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Speech by Jeffrey Donaldson to the McGill Summer School, County Donegal, 22 July 2004

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Text: Jeffrey Donaldson ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

How Is Nortern Ireland To Be Governed?

Speech by Jeffrey Donaldson, then Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP,
to the McGill Summer School, County Donegal, 22 July 2004


"The history of Northern Ireland since 1972 has been one dominated by direct rule from Westminster and a minimal involvement in decision making by people in the Province. It is a situation that is far from satisfactory but despite the gloom emanating from some commentators I believe that the prospect of better days lie ahead.

Thirty years of violence and unprecedented world media attention for a Province of just over one and a half million people does not change the fundamental realities that many of the challenges which face Northern Ireland in the 21st century are the same as face virtually every other western democracy.  Whilst it would be unrealistic to deny that we do have some special problems, which have yet to be finally resolved, one can hope that the big issues in the future will concentrate on how we can best provide for the people of Northern Ireland rather than continue to deal with an ongoing conflict.

It is unlikely that at the turn of the last century many people could have accurately predicted the shape of the next hundred years.  In history it appears that what once seemed utterly impossible very quickly becomes equally inevitable.  Predicting the future is a dangerous and often futile exercise, so too is seeking to determine the choices that future generations will make.  What we must seek to do is neither predict nor dictate the future but help to create it. 

If it is said that a week is a long time in politics then it is clear that the next hundred years is an eternity.  We do not know what the world will look like in twenty years, never mind fifty or a hundred but I do believe that there are certain underlying principles which should be present in any future Government for Northern Ireland. 

No doubt the very notion that ‘Northern Ireland’ will exist in a hundred years time will be hotly debated.  We do not know about the future shape of Europe or other international alliances but I think that it is fair to say, on the basis of the most recent census figures for Northern Ireland, that there is no reason to believe there will be any change in its status within any period which we have to plan for.  The notion of a united Ireland by 2016 may well serve some purpose as a rallying call for republicans but I think that long before such a timeline has passed it will become obvious that this particular goal will not be achieved. 

The task which lies ahead for the foreseeable future for everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of their long term aspirations, is to build a better society, not as part of a single island unit but conscious of the fact that we all share the same island. 

It is reasonable to assume that any society emerging from a period of conflict will have democratic arrangements which may be appropriate for that time but that might not be appropriate for all time.  Arrangements which are appropriate in the context of an emergence from conflict may be unnecessary long after the conflict has ended.

That said, in any society in general and in Northern Ireland in particular I believe that there are three fundamentals to a political settlement.  Arrangements must operate against the backdrop of an entirely peaceful environment, they must be capable of commanding widespread support and they should actually deliver a better standard of life for people in Northern Ireland. 

The single biggest obstacle to creating a stable environment in Northern Ireland has been the absence of peace.  Whilst the nature of the threat has changed over the years, the architecture of violence still remains in place.  This has had a profound impact on politics in Northern Ireland.  The most obvious manifestation has been the death and carnage that has been inflicted but there has also been a deeper legacy.  Even when the large scale actual violence ceases the threat remains and even when the inter-communal violence is less apparent the grip of the paramilitaries within their own communities is greater than ever. 

Moving from a conflict to a peaceful environment creates difficulties on all sides.  Those who have inflicted the violence on the community have to give up the power that they have held and those who have suffered at the hands of the violence have to live with the prospect of some of the perpetrators and their colleagues being in positions of power.  This is an enormous challenge for many people to face up to. 

The one thing which can go someway to easing this particular problem is for the victims to see that the violence and the terrorist arsenal has been given up once and for all. 

On this issue the DUP is absolutely clear.  Our message is the same in County Donegal as it is on the Donegall Road.  Just as we are resolute in the requirement for completion before devolution we are committed to a full and fair role for everyone on the basis of their mandate in the event of a totally peaceful environment.  No one should be in any doubt of our  resolve on either of these issues. 

If we achieve completion on these key issues of decommissioning and paramilitarism, then Unionists will respond positively.  We are willing to give clear commitments to ensure the long-term stability of agreed political institutions on the basis of equality and fairness.  We are prepared to work with others to build a society in Northern Ireland where tolerance and mutual respect are the key attitudes with which we mark out our relationships with each other.  Communities across Northern Ireland must be able to take ownership in the task of building a prosperous and fair society.

The absence of peace, the underlying threat of violence and the inability to resolve finally the issue of arms has been the single biggest stumbling block to political progress in Northern Ireland. There are of course other, significant issues to be resolved but their resolution to everyone’s satisfaction could be much more easily achieved in an improved situation.

The DUP is fully committed to continuing serious engagement in order to move the negotiations forward.  As a result of our programme of work agreed with the Government in June we look forward with confidence to intense negotiations in September.  Our priority is to secure a deal that both Unionists and Nationalists can collectively support and which involves all parties working together on an exclusively peaceful and democratic basis.

Whilst much work remains to be completed on the differences that exist we believe the forthcoming negotiations in the Autumn provide the basis for a deal that would see the creation of an accountable assembly and executive working for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland.

Just as a totally changed environment in Northern Ireland in terms of the end of paramilitarism can assist in creating stable and lasting political institutions, a virtuous, rather than vicious circle can be created in Northern Ireland.  The end of paramilitarism will have implications for security in Northern Ireland and for the lives for people who are most affected by the activities and consequences of the activities of such groups. With politics working and violence a thing of the past real issues can be the central focus of political life in Northern Ireland.  We may not always agree but at least we will have created a framework for resolving our differences. 

Just as peace is an essential pre-requisite for a stable successful future so too is the requirement that institutions have widespread support in Northern Ireland.  That has been a clear lesson from the last thirty years in Northern Ireland.  Time and again we have witnessed political institutions fall because they have lacked the support of one section of the community or other.  There may have been other short-term issues which have precipitated the fall of arrangements but the underlying message is clear.  Unionist and nationalist support is needed if political arrangements are to last.

In 1972 nationalists did not support the old Stormont Parliament, it fell.  In 1974 unionists did not support the Executive, it fell.  In 1986 nationalists did not support the Prior Assembly, it fell.  And in 2003 unionist support had evaporated from the Belfast Agreement and it too could no longer continue.

It does not take an expert to work out that widespread support is required.  This should not be seen as a threat to any section of the population, but a safeguard.  That is why I find it strange that some nationalist politicians seem to place a greater emphasis on defending a failed agreement than to finding a realistic way forward.  This safeguard should give confidence to everyone in Northern Ireland that there is an underlying protection for their viewpoint and their position.

The form that this safeguard needs to take can change from one era to the next depending on the nature of society at any given time but the key requirement is that the institutions must be capable of commanding widespread support.  In a much-divided society this may need to be represented by a wide involvement in decision-making whilst in a changed situation it may require less formal arrangements.  The real test of a democracy is not that everyone needs to be able to take decisions but that the minority on any given issue accept the legitimacy of the majority decision.  Realistically this will require that the minority after one election could be replaced with another after the next.  Communal politics with a history of violence make this difficult to achieve in the short term.

There is undoubtedly a desire in Northern Ireland to see the return of devolution and the ability to take decisions in the Province.  Whilst there may be a debate over the exact form of this devolution there is a consensus that self-government should return.  However we must recognise that this view is not as dominant today as it was a decade ago. 

Devolution, of course, is not an end in itself but merely a means to an end.  Whilst many people like the idea of local people taking decisions the real test of devolution is whether or not it can deliver better and more responsive services.

If it cannot then there is little advantage in having devolution over direct rule.  This is a challenge that will have to be faced up to by politicians from right across the political spectrum.  The last period of devolution was not characterised by significant improvements in Northern Ireland and a real scrutiny on decision-making was absent because of the overriding concerns for the stability of the institutions by many commentators.  You can be absolutely sure that in the event of a restoration of devolution to Northern Ireland there will be a shorter honeymoon period and an expectation by the public that real advantages are achieved. 

Part of this is down to creating structures which encourage a collective approach and accountability in decision-making but equally there must be a focus on key issues.  Service delivery is a critical issue to resolve and whilst in the United Kingdom more generally it is the party of government which is at risk for a failure to deliver, in Northern Ireland it will be the entire system of Government. 

I conclude where I began.  Northern Ireland has problems but also opportunities.  We must solve our problems without ignoring the fundamental issues which face virtually every other society.  We should accept that the current constitutional position is likely to remain for as long as any of us in this room today are likely to live but in this context try to create a form of government that all can support.  

The key to success in the future is peace but the price for entry to any administration must be a total commitment to non violence and a putting away of all of the trappings of paramilitarism.  I believe that if over the next few months issues can finally be faced up to there are enormous opportunities to be grasped.  We have the opportunity to make the next thirty years a much better era than the last thirty if the necessary choices can be made and obligations met.  Despite the problems and difficulties of recent weeks there is a way ahead that is brighter and better.  It remains the responsibility of all of us to plan and work for success not failure."


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