Podium: This is Ulster's chance to begin anew

DAVID TRIMBLE From a speech by the leader of the Ulster Unionists to his party conference in Campsie, County Londonderry
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YEAR IN and year out we have stood on platforms like this and said to nationalists that we seek a partnership to build a better, united Northern Ireland. Now there remain two questions, but they are really the same.

Will there be real peace? To whom does the offer of partnership extend? The agreement is quite clear.

In the opening declaration, all the parties affirmed their "total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means", and their "opposition to any use or threat of force by others".

There is only one thing you can do with Semtex. There is only one reason for holding on to it. It is to destroy people or places. It is the same with machine-guns. Retention of guns and explosives is a clear threat of force. That is why the agreement commits parties to "achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms".

On holding office, the agreement is equally clear.

It says: "Those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office." And there is an express cross-reference to this statement in the opening paragraph of the decommissioning section, which also recalls that the resolution of this issue is indispensable.

Could anything be clearer?

Republicans say that there are no pre-conditions. That is a misuse of language. There is an obligation: an obligation that those seeking office must satisfy. That Friday afternoon, we queried the section on decommissioning. Tony Blair said that, "its effect, with decommissioning schemes coming into force in June, was that decommissioning should begin immediately".

The republican movement has failed to honour its obligation. It has failed to show that it will only use democratic, non-violent means.

Therefore, consistently with the terms of the agreement, they ought to be excluded from office until they do.

If they want to be included, they must show that they do mean to use only peaceful methods, That is easy.

They need only begin to fulfil their obligations, and decommission in a verifiable and credible manner. That means beginning a process in a significant way that is clearly visible to the people.

Throughout this process, the Government has postponed this issue to the next stage, and made promises. This is now the last stage.

So my message is - there can now be no backing down on these promises, and no turning back from the implementation of all of the agreement.

We have never said that those with a past cannot have a future. The offer of partnership stands. But only if the past is left clearly behind, with no going back.

To the republican leadership we say: "You know, in your hearts, that you must go down this road. There is no other way. After Omagh, the people will not tolerate a return to the terrorist campaign of the past. So, "if 'twere done, 'twere best 'twere done quickly". But if you need time, we can wait."

To other nationalists we say: "If we have to wait and it is too much of a strain, there is an alternative way to proceed, if and when you want to use it."

Today, in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, we are starting to deliver accountable democracy. To do that we need to keep our nerves. We need to recover that steadiness and unity that characterised this party when it was created 75 years ago.

James Craig and his colleagues faced problems similar to ours. They also faced criticism from some Unionists. But this party, then as now, shouldered its responsibilities. Our forbears pulled together and pulled Ulster through. We can now do the same.

And we will.

After more than a quarter of a century out of power, unable to control our destiny, we are now on the verge of taking power back into our own hands.

Power, it is true, that must be shared with others, but Northern Ireland's problems will now be tackled by the representatives of Northern Ireland's voters - and predominantly by Unionists.

We face real politics: decisions about schools, hospitals, roads, the economy, and the environment. There will be difficult decisions. There will be genuine divisions.

But is there not also a sense of excitement about taking responsibility - about beginning anew - about a real chance to do what Craig and Carson wanted to do then? Build a Northern Ireland at peace with itself, and its neighbour.

The Ulster Unionist Party is progressive, pluralist, confident and respected internationally, and will be the force to be reckoned with in the Northern Ireland of the future.