UUP MP Tom Elliott says that harsh criticism of the Good Friday Agreement by Michael Gove in 2000 is unlikely to signal a change in government policy on Northern Ireland if he becomes Prime Minister.
With Prime Minister David Cameron indicating after the Brexit vote that he will stand down, the UK Justice Secretary Mr Gove is a leading contender to take over the mantle of party leadership.
But his emergence as a frontrunner has prompted some to look at his track record on Northern Ireland politics in order to try and define what difference, if any, it might mean for the Province.
While Home Editor for The Times in 2000, Mr Gove wrote a pamphlet called ‘Northern Ireland the Price of Peace’, in which he said the British Government’s choice of language for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) “with its explicit Christian connotations of sacrifice and salvation, lent the document the status of Holy Writ”.
The GFA had been signed two years previously but the IRA had still not decommissioned, which would not happen until five years later in 2005.
But in the 2000 pamphlet Mr Gove argued that a military victory over the IRA may have been possible and that Stormont should avoid mandatory coalition.
The detail of the GFA, he said, “provides for a form of administration which makes coalitions involuntary, which is designed to stifle opposition, which codifies sectarian division and which entrenches arbitrary executive power with a licence to subvert liberal principles in the name of equality”.
He added that “...effective intelligence, counter-insurgency and containment (measures) could have progressively reduced the republican military threat. If such a policy had been matched by a political willingness to deny the IRA any purchase on the future constitutional position of Northern Ireland, then the resulting demoralization could have aided the work of the security forces. The prospect of an effective defeat of terror could have existed”.
However UUP Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Tom Elliott said he would not place too much weight on the 2000 paper as even the DUP had undergone dramatic shifts in outlook in that time.
“The Conservative Party has a policy as it stands that they will try to help and assist as much as possible the peace process in Northern Ireland,” Mr Elliott said.
The Conservative Party policy as he saw it was: “You have got devolution and it is now up to you to make it work.”
He added: “This has been the Tory position since they came into power with the Lib Dems in 2010. I don’t see that changing.”
UUP peer Lord Empey said he found Mr Gove’s 2000 report interesting.
“However my impression is that he accepts the current position and I see no threat to our current arrangements,” he added.