John Hume on the end of the Unionist veto in Ulster

In recent times in Ireland we have been reminded of a lot of anniversaries. Remembering the past is something of an obsession here. The future, discussing it or shaping it, doesn’t seem quite so popular. Decisions might have to be taken. Leadership might have to be given. Our attitude to the future is paralysed by our obsession with the past. Indeed I have often thought that our over-indulgence in the past is a reflection of a much deeper weakness – our lack of the confidence to stand on our own feet, in our own time, with the ideas of our time, facing the problems of our time.

It is, of course, the voices of our extremes which continually invoke the past under the guise not only of being its true but of being its only inheritors – the keepers of the holy grail – thus endowing themselves with a sanctity of purpose which justifies everything they say or do, no matter how horrific.

One of the ironies is that these extremes are in many ways mirror-images of one another. The lack of self-confidence exhibited in the arrogance of their rhetoric and actions is only one of the common actors. We see it again in the demand, and the need, of each side to hold all power in their own hands, in the anxiety to have political structures made in the image of one tradition. It is evident in the rejection of tolerance and the need for domination. It is visible in the abandonment of peaceful processes. It is proclaimed in attitudes that seek victory and not accommodation. It is trumpeted by those who are so unsure of their Irishness that they need to remind us of it constantly. Their eyes mist over with self-righteous emotion as they wave national flags – their cherished possession. They don’t seem to notice that the real level of their respect is measured by their painting the flag on kerbstones for everyone to trample upon.

The Unionist people have a long and strong tradition in Ireland. They have a rich Protestant heritage and a great pride in their tradition. They have pride in their service to the Crown, pride in their contribution to the United States, in their spirit of industry and achievement, in their work ethic and in their faith. Their special metttle is believed by many of them to be expressed in victories in battles long ago, battles regularly commemorated. But that pride is expressed in an archaic supremacism and in a desperate fear that they could not survive in accommodation with other traditions. They must live apart. Living apart may have been acceptable as long as their hold on power was underpinned by successive British goverments: but that is no longer the case.

The fundamental change that has taken place as a result of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is a change that is deeply and fully understood by every Unionist. What it means is that their exclusive hold on power has gone and is not coming back. The power of veto on British policy which they have always had, and which goes to the heart of our problem here, has gone and is not coming back. The loss is uncomfortable for their leaders, for while they held that privileged position they never had to be politicians or exercise the art of politics, which is the art of representing one’s own view while treating others with fairness.

For traditional Unionism in Northern Ireland, other points of view have never actually existed. To this day, as they boast about the proposals which they have placed before the British Government about the future of Northern Ireland – the future of us all – the insult which their behaviour represents doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. Not only have they not presented these proposals to those of us who represent other views – views which must be accommodated if we are to have a future: they haven’t even published them for the information of their own followers. They are still oligarchs. The faithful will line up when the drums beat. The other points of view, to which lip-service is publicly paid, don’t really count.

However painful and difficult for them, their loss is in fact very healthy – not only for them but for the whole community. Mrs Thatcher has done for Unionists what John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did for the whites of Alabama in the Sixties. She has stripped them of ascendancy and privilege, and in so doing has done a service to us all – by placing us on a politically equal footing.

What Unionists should understand, however, is that the boot is not on the other foot. Our experience has taught us too much for that. In addition, and contrary to what our political opponents like to say, the Anglo-Irish Agreement has conferred no special benefits on the SDLP. The challenge to all of us is the same. When people who differ share a piece of earth, they sit down and sort out their differences: that is what happens in every stable and peaceful democracy in the world. We either take up that challenge now, sit down with representatives of the rest of this island, in the confidence that we can not only represent but safeguard our various traditions, or we do not – and instead pass on this outdated and costly quarrel to the next generation. If we do, it may well take us a long time. That should not hinder us. The willingness to search for accommodation, and to stay with the search in spite of difficulty, must be supreme. We have a lot to conquer. We have to overcome a legacy of the deepest mistrust, the sequence of hurts and injustices piled high upon one another of which each section of our people has its own rabid tale to tell. But we should realise that those hurts, those injustices, indeed our whole present situation, are the symptoms and the product of the attitudes which have brought about our present intolerable society and which have failed to address a simple yet fundamental question: how do we share this island piece of earth together, in a manner that gives supremacy to none? If we address that question today, we will transform the atmosphere throughout this island, and the good will towards us across the world where our wandering people have left such a mark will be overwhelming.

Then there are those who are mirror images of traditional Unionism. They, too, believe in ‘themselves alone’ as the only answer to the problem of a deeply-divided society, without the slightest acknowledgment of anyone else’s existence apart from the ritual verbal genuflections. Self-determination of the Irish people is their objective, they say. The Irish people are defined by them. To judge by their actions and their contempt for the opinions of others, the Irish people as defined by them are themselves alone. They are more Irish than the rest of us, they believe. They are the pure Irish master race. That deep-seated attitude, married to their method, is one of the hallmarks of undiluted fascism. They have also the other hallmark of the fascist – the need for a scapegoat: as they see it, the Brits are to blame for everything – even their own atrocities! They know better than the rest of us. They know so much better that they take unto themselves the right, without consultation, to dispense death and destruction. By destroying Ireland’s people, they destroy Ireland.

I had discussions with them recently. The talks were designed to explore whether they were willing to lay down their arms and join the rest of the people of this island in the lengthy and difficult search for peace based on real self-determination. I put some questions to them about the price of their means and method, about the consequence of victory for their viewpoint, about peaceful alternatives which already exist. They replied with well-worn declarations about nationhood and the rights of the Irish people to self-determination, while ignoring the single most self-evident fact that strikes every human being in the world as they look in at Ireland: the Irish people are divided on that very question, the question of how to exercise self-determination.

For people who proclaim their Irishness and their pride in Ireland so loudly they are remarkably lacking in both the self-confidence and the guts to sit round and talk with their fellow Irishmen as a way of persuading them that this vision of Ireland is the best one. In particular, their decision to use guns and bombs to ‘persuade’ their Protestant fellow Irishmen is not only an extreme instance of lack of faith in their own beliefs or in the credibility of these beliefs: it is an indication of appalling moral cowardice and a deeply partitionist attitude. For its real effect is to deepen the essential divisions among the Irish people. There is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life. What is more, the vast majority of the major injustices suffered not only by the Nationalist community but by the whole community are direct consequences of the IRA campaign. If I were to lead a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland today, the main target would be the IRA. It is they who carry out the greatest infringements of human and civil rights, with their murders and bombings, their executions without trial, their kneecappings and punishment shootings. The most fundamental human right is the right to life. Who in Northern Ireland takes the most human lives?

Let the record speak. In the 21-year perod of the current troubles, 31 per cent of those who have died were members of the security forces. Fourteen per cent were members of paramilitary organisations. Fifty-five per cent were ordinary civilian men and women from both sections of the community, 69 per cent of them from the Catholic community and 31 per cent from the Protestant. And who killed all those people? The statistics are devastating: 44 per cent were killed by the Provisional IRA and 18 per cent by their fellow-travelling ‘Republican’ paramilitaries. Twenty-seven per cent were killed by Loyalists. Ten per cent by the British Army. Two per cent were killed by the RUC and 0.28 per cent by the UDR. In short, people describing themselves as Irish Republicans have killed six times as many human beings as the British Army, 30 times as many as the RUC and 250 times as many as the UDR.

And wait! One of their main claims is that they are the defenders of the Catholic community. Of the 1194 members of the Catholic community who died, 46 per cent were killed by Loyalist paramilitaries, 37 per cent by people describing themselves as Republicans and 17 per cent by the security forces. And in the last ten years since 1 January 1978, of the 305 members of the Catholic community who have lost their lives, 112 (37 per cent) have been killed by people describing themselves as Republicans, 105 (34 per cent) by Loyalists and 88 (29 per cent) by the security forces. In the last twenty years Republicans have killed more than twice as many Catholics as the security forces and in the last ten years they have killed more than the Loyalists. Some defenders! And I haven’t even mentioned their ‘mistakes’. Was it O’Casey who said: ‘The gunmen are not dying for the people, the people are dying for the gunmen’?

In addition, all the major grievances today within the Nationalist community are direct consequences of the IRA campaign: the presence of troops on our streets, the harassment and searching of young people, widespread house searches, prisons full of young people, lengthening dole queues leading to the emigration of many of our young people, checkpoints, emergency legislation ... If the campaign were to cease, these grievances would disappear. The troops would very soon be off our streets; they wouldn’t be harassing young people or searching houses. Checkpoints would vanish, emergency legislation would be unecessary. We could begin a major movement to empty our prisons, particularly of all those young people who were sucked into the terrible sectarian conflicts of the Seventies. And of course we could begin the serious job of attracting inward investment.

The strange irony, as they deliberately refuse to recognise, is that the British position on Ireland has shifted. As I have said before, if the British and Argentine Governments were to announce tomorrow that they had signed an internationally-binding agreement, setting up a permanent Anglo-Argentine Conference, with a permanent secretariat in Port Stanley, to deal with the problem of the Falklands/Malvinas, would the whole world not regard it as a significant shift? That is what has happened here. The whole world has recognised it. The Unionists recognised it. In practice, this shift has meant the removal of the Unionist veto on British policy, the removal of their exclusive hold on power. Ah but, say the Provos, the British are here defending their economic and strategic interests and are keeping the people of Ireland apart in order to do so. Hence our armed struggle is justified.

The British have no economic interest in Northern Ireland any more. It costs them £1.5 bn per year. British business can now locate anywhere in the European community. What possible strategic or military advantage is there in a nuclear age for Britain to have bases in Ireland? They had been closing them down steadily until the troubles began. Politically, the Government’s official position is that if the Irish people want unity and independence, and those who want it persuade, not all, but some of those who don’t, thus creating a majority in Northern Ireland, then they can have it. What sort of Irishman or Republican is it who will not take up that challenge, but instead believes that guns and bombs and the deaths of Irish people are necessary instruments of persuasion?

What sort of Irish Republican is it who can ignore the fact that the methods he is using are bringing more suffering on his own people? Would any genuine Irish Republican – given the starkness of the statistics I have outlined – not reconsider his whole approach and his means and method in particular? The truth is, of course, that their method has become more sacred than their cause.

My challenge to those people in Ireland, North and South, who regard themselves as Republicans is to accept the straightforward offer made to them in my talks with them. Lay down your arms once and for all. Join the rest of the people of Ireland in the search for ways and means of breaking down the barriers with our Protestant fellow-citizens, in persuading them to join us in building a new Ireland that reflects our diversity, and in persuading the British Government to commit all its resources to the same end. If this were to happen, then the atmosphere in this whole island, and in the North in particular, would be transformed and the nightmare of all our people would be truly at an end.

Meanwhile the Anglo-Irish Agreement remains the target of both Unionist and Provo. I never cease to be amazed when I read some of the critics of the Agreement. They don’t seem to have much understanding of what the Agreement actually is, or they simply haven’t read it. The Treaty of Rome set up the European Council of Ministers to deal with the questions referred to is under the Treaty. It set up a secretariat, called a commission, drawn from all countries represented in the Council, to service the Council. The Council meets regularly. It has open disagreements. Ministers sometimes even walk out. But nobody says the Treaty of Rome should be scrapped or is a failure.

The Anglo-Irish Conference and Secretariat are modelled on the European Council of Ministers and Commission. We have witnessed the same sort of hiccups, and the same slow progress. But, as with Europe, the faults lie, not with the Agreement or its intentions, but with one or other of the governments who operate it. We should also remember that one of the strengths of the arrangement is that governments change and some will be more active than others, yet each can make its own distinctive contribution to the building process.

When the Agreement was signed, we made clear that we in the SDLP saw the Agreement, and its instrument, the Conference, not as a solution, but as a means for dealing with the problem on a regular basis. We also foresaw that the major area of difficulty would be the administration of justice. The past year has underlined that view in a very significant way, with a series of events that starkly demonstrate the deep gulf that exists on this question – the Stalker-Sampson affair, Private Thain, the McAnespie Killing, Gibraltar and its consequences in Milltown and the Andersontown Road, the so-called broadcasting ban, the restrictions on the right to silence, the Craigavon inquests. These events have been accompanied, moreover, by a succession of terrible IRA atrocities.

It has always been our view that the bedrock of peace and order, the bedrock of justice in every society, is consensus among the population on how it is governed. When there is such a consensus, then justice and order follow naturally – the police are our police and the courts are our courts. But when a society is divided, as ours is, on this fundamental question, then questions of courts and policing become very divisive issues.

The best that any political party can do in those circumstances, and what we, through our spokesmen, have consistently done, is to offer full and unqualified support to the Police Force in seeking out anyone who commits a crime. All we ask is that it be done impartially within the rule of law. Given our experience, that is hardly an unreasonable qualification.

We have welcomed the many advances in dealing with the symptoms of our deep-seated problem that the Agreement has made possible and we have listed them many times. We have also criticised, not only the failure to advance, but steps in the wrong direction such as the recent package of so-called tough action. But through all this we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the main purpose of the Agreement, which is to provide the means for dealing with the underlying problem or disease which gives rise to all these symptoms. It is here that we believe the Agreement has its greatest significance. It has removed the unjust Unionist veto on British policy, removed their exclusive hold on power, and this time the British Government has not succumbed to blackmail. By standing firm, it has broken through the vicious circle which has paralysed all political development. In the past, as in 1974, when British governments backed down before Unionist threats, they confirmed the leadership of Unionism in the hands of the no-surrender, no-compromise brigade and reinforced the basic appeal of the IRA, which was that the only thing the British understand is force.

This time, that is not happening, and there is a new and fluid political scenario which opens up major opportunities for those who want solutions. But we still have too many who simply want victory for their point of view. When will they learn that they are not the people? Like ourselves, they represent only a section of the people and all sections have to be involved and accommodated in any solutions.

The next stage for those interested in answers is obvious. It has to be dialogue and discussion which addresses the problem of our unsettled relationship. Let us call once again, therefore, for a conference table. Let the main subject of discussion be clear: how we share this island to our mutual satisfaction. Let us also agree that any agreement reached would transcend in importance any previous agreement, because it would address and settle a relationship which goes right to the heart of our quarrel – the relationship between the Unionist people and the rest of the people of this island. And before we approach the conference table, or agree its agenda, let us meet to talk about the mechanisms whereby any such agreement is endorsed by the people, both North and South, so that there will be absolute reassurance that sell-outs will be impossible and all traditions respected.

The door to such a conference table should be open to every party with an elected mandate. In practice, that means that every party sits down on the same terms, bringing nothing to the table but their own beliefs and powers of persuasion. There should be no place for any party using force, or reserving the right to use force if they do not get their way.

While we engage in all of this, 1992 looms. The completion of the Single Market with freedom of movement for people, goods and services, and the creation of a commercial United States of Europe with a market of 320 million people, will have much greater impact on the daily lives of the people of this island than any of the other matters which we spend most of our time discussing. We should draw some lessons from that.

Forty-three years ago the Second World War ended. Europe was devastated, its major cities in chaos, millions of its citizens dead. The bitterness between ancient foes, particularly France and Germany, was deeper than ever. If in that bleak landscape someone had forecast the Europe of the Eighties, he would have been described as a fool or a dreamer. Yet it happened – because leaders had the vision to suggest new ways. They recognised that if the peoples of Western Europe, with their deep differences and fears for their survival, had chosen the wrong path to protect these differences, the results would have been ruinous for Europe as a whole.

After 1945, led by men of vision, they tried a new way. They sat down with former enemies to hammer out agreed institutions which settled relationships and preserved differences. No one would have believed in 1945 that by 1992 they would be moving towards the United States of Europe, with the Germans still German and the French still French. One thing is certain: they would never have achieved it had they continued to dwell on the past and call up the ghosts of the past. That approach would have led, as it always had done and as it does in Ireland, to conflict in every generation. Can we in Ireland not learn the same lesson? Can we not sit down with former enemies, with those whom we distrust, and hammer out institutions which will settle our relationships and preserve our differences? Is it too much to ask that we invest in the future for a change? For we haven’t finished with our anniversaries. Very substantial ghosts of the past loom in the 300th anniversaries of 1689 and 1690 – the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. In addition to our own local quarrel, those dates commemorate a wider and deeper European quarrel – a quarrel, however, that has long been laid to rest in Europe. So have subsequent and more bitter ones. Will these anniversaries reinforce our spirit of confrontation, or will we commemorate them as divisions of the past by laying to rest the ancient quarrel that continues to disfigure us as a people?