Belfast Telegraph

Crucial for the leaders of unionism to present a united front on the world stage

By Mike Nesbitt

Recently, Martin McGuinness made a pre-Halloween visit to Brussels. Appropriately, he disguised himself as a scary character – in this case by allowing himself to be described as the "Joint First Minister of the north of Ireland Executive". Fiction at its worst.

This week, I will be in Brussels, posing as nothing more nor less than as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. I will join our long-serving, well-respected and highly influential MEP, Jim Nicholson at the European Parliament.

Given the latest structural changes to the way Europe does business, the Parliament is more important than ever before, and therefore it is essential that unionism ensures its voice is heard, loud and clear. In that regard, I am delighted that Peter Robinson and Diane Dodds have accepted our invitation to join us in a series of engagements with the Parliament’s group leaders and key members. At times, it is important for the leaders of unionism to present a united front on the world stage.

This is such a time, as the world looks on expectantly at the current talks process being convened by the Secretary of State. Unionism must go the extra mile to ensure our position is both understood and accepted.

We go with two closely tied objectives: firstly, to make the pro-Union case, in a positive and confident manner; secondly, to counter the propaganda of Sinn Fein, a party that signed an agreement to respect Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom, but then cannot even manage to afford the courtesy of using the country’s name.

No doubt, the so-called Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze was on Mr McGuinness’s agenda during his European trip. It’s on mine too, following last week’s EU report which relates how disappointed senior European figures such as Manual Barossa were to hear of the cancellation of the plan. No doubt, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator made clear it was never going to be a shrine to terrorism.

What I want to make clear is that this is because he takes the ludicrous and deeply offensive position of saying the IRA did not engage in acts of terrorism, whether that was Gerry Kelly trying to blow up the Old Bailey, or one of his former IRA colleagues shooting an unarmed and defenceless politician like Edgar Graham in the back of the head as he walked through a Queen’s University packed with traumatised young students. It was always going to be a shrine, he just cannot accept terrorism is terrorism.

I have said from the beginning of Theresa Villiers’ talks that there can be no formal role for a foreign government in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland and I was heartened by the open acceptance of that fact by Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan and former US senator Gary Hart. But I also recognise these men and their governments have influence and it is sensible for unionism to do what it can to ensure that influence is deployed for the betterment of our people. So it is with the European Union.

Mike Nesbitt is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

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