Three politicians prominent in the Ulster Unionist Party at the time of the Belfast Agreement have unveiled a plan to restore devolution.
David Campbell, David McNarry and Michael McGimpsey are proposing that contested political issues be resolved by referendum.
The trio, who each played what they describe as “a significant role” in the 1998 talks, believe the public could vote on the issues – gay marriage, abortion and an Irish language act – in the early summer. In the meantime, they propose power-sharing is reinstituted.
Unveiling their plan at the Stormont Hotel on Thursday morning, within walking distance of the government offices where a fresh round of political talks was announced, Mr Campbell and Mr McNarry explained that they had circulated their proposals to the other party leaders.
“We are dismayed that the current impasse appears to be beyond resolving by the two main parties in the Assembly,” they said.
The men are proposing a referendum in May or June with the following questions:
1. Should Northern Ireland have a standalone Irish language act?
2. Should couples of the same gender be permitted civil marriage in NI?
3. a) Should NI law be amended to permit an abortion where there is a diagnosis in pregnancy that the foetus suffers a lethal abnormality?
3. b) Should it be amended to permit abortion where a woman has become pregnant as a result of sexual crime including rape or incest?
Mr McGimpsey, a former UUP MLA for South Belfast and one-time health minister, was not at the launch because he was at the Stormont talks. He was a strong ally of David Trimble during the then-UUP leader’s political difficulties with hardline UUP members at the end of the 1990s and in the early years of this century.
Mr Campbell, a former UUP chairman but no longer in the party, and Mr McNarry, a former UUP MLA who later joined Ukip, were also allies of Mr Trimble.
They emphasised that they were not representing any political party and that they had no electoral ambitions.
Asked by the News Letter if they were suggesting the referenda because they expected or hoped for particular answers from the electorate, Mr McNarry replied: “No, that would be wrong of us to do that. We are just putting out the idea.”
Mr McNarry said that the three issues were ones in which even like-minded people often disagreed.
Mr Campbell said: “They are difficult issues for assemblies to deal with.”
Mr Campbell said the Belfast Agreement, “which itself was passed by referendum”, contained what they thought were settlements on the language. Therefore, if it was changed it should be subject to referendum.
He conceded that they had not included a question about legacy, because it was “beyond our pay grade” to put such a huge issue into a single question.
Mr Campbell said that many unionists were comfortable with direct rule, but it was bad for NI in the long run.