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Speech by Peter Robinson to DUP Annual Conference, (1 November 2008)

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Text: Peter Robinson ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Peter Robinson, then Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to the DUP Annual Conference, Armagh, (1 November 2008)


"To lead this party is a great honour, but it also brings great responsibilities.  The challenges we face today are very different to any we have faced before. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland may be settled and the terrorist campaign of the IRA ended but there are new challenges that we must face. 

It took the strong leadership of the DUP to get this far and it will take strong leadership from the DUP to see us through the testing times ahead.   We are prepared for them, but we will not solve the problems of tomorrow by re-fighting the battles of yesterday. 

It is easy to say “it is time to move on.”   But many have made great sacrifices along the way.   For those of us in Northern Ireland who support the Union, the flag we fly has been woven of heroism and resolve yet at times with great grief and pain. 

Many innocent lives were taken by dark and evil hands.  Members of our security forces - fell in our defence.  Today we remember them all.

Still others have been left with wounds that will forever be with them.  We pay tribute to them. They may never receive a medal to mark their sacrifice yet the wounds they carry are the noblest decoration that man can receive in the service of a grateful nation.   Pray God the time will never come that this land would return to such a path.

Today we have prospects that no previous generation has enjoyed. Let us never forget how far we have come in such a short period of time or squander the opportunity that we have been given. 

In the years to come we must work to realise the full potential of all of our people.  We must seek to regain the wasted years.  We must make up for lost time and lost opportunities. This party is committed and equal to that task.

Our work in rebuilding our community and society will continue when we leave here but today we can celebrate: - the conflict as we have known it is over; the union is secure and the people of Northern Ireland once again have control over their own affairs.

The role of political leadership in Northern Ireland was not a role that we were gifted, it is one that we earned.  We earned it by winning the trust of the unionist electorate.

There was a time, not so long ago, when unionism, under another party’s leadership, had lost its confidence and lost its way. People were talking about how Republicans were receiving daily concessions and dictating the political agenda; people said that Republicans always triumphed in negotiations and they argued they were on a trajectory to achieving a united Ireland. 

But that was then and this is now, and no one is saying those things anymore. 

Instead people are looking in the Sinn Fein ranks at people who remain trapped in a time-warp, fighting battles they have long since lost, pursuing aims nobody really cares about, prisoners of their own outdated political ideology, not having noticed that the world has moved on. 

As the global economy is reeling and our local community looks to the Assembly for leadership and help, what is the Sinn Fein response?  How do they respond to the needs of the people in the hour of need? 

They respond by obstructing the Executive from meeting and leaving those most at risk to fend for themselves.  The powerlessness of opposition during Direct Rule was frustrating, but the paralysis of the Executive by Sinn Fein is unforgivable. 

It is time that the media, the commentators and civic society clearly identify where the problem lies and expose them for it.

It’s time to tell Sinn Fein to get back to work!  There should be no hiding place for those who wish to hold politics in Northern Ireland to ransom. To blame all parties for the failure of one is not just incorrect and unjust but it removes the pressure from those who are stopping work being done.

Just a few years ago who would have believed that it would have been Sinn Fein that would be on the back-foot, threatening to bring devolution to an end because of their own failures in negotiations.

I remember when David Trimble took such an approach, republicans castigated and condemned him. They hauled him before the courts and accused him of playing fast and loose with peoples hopes and prospects.  How the tables have turned.

Sinn Fein’s strategy might have worked for them in another era but not now.  Not with this party.  We will not bow to threats, bend to pressure or be blown off track.   We will maintain our steady course in negotiations.  We will not budge until the terms are right and the conditions we set out in our manifesto have been met.  If and when we have the right deal and public confidence is secured we will move forward but not until then.

It is easy to forget how things used to be during the UUP’s era with Sinn Fein in Government while the IRA was still armed and active; how republicans were able to become Ministers without even supporting the police or the rule of law; how every day brought a new concession to republicans; and how Sinn Fein always set the agenda.  Thanks to the DUP in negotiations and in power, those days are gone.

The story of the DUP these last ten years is the story of struggle and perseverance. It is a story of determination and dedication to a cause that we all believe in. It was not easy to go from being a party with two MPs and under a hundred councillors to where we are today.  But then nothing worthwhile ever is.

Today it is the DUP that sets the political agenda in Northern Ireland. We got here not because we were weak but because we were firm; not because we caved in under pressure but because we stood up for what was right; not because we accepted other people’s deadlines and diktats but because we insisted our own requirements be met.

And let us be very clear, regardless of the criticism we took along the way, the political process in Northern Ireland is stronger because of the stance we took. 

Who today would argue that we were wrong to hold out until republicans gave up their terror campaign and ended their criminality?  We were told it would never happen, but we persevered until it did.

Who today would argue that we were wrong to hold out until republicans gave up their illegal weapons?  We were told it would never happen, but we persevered until it did.
Who today would argue that we were wrong to hold out to ensure that accountability was introduced for Ministerial decisions?  We were told it would never happen, but we persevered until it did.
Who today would argue that we were wrong to hold out until Sinn Fein openly gave support to the police, the courts and the Rule of Law?  We were told it would never happen, but we persevered until it did.

Now they tell us that we cannot get policing and justice functions devolved in a way that meets our manifesto pledges and in a manner which can gain unionist confidence.   Well! Let me make it clear we will persevere for however long it takes until we do.
For so long we were condemned as a party of opposition but today we are the major party of government in Northern Ireland.

Yes, opposition was easy but it meant others taking decisions about the future and fate of our Province while we were left to watch from the sidelines.  That is not what any of us got involved in politics for.

I don’t need to tell this audience that the last two years have not been the easiest period in the history of this party but I believe we are emerging stronger than ever.

Just look at the facts. Unionist confidence in Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is at its highest levels in a generation. Today we have a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive with a unionist majority and a unionist First Minister – and as Enniskillen proves - we are even winning by-elections in previously nationalist dominated areas.

Opinion polling confirms the trend and we are in great shape – well the party is anyway.

Our journey is far from over but we are on the right path.  And whatever short-term difficulties we have, we will face them and we will overcome.
I regret the fact that some who once walked with us strayed when the heat came on.  While I can understand why they chose the easy path I cannot agree with their decision.

However, I rejoice to see the many new members who have joined us.  They more than make up for the few who deserted the battlefield.

Among those who departed were some who should know better and who must recognise that if they were ever to gain support for their views it would spell disaster for unionism and for Northern Ireland. 

It may at first seem contradictory but going into government, even after our terms had been met, was, at one and the same time, a difficult decision and a straightforward choice.

What positive could possibly emerge from the political wreckage of unionism turning away when we had achieved so much and at a time when republicans were being forced to change? And having brought down these institutions without good reason, what future would there be for unionism, no matter who the Prime Minister was?

Taking the route back to powerlessness and irrelevance – would be sheer madness: madness for unionism, and madness for Northern Ireland.

The form of Government we have entered is clearly not our first choice.  But as a party we will honour all of our obligations and deliver on all of our pledges.  If devolution falls it will not be because unionists have failed to live up to any agreement that we reached. 

There are some who say we should turn back.  They try to fool people into believing there is some better alternative.  But they know the options they advocate are unachievable and could not, even for a fleeting moment, be attained. 

They knew back in March 2007, with absolute certainty, that the only alternative to this form of devolution was Direct Rule.  A Direct Rule that they themselves declared twenty years ago to be Dublin Rule.  A Direct Rule which over those twenty years turned ever greener and which the government was threatening, under Plan B, would become “a partnership” between London and Dublin.

I don’t know what that would have entailed but I know this – it would not have been in the interests of unionism.  Even without the upgrade this route would have been extremely harmful.

So, even if at present a shadow may have formed over it, devolution is good for Northern Ireland and it is also good for unionism.   What on earth would a return to Direct Rule have to offer unionists?  

It would mean greater Dublin influence, interference and involvement in our affairs.

Unionism would once again be powerless and marginalised.  However they may dress it up, this is the reality. 

The advocates of this alternative have much to say but nothing to offer.

I have argued that until the end of time there will be a clash between unionism and republicanism.  We hear such nonsense about these matters.  Does anyone believe that if you were to put the Conservative and Labour Parties in a mandatory coalition they would find common cause on all matters?   Not a chance! They would be scratching each others eyes out.

The forces of unionism and republicanism are not ideologically compatible.  It was this knowledge that led me to predict that there would be a battle a day.  It was for this reason we have argued that this arrangement is not our final destination.
That doesn’t mean that there are not issues upon which we can agree.  Nor does it mean that we cannot agree how to take forward matters when we differ.  But if anybody thought that sweetness and light would be the outcome of forming a four-party mandatory coalition then they are in the running for the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand award for sound judgement. 

The big difference, however, is that in this new era the tussle would be conducted by political means and resolved by advancing on areas of common ground.

After forty years of painful, bloody conflict this party has been given the opportunity, and the mandate, to build a better society for everyone in Northern Ireland.   And when I say everyone, I mean it.

I say that not just because it is right, but because it also makes political sense. A successful and prosperous Northern Ireland will never be the preserve of one section of the community or the other. Rightly or wrongly, like it or not, we are all in this together. 

I want to see a unionist community that is confident and generous and one that reaches out to those from all parts of the community and indeed to those who come to Northern Ireland from abroad.

I want to see a society where everyone can benefit from economic prosperity.  That’s why the present refusal to have an Executive meeting to deal with the hardship being faced by our people is so frustrating. 

Who if they lose their job will be asking the question, “When are policing and justice powers going to be devolved to the Assembly”?

Or is there anyone here today who believes what we need to kick-start our economy by introducing yet more equality legislation, putting more burdens on business and delaying decisions?

And whatever its merits, is there anyone here today who believes that an Irish Language Act will address the urgent financial needs of our community?

I have nothing against the Irish Language but I have to ask the question, is there a single person living in Northern Ireland today who believes that the Long Kesh Gaelic we hear at the Assembly is a good advert for it? 
Having touched on the issue of policing and justice let me make it quite clear; I want to see Policing and Justice Powers devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Our forefathers fought for these powers to be devolved when Stormont was first set up.  Another generation of unionists gave up devolution altogether when these functions were taken away.  This party fought an election on this issue and we are committed to delivering upon it but our manifesto makes it clear we will not support devolving such powers until the community has confidence in the structures and in those who would operate them.   Let me make it clear, there will be no Justice Minister that cannot command the support of the wider community.

But the devolution of policing and justice is not the only unfinished business. We have unfinished business too - in reforming the system of government here away from mandatory coalition, reducing the number of Government departments, resolving the parades issue and creating a more efficient public sector.  I hope that those who have focussed on the devolution of policing and justice will be just as keen to see our outstanding issues resolved.

Politics today is not a game for amateurs or mavericks. If you thought that Gerry Kelly as Policing and Justice Minister was something to be afraid of, just imagine what it would be like if Basil McCrea was Finance Minister.  Half way through the year and he would have spent all the money.

Is there any unionist anywhere who today really believes that unionism would be in safer hands under the Ulster Unionist Party?

Go back down the road of appeasement and concessions?  No thanks.

Though in fairness to Sir Reg, I don’t thing even he believes that the UUP is about to perform the greatest comeback in political history.  When questioned about the state of the Ulster Unionist Party, the height of his ambition was to declare “We’re not dead.”  

While we may poke a bit of fun at the UUP, in return for their sideline sniping, the truth is that our real challenge is to motivate unionists to turn out to vote and to keep ahead of republicans at the polls. 

To those who say that Sinn Fein topping the poll at the European election next June doesn’t matter I want them to listen closely -

“Far from being some sort of flash in the pan, Sinn Fein/IRA would spend the political capital acquired from a poll topping performance on advancing their all-Ireland agenda.”

Well actually those were not my words but those of our 2004 European candidate. 

He also went on to ask,

"Do the honest, decent, law-abiding people of Northern Ireland want to see Sinn Fein strut the international stage as the largest political party in the Province peddling their pro-terror propaganda?"

It will be interesting to see if Jim still holds this view or whether he believes that they have changed so much to make it acceptable that they should top the poll.

I trust that the unionist electorate will give their answer to the vote-splitters who would bring about the dire circumstances of Sinn Fein topping the poll about which Jim has rightly warned them.  Only the DUP can top the poll for unionism.

Mr Chairman, while unionism is at its strongest in a generation we must not be complacent. We must work to ensure that unionists co-operate in a more effective way than ever before. In the cut and thrust of politics this is not always easy but there is much more that we can collectively achieve if we work together.    At Westminster two more seats could be secured for unionism.   At Assembly and council elections improving vote transfers would ensure greater unionist representation.

I have no doubt that in terms of advancing unionist ideals more can be gained by greater co-operation between ourselves and the Ulster Unionist Party.

Mr Chairman, one of the failures of all the parties in the Executive over the last eighteen months has been to effectively sell the benefits of devolution.   There are some who even say that devolution has made no difference.

There is no hiding that in recent months we have had our problems but that should not obscure just how much we have already achieved.   Other administrations reacted after the financial crisis to respond to the problems that were being faced but we took steps long before the full impact of the economic downturn was felt which are helping people today.   But there is still more to do.

In the budget earlier this year I froze in cash terms the domestic Regional Rate for the next three years, reducing year on year the cost to the householder in real terms. We have further deferred the introduction of Water Charging. Indeed, when these measures are combined the return of devolution will have saved the average Northern Ireland householder over a thousand pounds during this Assembly term alone. That is devolution delivering.

And for pensioners we have done even more by giving an automatic 20% discount to pensioners over 70 living alone.

In addition we allocated funding so that everyone over 60 can now travel free on public transport in Northern Ireland and prescription charges for everyone are being phased out.  That is devolution delivering.

These are important achievements which were made possible even in difficult financial circumstances by our determination to find efficiencies in the public sector and divert the resources to front-line services.  The reality is that it is the public sector efficiencies that have made possible the freeze on rates and allowed extra spending.

We have frozen in real term business rates for the next three years and at the same time capped manufacturing rates at 30%, helping secure jobs and a competitive advantage for Northern Ireland. That is devolution delivering.

This year we also secured the largest ever private sector investment in Northern Ireland with a £500 million investment by Bombardier for its new C-Series.  I know that without devolution that deal would not have been secured and the investment would have gone elsewhere. That is devolution delivering.

As a result of devolution we have also been able to reach an agreement with Brian Cowen to allow Financial Services companies in the Republic to base mid and back office jobs in Northern Ireland.  In the longer term this could provide thousands of well paid jobs which could help transform our economy. Again that is devolution delivering.

Nothing will do more to improve our economic prospects than stable political arrangements and a confidence that the violence that we have endured is over for good.

During these past few months Northern Ireland has started to feel the effects of the economic crisis.  This crisis was not made in Northern Ireland but we must deal with its consequences.

In a few weeks’ time I hope that we will be able to bring a package of measures to the Executive and Assembly to get through the present difficulties and to build for the future.  We must alleviate short term hardship, boost our construction industry and ensure we keep our employment levels up.

I have no doubt that how this Executive deals with the present economic crisis will be the yardstick by how devolution as a whole will be judged. As a small region within the United Kingdom we should be able to lead the way by tailoring policies to meet the needs of the present crisis.

At a party level in the first twelve months of devolution we have already delivered more than half of the commitments we made in our manifesto.  Huge challenges lie ahead and we must set new, ever more ambitious targets and goals.

Tomorrow our brave troops will parade through Belfast to celebrate their homecoming.  I bitterly regret that Sinn Fein has chosen to hold a counter parade and protest but their backward looking approach must not be allowed to mar the occasion.

There is one potential advantage in republicans coming into the city centre for the Homecoming Parade.  They’ll be able to see what a real army looks like.

While we are working to create a better Northern Ireland at home, we must also remember our soldiers who are seeking to fashion a better society in Afghanistan and Iraq and to create a safer world.
Earlier this year, along with Jeffrey, I travelled to Afghanistan and saw for myself the work that our troops are doing there. Their work is one of reconstruction and mentoring the Afghan Army. 

Just ten days ago another DUP team comprising Lord Morrow, David Simpson, Sammy Wilson and Iris returned from visiting our troops in Iraq.  They too saw the bravery and dedication of our men and women who in the most trying and dangerous circumstances do their duty.

I know I speak for everyone here when I say we are immeasurably proud of our troops.  Along with the men and women who will be on parade I want Sunday to be a peaceful day celebrating their homecoming and welcoming them back.  Let nothing mar the occasion. 

And what our soldiers are doing to help rebuild communities and society in Iraq and Afghanistan let us pledge to do here at home.

Over the past decade this party has helped bring about the Northern Ireland that we can all enjoy today. But the work still goes on.  Not merely to be satisfied with what we have, but to reach beyond to a better future.

I want to see a Northern Ireland that can keep our young people at home and one that can provide the kind of life worth staying for. To create a Northern Ireland that will be known for its innovation and its enterprise, where our greatest asset is our people and where we can live together in peace.  I want to see a better future for everyone regardless of their background. This will safeguard the Union and secure our future.

That is the challenge that we must all rise to.  We owe this not only to those who will come after us but those who have gone before. Over this next decade let us help to build a society in which everyone has the opportunity to succeed and one we can all be proud of. 
Too must time, and too many lives have already been lost.  There is not a moment to lose. It will take a collective effort to achieve this goal and many years to reach this destination but only one party has proved that it can give the leadership needed.   We have done it before, let us do it again.

Let us work to leave a positive and powerful legacy for those who will come after us.  And just as we today are grateful to those who fought to create Northern Ireland nearly a century ago let us create a Northern Ireland that future generations can enjoy.

Rebuilding Northern Ireland, within the Union, is a job for all of us.  It is a cause we can believe in and it will be our mission for the years to come.  Through strong leadership in challenging times I am sure that we together can make this happen.

This party, our party, has a marvellous history and it has the potential to have an even greater future.  Let us resolve to harness all our talents and resolve to give strong leadership and clear direction. 

May we not fear to stand for what is right, nor fail to do that which is just.  And in our work may God guide and strengthen us as we seek to serve with honour, conviction and courage."


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