BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 03.03.02

Interview: Interview with John Reid Mp, Northern Ireland Secretary.

What can the Government do to persuade Protestants in Northern Ireland that they are benefiting from the peace process.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: John Reid, support for the Good Friday Agreement does seem to be slipping all the time, does that worry you? JOHN REID: I think the point that was made there, is that there are a great deal of worries among Unionists. I wouldn't stand against the thrust of what you've said. Indeed, about six months' ago, having spoken to a lot of people and constantly being told about this by David Trimble, I myself tried to highlight this issue and I think there's a number of things we have to do. First of all, is to recognise that there are concerns among Unionists and to get rid of the idea that it is not possible for a majority to feel insecure, it is and I think there is an insecurity there to reassure people that we have no intention of expunging Britishness. Secondly, I think to let people know that we value Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom. There's no question about that, some years ago, we said and we meant it, that we had no selfish strategic and economic interest in being in Northern Ireland and holding onto Northern Ireland and it isn't for selfish reasons... HUMPHRYS: It was taken to mean that you'd be happy to see a republic at the time, are we now seeing a change in emphasis here? REID: Well, if people took it to mean that, then it did not mean that we wanted to see Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom. We value the people of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom as we do in Scotland and Wales. But of course that will be based on the free decision of free people with equal opportunities and of course, as long as they remain in the United Kingdom, we want to see that even those who feel of an Irish background or an Irish consciousness, as well as those who feel more British, feel comfortable in the United Kingdom. HUMPHRYS: And you want them to stay in the United Kingdom - is this what you are saying? REID: Well, I'm saying we value them. The decision about whether Northern Ireland stays in the United Kingdom, similarly with Scotland and Wales, is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland. While they are in the United Kingdom, then we will do everything in our power to make sure that everyone, irrespective of background, has their rights protected, has equal opportunities. That the future of Northern Ireland will be decided by the people of Northern Ireland. Now, what that means is, that we have to try and balance the decision of the majority as regards the constitutional status, which is to be part of the United Kingdom and at the same time, to recognise the diversity in Northern Ireland, that there are people who feel British and people who feel Irish, people who are Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist and to try and make sure that there is a parity of esteem. It isn't always an easy thing, John, to marry these two decisions, the constitutional state and the recognition of diversity. But we are trying in partnership and I believe that having recognised there is a problem with Unionism, we are attempting to address that, to assure them that there is no attempt about, I believe, the perception that there is an attempt to expunge Britishness is wrong, we want it to be a modern Britishness, which is inclusive, which is tolerant and finally, there is no inevitability about a united Ireland, there is no inevitability about anything, it depends on the people Northern Ireland themselves. But what is certainly true, is that we value Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom and we want all of the people of Northern Ireland to feel comfortable in that situation. HUMPHRYS: And people who hear that will say good, that's splendid, but let's judge by actions rather than by words, which is what you would expect them to do and when they look at the way the Good Friday Agreement has worked out, they say that isn't borne out, what you've just said isn't not borne out. Sydney Elliot, you saw him, you know him I'm sure... REID: ...he's a very perceptive commentator. HUMPHRYS: Indeed, "Unionists feel you are the Secretary of State for Northern Catholics" is what he said. REID: Well, I think that if you start from the basis that everyone in Northern Ireland tends to regard everything as a zero sum game, so that whatever is given to, even to the benefit of everyone, if it's seen to be moving from the status quo, it must be taken from those who previously benefited. That is one of the problems of handling this peace problem. I have no problem in recognising that. I, secondly, I am aware of the perception that on balance there has been more taken away from Unionists and from those who feel British and given to those who are of an Irish background. HUMPHRYS: You acknowledge that, right. REID: Well, wait a minute John. I acknowledge that there is a perception among Unionists... HUMPHRYS: Let's look at the reality. REID: Well, I'm going to look at the reality. If we look at the Belfast agreement for instance, the principle of Unionism, which is that the majority decision on constitutional status should be recognised by everyone on the basis of a democratic majority, that is now incorporated, everyone accepts that... HUMPHRYS: ...okay, I fully accept that... REID: ...well, these are important... HUMPHRYS: ...but I want to get on to some very important things as well. REID: Secondly, the Republic of Ireland of course has taken away its territorial claim... HUMPHRYS: ..I understand that.. REID: ...and even in the last year, we have had not only power sharing in an assembly, but we have had Nationalists now coming in to recognise and participate in policing. We've had the Irish Republican Army, having its first ..... HUMPHRYS: ...sure... REID: there have been steps in the direction that others would say, well these are responses to Unionism to given the reassurance. HUMPHRYS: But let's look at the sorts of things that are worrying the Unionists. Sylvia Hermon, somebody else whom you greatly respect, Lady Hermon, talked about unpleasant and nasty little side agreements, and the sort of thing she's talking about is the amnesty for prisoners who are on the run. I mean there's some thoroughly nasty people out there on the run. Are they going to be given amnesty? These are people who are responsible for the most appalling murders. Now how can you say to the Protestants, on the one hand we are sympathetic to you, we're on your side as well as being on the other side, we're even-handed, and yet allow these murderers to have a kind of amnesty. I mean, it just doesn't seem natural justice, does it? REID: Well, Sylvia Hermon actually mentioned two things. One is policing, perhaps I can reply to that... HUMPHRYS: ...indeed. And the........ on the amnesty. REID: Let me deal with the question of those who are on the run. As you said, the question of releasing people who have been previously involved in some pretty awful crimes, most of them for political purposes, is an extremely painful one. It always has been John. When we released the prisoners... HUMPHRYS: ...but this is a step further, this is the point, this is a step further. These people have never been to jail, some of them, they've paid no price at all for the terrible crimes they committed. REID: I'm taking you through the logic of this John. It has always been an extremely painful one, and I am the first to recognise that, and it was when we released the prisoners after a much shorter period than they otherwise would have served. Arising out of that there comes an anomaly, that there are people, some of whom are apparently on the run, who actually have served... HUMPHRYS: ...maybe sixty. REID: ... some of whom have actually served longer in prison than some of those who were released for instance. There are also people who are outside the country against whom there is not evidence of any particular crime. These are anomalies arising out of it, anomalies we have said we want to resolve. Now is it an easy one to resolve. No it is not. People bring up the...and quite seriously in Parliament, have recently brought up the fact that there are others on the run from the IRA. People say "well, how could you deal with one side without dealing with the other side in this terrible war, security forces, police and so on. Will it extend to them?" And it's precisely because it is such a difficult issue that we've spent so much time thinking about it. So we are resolved to try and get a resolution of this and to do it in a way which recognises the pain and the sensitivity. But I say this finally, we have tried to solve a problem that has lasted for eight decades in Northern Ireland and eight centuries on the island of Ireland. It is a huge, most painful and political problem, the biggest in British history and there are times when we have to countenance distasteful things. HUMPHRYS: Alright, let me put another distasteful thing to you in the eyes of many people. That is decommissioning. Nothing has happened effectively since last October and of course, we don't know precisely how much was given over then and we never will now I dare say. But you've sent the wrong signal here, I understand the difficulties of getting more decommissioning, but you send the wrong signal do you not, when you extend effectively, extend the deadline, the arms amnesty deadline, as it were, for another five years, and that is again from the point of view of the Protestants, it's a terrible thing to see happening. REID: Well we didn't extend any deadline. There wasn't a deadline. What there was was a piece of legislation that made it lawful for people to deal with arms... HUMPHRYS: ...Yes, indeed, absolutely... REID: ...and it expired at the end of February. No-one, no-one in Northern Ireland thought that all weapons would have been decommissioned by the end of February, and if we hadn't extended the legislation, it means anybody... HUMPHRYS: ...five years is the point I'm making... REID: ...well John, it would mean that if we, if I hadn't done that, and the IRA or the Loyalists, and we want them both to decommission, put their weapons beyond use, if any of them had turned round tomorrow and said "we want to do it" we'd have had to said "no you can't do it because it's unlawful." HUMPHRYS: Sorry to have to cut you off, but in the last few seconds, do you believe you run the risk of the Ulster Unionist Party losing even more support, and ultimately, instead of having to deal with David Trimble, you might have to deal with Ian Paisley. Is that a worry? Just in a few seconds, I'm sorry to rush you. REID: All of the points that have been made today have been made forcibly to me by David Trimble who's by far the most articulate exponent of these views within Unionism. It's precisely why I've said what I've said today, that we value the Unionists, we have no intention any more than we want to isolate those from an Irish or a Catholic background, we have no intention of allowing their culture to be expunged or to be obliterated or to be pushed and there is no inevitability that that will happen. It is a difficult historic compromise to make, but we recognise the role of Unionism and the role of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. HUMPHRYS: John Reid, thank you very much indeed for joining us today. REID: Thank you John.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.