Unionist and loyalist politicians were today heading to South Africa for talks aimed at producing a single unionist vision for Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Representatives of David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists and the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists will join politicians linked to loyalist paramilitaries at an isolated game reserve for the week-long talks.
The Ulster Volunteer Force-linked Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Political Research Group, which provides political analysis to the Ulster Defence Association, will also join them in workshops drawing on the experiences of key players in the South African peace process.
Before leaving for the Unionist Visioning talks, Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy, who will be joined by Assembly colleague David McClarty, hoped the parties could put aside the bitter divisions of recent years.
“I think the broad mass of the unionist and loyalist people want and would welcome a strategy that could be put together – a unionist vision that will not just deal with the current difficulties but also looks to the long term question of where unionism will be in another 20 years,” the Newry and Armagh MLA said.
“We will be going to the talks from a non-violence perspective. We will be saying to those associated with violence what we have always maintained that anything we achieve has to be on the established principle of non-violence.”
The event has been organised by Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Group from the Irish Republic and will involve former South African National Party negotiator Roelf Meyer.
Debate between the parties will be conducted away from the media spotlight.
One of the workshops will feature former South African President F W de Klerk who brokered an end to apartheid and an initial period of power sharing with the African National Congress.
Progressive Unionist leader David Ervine welcomed the opportunity for dialogue with fellow unionists and loyalists.
The East Belfast MLA said: “Obviously these talks will be exploratory in nature but that in itself is not a bad thing.
“It will be good to hear parties telling each other face to face their view, telling each other where they think we have gone wrong and how we can move forward instead of conducting the debate by media soundbites which, unfortunately, has been the case for many years.”
Frankie Gallagher of the Ulster Political Research Group hoped the talks would eventually lead to the development of a pan-unionist position and an alternative to the Good Friday Agreement.
“The problem in unionism right now is that we are speaking with several voices – some pro-Agreement, others anti-Agreement,” he said.
“Having a more stable unionist family will have a positive impact on the peace process. Our divisions have only played into the hands of those who want to destabilise society and if we can move closer as a result of these early discussions, then that can only be for the good of the process.”
However a sceptical note was sounded by Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell who will join deputy leader Peter Robinson and Newry and Armagh MLA Paul Berry.
“I don’t think anyone will expect us to achieve in a few days what has eluded unionists for decades,” the East Derry MP said.
“These will be tentative talks with the parties setting out their parameters. The DUP will be making it clear to those linked to loyalist paramilitaries, as we have done to republicans, that there will be no support for any strategy unless it is built on a platform of non violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.”