Speech by Peter Robinson to DUP Annual Conference, (26 November 2011)
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Speech by Peter Robinson, then Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to the DUP Annual Conference, Belfast, (26 November 2011)
"Thank You. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your dedication and enthusiasm. Thank you for your quite extraordinary loyalty, your commitment and the unity we enjoy within this party. Thank you for making our incredible success possible. Together, this past decade we have achieved something special. As a result of our work, Northern Ireland is a better place.
I want to thank not just our friends who are in this hall today, but everyone at home who entrusted us with their votes. It is ultimately not politicians, but the people who decide what sort of a country we will have. Our power is derived from the support and consent of the people. For the trust reposed in us, we will return the courage and the devotion that befits the task we have been set.
This party has come a long way in a short time. Today, thanks to your hard work and dedication we are the largest party in Northern Ireland. And because of you, Northern Ireland continues to have a unionist First Minister.
Winning elections isn't just about getting more seats than our opponents, it's about getting a mandate to shape the future. In a decade's time, Northern Ireland will mark the centenary of its existence. Today, I want to set out a pathway to our next one hundred years, and a vision of a shared society that will secure our future within the United Kingdom for generations to come. And I want to set out how we ensure that it's this party that will shape that future.
Twelve months ago there were few who believed that today we would be celebrating not just a victory in the Assembly election, but an increase in our representation at Stormont. But here we are stronger and in greater numbers than ever before.
Who would have believed that we could top our performance in 2007? Not after the fallout from entering government with Sinn Fein, not after the impact that it had on both the Dromore and European elections, not after the setting up of yet another rival unionist party to oppose us, and not after all the trials and tribulations we faced. Losing forty per cent of our vote was painful. There was even an anxious uncertainty amongst our friends, alongside the frothing torrent of abuse from our opponents. War parties from the press and media encircled our camp, predicting our downfall.
When other unionists before us were under similar fire, they fought among themselves, became directionless, didn't have the ability, or lost the will, to explain their decisions, retreated from their position and plummeted in the polls.
But the dark days we encountered, were worth all they cost us, because they taught us that we needed to reconnect with our support base. They taught us to stand our ground, explain our decisions, face down our critics and we achieved victory through adversity.
More than that it tested and prove the motivation and metal of those around us. We held together. We stayed united. We came through the fire as one. From the shadows of our trials and troubles came hope, and from that hope sprang triumph.
We sought a mandate to work with other parties for the benefit of the people - and we got it. This is a new era in Northern Ireland politics. We will never forget the conflict nor the turmoil that we have come through. We will never forget the lives lost and destroyed. We salute those who paid the supreme sacrifice in defence of our Province's freedom and liberty.
There's not a day that passes that we are not mindful of the thousands of innocent victims who have been left behind and who, without fanfare, bear their loss and suffering with great dignity. And, no matter what selective enquiries and sectional campaigns there may be, we are resolved never to allow republicans to rewrite the history of the past. But as a society and community we are ready to move forward.
The clearest sign of this new era was the sight of the police and the GAA standing side by side at the funeral of a young Catholic police officer murdered by dissident republicans. That was a glimpse into the future. It was symbolic of change and symbols are important. The murder of Constable Ronan Kerr showed that the threat from terrorism still exists, but more importantly the reaction to his death demonstrated that this threat will never, never win.
The end of the conflict has meant that elections are more, not less important in shaping the kind of society that we want to live in. And we can take nothing for granted. But it will be the ballot box alone that will determine our future.
It's not long ago that people wondered if Sinn Fein might become the largest party and return a republican First Minister. Not only did we hold them off, but we extended our lead. It was a spectacular election result right across the Province. Today, as a result of voter endorsement, it is the DUP that is leading and shaping the political landscape.
Thirty-eight seats was a truly remarkable achievement. As your leader, I want to congratulate all those who were elected, not just to the Assembly but also to our Councils. I want to thank all those candidates who didn't make it this time. For many of you, let me assure you - your time will come. But, most of all I want to thank everyone who gave of their time to come out and support the party.
It's good to celebrate and reflect on our achievements, but the real work lies ahead. An election is only ever the start. "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him, shall much be required". With great success comes still greater responsibility.
The first term of the Assembly wasn't all smooth sailing but despite all of the challenges, we did make a difference. We secured peace and stability, bedded down devolution and completed the first full Assembly term in over a generation. But that's not all. We put our agenda at the heart of government and set a new direction. The DUP has been the lynchpin at the heart of the Assembly and Executive.
We never claimed that leading a five party mandatory coalition would be silky smooth; and it's not! Unlike other administrations, divisions don't get aired behind the scenes, instead, under this system, they get dramatically and translucently played out under the full glare of the media. Some Executive Ministers seek to create or exaggerate differences so that they can exploit them. Some even change their position in order to be in opposition to what the Executive is doing. They never learn. What is clear from the recent election results is that contrived and synthetic opposition - opposition for opposition's sake - is punished at the polls.
Nonetheless, we still have a job to persuade people that devolution is not just good in theory but also in practice. People listen and read rabidly negative commentators who only report problems and bad news.
Well, what about the peace and constitutional stability; the investment from major global companies to our shores? What about Northern Ireland being on the international map for film, music and television? What about free travel for older people on public transport and the lowest household taxes in the UK? What about Student Fees frozen, and the rescue package for PMS savers? What about the delivery of more jobs than under any past government? What about the highest levels of infrastructure investment in our history?
I could go on, but I think you get the point! We've a record of achievement to be proud of, but it's only a start.
It is still early days in this new term but we've made a positive start resolving many of the outstanding issues from the last Assembly and putting in place building blocks for the future. In the last few weeks we have agreed how to take forward the Review of Public Administration and the Education and Skills Authority. We have also published our Programme for Government, our Investment Strategy and our Economic Strategy.
People want to see the Executive taking decisions and making a difference. That's what we are elected to do. The new imperative is getting things done. While some other parties may be focussed on whether or not they should go into opposition, this party is focussed on advancing the business of government. As we promised in our manifesto we are in the business of delivering.
These are tough economic times. The truth is that for most people the real fear is not that they are going to be sold into a united Ireland - they accept the Union is safe. Their real fear is that they might not have a job to provide for their family or that their debts are getting out of control. As an Executive we must focus on the economy and do all we can to help.
In our Programme for Government, the economy remains our number one priority. We have an ambitious agenda. We will press for the devolution of Corporation Tax and reduce its level. We will promote over 25,000 jobs, achieve £300 million investment through FDI and increase manufacturing exports by 15%. We will increase our visitor numbers and tourist revenue and introduce an extension of the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme. We will make Northern Ireland an even more attractive place to invest by ensuring that 90% of large-scale investment planning decisions are made within 6 months and applications with job potential are given additional weight.
We have set ourselves a challenging target to advance shared education. We will increase the number of university places for economically relevant subjects and ensure our skills targets are aligned to the needs of the economy. And we will introduce tougher sentences for those who are charged and found guilty of attacks on older people. So as far as we are concerned, if you attack a pensioner, pack your bags, you're going to jail.
I know people are finding it difficult to make ends meet so no matter what some economists may want we will continue to keep household taxes the lowest in the UK by holding Regional Rate increases to inflation and ensuring there are no additional water charges.
The next few years will see major reforms across significant public services such as health, education and local government making them more efficient and effective. We will support sensible reform of the Prison Service but let me make it clear, we will ensure that the Crown and the Royal title are preserved. A decade ago we were powerless to prevent the implementation of the Patten Report, but we're not powerless now.
I couldn't help but notice that some of our opponents thought I over-egged my opposition to these matters. Let me tell them why it was such a touchstone issue.
Firstly, as a matter of process it was critical. We spent years under the Belfast Agreement watching Ministers take decisions without Executive or Assembly approval. Ministers were unaccountable. St Andrews ended that. It required any decision that was significant or controversial to have cross-community support. That protected both traditions. Parties had in fact, and in practice, determined to only go forward by agreement.
However, the Justice Minister's announcement specifically stated that he would by-pass this carefully crafted process, and allow unelected officials to take these decisions as operational matters, thereby denying the Executive its right to decide these issues. It would have been an alarming precedent which would have blown a hole in the process so thoughtfully, and at times painfully, constructed. That was an issue of such moment and significance that any true defender of democracy would have taken it to the people.
Secondly, in the past, under the stewardship of others, each of us witnessed, how every aspect of British life in our province was attacked and diluted. Anything that was British had to be removed or neutralised. When the DUP took over the reigns of unionism we determined to defend our heritage today, tomorrow and always - and we will deliver.
The greatest challenge that we will face in the next few years will be to rebuild our society after years of division. We must work towards a more normalised form of government, with an Executive and an open and honest opposition - not a fifth column that operates from within the ranks of the Executive itself. That would be a real sign of political maturity. Not because it's good for unionism but because it's good for democracy.
Next year the Assembly will be considering its own structures. There is a real opportunity for Stormont to evolve to democratic norms. But that will only happen by agreement.
And while we work to deliver in Government, we must make sure, as a party, we are ready to face the next election campaign. That election is not scheduled until 2014 but that doesn't mean that we can relax. It means we must work harder than ever before to ensure we do even better next time. In that election I want to see Diane rewarded for all her hard work. I want to see her topping the poll.
So now is the time to plan for the future and set our strategy for the next decade. Ten years ago with unionism in seemingly terminal decline we charted a course to recovery. Many doubted that we could deliver, but we followed it through - even when times were tough - we delivered. Now, in these changed times, we must chart a fresh path - for the Party, the Assembly, the Province and for the Union.
This party, our party, is best placed to lead Northern Ireland into the future, but for us to make a difference we have to earn and retain the support of the people. Elections are not won in the weeks, but the years, before polling day. That's why it is so important that we use this time to reform, revitalise and strengthen the party. And unlike other parties, we will do it from a position of strength and unity.
Our core values and beliefs are unalterable but we must constantly adapt to new challenges and changing circumstances. We are building on the solid foundations that have been laid over previous decades. There is not always enthusiasm to advance from a safe and firm beachhead – even in order to capture a further strategic objective - but that is precisely the time to make the next push forward. There has never been a moment, when a difficult decision had to be taken, when there wasn't someone claiming that there might be a better time in the future to take it. There has never been an occasion when we needed to negotiate a deal that there wasn't someone warning that it was too risky, or too soon, or too controversial, or too unpopular, or too big a step.
Of course if you never try to succeed you'll never fail. You can just sit and oppose everything and hope others fail so that you can seek to reap the harvest of their failure. But achievements and difficult decisions are inextricably linked. That is what leadership is about. Taking decisions and taking the consequences.
The real battle is not about the past, it's about the future. We must always be sure to fight the next campaign and not the last one. Our greatest threat is not political opposition - it's inertia. The path to success hasn't been painless, but the testing times have only served to strengthen us. We can look back now on everything we have achieved - and we can see that what we did, actually strengthened and enhanced our party position, it didn't weaken it.
This is not a time to rest on our laurels, it's the time to move forward. Opportunity is sitting on our doorstep. As a party, we must be the very best at everything we do. And that means we must plan and prepare, we must set out our strategy and deliver on our goals. Whatever our opponents do, we must be one step ahead. That means a process of continual improvement at every level. As a party we must set demanding targets and deliver on them.
The way people engage in politics is changing and we must adjust to that change. That’s why we need to find new ways of interacting that relate to modern-day society. Party members are, and will always be, the life blood of any political party, but to maximise our potential we must also harness the goodwill of those outside our membership but who support us. I want to create a new option for those who want to demonstrate support and play a part in our future.
I want to establish the concept of 'Registered Party Supporters'. There would be no fee attached to signing-up and no obligation to do more that receive information about policies, events and news. Equally our Registered Party Supporters would have a direct line to feed in their views and ideas and involve themselves to whatever extent they decide.
There are people who for a variety of reasons can't or don't want to join a political party. Their job may not permit them to do so. They may spend a lot of time away from home. They may be too young. They may come from a community background where joining a unionist party has not been common practice. They may have concerns about what membership of a political party entails. Whatever the reason the step of joining has, as yet, not been a favoured option. Yet they support what we are doing. They might occasionally attend events we organise. They follow our progress. They want to see us doing well. They vote for us.
As an initial target, I want us to sign-up 5,000 Registered Party Supporters before the conference next year and 5,000 more the year after. And yes, I admit it. I hope that Registered Party Supporters will, in their own time, ease themselves into membership of the party itself.
At a constituency level, I want us to turn best practice in our offices and associations, into common practice in all. We are also looking at the structure and content of party meetings. I want to see us embracing additional party configurations that bring members and supporters with special policy interests together. Such specialist groups would not replace our tried and tested branch and association structure. It is an extra layer. It's about setting up groups specifically for those interested - in business, or youth development, or encouraging greater involvement of women, or farming, or education, or health, or community development, or whatever area of activity our membership wants to promote.
Of course they will operate within guidelines set by the party but what we would be doing is making meetings more relevant to member and supporter interests and yes, we would be constructing yet another slip-road to ease non-members into active political involvement. I want us to have a reach into every community across Northern Ireland and I want to see far more women as elected representatives. In the next six months we will revise our party rules to make them fit for purpose - fit for the challenges that lie ahead and fit to deliver continued success.
I am proud of this party's past and I'm immensely grateful for all that Ian achieved as he led us through dark and difficult days into leadership at Stormont. I'm proud of what we are doing today and I'm confident about our future too. We have solid foundations upon which to build. With 176 Councillors, 38 Assembly Members, 4 Members of the House of Lords and our 8 MPs at Westminster magnificently led by Nigel, and Diane, as our MEP, valiantly battling for Ulster in Europe we have a fantastic team at every level right across the Province.
I particularly want to thank our Ministers and post-holders, who have served the party so well. One of the most difficult jobs as leader is to allocate responsibilities across the party. Having such an abundance of talent makes the job so difficult. Arlene, Sammy, Nelson, Edwin, Jonathan - well done, all of you.
As a team, at every level, we have so much to offer. That's why I am tired of listening to the professional nay sayers who seem intent on talking Northern Ireland and democratic politicians down. They criticise politicians but are never prepared to stand for office themselves. They are an authority on everything, but have a mandate for nothing. There's one who comes on our radio every morning - well, at least those mornings his alarm clock is working. And while he's eating his crisps and Mars bars he's either putting the worst possible construction on what politicians are trying to do - or encouraging others to do so.
Well, it's easy to pick holes in other people's work. It's harder to pick up the gauntlet and do it yourself. It's not the size of your jaws - it's the size of your vote that gives you the right to speak for the people. Steven, you might have the biggest show in the country, but by the will of the people, we've the biggest vote in the country.
In a democracy power is not inherited, it is won. Our authority to be in office is given to us, democratically, by the people.
Mr Chairman, I want to pay tribute to our brave soldiers who have served and are still serving in Afghanistan. We especially remember those who did not return. Those who gave their lives for country and for freedom. Their sacrifice is a reminder to us of the part this Province plays in the life of our nation. It was truly inspiring to see so many people greet our soldiers at the recent homecoming parades. We remember them today and we will ensure that they are never forgotten.
While our soldiers are bringing a better life to people half way around the globe, we must do the same at home. I am a unionist not just because of my background or culture but because I believe the Union offers the best future for this Province. There is something in the unionist psyche that assumes our political opponents are superior at achieving their objectives. Very often we believe our opponents propaganda rather than looking at reality.
Look back now and ask, what have they actually achieved? Rather than all-island institutions trundling us into a united Ireland we have an administration at Stormont, with a unionist majority, enacting British laws, with support for the Union at an all-time high and the Union flag's red, white and blue still flying from the flagstaff.
That didn't come about by longing for a return to the institutions of the past but by adapting the new realities to create a new and much wider consensus for the Union. Nowadays outside Stormont the cross-border institutions are largely for the optics. The real work of positive co-operation with the Republic is not through institutional structures but through direct contact on the issues that really matter. Ultimately it is personal relationships and not political institutions that will make north-south cooperation work. And the less the political threat the greater the opportunity to work together.
The truth is, our strategy - the path we started down a decade ago - has prevailed. Getting devolution on acceptable terms; seeking to make it work for everyone: ensuring North-South structures are grounded in practical co-operation rather than advancing political ideology; building up the East-West axis and demonstrating the Union works for everyone. Yes, it is our strategy that has prevailed.
We need to further reform the institutions to deliver better government but we must be careful not to undermine the consent and acceptance of our constitutional status in doing it. I don't want just a simple majority in favour of the Union, I want an overwhelming majority to support our constitutional position.
Mr Chairman, in time, this economic crisis will pass. The lasting challenge for us will be to tackle the causes of division. An end to the Troubles did not bring an end to division and that dilemma will not solve itself. Our critics have claimed that we want a society which is carved up rather than shared. Some of them accuse us of wanting a separate but equal society. Let me be clear - nothing could be further from the truth. It isn't right and it wouldn't work. I don't want a society where people live close together, but live separate lives.
This party alone can't dictate the future, but we can place issues at the centre of public debate and force others to justify their obstruction. There can be no greater legacy than a more shared and united community. It isn’t just good for Northern Ireland; it's good for unionism too. This is how we can secure our future, not just for the next decade but for the next century. Any society is governed, not just by the will of the majority, but with the consent of the minority. We, in Northern Ireland, know that better than most.
The conflict of the last forty years created terrible divisions. It became a case of 'them and us'. And that attitude deepened divisions further. If we want a better society it can't be 'them and us'. It can only be 'all of us'.
Recent surveys revealed that over half of Catholics wished to remain part of the UK and only a third wanted a united Ireland. I want to create a society where those numbers are improved and where our place in the Kingdom is not reliant on demo-graphics. There can be no greater guarantee of our long term security in the Union than the support of a significant part of the Catholic community. Now the conflict has ended we have a window of opportunity to reset the terms of political debate. We have the opportunity to secure our constitutional position beyond the visible horizon.
Our task is not to defeat but to persuade. Over recent decades unionists have been under attack and forced to be defensive. Some republicans tried to bomb us into a united Ireland, others sought to politically cajole and wheedle us into a united Ireland. And we've withstood them all. But when have we as unionists actually sought to persuade? And not just by words but by creating the kind of inviting society which everyone will want to be a part of.
Our determination and resolve saw us through the Troubles. The cry of, "No surrender" served us very well in days when we were being mercilessly attacked and when our backs were against the wall. Times have changed - now a new approach is justified. Politics is changing in Northern Ireland. Of course there will be those who will be implacably opposed to being part of the UK, but even today they are a minority within a minority.
Bobby Sands once said that the IRA's revenge would be the laughter of their children. Such narrow vision. There has been too much talk of revenge, too much talk of victory or defeat. The DUP's ambition will be the laughter of all our children, playing and living together, with a future that doesn't see them having to leave our shores, but wanting to live here, in Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom.
If I read the mood of our people correctly, we all now realise, as we have never realised it before, we are interdependent. If we are to move forward, we must move forward together. I believe in this new era we have it within our grasp to secure Northern Ireland for the next hundred years.
What's our task? Our job is to articulate the longing of our community. Our job is to chart a course through choppy waters. Our job is to grasp the opportunity to effect change. Our job is to deliver the aspirations of a deserving people. Our job is to make a difference to the lives of individuals and communities. We need to build one, united, shared and peaceful society. I tell you now is the moment.
Miss it and we may miss it for ever. Miss it and we may drift and stray. We have the prospect of making a difference that previous generations never had or never took - a chance that future generations may never get or never grab. I tell you now is the moment.
We want to see respect given to our varied and colourful traditions. We want people to be able to express their culture with tolerance and respect, mindful of those who don't share those values. And we want people who don't share those values to show tolerance and respect to those who do.
We are the first generation of peacetime unionists for many decades. No longer under siege. Moving forward with confidence and able to reach out. Traditional unionism was never about prejudice, sectarianism, wrecking and division. That was never what Edward Carson stood for. His unionism was about sharing the freedoms, security and bounty of the Union to every citizen, regardless of a person's religious belief. That's the kind of society we want to build. I tell you now is the moment.
The DUP is the party of Northern Ireland. It is the party of leadership. I know there are many who will tell us that changing the outlook of our society is impossible. They say it is engrained in us all and soaked into the very soil. One thing is sure - it will not expire with this generation if we replant prejudice in the next.
There are those who counsel - "Don't even try, you'll fail". But I am not prepared to look back at missed opportunities and simply take life as it presents itself. I want this party to make a real and lasting difference. We will energetically pursue a "One Community" good relations strategy.
To be DUP Leader and First Minister is a great honour and an enormous responsibility, and it's a challenge that I humbly and gratefully accept. But today I want to challenge all of you, whether here or at home.
Help us build a new Northern Ireland. Not just for some, but for all. Get involved, and even in some small way, play your part in this great and historic endeavour. Our Province may be small, but our ambition can be great. As a united community we can prosper and flourish.
Help us create a society where our young people want to stay. Where those who left for far-off opportunities return to be part of what we are creating. Where our economy is strong and vibrant. Where the world wants to come to visit. Where we treat each other as well as we treat our overseas visitors. And where our community is reconciled and at peace. That's the Northern Ireland I want to see.
Possessing a dedication to succeed. Providing promise. Offering hope. Fulfilling its greatness. Reaching its potential. That's our mission.
May God grant us the wisdom, courage and strength to succeed."
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