Reg Empey claims DUP fought every election to stop Sinn Féin – ‘politics in sectarian trenches’

Former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Reg Empey has claimed the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has fought every election in the past 15 years on the basis of preventing a Sinn Féin First Minister.
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The Conservative peer has also stated that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson would have been eligible to be elected First Minister under the original terms of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) but that changes at St. Andrews meant Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill was now First Minister designate.

He made the remarks at a briefing of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the GFA.

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The former UUP leader claimed the British Labour Party under Tony Blair did a deal with Sinn Féin and the DUP ‘without the rest of us who had done the original deal, and changed the law in 2006-07’.

Reg EmpeyReg Empey
Reg Empey

"The net effect of that was that the assembly no longer requires a cross-community vote to appoint the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is done on a first-past-the-post basis whereby whichever party is the largest, irrespective of its designation, provides the First Minister.

"The irony upon ironies of this is that Michelle O'Neill would be eligible to be First Minister if the Assembly was operating. Had the rules that were negotiated and ratified by referendum in 1998 been left alone, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would have been eligible to be First Minister. If that is not being hoist with one's own petard, I do not know what is,” he said.

The Tory peer said changes made under the St. Andrews Agreement had placed politics in the ‘sectarian trenches’.

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“Every election from 2006 onwards was fought by the DUP on the basis that if one did not vote for ‘me’, that is, Ian Paisley, one would get Sinn Féin and Martin McGuinness.

"That meant we were trapped in the sectarian trenches, unable to break free from them. I had hoped, as had many of my interlocutors, when we were conducting the original negotiations that, over time, we could have seen politics develop more on the people's view on economic divisions and things of that nature, to become slightly more normal.

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"The change in 2006-07, which was done behind our backs, was a major mistake. It is one of the key reasons we are in such a mess today,” he stated.

During the same session Fermanagh & South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew told the committee how senior Derry republicans expended considerable effort in selling the original GFA.

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“I remember being at a meeting in Toomebridge where Mitchel McLaughlin told us to read the GFA and then read it again. There was a concerted effort by the Sinn Féin leadership to sell the agreement.

"We all knew how hard it had been to get it together and to fruition and how it was so important to make it work. Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and the entire Sinn Féin leadership went on the road and we did meetings with hundreds of people, including at kitchen tables.

"We brought the African National Congress over to help talk to people who were having difficulties and we took the GFA and embraced it. We recognised it was not by any means a republican document but that there was enough in there for everybody to make it work,” she said.