tv Political Thinking with Nick... BBC News September 12, 2021 4:30pm-5:01pm BST
from rising covid cases this winter the trade union congress warns that up to 660,000 jobs could be at risk, if the uk fails to reach net zero carbon emissions as quickly as other countries. now on bbc news... it's political thinking — with nick robinson. hello and welcome to political thinking. a conversation with someone who shapes our political thinking about what has shaped theirs, their background, their views and their values. this week we heard talk of a political crisis.
we've heard talk of an election within weeks, talk, too, of trouble on the streets. northern ireland is once again facing that political crisis. and the cause is said to be a row about brexit and the trading arrangements, which have left supermarket shelves empty and produced warnings that people simply may not be able to get the things they want come christmas time. it has come about too because of a speech by the new leader of the dup, sirjeffrey donaldson, a man who grew up under the shadow of the troubles, of the violence that claimed the lives of several members of his own family. sirjeffrey donaldson, welcome to political thinking. thank you, nick. we are speaking hours after you delivered what i suspect will be the most important speech of your career so far. and i want to understand the background to it. do you really believe, as you said, that the union, the place of northern ireland in the united kingdom, is at stake now?
well, first of all, greetings from from belfast. and it's a pleasure to be on your podcast. yes, i really do believe that. i'm, as you say, passionate about the union. i grew up in a northern ireland that was deeply troubled. and i'm delighted that we've made a lot of progress over the last few years. but i'm really worried that this protocol that has been imposed as a result of an agreement with the eu is going to drag us backwards. and that's not good for northern ireland and it certainly isn't good for the union because what the protocol does is creates a new border in the irish sea. and that means, in effect, that when my constituents in lisburn or hillsborough want to order goods from a supplier in great britain, even simple things, like bulbs for their garden, plants, seeds in their garden — they can't any longer order those products from the rest of the united kingdom. we'll come to the detail about the protocol and what you intend to do about it in a second.
i wonder, though, if underlying all of this is a fear, a fear that britain no longer cares, that so long as there's peace, that many britons, many people who serve in parliament in westminster with you just take the attitude, "it's nothing to do with us any more." and and here's my concern, nick, is that actually the protocol is creating significant political instability. earlier in the year, we had people back out on the streets again, there was civil unrest. there was violence on the streets. i don't want that to happen. i want northern ireland to be peaceful, prosperous, stable. but i'm worried that if this protocol continues and people become more fearful about the future, then again, we will see people back out on the streets. and that is not good because it has the potential for further unrest. that's not something i want to see. what some people listening and watching will think is, "look, this is what always happens in northern ireland." politicians who can't get what they want through politics, say, "well, look, if you don't
listen to me, you're going to have "to listen to people on the streets." they think, if you like, to put it crudely, you're talking through both sides of your mouth that you're saying you want peace while saying to the boys on the streets, "go on, they'll listen to you." well, actually, what i've been saying all summer to the boys on the streets is, "please don't be on the streets." and you will note that all summer northern ireland has been peaceful. that didn't happen by coincidence. it happened because people like me, my political colleagues and community leaders, have worked hard and persuaded people that politics is the way to resolve these issues, not street protests. so i don't want that. but i'm simply saying that if politics fails and if we don't find the solutions, then i fear that there will be others who may decide to step into the gap. i don't want that to happen. so to be clear, i'm committed to finding solutions, political solutions. i want to do that quickly.
but here's the point, nick. last year, we had an agreement — new decade, new approach — which was the basis on which the political institutions in northern ireland were restored, three years after sinn fein brought them crashing down. now, in that agreement, the uk government gave a commitment as part of the agreement that they would protect northern ireland's place within the uk internal market. and all i'm asking the government to do is to honour new decade new approach, honour that agreement on the basis and honour which devolution was restored, do the right thing and protect our place within the uk because that is what people in northern ireland actually want. or else you'll walk out of government, you'll trigger an election, and we may end up with no government in northern ireland for, what, years to come? because the last time it took more than three years and northern ireland was governed from westminster instead. and of course, that's not the outcome i want. but to be clear, i think the time is coming where if the government
doesn't honour the commitment it gave in new decade new approach, the basis of devolution is undermined. and look, nick, what do we do if we make an agreement in good faith with people and they don't honour that agreement? are we simply expected to say, oh, well, tough, wejust have to accept that. we just have to watch our place within the united kingdom eroded every day. are we simply expected to say, "oh, well, tough." we just have to accept that? we just have to watch our place within the united kingdom eroded every day. we have to say to our constituents, "i'm sorry, but the goods that "you could buy in your supermarket six months ago "are no longer available." "you're just going to have to accept that." i'm sorry, nick. that is not a tenable position for me as a political leader. and it's not one i'm prepared to sustain. i am not afraid to go to the country. i'm not afraid to go to the people and say, this is what i believe and i'm asking you to support the stance that we are taking. and i think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do in a democracy. and i would remind you that in october 2019, borisjohnson did precisely that.
he went to the country, he brought down, he closed parliament down and forced a general election. so what is wrong with a politician, a political party saying, i want to go to the people, i want to put my case to the people? are you inspired by borisjohnson? do you think the way he delivered brexit, something your party supported, even though the majority in northern ireland didn't, the way he delivered it is a kind of model for the way you can deliver what you want for your voters? well, i'm simply saying, in a democracy, in the end, if politics is not delivering what the people need, then there comes a point where you have to go to the people. and i think that we're approaching that point in northern ireland if we can't find a solution on the protocol. did you discuss this approach with him? i have, of course, been engaging on an ongoing basis with lord frost, who is the prime minister's chief negotiator on the protocol. i've been discussing it with the secretary of state for northern ireland. i have spoken to the prime minister on the phone and i'm hoping to meet him in the nearfuture. but did you tell them,
"i'm going to threaten to bring the whole thing down, "to have an election if i don't get my way?" well, i'm saying that what we need is a solution, and i'm prepared to work with the government to find that solution. but we need... did you discuss it with them? i have discussed these matters with the government on an ongoing basis — and not just with our own government. i also met the irish prime minister as well and discussed it with him. now, you as you say, you're talking to me from belfast today. your home is in one of the most beautiful parts of the united kingdom. time and again, the area you're from in the south of county down, the mourne mountains, comes out as one of the areas with the highest quality of life in the uk. i ask you this in the nicest possible way. you're approaching a time when you could be thinking of retirement. you've got your knighthood. you've gotjobs as trade envoy to egypt and cameroon. were you not tempted to retire rather than become a party leader at a time of such crisis for your party and your government and the country? well, there are two types of people in politics — those who, when there is a crisis,
run towards danger to try and sort things out and those who don't. and when i was 18 years old, nick, and when northern ireland was at the height of the violence and the turmoil of what we call the troubles, i put on the uniform of the ulster defence regiment and stood on the front line with my comrades to try and protect the community against terrorism. so i don't run from trouble. i try to do what i can to sort trouble out, to stop it from happening, to safeguard people. and so that's why i've stepped forward to become leader of the dup at this point in my life, because i want to find solutions to the problems that confront our people in northern ireland. i want to build a strong, prosperous, peaceful northern ireland. and i think i've got a few years left yet to work with others to deliver that. well, given that you're the same age
as me, i'm not encouraging you to announce your retirement here and now. let me ask you, though, about the troubles, as you raised them. how and why did a boy from that beautiful corner of northern ireland, from the mourne mountains, suddenly decided a very young age — and it was a young age you went into politics — that this was what you needed to do? well, as i said, nick, at the age of 18, i took a decision to do something to try and move northern ireland on, to protect a community that i was living in at the time. but, also, i became involved in politics as well at the age of 18. so when i came of age, if you like, i took two decisions. one, to stand with my father and my brothers and others to try and protect our community against terrorism. and secondly, i got involved in politics because i recognised that in the end there wasn't a security solution, per say, to the problems of northern ireland, that it was through politics that we would change things for the better. and i still believe that... you once said you were
motivated by, and i quote, "a deep sense of injustice perpetrated against my people "and specifically my family." how old were you when you heard the news that your cousin had been murdered by the ira? that was on the 15th of august, 1970. he was the first ruc officer to be murdered at the start of the troubles. you would have been, what, eight years old? yes. and i remember the impact that this had on the wider family circle and on the community that i lived in a quiet, rural, close—knit community in southern in the southern part of county, down close to the border. and can you remember the moment you were told about his death? i do. i remember when my uncle, there came a knock on the door one morning, and my uncle was stood there,
and he delivered the news that samuel had been murdered alongside another ruc officer at a place called crossmaglen in south armagh. and, you know, i remember then the impact that that death had, that samuel's death had, notjust on the wider family, but on the wider community. and it left its mark. and it was one of the things that motivated me to get involved in a way that was designed to move northern ireland beyond that. it's hard when you're eight to have any understanding of what lies behind that. but did you grow up in a family in which politics was discussed at the kitchen table? did you have a sense of, really, what gave some sort of explanation for what had happened to your cousin and, indeed, went on to happen to other members of your family? i doubt there were many families in northern ireland who didn't talk about the troubles, as we describe them, around the the kitchen table. it impacted on so many families.
and my father at time was a part—time member of the army, of the ulster defence regiment. and he would be out serving his country at night. and, you know, those were dangerous times. were they frightening times for you? i mean, when you went out and you're a child, was there a sense of, "will he come back?" absolutely. will he face the same fate as my cousin faced? well, look, we were no different to many families, so i'm not sharing this, nick, because i believe that somehow we were a special case. we weren't. but yes, you were always worried about the knock on the door. who was it? and you were always, at night, suspicious of people calling at your home. you know, we had to check under our car every time the family went out to see would there be a bomb under the car? and that was life. that was what life was like growing up in the northern ireland that i was born into. and that's why i've dedicated so much of my life to moving northern lreand beyond that.
and i'm glad that my children have grown up, largely, in a more peaceful northern ireland, and that that makes politics all worthwhile for me. it's why i'm so committed to resolving the problems that we have at the moment, because we've all invested too much to bring northern ireland this far. we cannot allow northern ireland to be dragged back to the past. i'm determined that won't happen, but we have to face up to the reality that we have difficulties at the moment. they do need to be addressed. there's no point sweeping that under the carpet. butjust to understand a little bit more about your upbringing, do you remember the first time — put it a slightly different way — did you at that time have friends, people you knew, who were nationalists or were catholics, or, inevitably, at that time were tribes separate, unable to talk very much to each other, let alone to understand each other? well, in fact, i grew up next door to a catholic family.
there were two boys, we played together like normal children. we knew that there was a difference, but my parents brought me up to respect my neighbours, no matter who they were or what their background. and i've tried to do that in my politics as well. i think that those those principles, that approach to life that my parents taught me is something that i've tried to share with others in politics. i may disagree with my political opponents, but i hope they know that i respect them, that we are equals, that i want to build a northern ireland of equals. i want to build a northern ireland which is about a shared future where our children can play together, where they can be educated together, where our families can grow up together, where they can work together. and that's what a shared society really means. we've still some way to go to achieve that. and yet you did fall out with david trimble when he was negotiating what some call the good friday agreement, others call the belfast agreement. you walked out of those talks, having been involved. you walked out of your party,
the uup, the ulster unionist party, and joined the party of ian paisley, the one you now lead. was that, in the end, because you weren't ready to trust? you heard the words from the men of violence, from the ira, from sinn fein. but, in the end, you simply weren't willing to trust that they really had put it behind them? well, i think we're entitled, after 30 years of violence, nick, to be able to see clear evidence that people have put violence behind them, they've put it in the past. and for me in the belfast or good friday agreement, a key element was whether the ira were prepared to set aside their arms. for me, that symbolised that the ira were finally putting violence behind them. but the agreement didn't deliver that. the agreement outlined an aspiration towards some form of disarmament, but it didn't provide the means on which that could be achieved. and that, for me, was important. also, i felt the agreement disrespected the rights of the innocent victims, thousands of men and women who had
either been killed or maimed as a result of the troubles. and i felt the agreement didn't do enough to look after their needs and their welfare. and here we are over 20 years after the agreement. we're still trying to resolve some of those issues. but on the other hand, do you look back sometimes and say, look, what trimble was doing back then is consciously taking a risk, taking a punt, refusing to be a prisoner of the past? and some would argue, actually, he proved to be right and you were wrong, that the likes of martin mcguinness, the likes of gerry adams as well, you might not like them. you might not like the fact they still don't apologise for things you think they should apologise for, but they have proved and those who followed them, that they are committed to the ballot box, haven't they? well, we still have some way to go, i think, on thatjourney. but let me say this, nick. of course, there are risks that have to be taken when you are involved in building peace. but what you can't do is go
on and on indefinitely, where people fail to do what they need to do to build that peace. and, actually, it was a result of our pressure brought through the st andrews agreement in 2006 that finally sinn fein stepped up to the mark, the ira decommissioned their weapons, and sinn fein signed up to support the police and the rule of law. and i regard that as one of the high points of my political career, that we were able to bring sinn fein to the point where, before they could enter government in northern ireland, they were required to deal with the issue of ira arms, of illegal ira weapons and accept that it's the rule of law, at the end of the day, that prevails here, not the rule of illegal organisations. another high point for you in your political career, i know, was being a key part of the negotiating team that did a deal with theresa may, where your party, the dup,
arlene foster as your leader at the time, agreed to keep theresa may in government. is it true that you still have the pen on display at your house, the pen that was used to sign the agreement? yes, it's true. i did keep the — i was allowed to keep the pen, i should add, that that was used to sign the confidence in supply agreement. and this is a relief. you didn't steal the prime minister's pen? no, ididn�*t. there were two pens, one for myself and one for gavin williamson, who was then the government chief whip, and we signed the agreement and both gavin and i were allowed to keep the pen that signed the agreement. so, look, and that's something that i think was the right thing to do at the time, the alternative was for parliament not to be able to proceed, for a government not to be formed. and we felt it was within the interests of the uk at that time, given all that was going on,
to have a government. and that's why we supported the formation of a minority conservative government. and people said you were a fearsome negotiator — you extracted £1 billion from the uk government for northern ireland. is that how you see yourself? because you're not in the mold of ian paisley. you're not a stander on the street and a shouter and a barker, but it's often said you're your pretty fierce to face in the negotiating room? well, you know, i like to think i'm a tough negotiator, but i'm fair. in the end, i will try and reach an accommodation with people. and yes, we did hold the government's feet to the fire to ensure that we got the best deal for northern ireland. and to note, nick, the money that we got for northern ireland was for everyone and it benefited everyone. right now, in my own constituency, i've got households being connected to rural broadband services, as a result of that confidence in supply agreement, who otherwise wouldn't have access to high speed broadband. and it goes to every home
in the area and it doesn't matter what your political background. so i think that what we did then in delivering that much—needed funding to invest in our infrastructure in northern ireland was something that was good and and that continues to benefit people. but then you brought her down. you brought theresa may's government down. you brought her brexit deal down. you backed brexit, you backed borisjohnson. and now look where you've got — no power, no more money for northern ireland, a brexit deal that you had backed, the idea of going ahead with brexit, and the prime minister's obviously let you down. well, look, it was disappointing that the prime minister who came to northern ireland and gave pledges that there would be no border in the irish sea, in the end, agreed to a protocol that delivered a border in the irish sea. and we've made clear to the prime minister... were you duped? ..that he should honour the commitments he gave at that time and remove that border. but look, that's politics, nick. you do your best. but we were in circumstances in 2019 where, even with our support, the prime minister had lost a majority, a number
of conservatives... but hold on, if you wouldn't mind, jeffrey donaldson. i was at the rally that borisjohnson stood next to arlene foster, then dup leader, cheering round the room as i held my microphone under each of them. you believed you got the guy who was going to deliver for the union. now, what went wrong? had you misunderstood him? did he not really care? or did he think that pushing northern ireland to one side was the price worth paying for brexit? well, i suspect it was the latter. in the end, you have to take someone at their word and test that word. we did that, and when the prime minister brought forward the protocol, you will recall, nick, that we blocked the eu withdrawal agreement. and because of our votes, the prime minister was not able to proceed with his withdrawal agreement, including the protocol, and had to go to the country, he called an election. mm, but i'm interested,
do you think in the end, he was so desperate to get brexit, he was, kind of, willing to say anything to you simply to get brexit and think, "well, we'll sort this out later?" well, what he said to us was obviously said some time in advance of his decision to sign up to the protocol as part of the eu withdrawal agreement. we told him then what impact this would have on our relationship with the rest of the uk. we told him then the harm that this would do to northern ireland. and i hope now the prime minister sees that our warnings were right and that he does the right thing. you know, nick, it is never too late to put right what is wrong. it's never too late to do the right thing. and i hope now, in the next few weeks, the prime minister will do that and that he will honour the commitments given in the command paper published injuly and address the difficulties and resolve the difficulties that this protocol has created and remove the irish sea border.
ah, but you said something stronger than that in your speech! you didn't say "sort out the protocol," you didn't you didn't say renegotiate it, which is what the british government say they want to do. you said scrap it altogether. i said remove the irish sea border. and that's what needs to happen, because the prime minister told us there would be no border in the irish sea and now he needs to honour that pledge. so, he doesn't have to scrap the protocol? well, i think that the protocol needs to be replaced with new arrangements that respect northern ireland's place within the uk internal market. so, in my opinion, what is there isn't working. in the words of lord frost, it's not sustainable, therefore, it should go and be replaced by a new arrangement that works for everyone, notjust to be clear, but also for the eu. but let's just be clear. the test for you bringing down the government, for having a general election in northern ireland, having stormont elections before christmas. the test is that so—called irish sea border. it is not getting rid of the technical phrase, "the protocol". the irish sea border has to go.
with clear on that and i made it clear in my speech. the protocol is not sustainable and the irish sea border which is integral to that protocol must be removed. let's just end by contemplating what you might be able to do when you do finally retire, who knows, a few months, few years, more than the decade's time. you're a great fan of formula 1, aren't you? do you wish you could spend more of your life heading around the globe to watch lewis hamilton, who's something of a hero of yours? yes, i'd love to spend more of my time following formula 1. i have a real passion for the sport. but what i have a greater passion for is this. you know, i want to be able to walk the country lanes of northern ireland in my retirement. i want to walk those hills in the mourne mountains, see the beauty of our country,
but see a people that are at peace, i want to see a northern ireland that is economically prosperous and stable. my retirement will be complete and my retirement will be fulfilled if i can see, as i look around me the beauty of my country, a people at peace with each other. that is what i desire more than anything else in the world. sirjeffrey donaldson, thanks forjoining me on political thinking. thank you, nick. jeffrey donaldson has been in and around politics for long enough to know that if he doesn't carry out his threat, he'll be accused of being the grand old duke of york, marching his men to the top of the hill only to march them down again. either borisjohnson has to deliver the change to those trading rules that he so craves or he has to face the electorate. why would he take such a risk, you might wonder, particularly when the dup are doing so badly in the polls? my hunch is that he thinks that he can rally unionist votes. he can persuade those to the right of him and those in the centre
to lend the dup their support simply to end the protocol and to stop sinn fein reaching government. and if he isn't successful, he can walk out of government, collapse the devolved administration and sinn fein will have no time as first minister at all. he might even think of it as a win—win. it's sure quite a gamble. thanks for watching. hello. well, a decent enough day for many of us today, but certainly not the case in wales and parts of south—western england. some quite heavy rain here affecting coastal areas, but particularly around wales. some of that rain also moving into the midlands through the second half of the day. quite fresh in the north, only 12 degrees in aberdeen. at least it is dry here with some sunshine. 22 in the south this evening. this rain is very slow moving, quite a compact area of rain
affecting wales and parts of the midlands through the night. dry tonight across scotland and northern ireland, around 6—10 celsius. still mild in the south at around 1a. so another cloudy and damp, if not wet at times, picture in the south—west of the uk on monday. some of that rain will move around the irish sea as well, but generally speaking the north, east and the far south remains dry through monday. goodbye!
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