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Duncan Smith: Restore balance to the Northern Ireland process

Speech to Ulster Unionist Conference

It is a great honour for me to be addressing the Ulster Unionist Party conference today, and to do so in this great city of Londonderry - a city that has been witness to so many of the key events that have shaped the history not just of this Province but of the entire British Isles.

This city has played an important part in my life too. Because the first time I came to Londonderry was twenty-six years ago as a young officer in the Scots Guards. Returning today brings back many vivid memories of my time here. But most of all I remember the reasons why we were here, patrolling the streets of this part of the United Kingdom.

We were here to support the police in upholding the rule of law; to protect the whole community from the evil of terrorism; and to ensure that the future of Northern Ireland would only ever be determined by the ballot box and never by the bullet or the bomb.

That was our purpose, nothing more and nothing less. We were not some kind of occupying force. We were simply carrying out duties that the British Army would be called upon to perform in similar circumstances anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Today the circumstances in many parts of Northern Ireland have improved. As a former soldier I naturally take encouragement from that. Like all of you, I fervently hope that the misery and carnage that I witnessed, and which you in Northern Ireland suffered for thirty years, is firmly rooted in the past.

The fact I can say this at all stands as a tribute to all of those brave men and women who have served in the police and Army - so many of whom suffered terrible injury or paid the supreme sacrifice. It is due to some courageous decisions taken by a number of politicians. And it is testimony to the fortitude and resilience of you, the people of Northern Ireland, who were never going to bend the knee to terrorism.

At a time when world attention is again focused on the threat from international terrorism following the cowardly attack in Bali, your example in Northern Ireland demonstrates to the world that terrorism, wherever it occurs, will never win and that democracy will prevail.

When your Chairman, James Cooper, kindly invited me here today I had no hesitation in accepting.

Last year, David Trimble spoke at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. The enthusiasm with which he was greeted, and again in Bournemouth last week, emphasised the regard in which David is held - not just in my party but throughout the United Kingdom and beyond.

David's speech reminded us of the close links that still exist between the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party.

Above all our two parties share an enduring belief in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

There are some who portray the events of the past few years as the start of a journey that will inevitably lead to one destination - a united Ireland. I do not agree. Let me be very clear. A united Ireland is not inevitable.

The democratic foundation of the Union is the principle of consent. That any change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland will only ever come about if that is what people here choose democratically.

Conservatives will always uphold the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

And it is my firm belief that - for as far ahead as any of us in this room can see - a clear majority of the people of Northern Ireland will vote to remain within the Union.

I want to put it even more positively. The challenge for Unionism is to ensure that there are an increasing number of people from a Catholic background who see Northern Ireland within the Union, as their rightful home and a place they can be every bit as proud of, and committed to, as anyone else.

I stand before you as a Catholic who feels passionately about the Union. So much so that I have served my country to defend the Union. In Parliament, as a new MP, I opposed Maastricht because of my commitment to the Union and my basic love of my country, that is something we can all share, irrespective of our backgrounds.

In short, I am a Unionist. I believe in the Union.

Yet I also recognise that a substantial number of people here hold another aspiration, equally legitimate - even if we do not share it - so long as it is pursued by non-violent means. We have a duty to ensure that Northern Ireland is their home too. As Sir James Craig once put it: 'the rights of the minority must be sacred to the majority'.

Balancing the legitimate rights of Unionists and Nationalists, and upholding the principle of consent, were central to the Belfast Agreement made four and a half years ago.

The Agreement was not a perfect document. I appreciate the difficulties that it caused, and continues to cause. I acknowledge the apprehensions and a number of the misgivings. I shared some of them myself.

Nobody ever suggested it would be easy for Unionists to sit down in Government with members of Sinn Fein.

No law-abiding person, and especially the families of the victims, could feel anything but revulsion at the sight of 'loyalist' and republican terrorists walking free from prison early.

And few people could feel anything but anger as the reputation of the RUC was denigrated and traduced in the name of political correctness.

So it wasn't easy. But taken as an overall package we took the view that the Agreement offered the best chance for achieving lasting peace and stability for Northern Ireland. And, even now, we should not lose sight of the gains that have been made in recent years.

The consent principle has been underlined. The territorial claim in the Irish Constitution is gone. Devolution - the Assembly, Executive and other institutions established by the Agreement - has generally worked well.

On the security front, despite the continuing and very real problems, in large parts of Northern Ireland life is infinitely better than at any point during the troubles.

Yet, despite all of this, nobody can be in any doubt that the Agreement, and the political process, is in deep and serious trouble. As my colleague Quentin Davies put it: 'we are in the eleventh hour'.

I deeply regret the re-imposition of direct rule from London. And I remain convinced that devolution, on a widely inclusive basis, is a far better form of government for Northern Ireland than direct rule will ever be.

So I hope the current suspension is only a temporary setback and that the institutions are up and running as soon as possible. In current circumstances, however, it is difficult to be confident about that happening soon.

The crisis we now face is caused by a breakdown of trust. Like you, I am under no illusions as to why this is the case.

The Agreement was only ever going to succeed, and will only succeed, if it carries the confidence of all sections of the community. That requires full implementation by all, not just some, of the parties claiming to support it.

It has not happened because the republican movement - Sinn Fein-IRA - has consistently been in breach of both the ceasefire and its obligations under the Agreement. Republicans have failed, so far, to make the clear and unambiguous transition to democracy.

Make no mistake. We condemn and oppose all terrorism - global, domestic, republican and loyalist. There is no moral distinction between any of them. All terrorism is utterly evil.

I say this because I am all too aware that much of the violence here in recent months has been carried out by so-called loyalists. It should stop immediately, and its perpetrators put behind bars where they belong. That would do much to boost nationalist confidence.

Yet none of the loyalist paramilitaries are linked to parties in government, though that doesn't mean loyalist violence isn't a problem that has to be tackled. It is a problem and it must be tackled with the full force of the law.

Republicans, though, are in a different position. Sinn Fein have had two members in the Executive and yet they remain inextricably linked with an armed and active terrorist organisation - the IRA.

Just look at the charge sheet.

Colombia. Castlereagh. Updated target lists of members of my Party and military installations. The orchestration of street violence in Belfast and elsewhere. Continued beatings and shootings on a daily basis, such as the one here a less than a fortnight ago, affecting the most vulnerable in society. Exiling people from their homes including, notoriously, Derry man Joseph McCluskey. The failure to meet decommissioning deadlines.

And, a fortnight ago, the discovery of a republican spy-ring in the heart of government at Stormont.

As Sir Reg Empey put it on Monday: 'have we been imagining all of this'?

Four and a half years after the Agreement this behaviour is simply unacceptable. It violates the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. And it is incompatible with the definition of the ceasefire, and the famous hand-written pledges, set out by the Prime Minister in the referendum campaign back in 1998.

Regrettably the Prime Minister has consistently failed to live up to his words. And as a result, he has placed unacceptable pressure on this Party and its Leader to take the action that he, as Prime Minister, should have been prepared to take himself.

We have seen it again over the past few weeks. In July the Secretary of State claimed that he was showing Sinn Fein the 'yellow card'. He said he would not hesitate to use the powers Parliament had given him to table an exclusion motion before the Assembly if there were further breaches.

Yet when faced with precisely that challenge his response once again was to let Sinn Fein off the hook. He should have tabled the exclusion motion as promised. And had that failed he should not have hesitated to take powers at Westminster enabling him to exclude any party from the Executive in breach of its obligations.

Imagine a football match with no second yellow card - and no red card.

We set out the arguments very clearly in the debate in the House of Commons in July. With our support the power to exclude could have been given directly to the Secretary of State in a day. But the Government took no notice and when the crisis came this weapon was not even in their armoury.

Instead he ducked the challenge. In suspending the institutions on Monday he didn't take tough action, instead he decided to punish the innocent, including the SDLP, along with the guilty.

On Thursday we had some strong words from the Prime Minister. That those parties who failed to respond must face the consequences. Yet we've had tough words before. This time I hope the Prime Minister means it. Too often, in the past, resolute words have been followed by irresolute action. The Prime Minister now needs to deliver and follow through. I will support him if and when he does.

We support the Government's objectives, but over the four and a half years since the signing of the Agreement we have been exasperated by their tactics. It began when they let out the prisoners without insisting on decommissioning in return.

The Government must accept that the one-sided and unnecessary concessions such as Sinn Fein's special status at Westminster have undermined previous tough words.

By the way, in the light of Sinn Fein's behaviour at Stormont, this special status must be reviewed.

Along with breaches of the ceasefire this has done more than anything to give the impression that the process is a one-way street and to undermine confidence in it.

It is time to restore balance to the process. It is time to ensure that rewards follow performance and that breaches are properly sanctioned.

It is time to end the drip feed of one-sided concessions - such as the further reforms to an already demoralised and under-resourced police that the Secretary of State plans to introduce this autumn.

It is time to insist that all parties operate on a level playing field and under the same rules. That means the same threshold for participation in the government of Northern Ireland as the Taoiseach insists upon for participation in the government of the Republic of Ireland.

What we need now is what we have been calling for - a comprehensive agreement on the implementation of the Belfast Agreement. The must involve strict linkages and a clear timetable, two things that the Government has run away from until now. And we will need genuine toughness in the leadership of the process.

It means an end to private armies and the cancer of paramilitarism. It means decommissioning and disbandment. It means an unequivocal declaration that the war is over.

It means implementing the Belfast Agreement.

We are in a crisis, with many difficulties to overcome. Yet we also have a potential opportunity - at long last to get it right.

Few serious commentators doubt that the Agreement is, and will remain, the basic template for a political settlement. But it must be on the terms and conditions that the people signed up to in the referendum in 1998.

Now is the time to get it right so that we can build the peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland that - whatever their political ambition - should unite all the people of this part of our United Kingdom.

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