Belfast Telegraph

Last of the Old Guard, Empey exits gracefully

The UUP leader was willing and able to make the right political choices at the right time and thereby help all the people of Northern Ireland, says John-Paul McCarthy

Sir Reg Empey bows out this week, having failed to reverse the inexorable decline of the once-mighty Ulster Unionist Party after David Trimble.

Empey radiated dignity and decency throughout his ministerial career in the Northern Ireland Executive and he leaves us pondering the long-term viability of that particular brand of unionism to which he gave his last full measure of devotion.

Empey and his colleagues in the UUP have to seek consolation in less immediate contexts than the electoral one, which has looked increasingly inhospitable over the last decade.

Rumours of a possible UUP-DUP merger came to nothing, while the electoral alliance with the Conservative Party similarly failed to boost Empey's fortunes.

There is a nagging feeling in all this that the best days of the UUP are behind it, but that said, Empey should attend to his debit and credit columns with some pride.

He was a central presence in a party that managed to banish the memory of Sunningdale by confidently concluding a power- sharing deal in 1998.

The principle of this deal remains strong, even if the original architects suffered rather badly in the various games of musical chairs that had to be played over the last decade.

Empey also played a major role in the process which culminated in the formal replacement of the Dublin Government's aggressive territorial claim on Northern Ireland, as part of the constitutional deal agreed between Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern which involved the trading of Articles 2 and 3 for section 75 of the old Government of Ireland Act.

Empey must have savoured the fact that it was the Dublin Government - rather than the British Government - which nervously insisted on heavily qualifying its rhetorical commitment to political unity by making sure the new Article 3 in the Irish constitution gave the Republic its own veto over constitutional change.

So as to prevent the chaos that would follow immediate unification after a bitter vote in Northern Ireland, future political unity now also requires a majority in the Republic itself - a provision that speaks eloquently to the basically partitionist mentality that has suffused Irish government thinking since the 1920s.

Empey and others never crowed about this as much as they might, thereby saving the blushes of their negotiating partners.

A similar decent reticence characterised his approach to the decommissioning issue after 1998.

His party did not specify either the precise method nor the quantity required in the decommissioning debate, thus leaving the forlorn call for a 'Kodak moment' to the more aggressive elements in the DUP.

It is still startling to remember that Empey's party was willing to enter a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein while the Provisional IRA gazed menacingly at the vaults of the Northern Bank.

This flexibility was, of course, in marked contrast to the way both major parties in the Republic operated. Neither the party of the murdered Senator Billy Fox, nor the long-term heirs of de Valera could match the UUP's magnanimity on this critical issue.

Empey and his party muddled along, having learned the crucial lesson of the James Molyneaux years, that process is everything in modern politics, and remaining in the fray at all costs signalled strength not weakness.

The UUP maintained its dogged defence of the basic constitutional and political synthesis of the 1998 Agreement in spite of some fairly extravagant provocations.

These included the Dublin government's dysfunctional handling of the decommissioning issue, essentially a maddening series of attempts to pretend that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were not hoping to retain control of a private army for leverage, even though the legitimacy of unionist anxieties on this issue had been bravely accepted by Dick Spring in 1994 and by Bertie Ahern in his famous interview with Liam Clarke in 1999.

Empey also witnessed a British prime minister seriously toying with the idea of ratifying paramilitary control of working-class areas in Northern Ireland with a bizarre proposal to establish so-called community restorative justice programmes. The Blair who emerges from many of the accounts of the various negotiations after 1998 is a radically different man from the one who made the case for dealing with Saddam Hussein while George W Bush was still signing death warrants in Texas in 1999.

This Blair ended up hollowing out the centre ground in Northern Ireland by dispatching the emollient Jonathan Powell each time Adams complained about unspecified internal pressures, even though the Americans never believed that there was ever any real internal threat to Adams's so-called peace strategy.

Blair's destructive fixation on the big picture put Trimble under intense pressure because, unlike Adams and McGuinness, his political flanks were very real and very exposed. (Trimble's speech last week attacking the St Andrew's Accord for pandering to the extremes shows that he blames Blair's carelessness as much as the DUP's enmity for his fall.)

While the old guard in the UUP still bear the scars of the call-me-Tony era, they won on all the big issues in 1998, thereby locking Provisional Sinn Fein into the strait-jacket of what Trimble liked to call structural unionism.

There is no "persuader for unity" in London today; McGuinness is a minister of the Crown, and the only time he gets to stretch his political legs is when he travels to Farmleigh to discuss inland waterways and foot-and-mouth disease with the Taoiseach.

Sir Reg defended the decencies with honour and eloquence during his career. He will be missed.


From Belfast Telegraph