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The Task Force Report: An End to Drift, 16 June 1987

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Text: Harold McCusker, Peter Robinson, and Frank Millar ... Page Compiled: Brendan Lynn








16th JUNE, 1987.


image of front cover of report


Harold McCusker is the Member of Parliament for Upper Bann.
Peter Robinson is the MP for East Belfast and Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Frank Millar is Chief Executive of the Ulster Unionist Party.


16th June 1987





On 23 February 1987 you requested us to consult with the widest possible range of interest groups within the pro-union community -

    (1) To secure support for the continuing campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and

    (2) To ascertain what consensus, if any, exists about alternatives to the Agreement.

To this end we have had discussions with:

    The Archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Robin Eames
    The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Rev. Dr. John Thompson
    The New Ulster Political Research Group
    The Charter Group
    The Ulster Clubs
    The Independent Orange Order
    The Orange Order
    The Royal Black Institution
    The Campaign for Equal Citizenship
    Mr. Jim Smyth
    Mr. Roger Corry
    Dr. Clifford Smyth
    The Progressive Unionist Party
    The Ulster Young Unionist Council
    The Chamber of Commerce and Industry
    The Apprentice Boys of Derry
    The Northern Consensus Group
    The Confederation of British Industry

In addition we have received and considered over 100 written submissions from concerned and interested individuals.

We are grateful to all those who participated in what has undoubtedly been the most exhaustive - and, we think, the most honest - analysis by Unionists of their position and prospects in the period post Hillsborough.

Some of those we met presented papers outlining their position, and at an early stage we considered publishing these as an appendix to our own report. However most people elected to speak to us on a confidential 'off the record' basis. This facilitated an openness and candour not always possible under the gaze of public scrutiny.

In consequence we make no attempt here to rehearse or represent the detail of the views received. Rather we will convey the broad themes which emerged in the course of our undertaking.

Our original brief identified two major areas for investigation and we received substantial opinion about both. However it is certainly the case that the burden of our discussions focused on the search for an alternative to the Agreement.

We make this observation at the outset to register the depth of anxiety which exists within the Unionist community, and the determination of most of those we met that protest can be no substitute for politics.

That in itself is a major finding of our report!


Since the late 1960s Unionism has lost a series of vital rounds in the battle to preserve Northern Irelandís position within the United Kingdom.

Much ground was lost during the Civil Rights crisis itself. The highly simplistic notion of Protestant 'guilt' and Catholic 'grievance' persists to the present day, and this despite the fact that since 1972 the government of Northern Ireland has been the exclusive preserve of the Westminster Parliament.

The dismantling of our security base and the fall of Stormont paved the way for a Whitehall machine unashamedly neutral on the issue of the constitutional position. All that has followed since is symptomatic of the policy carved and created by Lord Carrington on behalf of Edward Heath: 'Her Majestyís Government has no desire to impede the realisation of Irish unity'.

The minority Labour Government of James Callaghan offered a brief respite.

Increased parliamentary representation and a more robust security policy did much to reassure Unionists: Direct Rule was apparently giving way to gradual integration and the Conservative Party in Opposition had elected a leader who seemed set to complete the process.

However, Article One of the Anglo-Irish Agreement confirms that under Mrs. Thatcherís administration the wheel has turned full circle.

It is a matter of record that Airey Neaveís Ulster policy died with him just weeks before the 1979 General Election.

Mr. Atkinsí round table conference, followed by Mr. Priorís scheme for Rolling Devolution, were a far cry from the Regional Council promised in the Conservative Partyís 1979 Manifesto.

But if some Unionists were slow to accept even this evidence of a move away from integration, Mrs. Thatcherís rhetoric and her ability to distance herself from decisions of her own Government, provide at least part explanation.

For a long time Mrs. Thatcherís pragmatism was kept well concealed from her own natural Conservative supporters. Having declared herself "rock firm for the Union" and Northern Ireland "as British as Finchley", it isnít hard to see why beleagured Unionists chose for so long to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Mrs. Thatcher, some rationalised, was consumed by economic concerns and would hardly have addressed herself to the peripheral issue of Northern Ireland; policy persued in her name certainly didnít reflect her personal view and in all probability had not obtained her seal of approval.

When Mrs. Thatcher fortrightly rejected the principal findings of the Forum Report, the exponents of this view proclaimed themselves well satisfied.

The Union appeared once more secure!

With hindsight it may be said that Mrs. Thatcher did Northern Ireland few favours with her famous "out, out, out" declaration. Whilst significant policy initiatives were signalled by the two Unionist parties in "The Way Forward" and "Ulster The Future Assured", they were not pursued with sufficient vigour.

Meanwhile the Anglo-Irish dialogue was continuing and by the time Mr. Molyneaux and Dr. Paisley offered their alternative British/Irish scenario in August 1985, the die was cast.

Mrs. Thatcher was set on confrontation with the Unionist community, and media critics, quite unjustifiably, said Unionists had offered too little, too late.

To Unionists themselves of course the opposite appeared all too obviously the case. Few outsiders can understand the bitterness and indignation of Unionists unfairly characterised as the guilty party in the Ulster conflict.

A supporter of the police and a devotee of the democratic process, the average Unionist has had to witness the impotence of lawful authority and the inadequacy of democratic safeguards in face of violent political rebellion.

The Stormont Parliament had been successfully discredited as the keeper of Protestant privilege. Its demise paved the way for a form of colonial rule which violates the fundamental rights and entitlements of all the people of Northern Ireland as citizens of the United Kingdom.

Security powers were removed from Stormont and the RUC placed under the direct control of a Westminster which more than once has sanctioned negotiations with the Provisional IRA.

In Town Halls across the province the denial of real local democracy pales beside the presence of an army of Sinn Fein Councillors bent on the destruction of Northern Ireland "with an armalite in one hand and a ballot paper in the other".

The catalogue of injury and insult is endless. The net effect is a community increasingly confused as to what is and what is not acceptable in a democratic society; a community torn between loyalty to the law and established order, and the compelling conclusion that violence and anarchy are the likeliest route to political reward.

At various times in the past eighteen years it has looked as if the populous might take matters into their own hands. Indeed they did so in 1974. Unfortunately the Sunningdale Agreement fell without any understanding or agreement as to what should take its place.

Murder at Darkley and a succession of other atrocities brought the province periodically back to the brink. However no single issue or event captured the public mood or provided the dynamic for change evidenced in 1974 - until the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The Unionist leadership in Northern Ireland reacted to the Agreement with clarity and conviction.

On the evening of 15 November 1985 Mr. Molyneaux described it as"the beginning of the end of the Union as we have known it". He and Dr. Paisley pledged to resist to the end "an emergent joint authority" and that same evening set in motion a chain of events designed to manifest the absence of Unionist consent for the system by which Northern Ireland was to be governed.

Any doubt about the attitude of the community generally was effectively dispelled at the City Hall on Saturday November 23rd, 1985.

Some 203,000 people rallied to the joint leadershipís call and gave an emphatic "NO" to the Agreement. Less than two months later Unionist candidates received the endorsement of 420,000 electors for their proposed campaign of resistence.

The leadership and the community were united in an historic purpose, and it is salutory to recall that those most hostile to Unionist unity conveniently and consistently ignore the fact that Unionist politicians, have acted at all times in accordance with a policy put to, and endorsed by, the people. All those we met confirmed their view that this unity of purpose is entrenched in the community at large.


We have received much opinion and advice about the Unionist campaign against the Agreement. For us the remarkable thing is that the views received reflect an across the board desire to make the anti-Agreement movement more effective.

None of those we met counselled capitulation. Where they were critical, their criticism reflected only the conviction that they have and know a better way.

Our various meetings established also a common irritation with the casual, and often contemptuous, manner in which the dignified and constitutional protests of a whole community have been received and treated.

Members of Parliament have been imprisoned. Otherwise law abiding citizens have decided to withhold revenues from central government in (as yet) token civil disobedience. Local government business has been sustained only by the intervention of Government nominees, in a province denied the principles, practices and procedures which obtain in every other part of the State to which it belongs.

Such "withdrawal of consent" in Johannesburg or Soweto would win rave reviews in the British national press. In Northern Ireland, in pursuit of Unionist objectives, it is the pretext for cruel cynicism and abuse. We do not intend to fuel or facilitate that cynicism by detailing here our considered views about the protest campaign.

The generality of our final recommendations is indicated in due course.


In all discussions about possible alternatives to the Agreement we made plain our view -

    (1) That the early suggestion by Mrs. Thatcher that the Agreement could be "devolved away" does not accord with the terms of the Agreement itself

    (2) That the Agreement establishes clear, and in our view unrealistic, limits on the powers which might be devolved, and

    (3) That Unionists could not contemplate participation in any form of devolved government whose work and functions would be supervised and overseen by an Anglo-Irish Conference.

We encountered little disagreement in regard to these matters.

Whilst we retained the suspicion that one group to whom we spoke would eventually come to terms with whatever Westminster requires, otherwise those we met accepted that the scope for possible Unionist concessions in negotiation is extremely limited, and that failure by Westminster to meet the Unionist community half way in the quest for a reasonable alternative would have profound consequences for the existing constitutional relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Only one group invited us to consider as a serious proposition the return of majority rule devolution within the United Kingdom. Our expressed incredulity prompted them in turn to speculate as to the viability of independence and repartition.

Certainly none of the others were prepared to consider repartition as an option.

However we have to report that negotiated independence features increasingly in serious discussion of a possible way forward.

The Campaign for Equal Citizenship advanced their view, previously publicly known, that the real choice lies between integration and independence. Those favouring devolution were equally clear that independence must be considered if the British Government rejects a serious and genuine attempt by the Unionist community to devise a reasonable alternative to the Agreement.

The burning question for politicians of course is precisely what might constitute a "reasonable alternative".

Regardless of its origins, the UDA document "Common Sense" has attracted considerable interest and some support.

This may have less to do with the detail or the particular merits of the UDA proposal than with a general perception that they have addressed some of the hard political questions which some politicians would choose to ignore.

Many in addition to the UDA would clearly be prepared to contemplate SDLP participation in the Government of Northern Ireland provided the SDLP agreed to forfeit the role of the Government of the Irish Republic as custodians of the nationalist interest.

There is general support too for the proposition that a Government in Northern Ireland without control of internal security would be unworthy of the name.

The discussions we now report obviously invite the Unionist leadership to contemplate variations of political structures for Northern Ireland which they, and we, have previously rejected.

Time moves on and circumstances change. We found no suggestion that Unionists should be ashamed to adapt to changing circumstances.

We certainly do not intend "adapting to changed circumstances" to serve as cover for "sell out" or "betrayal". This is why we were at pains to register with all those we met our determination that the Unionist leadership could not permit itself to be sucked into an endless process of compromise and concession.

Specifically we told Churchmen, and the leaders of trade and industry, that failure to agree with Parliament an alternative basis for the government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom would confront the whole community with the painful choice - to accept the Anglo-Irish Agreement as the price for the Union or to negotiate a new constitutional basis for Northern Ireland.

They agreed. And we were gratified to find a ready acknowledgement by those to whom we have specifically referred that in such an event they could not continue to occupy their current public position as almost neutral observers of the political scene but would have to identify themselves rather with a community engaged in a life and death struggle for the right to self-determination.

The Campaign for Equal Citizenship would endorse the demand for self-determination and they enjoy the benefits of a popular policy well rooted in the history of the Unionist movement.

However the CEC is wedded to a rigid definition of equality not shared even with the two other organisations - the Young Unionist Council and the Royal Black Institution - representing an integrationalist position.

A clear majority were agreed that mainland parties would not be persuaded to extend their organisation to Northern Ireland and that, in any event, such a development would not secure or "copper fasten" the Unionist interest.

We confessed to some mystification as to the intentions of the CEC but were assured their concern is to seize "the high moral ground" from nationalism.

In fairness to the CEO we should also make it clear that they disdain creeping or cosmetic integration. Their determination, as we understand it, is that Westminster must either govern Northern Ireland like every other part of the United Kingdom or forfeit all claims in respect of the government of the province.

We asked the CEO representatives if any who had embraced the concept of equal citizenship could in fact accept the idea of a time limit. In other words, we put it to them that whilst they spoke of integration or independence, by its very nature the Campaign for Equal Citizenship was an open-ended affair.

However the CEC delegates were adamant that if a serious and sustained campaign for integration was mounted, and manifestly failed, they would then seek to negotiate the provinceís independence.

When we probed the question of time-scale we found some CEO members less than specific. However, the implication was that by the end of the next (this) Parliament (assuming a full term) the answer would be clear, one way or the other.

We frankly would see great difficulty holding the community together over such a protracted period. We believe moreover that if the Anglo-Irish Agreement can survive such a time, it will in all probability prove immovable.

However we consider this aspect of the CECís proposals important.


We have found absolutely no lessening in the Unionist communityís antipathy to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. At the same time our investigations have unearthed deep disquiet about the current protest campaign and a simple disbelief that on its own it can or will persuade Mrs. Thatcher to change course.

There is recognition that Northern Irelandís position within the Union has been steadily and successfully undermined since the late 1960s.

Our various discussions pointed to the need for action to arrest a widely perceived drift in our affairs. This demand for action is tempered by a realistic appraisal of the limits of Unionismís negotiating strength and, on the other hand, by anxiety that a commitment to negotiate "a reasonable alternative" should not be construed, in London or elsewhere, as evidence of a willingness to come to terms with the Agreement itself.

The temptation in such circumstances might be to do nothing. However we would consider this the ultimate abdication of responsibility.

It seems to us that those who counsel against negotiation must make plain the alternative means by which they propose to determine the future of the people of Northern Ireland. Reliance on other people to undertake a campaign of violence which can be disowned, but from which can be extracted political advantage, would be disreputable and dishonest in the extreme.

For our part we are confident that Unionists have the ability to recognise the point in negotiation beyond which the search for consensus about the future government of Northern Ireland becomes damaging to the Unionist interest.

Negotiation need not be the precursor to "sell out" or "betrayal". Indeed the assumption that Unionists must inevitably be bested in any negotiations can only reflect the judgment of those who have already sold out and accepted defeat. We must give hope to a community dangerously immune to disappointment and defeat.

Our opinion survey confirmed that the policy of total integration continues to attract substantial support in the Unionist community. However, the survey also confirms our view that the Whitehall establishment is strongly opposed to such a course and that devolution is the more attainable objective.

All the principal parties in Britain favour Irish unity, which cause has been advanced and enhanced by fifteen years of Direct Rule.

We cannot believe that constitutional security is to be found in a campaign to persuade mainland political parties to extend their organisation to Northern Ireland. We believe that only a government representative of and answerable to the people of the province can properly understand and respond to the continuing terrorist campaign. Devolved-government therefore is our objective and whilst we hope this will prove attainable within the context of the United Kingdom, Unionists would be wise and prudent to anticipate that it might not.

We are convinced and agreed that the Anglo-Irish Agreement represents a fundamental and unacceptable change in the constitutional relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have no doubt that the Anglo-Irish Conference is tantamount to joint authority and that its early demise is vital if we are to arrest a quickening process leading to our inevitable absorption in an Irish unitary State. Having sworn never to accept the Agreement as a basis for continued membership of the United Kingdom, we must ascertain what alternative terms for the Union can be found.

Recognising the inadequacies of the existing protest campaign we propose the creation of a Unionist Convention to construct and lead a renewed campaign to manifest the absence of consent for the arrangements by which Northern Ireland is presently governed.

In addition we suggest that the Unionist Convention be invited to endorse the demand for an alternative to and replacement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the commencement of "without prejudice" discussions with Her Majestyís Government thereto.

We see a clear distinction between such discussions and formal negotiations, and ask you to appoint a panel to establish whether a base for formal negotiations exists or can be established.

In order to protect and reserve your position we recommend that the said panel be appointed only to consult and report.

In the course of our investigation it has become apparent that some people fail to understand the nature and basis of negotiation. We repeat our view that Unionists would be foolhardy to reveal their hand ahead of negotiation and whilst two of the parties, Her Majestyís Government and the SDLP, continue to set the pre-condition that political development in Northern Ireland must fall within the framework of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

However we submit that in earnest of your desire to find a reasonable alternative you should signal that no matter could or should be precluded from any negotiations.

In addition, and in order to prevent any misunderstanding or confusion amongst your own supporters, we believe you should draw public notice to plans and proposals you have previously offered as a base for negotiation.

Specifically in this regard we have in mind the Catherwood Plan in which both Unionist parties abandoned pure majority rule as the price for Devolution, and your correspondence with the Prime Minister in August and September 1985 in which you pledged your willingness to negotiate a British/Irish framework for the promotion of friendship and co-operation within these islands.

In our opinion this emphasis on Unionist flexibility must be balanced by clear and repeated warning that the expedient of compromise and barter can only succeed if it is a two way process.

In advance of any negotiation we feel it must be made plain that failure to arrive at consensus would leave the Unionist leadership no alternative but to seek an entirely new base for Northern Ireland outside the present constitutional context.

To this end it should be observed that Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement itself purports to recognise and safeguard the right of the people of Northern Ireland to self-determination.

In reality of course Article 1 concerns itself only with a decision by the majority of the people of Northern Ireland either to remain within the United Kingdom or alternatively to join the Irish Republic. However it seems to us inescapable that the same Article could be invoked to give effect to a majority decision in favour of some other alternative.

We offer no precise or definite suggestion as to what that alternative might be. But we are convinced that, whatever the intentions of the Governments in London and Dublin, membership of the United Kingdom or membership of an Irish Republic are not the only options available to the people of Northern Ireland.

In this regard we propose the appointment of a Special Commission to consider and advise upon those alternative constitutional models, their implications viz a viz future relationships with Britain and the Irish Republic, and the steps by which an alternative constitutional arrangement might be secured and sustained.


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