David McNarry: 'The Stormont Assembly as we know it is on its last legs'
The Big Interview
David McNarry talks to Rebecca Black about his role in the peace process, why he wants to see an end to mandatory coalition, and how his switch to Ukip rekindled his love of politics.
Q. How did you get involved with politics?
A. There was a girl I wanted to go out with, and she happened to be the secretary of the Bloomfield branch of the Young Unionists. She is now my wife!
Q. What about school, did you enjoy it?
A. I didn’t enjoy school at all, except for the sporting side of it. I suppose it was a connection with joining the Young Unionists, and a realisation of “How am I going to make a living and where am I going?” I was ever so grateful to both the Young Unionists and the Orange Order for teaching me the art of discussion and debate. If you couldn’t stand up in a Grand Lodge of Ireland meeting and hold your own, you would be crucified — it really was no holds barred.
At around 24, I did an interview in which I was described as a “smooth young capitalist with a silk touch”. I was greatly offended by that. I remember the journalist asking me what was I going to do in politics. Of course, I sat there as bold as brass and said I would be a politician by the time I was 50 and would own my own business by the time I was 30. I accomplished both of those and sailed close to the wind all the time, but my determination in life was always to make sure there was food and heat in the house for my family. It is a very driving motivation that has never left me.
Q. You were first elected to Ards Borough Council in 1997, then later served as former First Minister David Trimble’s special advisor? How did you find the council?
A. Ards Council was cutting my teeth. It was a tremendous learning curve and I would recommend it. I see young people coming in here [Stormont], and they have no experience in a profession, nor a grounding on the local government scene. I would recommend both to any young person.
Q. How did you come to be one of David Trimble’s special advisors?
A. David and I used to meet in the Europa for coffee. I was working in Belfast and he was a lecturer at Queen’s. We talked through politics, our visions and what needed to be done. I could see then he had a very clear vision.
I was a young man when Stormont, the Parliament, was taken away — just whipped from under our feet. I remember being quite emotional about that — the effect it was having. This was the edifice of the things I believed in being removed to satisfy republicans. I vowed that day that somehow, one day, I’d be helping in getting democracy back into Stormont. I knew then that Trimble was going to be instrumental in re-opening Stormont.
We now have a Northern Ireland that is growing in its own confidence and very content to be Northern Irish. I think that is the key identity for our people. We have stabilised an identity crisis in Northern Ireland by making it so worthwhile to be Northern Irish, and that is working. As far as I am concerned, Trimble did the right thing. He took a leap of faith but was butchered by the Northern Ireland Office to fit with their plan for Paisley to come in. I thought what Dr Paisley did was remarkable. Without him doing what he did, things would have been more difficult. Both in their ways have given Northern Ireland great chances and great opportunities.
Q. Were you involved with the Good Friday Agreement negotiations?
A. I was involved in the background. The fun I had was afterwards, when I was one of the advisers in preparing for government. That was the most interesting time in my life. It really was 24/7 for months because what we were doing was putting the flesh on the bones as to how we were actually going to govern.
We had no choice in terms of mandatory coalition, and I have got to say now that having spent some time here both as an adviser and as an MLA, the Assembly itself has gone stale. There is an absence of characters and the debating chamber is so stage-managed that you couldn’t cough without getting told off.
I think mandatory coalition has brought this place into disrepute. What I would love to see — and I don’t think Peter Robinson would have done this but Arlene Foster may — is voluntary coalition. I think that test is more important because of the staleness and also the distance that has now been put between MLAs and the people. We are thought of as being a bunch of t****** up here.
It is unfair, but I do understand why people say it, because we can’t make decisions without compromise. It’s either going to be continue with mandatory coalition, direct rule or worse — a combination of a glorified county council administering a minor soft government sent from London with the major stuff retained by a Secretary of State in Stormont Castle.
I think that we are on our last legs of this Assembly in its current form. I just despair when I hear cardboard cut-out politicians beating their chest that they are going to be the opposition. Under this mandatory coalition system you couldn’t have an opposition, and even if you do it will be impotent. It is totally misleading and silly talk, and the electorate should know just how silly it is.
I think they would go mad if the idea of opposition was revealed to them in the sense of a shadow cabinet opposition with chauffeur-driven cars and inflated salaries. That is the sort of c*** that is being talked about. It is extremely dangerous.
It also makes me despair that sometimes I think that is the height of some people’s ambitions — not to go into government, not to really bring the people with them, but to just walk around like a cardboard cut-out politician, a wannabe minister.
Q. So is your challenge to Arlene Foster — as she becomes First Minister this week — to take a leap and transform the Assembly to a voluntary coalition?
Q. Did you imagine she would be First Minister when you first met her?
A. When I first met her, she was a Young Unionist — whereas I was an older unionist — and one of immense ability. Some people call it a temper, but I have seen her ruthlessness even at a young age. Even then I could see that she could be swayed on a matter of principle, and that quality makes room for a good person. I wish her well.
Q. Was it challenging when as special advisor you were tasked with getting the loyalist paramilitaries on board for the peace process?
A. I think that I drew the short straw because at that time the loyalist feud was on and they were killing each other. It was absolute hell. I didn’t know who they were — I had to go and find out who they were, how I could see them and who could help me meet them.
The putting together of the Loyalist Commission was a risk. I remember saying to David [Trimble] at the time, “The risk here is that I am going to be shot”. He replied: “Well what’s the other risks?” And I said, “Well if we do this properly, we’ll bring them together”. He asked: “Is the first risk worth taking to get the second risk?” I said, “Well, if that is how you are putting it, we’ll have to do it.”
It was all about doing it. You just left the fear factor behind, but sometimes when I was driving home at some unearthly hour of the morning, I’d wonder what had I actually said to some of these top loyalists and my hair was standing on end. But we did it. And like the most recent thing I was involved in, the formation of the Loyalist Community Council, you can’t do anything unless they wanted to do it.
Q. So the loyalists did want to do it?
A. Yes, the will was there. It wasn’t easy — it took a lot of effort and help. I remember when we thought we had cracked it, Jonathan Powell came over. I think his estimation of me went into helter skelter because I used to joke with him that I really was the secret overall commander of all the loyalist paramilitaries.
We had to get him on board and prove the right people were there, so we arranged for Powell to meet them, and I assembled 23 of the top alleged paramilitary commanders from the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando. That was quite normal for me, but Powell was just taken aback that they were all together, so then he said to me, “You must be the overall commander”.
Q. And what about terrorism today?
A. I have so much fear over Isis today. I am just not convinced that Northern Ireland is protected from an Isis attack. I have been doing quite a bit of research on it. I know the PSNI say the threat from such an attack is moderate, and that scares me.
We have never experienced human bombs in Northern Ireland with our local terrorists, and I don’t know how we would cope because that’s how Isis works. I am really very worried and I will be very active on it and on tightening up our border. It is just so porous and there are so many undesirables crossing that border.
Q. You mean the north-south border?
A. Yes, the north-south border. I also know the Garda have alerted both British and American intelligence of their concerns regarding young jihadists in the south, and they are more worried about them than they are about dissidents. Now I am worried about dissidents — we all are — but 100 miles away the police force is more worried about young jihadists.
I am reasonably sure that it will be confirmed that there are former Provos working with Isis in the Republic and also in Europe. I cannot say whether there is an Isis cell in Northern Ireland, but if there is one then I am relying on the Chief Constable to root it out.
Q. And is there any intelligence suggesting that there is an Isis cell in Northern Ireland?
A. There is talk. The criminals in this world [Northern Ireland] are the imported criminals we have with eastern European and Chinese. Their presence here is horrendous. [They] are up to their neck in all sorts of criminality that we are not really on top of as far as I am concerned. But the Isis element of it, and how they work, is they will recruit other people and will also recruit people from other terrorist organisations who have technology or knowledge that they need. I am pretty sure that is already happening.
Q. If this is the case, then how come we haven’t heard anything from the Chief Constable?
A. When I raised it, the response from the PSNI was to say the concern they had about the threat was a moderate one. If they had a moderate concern over the IRA, I think someone would have hauled the Chief Constable up to explain himself. I would have rather that he said the threat was nil, but he said it was moderate. He is on record as saying that. We have got to deal with that. My detestation of sectarianism stretches equally to detesting racism. So far, we have kept that relatively off our streets here. But if there was any real unwarranted increase in Islamist activity, you won’t hold back racism. We have got to hold it back — we have got to have police on top of it — but we have also got to have that community, who are usually very good at divorcing themselves from radicals, here in Northern Ireland.
They have to emerge with the rest of us in unison against Isis activity. It is a big onus on everybody. You have only got to look at across the water to see how easy it would be for a spark to happen. And that worries me.
Q. Are you running for election again in May?
A. I have heard indications the referendum [on the EU] will be in June. That slots brilliantly into Ukip’s plans. We have thrown down the gauntlet to the other parties. Ukip are in the out camp, where are they? They are going to have to show their hand in an election. Ukip has been a new lease of life for me.
Q. Do you not miss the UUP at all?
A. Absolutely not. I would have missed the old UUP, but not this bunch. With Ukip, I thought long and hard about it, but it has been an absolute new lease of life for me. [They are] brilliant people, all on the same wavelength for the same cause. They are no longer a one-trick pony.
The big date for Ukip has always been 2020, with the referendum falling into place, with four million votes. The Tories are going to be in disarray over Europe, and the Corbynistas are confusing everyone. The plan that was worked out years ago seems to be a good plan. We will be out of Europe.
Ukip’s natural attraction is to Tory voters, but we found in the last election that there were also Labour voters. There is a direct connection with that, that I see. Because of the constitutional politics in Northern Ireland, the Labour constituency has been deserted and Ukip are picking up on that here. We are seeing the same patterns — the same mix of what would be Labour supporters and working-class people being equally attracted to Ukip as middle-class people.
Q. So are you going to run for the Assembly again?
A. The team that we have to stand for Ukip in Northern Ireland is a well-balanced team of young and not so young, all with the right ideas, and I want to back them as far as I can.
There is a massive wrong in West Belfast, where Northern Irish people have been denied a democratic representation for too many years. Of course, unionists play into the hands of republicans up there by falling out and splitting, running two or three candidates.
There is a massive opportunity. There is a seat for one unionist or Northern Irish candidate in West Belfast, and if I could give something back, it would be to give back to those people in West Belfast as a representative. I am holding my options open.
Q. But West Belfast is tempting to you?
A. If there is not an agreement on a single unionist candidate, then those parties don’t deserve to be supported by anyone at all. They will only divide as before and make that constituency represented by non-unionists and non-Northern Irish people.
Q. So if unionists don’t reach agreement on West Belfast, you will run?