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Speech by Ulster Unionist Party Leader, David Trimble to the Construction Employers Federation, 14 April 2000

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Speech by Ulster Unionist Party Leader, David Trimble to the Construction Employers Federation, 14 April 2000

Thank you President for your kind introduction. It gives me considerable pleasure to be with you at your annual dinner this evening. In light of recent experiences you will forgive me for being particularly pleased that my invitation has been unopposed.

The last two months have not been the easiest of my career, but my reaction has been what might be called the opposite of James Bond's taste in drinks - stirred rather than shaken.

More seriously, I am pleased to be here to able to mark, even in a small way, the contribution made by the construction industry to the prosperity and well-being of Northern Ireland, not only during the last year but throughout the last 30 years, many of which were, I know, intensely difficult ones for your industry.

The tangible evidence of your achievement is all around us. A new city centre for the 21st. Century is rising out of the ashes of easy to forget buildings like the Oxford Street bus station. The majority of what is replacing the old is good architecture and it is good to note that we have avoided the worst features of modern architecture. I cannot help repeating here Nancy Banks Smith's definition of modern architecture.

"In my experience", she said, "if you have to keep the lavatory door shut by extending your left leg, its modern architecture".

It is easy to overlook just how much has been built over the last ten years and how good much of it is. Look down from any high building in the centre of Belfast and you see what is virtually a new City replacing the old. Look across the renovated St. George's market to Belfast's newest office building, in Lanyon Place, at 150,000 square feet, one of the City's largest, and across to the magnificent Waterfront Hall, virtually the emblem of the new Belfast. Thomas Fuller said in 1642 that light is the principal beauty in a building, and he would I think have been overjoyed to see what can be achieved in our century.

Walking among the surrounding attractive apartment buildings you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the smarter parts of London's rejuvenated Docklands rather than alongside what until very recently were the unloved and unattractive banks of the Lagan.

If your eye wanders slightly northwards across the new motorway bridge and the Lagan weir, a visual attraction in its own right, there is the dramatic outline of the Odyssey Complex nearing completion and soon to give the city some of the best entertainment facilities anywhere in the world.

Just across the channel from the Odyssey is the less well known, but in some ways most impressive and significant for our new developments - the Clarendon Dock office complex. If anything symbolises the future of the city it is this.

High quality offices in an attractive riverside setting, will greatly help to attract to Northern Ireland the high value-added service sector firms which generate most the wealth in large modern cities.

I am particularly pleased that the Clarendon Dock buildings are becoming visible from the surrounding roads, now that the last of the old industrial buildings are being demolished. What has hitherto been one of Belfast's best kept architectural secrets is now becoming a more integral part of the wider city centre.

While it is your members who have actually built most of what I have just described, others of course deserve part of the credit and particularly the Laganside Corporation. It is an example to other towns and I believe the same kind of approach can be made to work, albeit on a smaller scale, along the disused banks of the River Bann in Portadown, for instance.

The context for all of this is of course a steadily strengthening economy. While much of the media publicity has been on the difficulties faced by our traditional industries, in clothing, shipbuilding and agriculture, there is a danger of missing the good news of just how well we are doing overall.

An enjoyable and relaxing dinner is not the place for statistics, but forgive me if I give you just one figure. Last year industrial production in Northern Ireland rose by 6%, twice the long-term average and the same rise as GB has achieved in the last decade.

While this is not quite the stuff of Celtic tigers it would, I think, qualify as an economic leopard or a lynx. This is especially the case when it is realised that our companies are competing internationally with the pound at its highest level against continental currencies since 1980.

What seems to be happening is that companies producing high technology products, particularly for North American markets, where the currency is not a problem, have been forging ahead. In aerospace, defence systems, electronics and software, the best of the old economy is renewing itself through research and innovation, and is being joined by thrusting new businesses.

We in the 17th year of an almost unbroken run of continuous expansion. Over this period 130,000 new jobs have been created and unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in three decades - a level incidentally much lower than in most large economies in the European Union.

I believe that this growth is sustainable, even if job creation slows a little to allow productivity to catch up.

The outlook for construction should thus be good as long as interest rates do not go much higher. Property prices are high, but not excessively so in relation to incomes.

I know that delays in the planning system cause much frustration. This, alongside a review of public administration in Northern Ireland, was something which we were beginning to look at in government and is one of the reasons I am personally keen to re-establish the devolved administration at the earliest possible date.

You will all be familiar with the difficulties that can arise in carrying out agreements. Construction agreements are, of course, a branch of the law all of their own. But with these it is possible to know exactly what is to be done and an effort is made to anticipate and provide for all the problems that might arise during implementation of the Agreement.

The Belfast Agreement, unfortunately, is not like that. It contains areas of ambiguity. It does not tie down precisely what is to be done and when. Some critics of the Agreement say to me that with regard to decommissioning and other matters that that should have been settled in negotiations before the Agreement.

But the reality was that if we had tried to adopt such a legalistic approach there never would been an Agreement at all! The Belfast Agreement is a political document not a legal construct though it has legal consequences.

Even though it did not cover everything precisely and left more problems to be sorted out during implementation, it was better to have achieved such an Agreement, rather than have no Agreement at all. For the Agreement did nail down a number of essentials.

It settled constitutional issues in ways acceptable to the greater number of people in Northern Ireland. It ends the long cold war between us and the Republic of Ireland. It provides the basis for a local administration with safeguards which should protect the vital interests of both sections of the community - something which is just as important to unionists as it is to nationalists.

And, as to the matters left to be resolved during implementation, look at what we have achieved over the past two years. We have sorted out the details of North-South co-operation. We have launched the British-Irish Council. We agreed and implemented a new Departmental structure for Northern Ireland and for 10 weeks gave society here a glimpse of a better future.

There are still difficulties on contentious policing and justice matters, but the differences are being narrowed to symbolic matters which should be capable of being resolved in a balanced manner, instead of the unfair, anti-unionist whitewash in Patten.

I could say that we are then left with just one problem - paramilitary decommissioning. But that one problem goes right to the heart of the whole matter. Now I could go through the detail of the charge and countercharge over decommissioning, but it might be better to step back and consider the big picture.

This Agreement was to create a new changed situation. A new Northern Ireland where people could pull together. A future based on exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

If all the parties are truly committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, it is not just that there would be no punishment beatings, no targeting and no attacks - there would be no private armies. That is what the Agreement means. There cannot be private armies within a wholly democratic society. This principle is actually written into the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland.

The onus is, therefore, not upon us to define our requirements. Rather, it is for those parties with a relationship with private armies to say what they are going to do to bring about the change that is required. I want to hear what proposals they have to deliver a peaceful society in Northern Ireland instead of what they want as preconditions for movement on the decommissioning issue. That is the right approach. It is the only approach in this situation.

If we can move forward on that basis, we now have the chance to do what our forefathers did in the last century when Ulster was the only major industrial region to develop in the British Isles without the benefit of local coal or iron ore. That economic revolution was based upon native enterprise and hard work, the ability to fully embrace new ideas and new trends and to produce a long sequence of innovations and inventions.

I do not believe that those abilities have deserted us. If our recent experiences have dented our confidence, we must pick ourselves up and begin once more to encourage change and innovation. Above all we must spend less time in conflict with ourselves and allow more energy to be expended on meeting the economic challenges of the new century.

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