BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 01.12.02

Interview: DAVID TRIMBLE, First Minister of Northern Ireland

Suggests that the IRA might not have to declare its own disbandment before the Northern Ireland Assembly can be reconstituted and that practical measures like decommissioning weapons and ending paramilitary activity would be sufficient.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: And now to the third of our national leaders, David Trimble in Northern Ireland. In fact, Mr Trimble is no longer the First Minister, there isn't one at the moment. The Government at Westminster suspended the assembly six weeks ago after the Unionists demanded that Sinn Fein be removed from its Executive. The final straw was the discovery of IRA spies at the heart of the Government in Stormont. So, can it all be put back together again? The Irish Prime Minister seems to think it can - and soon. Can it? And is it worth trying? David Trimble is in our Belfast studio. Good afternoon Mr Trimble. DAVID TRIMBLE: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: Is there any point in trying to preserve devolution, to restore it? TRIMBLE: Oh yes there is. I mean we've no doubt and I think supported by people across the board here in Northern Ireland, we've no doubt that the administration was better, more responsive to local needs with devolution and that's not just because of the abilities of myself and my colleagues, it's also because the ministers that we have at the moment who have been...who are drawn from the Labour Party and the Labour Government have no organic connection with society here in Northern Ireland and nobody votes for them in Northern Ireland because they won't take members from - membership from people in Northern Ireland. So they have this sense that they wouldn't have for example in Wales and Scotland of not having any connection with society and not being responsive to society here. So devolution is clearly needed. HUMPHRYS: I raised the question because you yourself have apparently missed two sessions of this inter-party grouping, these talks that are trying to reconstitute the assembly and that rather suggests a lack of enthusiasm on your part. TRIMBLE: Oh, no, no, not at all. I mean we have been very well represented and I have just a little problem with the way in which the sessions are being arranged without consultation with me so that I haven't been able to arrange my diary so as to be able to go to them. But I am sure the Secretary of State will correct that in the near future. HUMPHYRS: Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, thinks the IRA is preparing to make some kind of deal that would enable it all to be put back together again. Do you know anything about that deal? TRIMBLE: Well, not as yet, I hope that the leaks that appeared or at least the stories that were planted in the national press yesterday are true. I have rather a suspicion actually that they have been grossly over-stated in order to send messages to various people and I am afraid that this happens sometimes. I am sure you know that some politicians try to manipulate the press... HUMPHRYS: No... TRIMBLE: ....but what we do need is very clearly we do need to see what Tony Blair has called "acts of completion". Namely the completion of the transition to the situation where we are operating by exclusively peaceful and democratic means and that necessarily means no private armies, no private armies at all - Loyalist and Republican. So we have got a long way to go, the sooner that we get that way, we get that job done the better. HUMPHRYS: So when Dublin seems to suggest that it could all be up and running again by February, early March, you don't recognise that timetable. TRIMBLE: Well, I would be delighted if it can be achieved, let me be quite clear about that. I would be delighted if it can be achieved. But in order for it to be achieved we need to see radical movement by Republicans on both weapons and on their structures and capability, we want to see what effectively would be the end of their private army. They know that, they know that and the question is whether they are going to do what they should have done a long time ago and what their failure to do, caused the current crisis. HUMPHRYS: And if those radical moves, as you described them, amounted to the IRA saying: right, we are getting rid of them - or have got rid of all of our arms dumps and that's it, decommissioning now is a fact. Would you say, okay, that will do? TRIMBLE: Well, I'd be delighted if we had that achieved and I would equally be delighted if we had an end to all paramilitary activity. I mean those are the two key things that we need to see and are as it were the essential steps towards, as it were, putting the private armies to bed once and for all. HUMPHRYS: But that's the point, I mean is it enough. Would what I have just described be enough? TRIMBLE: We'd have to look very closely at the full context of this and I am not going to get into an argument...discussion now about well will this little bit be necessary, or that little bit be necessary. We know in broad terms what has to be achieved and just as the Prime Minister has kept on those broad terms by talking about acts of completion I will do the same. HUMPHRYS: So that does seem to leave the door open doesn't it and if one added in a couple of other things that's been talked about apparently, that is the end of training by the IRA, the end of their surveillance operations, the end of punishment beatings, if you put all that together with decommissioning, with getting rid of their weapons, you seem to be suggesting that that might be enough, as opposed to the total disbandment of the IRA. TRIMBLE: Well, I mean the distinction between all the things you've mentioned and total disbandment seems to me to be a play on words. HUMPHRYS: Oh, really? TRIMBLE: Yeah, because I mean if you do all of that, you do all the things that have been mentioned there, what's left? HUMPHRYS: You'd still have an army? I mean you would still have the IRA behind it. TRIMBLE: Well, if it's got rid of all of its weapons, if it ceased all activities, and we are there very close to as it were putting the organisation to bed...the reason why we just hesitate a little bit at this John, and I think it's important...we have a huge difficulty with a secret army in knowing whether it exists and the circumstances in which it exist, so there's going to be difficulty in that sense, although of course it does occur to me that if there was public confidence, the police could do a lot to help with this because as everybody knows, all the paramilitary organisations that operate in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland too, they're all pretty thoroughly penetrated by the police, so the police can do a lot in terms of their advice to the community. The question that there would be then is "would that be credible, would that give enough public confidence?", because at the end of the day what's crucial is public confidence and after the revelation of the activities of Republicans, there was a collapse in public confidence in terms of the continuation of the administration, so what has to be done is to restore that confidence. All these things that you have mentioned are very important elements in it, but then at the end of it, we have to ask the question - we can only ask it when the time comes - "is there sufficient confidence to go forward again?". HUMPHRYS: Right, but it need not be to restore that confidence, you need not necessarily have a declaration by the IRA to say "come Thursday..we could...ten o'clock in the morning...we no longer exist"... you're not absolutely looking for that, that's...that's the crucial thing here isn't it. TRIMBLE: Let's look at that the other way, if there was just such a statement, would people believe it, that's the problem, we've got a secret army, the secret army could say all sorts of things, but how would you know whether it's true, and that's why there has to be - in the first instance at least - an act of...a focus on the things that can be seen - the activities, dealing with the weapons and so on. Whether that is sufficient is, however, a question that we can only ask and only answer when the time comes, so please let's not get bogged down in these details. At the moment, as far as we can see, there is very little sign that the Republican movement intend to do what should be done, so let us get the questions put to the Republican movement about what are they going to do, are they still going to continue in their criminal activities, at the moment are we still going to get these attacks, are we still going to get these beatings, are we still going to see these efforts to de-stabilise other parties which is what they were doing - those are the questions that need to be addressed now. HUMPHRYS: What I'm really trying to establish here is whether - and the answer seems to be from you, seems to be yes - there is a sort of continuum here - at one end they stay where they are and do nothing - clearly that means no assembly - at the other end of the continuum, they say "it's all over, finished and here's the proof". What you seem to be saying to me this morning is that there is a series of actions they can take and at some point along this line you, at that stage, would judge that they had done enough without necessarily disbanding - whatever that may mean - you might judge that they had done enough to restore your confidence and the confidence of other Unionists? TRIMBLE: Well, in a sense, what we're...what has to be done is there has to be huge movement and let's not understate this - there has to be huge movement from Republicans - there has to be acts of completion. We have to be sure that this problem is not coming back again. Now, we have taken...I have taken...three times we have gone forward to form an administration relying on promises or beginnings from Republicans. On each occasion, they let us down and they let society down and that's the background from which we approach this. We have, as it were, taken a chance three times and three times...Mr Adams and his colleagues have let us down. Now, we don't intend to be let down again. HUMPHRYS: And... TRIMBLE: We want to be sure this time it's going to work and that consequently we will have stability in the political process in Northern Ireland and if... HUMPRHYS: And if you...sorry, just a very quick final thought if I may...if you don't get that, then what about elections in May, are you saying they should not be held if the Assembly is not up and running, because obviously... TRIMBLE: That's...that's... HUMPRHYS: Sinn Fein want... TRIMBLE: That's why Government talks about February in the hope that they won't have to take a difficult decision, but if we don't get progress by February, then a difficult decision is inevitable and there is a total lack of credibility in an election to something that doesn't exist and can't even meet. HUMPHRYS: David Trimble, many thanks and many thanks too for having joined us so often on this programme at sometimes very difficult times indeed, so our thanks to you for that. TRIMBLE: Thank you.
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.