Belfast Telegraph

For Stormont to return there must be a sea-change in our attitudes towards working with one another: Mike Nesbitt

A quarter-of-a-century ago the former TV journalist Mike Nesbitt covered Gerry Adams' first trip to Washington DC. Tomorrow he returns to the US capital to debate Adams, this time as a UUP MLA

By Mike Nesbitt

Twenty-four years ago, as presenter of UTV's current affairs programme Counterpoint, I flew to the United States to cover an event no one knew what to think of. It was a one-day conference on Northern Ireland, organised by a body called the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Again, UTV wasn't sure what it was.

The attraction was Gerry Adams. Against the advice of his own State Department and Prime Minister John Major, President Bill Clinton granted the Sinn Fein president a 48-hour visa to speak at the event. It sounded like the President was shaking the tectonic plates, but to what end? Was Adams about to announce a Provisional IRA ceasefire? It seemed entirely possible. And, on that basis, we travelled.

Others did not. When news of the Adams' visa broke unionism reacted with a kneejerk refusal to engage. Jim Molyneaux, of the Ulster Unionists, and DUP leader Ian Paisley, who had both agreed to speak at the event, withdrew. That much was understandable; they couldn't share a platform with Adams while the Provisional IRA was fully active.

Where they went wrong was in cancelling their flights, a monumental mistake, as I reported at the time. They should have flown to America, held a news conference and challenged the media: go ask Mr Adams about Jean McConville and the so-called 'Disappeared'; question his knowledge of Bloody Friday (20 bombs in Belfast city centre in a little over an hour in 1972 - I still remember watching body parts literally being shovelled into a plastic bag); invite him to discuss La Mon (a devastating napalm attack, something the American people could have related to in a post-Vietnam era).

But no. The unionist leaders decided not to present an alternative and left the Sinn Fein president centre-stage. America was fascinated by this bearded, intellectual-looking individual in tweeds, travelling Manhattan in yellow cabs, freed from the shackles of the broadcasting ban that horrified Americans were told meant his voice could not be heard on the UK's media.

I ended my week in Washington, presenting that Thursday's Counterpoint from a television studio in downtown DC. Two Congressmen joined us: Republican Peter King from New York and Democrat Richard Neal from Massachusetts.

Tomorrow, I will again be with Messrs Adams, King and Neal, completing a circle that began a quarter-of-a-century ago, as the four of us share a platform at the Library of Congress in Washington in an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

I am relieved unionism will not repeat the mistake of not having a voice at the table. It would be a brave man who suggested unionism had but one Achilles heel, but there can be no doubt a failure to engage with others has been a repeated flaw in the unionist approach.

The significant anniversary will pass more in sorrow than anger, as the institutions remain frozen amid the unedifying wrangle over how the negotiations broke down.

As a journalist standing at the crush barriers, I bought into the myth that the DUP were great negotiators; as a politician inside the room, I saw a different reality. What they do better than most is sell a message. After St Andrews, their 2007 manifesto was a literary victory lap, with multiple boasts that now ring hollow: "Our approach has brought republicans this far and will succeed. Ultimately, it will ensure that, when devolution returns, it can be on a permanent basis." And: "By requiring the conditions to be right for devolution, we are ensuring the best opportunity for democratic institutions to be stable and lasting". "Stable and lasting"?

Yet, it matters not, because come polling day, the majority of unionists who vote are happy to back the DUP, whatever its record - and the DUP knows it. Witness the tweet from former senior adviser Richard Bullick, who dismissed concern about the DUP's handling of the talks debacle thus: "Whatever the exact truth of all of this will be forgotten even by those who were ever interested in a day or two."

Now, there's a statement that sums up the DUP feeling of invincibility at the ballot box.

Yes, the Belfast Agreement was about creating devolved political institutions - and the current debate has been, in part, about how many feel instruments like the petition of concern have corrupted the workings of our particular form of democracy.

But 1998 was about something even greater. It was about a joint commitment to taking the opportunity to start again, redefining our relationships based on common values - tolerance, reconciliation, mutual trust. That is where the real failure lies. These values are difficult at the best of times, but without a significant effort at building relations there is no foundation on which to build.

At UTV, our politicians would rip into each other in the Counterpoint studio before retiring to the green room for a beer, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. There, the atmosphere was much more cordial; people would enquire if their political opponent's wife had had her hip operation, or if their daughter had secured the grades she needed for a place at university. In other words, they knew each other. I do not sense that atmosphere of collegiality in the current clump of MLAs.

The fact is no one is going away - republicans, nationalists, unionists, loyalists and others. We simply have to find a way to rub along together. When President Clinton first visited us he told his audience at the old Mackies foundry about the county in Los Angeles that was home to over 150 different ethnic and racial groups.

It wasn't a throwaway line. It was a signpost to resolving the tension that bedevils our society - the strain between the individual's sense of identity and the territorial sovereignty of where they live. Some 150 ethnic groups may sit cheek by jowl in LA, eating their own food, listening to their own music, reading their own literature, but they do so under the Stars & Stripes that marks the territorial sovereignty of where they are: identity respected, constitutional status acknowledged. The 1998 Agreement tried to reflect that; implementation has failed.

Stormont should not be allowed to come back without a sea-change in attitude towards the importance of working as a proper coalition. Of course, we all compete for votes as political opponents, but once the election is over we are supposed to flick the switch that transforms us into political partners. I have seen precious little evidence of that transformation.

So, I suggest we park our differences and narrow our focus, committing to 10 years - two mandates - where all we think about is the prosperity of our people; not just the amount of money in their back pockets, but also their mental health and wellbeing.

We should measure that in terms of a world-class health service, a best-in-class education system and the infrastructure that will lay the foundation to transform our economy. If we do that, we may find the common purpose and spirit of joint venture that has been so badly missing.

And, if we achieve that, the really difficult stuff might just be viewed in a different, kinder light.

Mike Nesbitt is Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford and a former leader of the party. He was a journalist at UTV in Belfast from 1992 to 2006

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