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Speech by Peter Robinson to Castlereagh Borough Council Mayor's installation dinner, (12 October 2007)

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Text: Peter Robinson ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Peter Robinson, then Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Northern Ireland Minister of Finance, to Castlereagh Borough Council Mayor's installation dinner, (12 October 2007)


"Madam Mayor, Aldermen, Councillors, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen - how times have changed.

Itís hard to believe but this is the first Castlereagh Mayoral Installation in thirty years that I have attended as a guest rather than a councillor. But you donít know how really great it is to be back amongst old friends. I miss being on the Council immensely and often drive past the offices and peer in longingly.

Though I have now left the council I take enormous pride and satisfaction from what we all achieved for the people of Castlereagh over the last thirty years. Knowing the councillors and officials who remain, I have also no doubt that for as long as the RPA permits, Castlereagh will continue to be Northern Irelandís premier borough with the lowest rates and best facilities in Northern Ireland.

You will realise before I sit down that I have not changed. I still wonít miss an opportunity to make my political opponents squirm and shuffle in their seats - even at an event like this. So if youíre squeamish buckle your seat belt.

Madam Mayor, nothing could have stopped me coming here tonight in order to salute you and pay tribute to you for your hard work, enthusiasm, and dedication. You have consistently been one of Castlereaghís strongest, most passionate and principled advocates and one of its most able representatives.

It was those qualities that caused your party colleagues to call, once again, upon your services to provide leadership to the council as its First Citizen. I was glad that the honour of proposing you for that office was one of my last acts before I retired from Council. I knew I had left Castlereagh in good hands.

Myreve, we have known each other for a long time - even before some of those here tonight were born. I consider you among my most trusted friends and the longer I have known you, the greater is my respect and admiration for your honesty, sincerity and loyalty.

With the restoration of devolution in May and so much attention being focused on Stormont it is easy to forget the significant role that those who are involved in local government have played in Northern Ireland in the last 35 years.

For most of this time local government was the only locally accountable form of democracy in the Province. In good times and in bad it got on with the business and delivered for the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever is said about politicians today, you can be absolutely sure that those who were involved in local government during the Troubles didnít do it for any personal benefit to themselves but out a desire to help their community. Their work and dedication should be recognised.

Moreover, Local Government in Northern Ireland proved itself at a time when it had limited powers and I believe that whatever else is proposed in the RPA, councils deserve to be given the opportunity to carry greater responsibility in the future.

Earlier this year councils demonstrated their ability to react in a crisis. Whenever Northern Ireland experienced unexpected flooding in June, it was our councils that were best placed to respond on the ground when needed. At a time when some other parts of Government were busy trying to apportion blame and responsibility, it was the councilís staff who were helping those affected.

In particular I want to pay tribute to the Castlereagh Council staff who responded magnificently to the challenges and difficulties that were faced. I believe that other parts of the public sector have a lot to learn from the flexibility and speed of reaction which was demonstrated particularly in Belfast and Castlereagh. It is when faced with a disaster that we learn most about the capacity and capabilities of any organisation and this summer Castlereagh proved, once again, that it was up to the challenge.

For me leaving Castlereagh Council, during the Spring of this year, represented the end of an era but for Northern Ireland a new era was just beginning.

Your Mayoral year, Myreve, is different from any other since the Borough came into existence. You are the first Mayor of Castlereagh who can look forward with confidence to a stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.

Huge challenges still lie ahead and there is still some unfinished business but today I believe that we have every reason to be confident about the future. That future, for those growing up today, is immeasurably more positive than for many decades.

The events of the last few months have seen Northern Ireland transformed - and the change is for the good.

Myreve, you and I and many others in this room lived through the worst of the Troubles and we survived - but so many others, some of whom we knew, did not. Northern Ireland lost some of its best and bravest. We will not forget them nor indeed should we forget at whose hands they were taken from us.

In this context, serving in the kind of structure we have at Stormont is not easy and is only tolerable because the strict pre-conditions we publicly set out, and which we were mandated to pursue, were met. These were, and are, fundamental democratic imperatives without which progress could not have been made.

Let me lay it out - for eaten bread is soon forgotten.

Following the Belfast Agreement Republicans entered government while continuing their terror campaign. They remained in government while importing arms and they continued murdering. Their criminality was undiminished and they held onto their stockpiles of illegal weapons.

In spite of being in government they still aggressively opposed the police, refused to recognise the courts and rejected the rule of law. But regardless they held Ministerial positions which, under the system that then existed, they exercised without being answerable to anyone and, in addition, we had the constitutional menace and democratic absurdity of unaccountable all-Ireland structures.

Along with others I unashamedly opposed that form of government. We were told it couldnít be changed - it was an International Agreement. It was the only show in town. When I entered the 2003 election with a slogan "Itís Time for Change" I was told that there would be no change and that the government and other parties wouldnít negotiate with us even if we won the election. We were told we had introduced so many impossible conditions that failure was inevitable. We were derided for setting the bar too high - so high, indeed, that Sinn Fein could never meet our conditions.

It goes without saying that if we had lost the 2003 election none of the changes we later negotiated would have been made and we would have continued with the stop-go government that spluttered from crisis to crisis and was heading for collapse.

Yes, it all seems a life-time ago, but we received the mandate we sought, and with hard work - one by one - all of our conditions were met.

There are those who now would seek to engage in revisionism. Some even say my colleagues and I have adopted the position of others. However, that is to ignore the fundamental and substantial list of changes that we brought about. The IRA was forced to decommission; they were required to end their terrorist campaign and they had to call a halt to their criminality. They were pushed into giving support to the police, the courts and the rule of law and we gained changes to the accountability functions of local Ministers and we made North South structures answerable to local elected politicians.

In short we set out democratic conditions which anyone who would serve in government had to meet; we placed democratic controls on the exercise of Ministerial power and we negotiated safeguards for the unionist community should commitments be broken. The task now, for all of us, is to bring stability and prosperity to this part of the United Kingdom.

For too long too many people, including the British and Irish Governments, were prepared to accept almost anything for the sake of peace. For our part, we set out the conditions for entry to government, the electorate endorsed our position, we refused to budge until we were satisfied our conditions were met. When they were met we entered government.

I realise there are those who think that even though we succeeded in making these changes we should not have entered government along with the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. That is a judgement call and I have no quarrel with those who find it hard to swallow. Yet I am a public representative who has a duty to the electorate. I cannot dodge the hard decisions and I must not leave problems that can be tackled today for another generation to solve.

While todayís progress had its foundations in our election victory in 2003 not everyone saw it like that at the time. The media and the pundits when they saw those election results predicted the end of any prospect of devolution for Northern Ireland for a generation.

Even the Prime Minister had his doubts. When shortly after our election victory I met him he looked downcast. I told him he should see the election result as a blessing in disguise. He retorted that it was very well disguised.

But the reality is that we brought to the process exactly what was required after years of drift. That was absolute clarity about what the IRA needed to do before Sinn Fein were acceptable for Government in Northern Ireland. And we made it clear that if they delivered then we would respond.

Up to that point Sinn Fein had dictated the political agenda and the whole process was designed to facilitate them. Republicans came to understand that we would not accept less than full delivery.

By holding firm to the fundamental requirements of democracy what we were told was impossible, was made inevitable.

I believe Northern Ireland is also more secure as part of the United Kingdom than has been the case for perhaps any time in our history. The republican dream of a united Ireland by 2016 is long gone and unionist confidence is at record levels.

We can look to the future with optimism rather than dread now that we have the future in our own hands and we operate in a peaceful society. Having reached this point we must now transform the character of our politics. We must replace the politics of fear with the politics of hope.

We cannot erase the tragedy of the past forty years but we can build a better future and ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Over the last few decades some unionists have become so accustomed to being in retreat that they seem to have lost their forward gears and donít recognise when at last we are winning.

Given how far we have come, why on earth would unionists want to go back to Direct Rule where a Labour Government would do whatever it took to keep Sinn Fein happy.

Not only was restoring devolution the right thing for unionists to do but it is clear that the public approve. Opinion polls continue to show growing support. There is no desire to return to the failed political strategy that led to instability and collapse or to an approach which is predicated on marginalising unionism and consigning it to the political wilderness for another generation.

I do not underestimate for one moment the difficulties that many people have with Sinn Fein in Government but what realistic alternative strategy is there when republicans have left their paramilitary and criminal activities behind them. For all the problems and criticisms that have come from the small minority in the unionist community that oppose devolution what credible future do they offer? If there had been an election called this month what platform would they have contested it upon. Vote for us and we will take you back to the bad old days. Vote for us and bring back Direct Rule where unionists will have less influence and be unable to block unpalatable decisions that would further weaken the Union. That is the only outcome that retreat would now offer.

Why as unionists would we consign ourselves to powerlessness and leave our future in the hands of those who do not share our political outlook?

We have succeeded in restoring devolution now we must turn our attention to delivering a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland. We must show that devolution can not only bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland but also that it can bring prosperity.

Devolution has never been an end in itself. It is only a means to an end. It allows local people to determine the kind of future that they want. Already the return of devolution has made a difference and in the next few weeks the Executive will agree a Budget and a Programme for Government for the next three years.

The final details are still being worked out but I can tell you that these documents will signal a radical change of direction across a whole range of policies from the Direct Rule administration.

This will not merely be business as usual but a platform with a new focus and priorities.

I believe that what we achieved in Castlereagh with low Rates and high quality services can be replicated across the Province. But this will bring considerable challenges and much resistance.

It is clear from the Governmentís Comprehensive Spending Review that the days of large increases in public spending are not sustainable.

The easy solution to every problem is to throw money at it, but this is not always the right answer. We need an economy that creates wealth not merely one that consumes public spending.

We must make sure that every pound that Government spends here is delivering value for money. That is why a few weeks ago I announced the creation of a Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit to ensure that public money is spent in the best manner possible.

Our task must be to allow the private sector of our economy to grow and create wealth to allow the whole of our society to prosper.

The system of Government in Northern Ireland also needs reform. We succeeded in making significant improvements through the negotiations leading to devolution but there is still more to do. While I understand that it may be necessary to build confidence in the process before more radical changes can be delivered I hope that change will not be too long delayed.

A four party mandatory coalition, with no effective opposition is not in the best interests of decision making in Northern Ireland. Eleven Government Departments to administer the Province is about twice as many as we need and the community designation system is no basis for tackling community division in the longer term.

I have no doubt that in the months and years ahead there will be difficulties facing Northern Ireland and there will not always be easy answers but it must be better that it will be those who are directly elected by people in Northern Ireland who are taking those decisions.

I believe that in the years to come people will look back on the year 2007 as a turning point for Northern Ireland. I feel sure that we have turned the corner. There is a positive feel about the political process. We are now engaged in real politics. The opportunities are boundless. The advances and the prosperity that flows from them will only be limited by our own energy, imagination and skills.

Myreve, I wish you well for your year in office and though I am no longer a Castlereagh Councillor I am sure you know that there is one of those folks on the hill who has the fondest memories of his days in your company and who can be counted on for support as you and your colleagues continue to work for the people of Castlereagh."


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