UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has used a public speech in Co Wicklow to call for more discussion about the record of the Irish government in preventing IRA murders along the border during the Troubles.
Mr Nesbitt was speaking at the 25th La Touche Legacy Conference in Greystones, Co Wicklow on Saturday.
His comments came after the Republic’s Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore told the British Irish Association in Cambridge earlier this month that “we need to acknowledge those unionists who feel that...the Irish state could have done more to prevent the IRA’s murderous activities in border areas”.
It is understood Mr Gilmore’s speech was intended to help set the tone for the Haass talks. And Mr Nesbitt’s weekend speech will be seen by many as a constructive response from within Northern Ireland unionism.
“I know there are unionists who are dismissive of his [Gilmore’s] words, because they only address a perception of a porous border, but I view it as an important first step,” the MLA said. “Will there be a second step? I hope so, but I do not expect Eamon Gilmore, or anyone else, to engage on a solo run in dealing with our past. If we are to deal with the past, we must say to each other, ‘you’ll never walk alone’, in engaging with this most difficult area.”
The former UTV newscaster issued a warning to the Republic about Sinn Fein’s political focus.
“Holding the balance of power in Dail Eireann is both an aim and real possibility,” he said. “I urge the people of the Republic to study Sinn Fein very carefully. I offer just one example. Their ideology is ruining our schools.”
He said that Martin McGuinness, when minister for education in 2002, carried out a household survey on education which found that people did not like the 11-plus – but also that they did like the principle of selection.
Mr Nesbitt argued that the impact of the Sinn Fein decision to abolish the 11-plus without having a replacement in place was to “further sectarianise education” by creating two unofficial transfer tests – one favoured by state schools and the other by the Catholic sector.
He said he would have abolished the 11-plus, but replaced it with “a single education where all our children mix together, inoculating themselves against the sectarianism that is the toxic legacy of our past”.
And he argued that current Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd has also contributed to damaging the system in Northern Ireland.
“I consider all this both a challenge to the citizens of Northern Ireland, but also a warning to the people of the Republic.
“I have no doubt Sinn Fein aspire to holding the education ministers on an all-island basis. Next time Sinn Fein knock your door asking for a vote, remember the experience of a Sinn Fein education minister over the last 15 years in Northern Ireland.”
The UUP leader also advocated a historian examining claims that unionists were slow to bring forward reforms in Northern Ireland.