Speech by Peter Robinson to DUP Annual Conference, (21 November 2009)
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Speech by Peter Robinson, then Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to the DUP Annual Conference, Belfast, (21 November 2009)
"Mr Chairman, friends, Party conferences are obviously a time for looking forward and planning for the future. Yet they also give us the opportunity to reflect. So let me begin by congratulating Diane on her success in winning back our seat in last June’s European election.
The defeated incumbent, along with our other political opponents and sections of the media were naturally happier to concentrate on how the TUV candidate did in defeat than we did in victory. But defeat it was – a defeat inflicted by a DUP candidate who not only won more first preference votes than any other unionist, but managed in the process, for the first time ever in the thirty year history of elections to the European Parliament in Northern Ireland, to serve a legendary P45 on a sitting MEP.
Jim who justifiably and visibly models himself on Victor Meldrew was heard leaving the count muttering "I don't believe it!"
Nonetheless, in a short time we will once again be in the thick of an electoral battle. In these strange political times, of course, some parties who once dominated the field still don’t know who will lead them – and others don't know how many candidates they will be allowed to select. Reg is waiting for his orders to be dispatched from London. Some have compared the relationship between David Cameron and Reg Empey to the relationship between Alan Sugar and his two helpers on the Apprentice. Personally, I think, that would be to exaggerate Reg’s role.
What a farce this UCUNF is. Have you seen how they plan to pick their candidates? Each side will select a candidate or two and then they will appear before a small panel to decide who is eliminated. It’s a bit like "X Factor" without the talent.
Entertaining and tempting though it is, I am going to resist poking fun at my opponents, for these are serious times, and I have serious business to do.
Mr Chairman, this week’s Queen’s Speech served notice that the pre-election campaign is already under way in Britain. And I don’t need to tell you that this general election will be fought in the shadow of the most extraordinary challenges facing all of the British people.
With our submissions to Sir Christopher Kelly, and our support in turn for the implementation of his recommendations, we have placed ourselves alongside Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg in our determination to clean-up politics and restore public confidence. Whichever party wins the opportunity to form a new government will need that trust more than ever, as they take the hard decisions necessary to restore our national finances while sustaining public confidence in a war in Afghanistan still vital to our national security.
Nowhere is that admiration, debt or sense of obligation felt more keenly than here in Northern Ireland. Mr Chairman, the annual speech to conference also gives a leader the opportunity to thank his party colleagues for all their previous hard work and endeavour, and, hopefully, also, to energise and inspire them in preparation for the challenges ahead.
Thanks to the initiative of the BBC, of course, the leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland also now enjoy the opportunity to simultaneously address a much wider audience across the whole community, watching from the comfort of their homes.
Whether locally or in the case of national leaders, this can be presented in the media as a sometimes difficult task – with ‘the party faithful’ wanting or expecting to hear one thing, and that wider audience, the voters out there, wanting or needing to hear something else.
Voters in the modern era tend to be well informed and sophisticated, distrustful of clever marketing and presentational skills, and quick to spot policy evasions. In the current atmosphere of disillusion with politics and politicians, it is more than ever incumbent on those who want to govern to be clear about their intended direction of travel, and about how they will interpret their mandate once installed in office. Hard times call for tough decisions and a strong stomach. So I suppose, as with Mr Cameron in Manchester or Mr Brown in Brighton, some commentators may fancy I too face some difficulty framing a conference message capable of cheering our party’s traditional supporters while chiming with the mood and needs of the many beyond our ranks to whom we also have an obligation.
I would hardly deny that we still face a few little, and some not-so-little, local difficulties. Yet they are as nothing compared to the crisis situations in which we have previously gathered. And without being in any way complacent, I have to tell you that I have not experienced a shiver of apprehension, doubt or conflict in preparing for my task today. I firmly believe that our largest problems are in our rear-view mirror. So Mr Chairman, I relish this opportunity to speak to those gathered at this great conference and to the people of Northern Ireland at this time; for I have a message for you both.
Commentators and conference veterans alike may think there is something ritualistic about a leader’s declared pride in his party and its achievements and that this is a mere matter of form. But my pride in each of you, is heartfelt. I salute you for your loyalty, your courage and your sheer tenacity through long years of political struggle, times of cruel isolation and rejection, dangerous days, and dark, dark nights. In turn, I salute the people of Northern Ireland – for what they have endured and for what they have sacrificed, through the deadly cold winter of our Troubles, to emerge undaunted and experience once again the warmth of optimism and the joy of hope for the future.
It is a signal honour for any man or woman to be elected leader of their party. The confidence of one’s peers is both satisfying and sobering, any sense of personal achievement always tempered by a keen awareness of the duty and responsibility undertaken, and of the delivery rightly expected and demanded.
So I am not speaking in any sense of personal or selfish pride in the attainment or retention of office. Mine is for a party rewarded six years ago with the leadership of unionism and the responsibility to build a better Northern Ireland for all her people; for a party that stood solidly when others wavered, a party that refused to panic when the tyrannies of prevailing political wisdom dictated compromise or flight. We held our ground when others bowed the knee; resisted the blandishments of false friends and held firm to our principles and beliefs, knowing, always, that a political settlement built on deception and lies would not stand.
From the outset, we were the unionist party of devolution – yet always, too, the unionist party that rejected devolution at any price. Those who now rush to embrace the modern day Conservative Party might recall that we collectively rejected the devolution offered by Margaret Thatcher under the hostile agency of the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985. And who could now argue, with any conviction, that we were wrong likewise to withhold our consent from a Belfast Agreement in 1998 that failed to deliver the decommissioning of IRA weapons or the dismantling of the Republican war machine?
Some erstwhile colleagues may have changed their minds, but I make no apology for saying that I stand by this party’s conduct of the St Andrews negotiations and the far better deal we won there.
And in particular: I stand by Ian’s determination then, that a republican commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means was worthless without the completion of decommissioning and the obligation, forced by us, that republicans would sign-up to support the police they had previously considered legitimate targets for murder.Be in no doubt about the magnitude of that achievement, won despite the warnings from faint-hearts on all sides, British and Irish ministers included, who feared this would prove one step too far for the keepers of the republican flame.
Be in no doubt, either, that this was a necessary achievement for all the people of Northern Ireland. The SDLP may have made a poor fist of defending their own position, but they were always right to argue that working class Catholics living in Republican heartlands are entitled to expect the very same standard of justice as everyone else in this province.
There were always going to be problems for people sharing power after years of conflict and enmity. But we were never going to be remotely credible in that undertaking while private armies were allowed to hold themselves above and beyond the law while thinking to administer their own brand of so-called community policing and restorative justice.
During its revisionist period in recent years, the Sinn Fein leadership has re-cast what they wrongly call the republican “war” as something born of necessity, a so-called struggle to create a level playing field in Northern Ireland.
Mr Chairman, it was we in the DUP who created the level playing field - we created it by resisting those who sought to sit at the table and dictate political terms while keeping their instruments of terror in reserve. It was we in the DUP who secured devolution on terms acceptable to unionists, and who finally scattered those birds of passage – the Direct Rule ministers – for so long the public face of a colonial system of government that consigned us all to the status of second class citizens.
And I warn those unionist cave-dwellers who seek to wreck our achievements, that they had better be prepared to come clean and explain to the people of Northern Ireland how on earth they think the return of Direct Rule – which is all they have to offer - represents a safer choice or a better way.
The restoration of devolution in 2007 marked but the beginning of a new era of politics in Northern Ireland. But nobody ever suggested it would mark the end of the challenges we would face as a divided society. And no-one ever imagined the experience of self-government would be smooth, least of all with the system presently in place at Stormont.
But which is better? To play our part, argue our case and exercise our veto over any unacceptable proposals, or be deemed, again, part of the problem, leaving the British and Irish Governments to sort it out over our heads and behind our backs as they follow an ever-greening of the agenda?
To ask the question, Mr Chairman, is to frame the only possible answer.
My pride is in the decisive part played by this party in bringing the unionist nightmare to an end. My impatience and in turn anger, bordering on near-disbelief, is with those who seem to have forgotten the wilderness years and who would casually, unthinkingly and with ill-disguised bitterness, and, sometimes I fear, malevolent intent, take us all back to a dark and dismal past.
A year ago I suggested it would be “madness” for unionists to embrace what I called this “route back to powerlessness and irrelevance”. On reflection, I can see that I was guilty of considerable understatement. It wouldn’t just be mad, it would be bad, and wicked beyond belief to knowingly consign future generations - our children and grand-children - to more of the same violence and uncertainty that would unquestionably follow renewed political instability and conflict in our province.
I have already told you that my pride in our party’s achievements is matched by my pride in the people of Northern Ireland, in what they have endured and in what they have already achieved. At its core is the realisation that our people can enjoy an enhanced pride, or at least satisfaction, travelling throughout the rest of this Kingdom or beyond while being known as an Ulsterman or an Ulsterwoman.
At its core is relief and celebration that many parents no longer think it their duty to have their children complete their education at universities in Scotland, England or Wales, encouraging them to seek and build their subsequent careers there, returning home only for the holidays.
There may still be many arguments in the days to come over realities and perceptions about the Troubles and their cause.
As demonstrated by our emphatic rejection of the Eames Bradley report, we stand ready to defend our corner and reject any attempt to re-write a history depicting the republican terrorist campaign as anything other than a totally unacceptable - and happily failed - criminal conspiracy to overthrow the lawful order in Northern Ireland.
Can they have forgotten the feelings of impotence, hurt and humiliation we experienced when Conservative and Unionist Margaret Thatcher, regarded by her supporters as the strongest of pro-Union prime ministers, disregarded an entire generation of unionist leaders then dominated by James Molyneaux and Enoch Powell, effectively excluded us from the political process, and instead handed the Irish Republic a formal role in our affairs even as it still claimed our territory and disputed our right to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom?Can they have forgotten what it was like in the years following the Belfast Agreement? With Sinn Fein in government while the IRA’s paramilitary and criminal campaign continued, without decommissioning, and with no support from Sinn Fein for the police, the courts, or the rule of law.
Can they have forgotten the wearisome years during which republicans extracted concession, after concession, after concession from the Government and the Ulster Unionists but gave nothing in return?
Can they have forgotten how the Assembly lunged from one crisis to the next and from three suspensions to a final collapse in three years?
Can they have forgotten how under UUP leadership the corridors of power and the ears of the powerful seemed permanently closed to anything other than push-over unionism; the prevailing wisdom decreed unionism was bound to fail, no matter what proposals its leaders brought to the table?
Can they have forgotten how unionism was dispirited, alienated and in decline. Nationalists and republicans were seen to be winning every battle with unaccountable North South bodies and unaccountable republican ministers? Can they have forgotten how the Ulster Unionists succumbed, without the least resistance, while nationalists and republicans presumed to determine the agenda?
With defeat after defeat for unionism, people wondered if it could ever be turned around.
Many forget it now but that was the inheritance we received when we assumed the leadership of unionism. Our immediate predecessors had wasted the wealth and possessions accumulated by our forefathers. The family silver had gone.
We didn't even have a blank sheet of paper to work from we were left to counter the effects of a poisonous legacy. We were tasked to claw back the concessions gifted by Reg Empey and his party colleagues to republicans. The last six years may have been long and difficult, and we have lost good people along the way. Yet through it all, unionism has emerged stronger than at any point in decades.
Mr Allister remains content to play the politics of permanent opposition and perpetual negativity. He could do so much better but he chooses not to. I believe the real testament to our success, however, is that much of what has been achieved over these last few years is now so easily taken for granted and is becoming progressively established as acceptable and sensible. And nobody knows it better than him.
The easiest thing of all, in 2007 would have been to say that this was all much too difficult. Our position as the leading unionist party was secure.
We could have rested on our laurels. That would have been the trouble-free and effortless thing to do. It would have avoided divisions and splits and the challenges we face today.
We could have lived on the fruits of opposition; lived undemanding political lives and maintained our support without dispute or danger.
Mr Chairman, we didn't take the easy path. But we did take the right path. And why? It's simple. We were not prepared to leave to a future generation the toxic legacy that had been our inheritance.
I said back then that Ulster was teetering on the window ledge of the Union. History shows that it was at that moment the unionist community mandated this party to assume the mantle of leadership, with the specific task of salvaging that which had been conceded by Reg Empey and his colleagues to republicans. Short memories may now represent our most powerful challenge. I say to all those to whom my voice reaches ignore the propaganda of our enemies - the DUP kept faith with its election promises. Our policy pledges were upheld. We took the tough decisions necessary.
Unionism is no longer on the run, and our actions have heralded the dawn of a new day for all the people of Northern Ireland.
The direction this province takes in the coming months will dictate its future for generations to come. I firmly believe that only this party can lead Northern Ireland forward onto even more solid ground. The Ulster Unionists undertook to confront Sinn Fein and were found wanting.
Even more tragic, the TUV’s approach is to abandon the battlefield altogether. Let there be no doubt about this: they have no feasible or attainable strategy to build peace, stability and prosperity. Nor do they make any pretence of wishing to end or resolve our historic divisions - even on unionist terms. In their demented state, they apparently seriously suggest that we may yet have a government which denies the fact and existence of more than forty per cent of our population.
How much political gumption does it take to realise that neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP would embrace such a proposition, nor would any flavour of British Government legislate for it?
In the past couple of years we may have been too busy in the business of governance to concentrate on selling the benefits of the decisions that we took. If that was our mistake let me assure you that the time when we allow our opponents to tell lie after lie unchallenged has come to an end.
The TUV's biggest lie is that there is an easier, better and attainable unionist alternative. And I will not remain silent while, with lies and smears, self-righteous and sanctimonious arrogance, they seek to direct unionism towards the fast flowing rapids. They know that as turbulence and speed increase all control would be lost, and the vessel would be forced by the flow against the rocks which, more often than not, precede the expected waterfall at the foot of which our involuntary passage would come to an abrupt and painful end.
So too would it be for unionism if they were to succeed. Cast back to Direct Rule and once more powerless as Dublin and London determine the speed and direction of our future. Without the unionist veto we won, and hold, we would once again be confronted by threatening decisions destructive to the Union and our way of life. We would be left to grip tightly as a course is set to placate republicans - as has always been the case before - and we would be rendered helpless, weak, immobilized, ineffective and defenceless.
This is not a prediction. It is a reminder. A reminder of what happened when unionism was placed in this position before. Have we so soon forgotten?
The consequences are entirely predictable, yet those who would advocate this course will by then have found someone else to blame. For just as they deny the part they played in the arrangements we now operate - and, yes, they were complicit in all the key policy decisions - we may rest assured they will accept no responsibility for their present actions and advocacy either.
How simple life would be if we could escape dealing with those who have a different outlook from ourselves. But, in the real world we all know that this can not be so. Their's is fantasy politics. We in the DUP inhabit the real world.
Mr Chairman, over the years of struggle, and, always, against the backdrop of feared betrayal, we were never less than forceful in our criticism of government policies that appeared to handicap our security forces and embolden those engaged in insurrection against the democratic state in Northern Ireland. Yet would we deny that Britain and our fellow citizens across the rest of the Kingdom made huge sacrifices too?
We can argue still that London tolerated the violence for too long, and often appeared ready to pay too-high a price to bring it to an end. But despite knowing much more now than we could then about the internal machinations of the Republican leadership, and their long, painfully slow transition from conflict to politics, there are clearly some unionists who have forgotten, or would simply deny, that Britain did in the end inflict the military defeat that eventually brought the insurrectionists to the table.
I am not in denial, nor have I forgotten any of this, Mr Chairman, which is why – with your help – I do not intend to allow anyone ever again to push unionists to the margins or dictate our agenda.
This week we published our proposals to build on the progress we have made. In the Assembly and the Executive we will take every opportunity to pursue those proposals. Put simply, just because what we now have is vastly better than what went before, is no argument to resist improving that which we do have. Let us, step by step normalise our institutions. Let us strive to achieve the purest form of democracy possible.
I am reminded of the story of the North Antrim farmer who when asked how his wife was, replied, “compared to what?”
That is the real question that those who attack devolution must be forced to answer. It is a dangerous illusion to pretend there are better alternatives, so I say what everyone knows: We cannot simply wish our problems away or pretend that they do not exist.
Or that every deal can be all gain and no pain. The choice is not between some unionist panacea and the present form of devolution, but between Devolution and Direct Rule with Dublin involvement. This party will continue to oppose Dublin Rule.
Mr Chairman, as I travel across Northern Ireland I have to say that I find our people – unionist and nationalists alike – rather more pre-occupied with questions about jobs, the economy and the state of our health and education services than with the matter of devolving policing and justice powers to the Assembly. Having said that, please be assured this is not the prelude to evasiveness on my part.
It has often been said that a simple rule of thumb applies to Northern Ireland politics – ‘if it’s good for them, it can’t be good for us’. Sometimes it's worse – even when we ask for something, the temptation is to retreat if the other side decide it might not be such a bad idea after all. ‘Cutting off your nose to spite your face’ is how we would put it in our local jargon.
It seems to me there is something of this in the ongoing unionist debate about the devolution of policing and justice, or at least there would be if some had their way.
For the best of one hundred years, having powers relating to policing and justice has been a unionist principle. Edward Carson insisted on having these functions when the Stormont Parliament was established, and a later unionist leader chose to abandon Stormont altogether rather than preside over an administration denied those powers.
Sinn Fein, on the other hand, are only very recent converts to this unionist cause and even then only for conspicuously self-serving reasons.
We all know that in recent years the republican party has invested a huge amount of symbolic significance in the completion of the devolution process. I know this better than most, since I have Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State, not to mention visiting diplomats and envoys, lining-up to remind me at every turn. Yet as I repeatedly tell them, I need no reminding at all.
Of course Sinn Fein made a huge investment in this; it was their essential cover - their fig leaf - at that historic Ard Fheis when they pledged the transfer of powers in an attempt to hide their embarrassed compliance with our demand that they support the police as part of the price they had to pay for entry into government. We all know that they oversold to their own supporters.
Yet because republicans have lately come to want what we have sought for generations some say is reason enough for unionists to shy away.
The DUP has set its terms with the unalterable requirement for widespread confidence within the community. We can only advise government of what we see as the steps necessary to achieve that level of confidence. If we are ignored there will be inevitable consequences for timing, and let me make it clear, - I fear no judgment from anyone faulting me for failing to act without the necessary measure of community support. Yet we may surely expect to be judged harshly if our terms are met and we were to decide, for other reasons, that the transfer of functions cannot proceed.
Just as we resisted settling a financial package until it was right we will take the time to ensure we get the overall transfer arrangements right too. Our opponents should learn the lesson. If I had settled when they urged we would have had a policing and justice financial top-up half the size we finished with - and who would have thanked us then. We owe it to this and future generations to get this right.
Mr Chairman, the return of policing and justice powers to Stormont is of huge symbolic significance, and it is especially so for unionists. In May of this year I marked thirty years as the Member of Parliament for East Belfast. The general election year in which East Belfast sent me first to the Commons saw 113 people murdered and some 875 maimed as a result of terrorism – a terrible tally that included Lord Louis Mountbatten and the eighteen soldiers murdered on the same day at Narrow Water on the Newry to Warrenpoint Road.
That was just seven years after Brian Faulkner decided he would rather resign than preside over a Stormont Parliament denied responsibility for security. Just think about it – a full 28 years before we would have a realistic and acceptable opportunity to correct the historic mistake that was Direct Rule, take power once more into our hands, and reclaim control of our own destiny.
That which is good for the Union is not diminished by the policy improvisations or tactical manoeuvres of others. Completing devolution is unionism’s unfinished business. The manifesto upon which we stood, and were mandated, is clear - we support the transfer of these functions when the conditions are right. And when the conditions are right it will be done - on DUP terms.
These last few weeks have witnessed republicans muttering darkly about an emergent political crisis and a threat to the existence of the Assembly. To my mind this is the clearest evidence that it is they and not we who are under real pressure from the new dispensation in Northern Ireland.
But I say to them they must show leadership and stop looking over one shoulder at Alex Attwood and over the other at the dissidents. Threatening the institutions is destabilising. Threatening the DUP is just dumb. I cannot guarantee the future of the Assembly but I can guarantee that it will not be the DUP that will walk away. I can also guarantee that in whatever circumstances we find ourselves the DUP will act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We will honour our responsibilities and our commitments whilst using every opportunity we have to bring about the changes to the institutions that we want to see.
Earlier this year, in the course of a few days, we saw sights that I had hoped we would never witness again. The murder of two soldiers and a policeman presented an enormous challenge to the political institutions. Yet unlike in the past, these wicked actions failed to divide, and instead united, the whole Assembly and our community in revulsion and a determination that we would never go back.
Mr Chairman, we are buoyed up by recent polling and ready for the electoral battles ahead. Unlike the Ulster Unionists, the DUP will always hold itself free to act in the best interests of Northern Ireland and of the United Kingdom as a whole. Whilst ever ready to cooperate with the government of our country, we will never delegate power over our members, to the Whips Office of any other party.
Most crucial of all, we will always retain our freedom to determine our policies and priorities in light of the welfare and security of the people of Northern Ireland.
I do not dispute the right of the Conservatives to contest elections here in alliance with the Ulster Unionists. But while hoping they might still see sense, I have to record that, so far, the only material product of this so-called “new force” is the promise to help Sinn Fein and the SDLP keep an additional seat each at Westminster. Once again I say to the Ulster Unionist Party and its members, change course before it is too late and take the opportunity to agree a pro-Union pact in both South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
I would also say this to Mr Cameron. I welcome your expressed desire to be a prime minister for the whole of the United Kingdom. But I have difficulty squaring your declared support for the Union with your apparent willingness to needlessly reduce unionist representation from Northern Ireland in the Parliament of that Union.
It is of course right to say that we have a new constitutional settlement, and that people want to move on from the arguments and divisions of the past. We in the DUP are in the leadership of that process of change, renewal and rebuilding. But we also know, as, surely, do the Ulster Unionists, that we can take nothing for granted while both the SDLP and Sinn Fein continue to campaign for a united Ireland. We all know that the ultimate security of the Union remains in the ballot box.
Whatever their final decision about seats, next year’s general election will give the people the opportunity to decide which party they trust to secure the settlement and build for the future.
Having brought Northern Ireland so far in so short a time, I am confident we will remain the peoples’ choice. But we will never be complacent, nor take people's votes for granted.
Our Party Executive last Monday unanimously endorsed 80 proposals that will significantly and comprehensively alter the operation and improve the effectiveness of this party. Having reformed and reshaped our party, and with renewed campaigning zeal, we will carry our message across the length and breadth of this Province, strong of nerve, resolute of purpose, resisting those who would turn back the clock, eager for the rewards yet to be won for our entire community, moving forward together, for we are still only at the beginning of this new era for our politics and our people.
Thanks to their resolve and endurance yesterday’s battles have been fought and won, while great challenges, and prizes, still lie ahead.
We have our hand on the steering wheel and when we need to we can apply the brake. We have controls unionists have not had for generations over decisions vital to our future. Yet some would advocate Direct Rule which is what Jim Allister previously described as "Dublin Rule". Well! I know where I stand. I'm not handing the title deeds of Ulster over to Dublin. Jim Allister can advocate Dublin Rule but we will fight him all the way.
In 2021 Northern Ireland will mark the centenary of its creation. You naturally won’t have heard much in the media about this forthcoming and significant moment in our unfolding history. That is understandable enough because, according to the script, we unionists weren’t meant to survive for anything like this long. Still clinging to the hope, Sinn Fein continue to misinterpret the demographic trends and talk the talk about a timetable for a united Ireland in our lifetime. Nobody really believes them any more, indeed it seems unlikely to me that they even believe it themselves. But that is for them.
We know where our future lies. I believe we should be planning now to lay the foundation for another hundred years in the life of our Province in Union with Britain.
The IRA and Sinn Fein once vowed to force the British out of Northern Ireland. They failed.
We’re here, and we’re here to stay."
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