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Thursday, July 29, 1999 Published at 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK

UK Politics

David Ervine answers your questions

Progressive Unionist Party chief negotiator David Ervine answers questions from BBC News Online users.

Q: You said on Question Time that politics in Northern Ireland is abnormal, what should parties in Northern Ireland, particularly unionists, be doing to bring about normality?
Carol Hinvest, London

A: The tragedy of the abnormality of our politics is that the abnormal almost becomes normal and we get used to the perpetual divisions that continue our abnormality. I think what we need to do is that, as a divided society the major issue for us a convergence of the two traditions that have to be pushed if you like to the fore, copper-fastening democratic institutions, eventually diminishing the degrees of influence of paramilitary organisations by the creation of allegiance to the democratic institutions that we between us create and function.

We need to have a society that is developing together, with common interest, with common allegiance and above all recognising that one side can tear down what the other builds, and that should encourage us more and more to be collective in our appreciation of the need to govern our society for the future. And, it's called, let's get in, make the structures, make them function and ensure that slowly but surely we build up the allegiances from all around our society which diminish those arguments that are only about separate development.

Q: Your party has played an enormous role in challenging preconceptions amongst the loyalist community in Belfast but can it translate these achievements across the board? Rural communities in areas like Portadown have now become an obstacle to peace. Coming from the same neck of the woods as yourself, I am aware of the equal intransigence of the nationalists in these areas, but somebody has to make the first move. What can the PUP do to further peace in these contentious areas?
Stephen Browne

A: Well, we have levels of representation in Portadown and certainly other areas of Northern Ireland and they are growing, I am delighted to say. But in a time of change and a time of old certainties being challenged and being replaced by new uncertainties, it is a torrid time for politicians and for political parties.

And it's called, we've got to keep our head and we've got to continue to argue for the pluralist society that must emanate from the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement and we've got to continue to keep our heads bowed against prevailing winds but above the parapet and just continue to blow on regardless of the opposition that comes and much of it from within our own community.

The importance I suppose of Stephen's question is, where next for the PUP? And I think where next for the PUP in the first instance is more of the same and I think the second element is the perfecting of the structures of the Progressive Unionist Party because we're frankly becoming so large the structures are creaking and we have to spend more time to ensure we're a lean fighting machine, but certainly in terms of democratic politics and no other form of fighting.

Q: Many Republicans feel that David Trimble acts only as UUP leader and not First Minister. Do you think it is possible for there to be a popular Unionist leader who represents the desires of his community instead of merely opposing the other community?
Allan Joyce, Annapolis, USA

A: Absolutely and I think our friend in Annapolis is perhaps listening to some republican propaganda. David Trimble has a difficult job. We were a divided society for hundreds and hundreds of years and not just the 30 years of violence that has been flashed around the world.

I think what he has to do, Mr Trimble, is continue on a conciliatory line even though sometimes it seems as if it's two steps forward and one step back on each occasion. But nevertheless we're getting there and we're substantially more wholesome than we used to be, but we still have a long way to go.

Q: You would say David Trimble is following a conciliatory line at the moment?

A: Yes, I think it is undoubtedly the case that he has made a difference. It may not be all of the difference that everybody wants and especially those in opposition to him - and David Trimble and I are opponents in many ways in the political field and we don't agree on many things and certainly we would wish to push much faster than David Trimble has - but I think we've got to give credit where credit's due.

Q: You weren't giving him very much credit the day he refused to turn up at Stormont when the parties were supposed to be nominating their ministers.

A: Well, I think that he made a serious mistake. The sight of that flashing around the world and him as first minister was a serious mistake, but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. We are going to make mistakes, we have made mistakes and we've got to get making things better and I think that Mr Trimble taken in the round has made things more better than he has made them worse.

I think both sides are playing hardball before they enter the process of review, which will begin on 6 September. It's par for the course, it's the nature of this society that hard positions will be taken before that time arrives. We would wish it to be different but that's the way it has to be. At times I wish I live in Barbados, but I don't I live in Belfast - we have to deal with what we have to deal with.

Q: You are, in principle, the representative of the more extreme wing of Unionism. Yet, you have always seemed the most reasonable, the most willing to accept the need for compromise of any of the politicians, Nationalist or Unionist. Do you recognize this paradox? And if so, what explains it?
Donald Clarke, Dublin, Ireland

A: There are times I would have to say when I wake up in the morning and have to pinch myself: Have we come this far. For those who are listening and those who might read what we say, I have to identify to them the distance we have come. We have come a long, long way.

We may not have covered the full course, but we are certainly a long way down the course of peace and reconciliation. The point that our Dublin caller makes is a valuable one, because I suppose if I really had to epitomise an answer that encompasses how I feel, in my own personal terms I've been there, seen it, done it and bought the T-shirt when you're talking about paramilitarism. And I don't advocate that any other generation goes through what we've gone through.

I hope that no other generation suffers the pain that we've suffered and I hope no generation inflicts the pain that we've inflicted. And I think from that point of view that rather wraps up that situation. Compromise is not a dirty word and it is severely more reasonable than violence.

Q: In what circumstances did you take the decision to turn away from violence and work towards a political solution, and with your experiences, do you find it frustrating when politicians here in potentially powerful positions are perhaps doing less than they could to move the process on?
Andrew Shaw

A: Andrew's question is one that has been asked of me before. In 1974, I was arrested for possession of explosives and was sent to Long Kesh Prison for five and a half years and during the period of time in Long Kesh I had a tremendous opportunity for reflection.

Now, I don't advocate prison for any reason, but if you want to reflect it is a very good place to do so. And, I have to say, I haven't experience child birth, but one of the most painful things I've ever experience in my life was self-analysis and what I'm simply doing in my politics is trying to extrapolate that self-analysis into a societal sense.

There is no road to Damascus conversion between paramilitarism and politics - it is a process of awakening, it is a process of recognition, it is a process of watching as failures happen, it's a process of understanding futility and doing something about it.

Q: Have people on all sides in Northern Ireland gone through this process?

A: Yes, I think it is inconceivable that we have ceasefires from paramilitary organisations so diametrically opposed and yet separately is quite amazing and tells me that some dynamic was working within them, each of them separately to bring us to the point where we haven't converged the two communities but there is a recognition in both of them of the futility of the war.

It's worth pointing out as well that many in the peace process from paramilitary backgrounds are now grandfathers and they cannot escape the fact that they are potentially consigning their children and their children's children to another disastrous generation of hell and hate and bitterness.

Q: How well do you get on with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness?
Slan, Bryan Gwilliam

A: Well, the truth of the matter is not that well. I mean we function, we each have a job to do and each represent groups of people who need answers to questions, who need the exploration for the potential for the future to take place - that's my job.

There is no great social atmosphere among us, but then you don't necessarily have to like or appreciate the people you work with. But then how could I like or dislike people I never really knew or know. It's only through the outworking of dialogue and face to face interaction that you can make an assessment of what lies behind the eyes of the person that you talk to and I don't think we're going to create overnight relationship but I think maybe someday the relationships that we create will be very valuable.

Q: Do you think decommissioning presents the same internal problems for Loyalist paramilitary groups as it does for the IRA?
Anthony Zacharzewski, Stepney, London

A: Absolutely. The paramilitarists in our society are grandfather, father and son. Their tentacles go very deep from in the community from whence they come. And to simply snap our fingers and demand that they go away is irrational. I think I've tried to make the point that only through the creation of common allegiance, only through the outworking and the proof of a functioning democratic society with influence from all sides will we eventually bring the demise of paramilitary organisations.

Loyalism, very much like republicanism, is wedded to its weaponry. It may not wish to use its weaponry, but on the basis of having absolute distrust - and it's the one thing that we do really well here is distrust - mutual distrust is at the core of our daily values if you like and until we begin to diminish that distrust then people will be wedded to their former lives, if not killing then certainly retaining the capacity to defend themselves on the basis they distrust everyone around them and only through the creation of trust will we diminish to those people the retention of their arsenals.

Q: Do some unionists not understand what you are saying or do they not want to understand?

A: I think there are some who do not understand, but certainly there are many who do not want to understand what I'm saying because they are creating a cause célèbre and that cause célèbre is the issues of guns, which then becomes an argument about morality, and I go back to my first answer to you about the abnormality of our society and morality is a double-edged sword and what is moral in one section of our society is perceived as immoral by the other and vice versa and this argument of morality that comes out of many people in Northern Ireland, but particularly the unionist leadership, is one of refusal to accept complicity for the difficulties that we've gone through.

I contend that every single adult in Northern Ireland is complicit in the pain and sorrow that we've gone through by silence, word or deed. Now, having said that, some of us are more complicit than others and, as you've identified, I've been arrested for possession of explosives and gone to Longkesh prison camp for what is perceived as my sins and so therefore there are many of us who have a greater responsibility, but we all have a responsibility to make this a better society and simply believing that people are beyond the pale, believing that people have no capacity to change, is irrational and absolutely unfair.

Q: Are you prepared to take the bold step and decommission weapons unilaterally?

A: No. It's a one-word answer, they just won't do it. They're not likely to divest themselves of their capacity for resistance unless they believe that the other side are real and unilateral disarmament in Northern Ireland just is not going to happen.

Q: I would like to know something, in the long run would you agree to a United Ireland if the people of "Northern Ireland" voted for it? I know
Sean McNulty

A: In the Good Friday Agreement it clearly states the future of our society can only be governed by the will of the people. I contend that you cannot be an a la carte democrat. If it is the will of the people of Northern Ireland that our society move in the direction of being in Ireland then I will have to accept it as a democrat. It will not stop be being British.

Q: The ordinary man on the street has lost interest in the peace 'process' due to the amount false starts and false promises put forward by David Trimble. Have you and your party any planned direction to take to try and stir some emotion back into the process and get the people that matter to start talking again i.e. yourselves and Sinn Fein?
Cheers, David McAleer

A: I think we have to do something. Mr McAleer's question is a perfect one for the time we're in. We're about to go to a review, the people really are turned off in Northern Ireland and who can blame then, because we the politicians are taking the oxygen and taking the hope out of the Good Friday Agreement, and that which created such hope and such euphoria around the world for Northern Ireland.

We all have a responsibility and, especially on the issue of decommissioning, we maybe cannot do what is demanded of us, but that is no excuse for doing nothing. We can use language, we can indicate to each other's community that we are real and we can go through a process of building trust that will allow the political efficacy to shore up the process and allow us to get on with the job at hand.

Q: If, in the years to come the assembly does work, do you see politics in Northern Ireland moving away from Nationalist/Republican Versus Loyalism/Unionism to the more conventional Left Versus Right we see almost everywhere? Would it be possible that we could see. for example, a joint PUP / SDLP leftwing party?
Francis O'Looney

A: Yes, but I think the SDLP would have to move a little more left-wing to align with us. The process of peace in Northern Ireland - in order to achieve an outcome, we have had to almost institutionalise sectarianism, so when we take a vote in our chamber there has to be a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists.

Someday we must destroy that, there must be a realignment of politics or we will be in danger at some point in our future of doing the same old awfulness to ourselves again. There must be a crossing of the floor. There must be a realignment of politics along the lines other societies function along and that is economics.

Q: I'm a Belgian citizen. Am I correct as an outsider to say that the problem of decommissioning is not about guns, not even about the people who hold the guns, but about the circumstances in which people are prepared to use guns?
Monteny Dirk, Bredene, Belgium

A: I think the first issue on the agenda is to ensure the guns are silent. I think the second issue on the agenda is to ensure that sabre-rattling, even with silent guns, is unreasonable. And the third point is to divest our society of illegal weaponry. But we've got to recognise the difficulties in all of that and above all a weapon will harm no-one if there is not the will to use it.

Q: I would like to ask you for your opinion on the DUP's constant intransigence during this whole peace process. The DUP always rejects any proposals put forward that might move the process forward, but when asked for alternative ideas of their own, they seem to say little or nothing.
Regards, Brendan McAtamney

A: It is fairly evident that I am not on their Christmas card list. They see me very much as a traitor, they see me as selling out Ulster, because they're looked very much in a Calvinist theory of life that defeat is superior to compromise and I have to say that that is an alien concept to me as we approach the new millennium.

It's a sad reflection on our society that the implacable opposites do so well in the minds of the people. For so long we have been a society that votes against what we don't want as opposed to votes for what we do want.

Q: Can you see a solution to the all too common problem that permeates Northern Irish society i.e. the unwillingness of unionists to contemplate a power sharing executive with nationalists or republicans?
Colm G. Connolly

A: Yes, that will happen, of that I have no doubt. The convoluted process of governance that was set out in the Good Friday Agreement was not created by accident. It was created because it is what we must do to succeed. Unionism, nationalism, loyalism and republicanism has come out with a convoluted process of governance where there is no Plan B. That's all we have and I believe it will happen.

Q: Do you really think that peace is any closer in real terms, or is the cease fire just a temporary blip?
John Lappin

A: I think in a society like ours the danger of sliding back is always there. But I think that there is still all to play for. We will have difficulties and, sadly, we may have dark days, but the only avenue to the future is through a political, democratic structure that delivers peace.

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