Article published by Ulster Unionist Party Leader David Trimble, 21 May 2000
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The following article was written by Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader, Mr. David Trimble, and published in the Sunday Times newspaper on Sunday 21 May 2000.
Achieving political progress in Northern Ireland has not been easy. This week we face yet another important decision. Some are weary. But the problem exists because of the slowness with which paramilitaries, loyalist and republican, are moving on the road to peace and democracy.
But democrats, whether British or Irish, unionist or nationalist, cannot afford to grow weary. We have embarked on the task of converting former terrorists into future politicians and we cannot turn back now.
The prize is enormous. A Northern Ireland at peace and at ease with itself. An end to paramilitarism. The chance to tackle the racketeering that terrorism has spawned. Democratic accountability securely located within the United Kingdom - a new Britain where the new Stormont fits naturally alongside devolution in Wales and Scotland, and has a friendly relationship with its neighbour to the south.
We know, too, that there is no alternative. There is no other practical way in which peace and democracy can be obtained. Our critics know that they cannot obtain paramilitary decommissioning, for they have put forward no proposals at all.
We know that we must be firm as we try to push paramilitaries along the road to peace. When I supported Peter Mandelson in suspending the assembly, I did so to encourage the republican movement to honour its obligation in the Belfast agreement to decommission all its weapons. They had wasted the opportunity afforded by devolution, but the shock of suspension concentrated their minds.
The new IRA statement two weeks ago did a number of things which are unprecedented but insufficiently understood. The first, and most important, is that the IRA "will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use". Close observers of republican language notice three things about this sentence which make it unprecedented.
First, the sentence comes from the IRA and is thus not deniable, as is much of what comes from their alter ego Sinn Fein. Second, and significantly, it says the process will be complete and verifiable, finally meeting the demand that unionists have been making since the beginning of talks four years ago. Last and most importantly, the sentence says the process will be done. Past IRA statements have used more elusive terms such as "could" in place of "will".
They have always been rendered meaningless by linking decommissioning to the removal of what they call "the causes of conflict" - the end of partition. This time the IRA agrees to put weapons completely beyond use in the context only of the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. This poses no problems for my party since we assented to the agreement in absolute good faith and will, of course, keep our word.
Long and tortuous negotiations with republicans have led all those involved to demand action as well as words. The IRA statement attempts to meet these concerns for the first time by agreeing to put in place within weeks an initial "confidence building" measure involving the inspection of a number of arms dumps.
My understanding is that this will involve three dumps and that a substantial cache of weapons will be assembled within them. These will be inspected by Cyril Ramaphosa, the former secretary-general of South Africa's ANC, and Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland. Both will be acting in conjunction with General de Chastelain's decommissioning commission.
The IRA statement also says that full implementation of the agreement provides a context "in which republicans and unionists can as equals pursue their respective political objectives peacefully". Viewing unionists as equals, with equal rights to political identity, is another first for the IRA, but the most significant part of this sentence is the IRA statement of intent to pursue its aims peacefully.
This is an important step forward. It means to me that the IRA campaign is finally over. No longer will people have to suffer the shock of death in the family or living with permanent injuries inflicted deliberately, or the torment of worrying that such unspeakable things could happen to their families.
Some unionists, not unreasonably, remain sceptical that a short statement can be enough. Some who supported the Belfast agreement as the surest way to stop the violence, restore local democracy and to secure the union on the basis of consensus, are uneasy about going back into government with only IRA words. They are concerned that republicans do not say when they will put weapons "beyond use", nor what this phrase means.
The British government, the Irish government and ourselves are all agreed that while the IRA may choose a method of decommissioning that suits itself, the end result must satisfy the definition in the decommissioning acts. The weapons must be "destroyed, permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable".
My view is that the IRA should be put to the test. I can also say to those who retain deep fears that this is as much a process for us as it is for republicans. If republicans fail to keep this most public of promises, we will take appropriate action.
While I am sincere in wishing to restore inclusive, locally accountable government to Northern Ireland, and to make it permanent, I can only do so on the basis specified in the agreement. This involves all parties using exclusively peaceful and democratic means, free of any threat imposed by the possession of weapons.
The IRA wishes the restoration of devolved government to be permanent. I wish the same, but inclusive government can be permanent for us only when decommissioning is demonstrably permanent for them. If they let us down, we can walk. Moreover, the secretary of state has specifically retained his power of suspension, despite strong pressure to give it up.
Sinn Fein and the IRA know that if they were to renege on this deal their political credibility would melt away, particularly south of the border where their most immediate political ambitions lie.
We have delayed the Ulster Unionist council meeting for a week to allow delegates and the wider community to consider what is on offer. When the meeting is held on Saturday I will recommend that we return to government where we can best serve the people of Northern Ireland and from where we are in the strongest position to continue defending the union.
The suspension has served its purpose. Republicanism has finally learnt there are no two-way bets. It is democracy or nothing. We have also been able to leave the government in no doubt about the importance of the RUC name to everyone in the unionist community, and the unfairness of bowing before pressure from just one community. I believe the government has heard this message and will reflect on it seriously.
Finally, we have succeeded in making it clear to all that the principle of consent, which underpins the whole agreement, means what it says. The settled will of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland is to remain within the United Kingdom. This means that basic rights, including the flying of the Union Jack from public buildings on specified days, must and will be respected.
The agreement is within sight of realising the aims which most unionists and others set for it. It is bringing politically motivated violence to an end. It has also secured the union for as long as anyone can foresee and can restore accountable government to Northern Ireland.
Lastly the agreement will, I hope, succeed in restoring permanent accountable government to Northern Ireland. Government for the people by the people. Government which allows us to work towards building a better Northern Ireland for all of its citizens, regardless of class or creed.
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