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Speech by David Trimble, then leader of the UUP, 23 January 2004

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Text: David Trimble ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by David Trimble, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP),
to the Strangford Ulster Unionist Constituency general meeting,
Friday 23 January 2004


"In just over a week the review of the operation of the Agreement will begin. Expectations are not high. But it appears that the review will begin with the remarkable sight of Dr Paisley sitting at the same table as all the other parties, which, of course, will include Sinn Féin. One cannot help but ask who would have been believed it had we, during the election, predicted such an event. One also cannot help but wonder if the DUP vote would have been so high if they had told the electorate that the U-turn on sitting down with Sinn Féin would begin almost immediately after the election. No doubt they will explain by saying that they were not actually negotiating with Sinn Féin. But this is all a familiar part of the process whereby they conceal from their core support the truth about their actions.

Even more important then their presence at the review is the question of what proposals they will put forward. In the last week of the election campaign they gave a couple of hints of their ideas. They turned out to be very familiar. In a press release with the grandiose title of “Vision for Devolution” the d’Hondt formula for creating an inclusive administration was criticized and three alternatives were mentioned.

The first of these was a voluntary coalition. Personally I have no problem with this idea. It is of course associated with Bill Craig who put the idea forward in the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975. I was a member of that Convention and I supported Mr Craig. Well, we were clearly ahead of our time. With the DUP and its leader in full cry, the idea was rejected and Bill, two others and I were expelled from the United Ulster Unionist Coalition group in the Assembly. It is therefore a pleasure for me to see that nearly 29 years later the DUP have caught up with that part of my thinking.

It is worth looking at the idea a little more closely. The significance of its espousal is that the DUP are following through with their oft-repeated comment that the Agreement must be acceptable to unionists as well as nationalists. Their meaning was that an agreement must be acceptable to them.

But it also concedes that it must be acceptable to nationalists. The Coalition proposed in 1975 was to be between united unionism and the SDLP. By putting the idea forward the DUP are saying that they now accept that the solution must include a sharing between unionists and nationalists and that there will be in the future no administration based on simple majoritarianism. If the DUP’s core support now absorb that message that will go a long way to minimise opposition to the Agreement.

The problem with the idea however is in finding the nationalist partner for this voluntary coalition. There are only two nationalist parties elected to the Assembly: Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Do the DUP want to coalesce with Sinn Féin? Will the SDLP be prepared to enter an administration as the junior partner to the DUP to the exclusion of Sinn Féin? It is obvious that the latter will not happen and that the DUP are not ready for the former, or at least, not yet.

The second idea was stated as "a system where power resides in the Assembly rather than Minister thus removing the need for cabinet power". This is very similar to what had originally been our negotiating position when we entered talks in 1991.

The idea then was to have what were called executive committees where the power resides in the committee and its Chairman or Secretary merely carried out the Committee’s decisions. Local government was cited as the model for this as were the 1977 proposals for a devolved Assembly in Wales.

The attraction of this model is that offers a degree of involvement to all, while being in substance majoritarian. Its attraction to political minorities is consequently limited. We also discovered during the 1991/2 talks that there were considerable problems in applying a local council model to central government functions.

The Welsh discovered the same problem. In 1998 they moved to a ministerial model. I checked their web site today. The first item in their site map was “cabinet”. The first two sentences on that page are “The Cabinet is the main decision making body within the Assembly. Members of the Cabinet carry out most of the Assembly’s functions by authority of the Assembly as a whole". Just like the Stormont Executive. Incidentally many English local authorities have now adopted a cabinet system. This idea looked good when Jim Molyneaux first put it forward in 1977, but it is now longer viable.

Finally, the DUP paper suggests, "an effective exclusion mechanism which would allow the institutions to continue after the misbehaviour of any political party". Again we have no problem with this concept. It was one of our objectives in the Talks. And we achieved an exclusion mechanism. It is there in the 1998 Act and the Assembly’s procedures. The problem is that it requires the agreement of both unionists and nationalists. But if the DUP accept, as they say, that there has to be agreement involving both unionists and nationalists, then they can scarcely object to that requirement also being applied to this most vital.

After 1998, it became clear that there were virtually no circumstances in which the SDLP would agree to the exclusion of Sinn Féin, and it is a fair bet that there are likely to be few circumstances where Sinn Féin would agree to the exclusion of Sinn Féin. That is why since 1998 we have been trying to create alternative solutions. And we have had some success in the task.

The suspension legislation was enacted because of our persuasion. And it has been used several times. In the last two years we have persuaded the government to legislate to give itself a power to exclude and to create a credible monitoring body that would provide material and the judgments that would justify the exercise of that power. Critics have expressed skepticism if the arrangements will work. Maybe. But we have already put the DUP’s alternative in place. It remains for them, and the public, to be satisfied that it will work.

One should also note what the DUP 'Vision' paper did not spell out. Talking about effective exclusion mechanisms presupposes that would have an inclusive executive formed by d’Hondt. In other words they have three models. They know the first two will not work in practice. So only the last one is a real starter. But it involves acceptance of the central concept of the Agreement.

There are some remaining questions. How long before they move? What fig leaves will be used to cover the move? But the overriding question is, can they really do it? Do their supporters know what signals have been sent?

That brings us to the central question of the moment. Do the DUP fully realise and accept that stable institutions here can only be built on an acceptance of the other, on a willingness to share. That is what saying that agreement needs the support of unionists as well as nationalists means.

But most of the DUP rhetoric, especially their attacks on us for promoting and participating in an administration that requires the participation of both traditions is opposed to sharing and seeks separation from the other. This is a fundamental issue, which the DUP must face or else confess that they cannot provide the leadership unionism needs."


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