Leaving Conor’s histrionics aside, isn’t it strange that devolution of policing to Stormont should be such a touchstone issue for republicans?

I’ll keep that thought as I wonder what the founders of Ulster Unionism would think of the position in 2010.

Never mind Barak Obama, what would Carson, that cosmopolitan Dublin GAA player, make of the state of the union today?

Francie Molloy, the Sinn Fein MLA in your neighbouring constituency of Mid Ulster, gave me his assessment of the state of play more than ten years ago.

“Republicans are prepared to work an executive. We are really prepared to administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future. The very principle of partition is accepted and if the unionists had that in the 1920s they would have been laughing” he told me in an interview with the Sunday Times in 1999.

His frankness caused him some problems in Sinn Fein. It was, he told me, “some handlin”.

The reason that it caused such annoyance in the party hierarchy was that he was right. Sinn Fein and the IRA had very little to show for their campaign, certainly nothing that they would have set out as a demand when it was going on.

Anthony McIntyre, a former republican prisoner, once asked me if I believed the story that Martin McGuinness was a British agent. I told him I didn’t. He agreed but:-

“Mind you” he said “support for the police and Paisley for Prime Minister does sound pretty much an MI5 agenda.”

It has been said that unionists are too stubborn to know when they have won and republicans are too clever to admit when they are beaten.

Victory and defeat may be the wrong words to use. Politics is an ongoing process with no final curtain. Still there is no doubt that, as things stand, unionism has some cause for celebration.

What IRA activist would have killed, died or served time in prison to put Sinn Fein into Stormont? Anthony McIntyre, who served a life sentence, said that it wouldn’t have been worth one day in jail.

Francie Molloy gave me those quotes in 1999. Things have moved even further in the meantime. To take three examples:

  • The IRA has disarmed and stood down its command structures to the satisfaction of independent monitors.
  • Martin McGuinness has called those who shoot British soldiers traitors.
  • The latest PSNI officer to be injured is a cousin of Declan Kearney, a senior Sinn Fein strategist.

As he struggles in hospital, Peadar Heffron enjoys the public and unequivocal support and sympathy of all sides of the community.

All this is underpinned by the fact that Northern Ireland’s legitimacy is now universally accepted and no state now has a territorial claim over it.

Throughout most of Northern Ireland’s history, politics here was blighted by the fact that the republic not only aspired to Irish unity but claimed actual jurisdiction over the whole Ireland.

This may seem like a theoretical matter but it had important practical out workings. For many years, for instance, extradition of republicans to the north was impossible because they could claim a political exemption for their actions.

It underpinned the main theoretical justification which the IRA offered for their campaign. They were, they could argue, attempting to give effect to the all Ireland republic, which was being usurped by a puppet regime in the north.

It didn’t matter what the majority in the north wanted, it was the will of the whole island that counted. For the IRA, even the living population of the whole island had no say. They looked back to the last all Ireland election in 1921 when Sinn Fein had received a mandate for unity which was flouted by partition.

Carson would indeed have been laughing if that corrosive challenge to the state’s legitimacy had been voluntarily set aside in his day.
Now the status of Northern Ireland can only be decided by referenda held simultaneously on both sides of the border.

On available projections, there is no chance of people born into Catholic/nationalist families outnumbering those born into Protestant/unionist families in the foreseeable future.

The issue of the border is effectively parked for this generation. Sinn Fein, the Irish government, the Catholic Church and every other organ of mainstream opinion now accept that the only way the border will go is by the will of the majority, expressed in a referendum specifically on that issue.

This is a tremendous advance. It was negotiated by the Ulster Unionist party against the opposition of the DUP and some UUP members who later defected to the DUP.

The state of the union is, by any objective standard, pretty good. The major building block was put in place by the UUP. The DUP built on it, by holding out until they got decommissioning and the standing down of the IRA. But, as they say themselves, they wouldn’t have laid the groundwork.

They would have said no.

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If I haven’t made you feel a little smug by now, I give up.

Now I don’t know fully what is happening at Stormont or what is being discussed in terms of Unionist unity at Hatfield House.

Tom Elliott just won’t spill.

But perhaps if I put forward a few theories and perspectives he will tell me where I am going wrong.

I talked to Peter Robinson at length almost exactly two weeks ago. When I left I was convinced that he wanted to achieve the devolution of policing and justice, preferably before the Westminster election.

He can’t afford an assembly election at this point. He saw what happened to David Trimble and knows there are dissenters in his own party who could jump. He is reluctant to move without as much comfort as possible from the rest of the unionist community. The confidence of the unionist community, he calls it.

Since I’ve already quoted Francie Molloy I’ll even things up by quoting the DUP leader:-.

“There is no way that I can go out publicly and say ‘yes there is confidence’ in the unionist community if on the one side of me I have the TUV saying ‘never, never, never and on the other side I have Reg Empey (the Ulster Unionist leader) saying ‘no not now’” he told me.

He went on to say “the Ulster Unionist Party need to be indicating to us that this is the right time. We therefore need to be looking at the kind of issues that concern them and for them the stability of the Assembly is a key factor. These are important powers. Is it appropriate for them to be put into an Assembly that has not been a glowing example of functionality? I think they might want to see processes in place that would ensure that decisions are taken and delivery is more effective.”

This undoubtedly puts the UUP in a powerful position and it is in a position to exact a price. At the same time it needs to bank the advances that have been made in terms of stabilising Northern Ireland. This is the same thing as securing the union. An unstable state is not secure and it holds out hope to those who would use violence against it.

Robinson made his comments to me a few days before the Hatfield House meeting and I haven’t spoken to him since. However I suspect that Tommie Gorman, the RTE correspondent, has.

Tommie Gorman said you could call the Hatfield House talks an example of the Tories playing the Orange card if you wanted.

But, he added, Robinson was caught between a rock and a hard place so, for the DUP leader, this was “like a rope ladder coming down from the sky”.

It’s a powerful image. The Ulster Unionists could provide Robinson with the way out of his difficulties.

But should you? And what is the price? I believe that Owen Patterson’s main motive was ensuring that in the event of a Tory victory the new government would not inherit a mess in Northern Ireland.

I believe he wanted to ensure the institutions survived. That explains the meeting.

Hung parliaments, agreed candidates and so on may have crossed his mind but I don’t believe Patterson would have called the meeting for those reasons alone.

So if I am right, both the Conservatives and the DUP want the UUP to give Robinson the support and cover he needs to move.
They want you to do it without an election which could allow Sinn Fein to nominate the First Minister and throw everything into the melting pot.

  1. An election would mean renegotiation.
  2. It would mean direct rule, probably with a greenish tinge.
  3. It would probably mean concessions to Sinn Fein on such issues as an Irish language act before devolution could be restored.
 + + +

One thing is for sure — the collapse of the institutions at this point certainly wouldn’t improve things in the marching season. And it wouldn’t make Northern Ireland feel any more stable and secure.

It would allow republican dissidents to claim with some plausibility that Northern Ireland is an ungovernable, failed state.

They could claim that Sinn Fein had not only sold its soul but had not been paid the price promised.

The loyalist paramilitaries, who wound down on the premise that the union was secure, might have pause for thought. Could our slimmed down police force handle it? Or would the army have to be called in?

It’s beginning to sound as if Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley had better resume their prayer meetings before things get really bad.
This sort of spiral into conflict is not an inevitable result of breakdown at Stormont, but it is a possible scenario.

One thing is for sure, the effects of collapse would nearly all be negative. Particularly from a unionist point of view.

So, unless I have missed something, there is a strong case for helping Peter Robinson out of this hole. This is a case to be made both in terms of self interest and the public good.

The other question is what should be your price? Beyond doing the right thing that is.

Here in Fermanagh it may seem obvious that getting the DUP to stand aside in May would be the big local prize.

As you know, victory wouldn’t be assured. Going by the last census in 2001, Fermanagh and South Tyrone was 55.6% Catholic, 43.1% Protestant. In terms of votes in 2007, the UUP/DUP combined total was 46% and Sinn Fein and the SDLP got 50% between them, with Sinn Fein alone scoring 36%.

So nationalists have the advantage and you’d be counting on their vote to split. It is also possible that nationalists would bunch together around Michelle Gildernew rather than see the seat fall to a unionist.

So if you can get the DUP to unilaterally pull out, it would improve your chances of getting the seat from all but impossible to just about feasible.

I think the further you go down the road of unionist unity, the greater the dangers become of a hardening of nationalist opinion. If unionists stand unopposed in all constituencies, then most nationalists will experience that as sectarian and will see it as an attempt to marginalise them.

Merging the two parties would be good news for Sinn Fein. It would be a re-creation of the Northern Ireland of the 50s and 60s, where there was one big unionist party and one big nationalist party, except Sinn Fein would be the nationalist party now and it would be far more influential than its predecessor.

That is not to say that there won’t be a realignment of unionism, but one step at a time. If you throw Robinson the rope ladder from the sky now, I believe he will move and he will ally himself with you to make the assembly more efficient.

In the interview which I quoted earlier, Robinson said that, to secure UUP support, he would have to address the stability of the assembly which he admitted had “not been a glowing example of functionality.”

He said of the UUP “I think they might want to see processes in place that would ensure that decisions are taken and delivery is more effective.”

That is a very powerful agenda to be driving and to be seen to be driving.

I don’t think it will be in the UUP’s long term interests to get bogged down in some complicated electoral pact to win seats off nationalists. There will be a kickback for that and the outcome isn’t certain.

It will also limit your options at a point where the DUP may, in any case, be going into decline, and in danger of losing members. There is a danger in over negotiating this issue.

That’s what the DUP have done. The main difference between the Somali pirates and the DUP is that the Somalis don’t make so many demands.

Peter Robinson and the DUP had a chance to do this deal when they got the financial package and had such a good annual conference. Instead they hung on too long, they drove Sinn Fein into a corner and now they need the UUP’s help.

Politicians in every party tell me that they never hear policing and justice mentioned. It would be very hard to get a demonstration for or against its devolution.

Confidence is leaking from the assembly, but it is not leaking on the issues of policing and justice or parading. It is leaking because decisions aren’t being taken. The DUP and Sinn Fein have not fulfilled their pledge to provide a stable and efficient administration.
Robinson promised “an end to stop go government” – but that hasn’t been delivered.

People are worried about the future:

  1. They are worried about £400 million in cuts and increased taxation.
  2. They are worried about unemployment.
  3. They are worried about their children’s education.

And they would like to see those issues at the centre of politics. They would like to see a government that can take difficult decisions every day, not just once a year with two governments holding their hands.

If the UUP can be seen as driving such changes in return for its support, then it will be in a strong position. If it can do so in co-operation with smaller parties like Alliance and the SDLP, it will be seen as an alternative government to the DUP/Sinn Fein axis which has performed so badly.

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I’ve been very impressed with the speed with which you conducted your business. Could there be some lessons from that for Sinn Fein and the DUP?

Could bringing that brisk efficiency to the heart of government be the best thing you could possibly do?

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