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Speech by Peter Robinson (DUP) to the DUP Spring Policy Conference, (27 April 2013)

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

Speech by Peter Robinson, then leader of the Democratic Unionist Paty (DUP), to the DUP Spring Policy Conference, Enniskillen, (27 April 2013)


"It is great to be in County Fermanagh for our party’s first ever Spring Policy Conference.

Our decision to come here means that the G8 Summit has now been demoted to the second most important event in Fermanagh this year!   David Cameron thought that if it was good enough to attract the DUP, then it must be good enough for the leaders of the world’s leading economic powers!

I’d like at this point to briefly report on Nigel’s position.  We have every reason to be thankful.  Nigel is out of hospital and in great form.  He will be back at work on Monday and happily he’s been given a clean bill of health.   It gave us quite a scare but we are delighted he will be back with us next week.

I will just reflect to say that I hope the episode will bring about a greater understanding of the enormous workload, gruelling schedule, intense pressure and heavy burden constantly placed upon our elected representatives.

You will, I hope, understand if occasionally I display my irritation and frustration when those who should know better attempt to portray politicians as people who do nothing, who enjoy a cosy existence and are in it for what they can get out of it.

Anyway, let us all at conference send our love and best wishes to both Nigel and Dianne.

Mr Chairman, this policy conference demonstrates how far we have come as a party.  When we last held a conference here we were a fraction of the size we are today, unable to determine our own future and at the mercy of those who did.

Today, as Northern Ireland’s largest party we are no longer just debating the constitution we are setting the agenda for the future on all the issues that matter to our people.

This afternoon, I want to reflect on the events of the last few months but also on how we chart our course for the coming decade.

Over the past few years we have been on a journey as a community.  In the darkest days of the Troubles political choices were easy but we all know that peace and change bring more difficult choices. That means listening and it means explaining. Not just as a one off but as a part of everything that we do.

The last few months have been demanding and dangerous times for our political process.  For the first time in many years, people feared that we could be slipping back to the bad old days.  And no matter how difficult or frustrating our politics becomes, no one wants to go back to the way things used to be.

I don’t need to tell you that Stormont isn’t all we would wish it to be, but even in its existing form, it underpins the peace, stability and prosperity that has been won.

Six years after we restored devolution and entered the Executive, some have questioned our commitment to this process.  The real question is not whether we want to be in government or have to be in government; the fact is the people of Northern Ireland need us to be in government.

Many people are still coming to terms with the new political dispensation.

It is an outlook of many contradictions.  There is no single perspective. Some have moved on more than others.

Many unionists recognise the need to move this region forward with the widest possible consensus.

Other Unionists don’t like to see Sinn Fein in government, but know they have to be there.  They want their representatives to stand up for their own community, but they know that we have to work with everyone to get things done.

A small section of unionism opposes what we are doing, and what the electorate democratically voted for and they have been seeking to create issues to stir up and agitate voters and try to use touchstone issues to damage the process we are involved in.

Still others believe that the public has moved ahead of the politicians and that politics is irrelevant to their everyday lives.  They are frustrated that politicians can’t agree a way ahead – usually, it has to be said, right up to the point where compromise has an impact upon them.

This frustration is often fed by some in the media who should know better.

Just take the Peace and Reconciliation Centre at the Maze.

Already the largest construction project in Northern Ireland, potentially one of the largest in the UK.  A project bringing 5,000 jobs and over £300 million of investment.

But instead of focusing on the positive, they distort what is proposed and then attack “proposals” that don’t even exist.

But we’ve been here before, haven’t we?

We can all remember the bogus claims, statements, speeches and leaflets that were made about the devolution of policing and justice to the Assembly before it happened, and how little was said when people saw it in operation.

The UUP and TUV joined forces in an attempt to panic the unionist community.  We were told that Sinn Fein would be controlling the police.  We were told that Martin McGuiness would get control over the Judiciary.  We were told Sinn Fein would be choosing who new Judges would be and removing the ones they didn’t like.  We were told policing and justice would become part of the North South Ministerial Council.  We were told Martin McGuinness would be appointing the “Independent” members of the Policing Board. We were told Gerry Kelly would be the Justice Minister.

There was no scare-mongering gambit they did not try.  I have the evidence of what they said.

Everyone can now see how they disgracefully sought to mislead the public and everyone has also seen that they never exhibited the rectitude to come back and admit they got it wrong; they just moved on to the next issue and sought to engulf it with fear and alarm in order to use it for their own political advantage.

They never allow facts to get in the way of a good story or the truth to interfere with their political agendas.

Frankly, if even half the things they have claimed about the plan for the Maze were true, nobody here would support it either.

The notion that the DUP would have anything to do with building a shrine to terrorism is frankly as  preposterous and absurd as it is offensive.

Let’s be clear about the facts.  The UUP released the terrorists from the Maze.  UUP representatives then chose and proposed the Maze as the location for the Peace Centre, and the then UUP leader endorsed that choice.  The UUP-led Maze panel asked that former Maze Prison structures including the prison hospital be listed and retained.  This too was endorsed by the then UUP leader.

Having irreversibly locked these elements into the Maze Plan their new leader opposes both the location of the Peace Centre at the Maze that his party proposed and he wants to see the buildings his party had listed to be now delisted.

Unbelievably when challenged about this humiliating somersault he says it’s different now because the present plan doesn’t include a football stadium.

Could someone tell me how having a football pitch changes the nature, intended use, or acceptability of either the Peace Centre or the retained buildings.  Such stunning logic!!!

As with policing and justice, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.  We will not be judged by our opponents’ attempts to mislead and distort.  We will not be judged by their fiction but by the reality of what emerges on the ground at the site.  There will be no shrine and when the project is completed we will be happy for people make their minds up about what has been created.

And if any of those who today have so much to say have the scruples to be embarrassed they will have red faces when the site is developed.

In this new political era there will be many challenges.  Unionists must demonstrate a confidence in our past as well as in our future.

The people of Northern Ireland stood firm during the Troubles in the face of a brutal terrorist attack.

The lesson of these last 40 years has not been one of victory, but of defeat for terrorism.

Whether or not, we like the choices that people make at the ballot box, the only people who are in positions of power today are those who have been elected at the ballot box.

As we seek to navigate these new waters, of one thing I am certain.

If we are to succeed, not just now but in the future, the DUP must continue to be the strongest Unionist party and the one that is prepared to work with everyone and for everyone.

Prepared to compromise where it is safe and sensible, but willing to stand up and stand firm for what is right.

Defending unionism doesn’t mean justifying the indefensible, it means doing what is in unionism’s long-term interests.

And if you look beyond the short-term difficulties and challenges of the last few months, the fundamentals of unionism have never been stronger.

The reality is that support for Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom has increased because everyone is seen to have a real say in how we are governed.

But while enormous progress has been made we must not take peace for granted.

Complacency about what we have achieved is our greatest danger.

And we would be making a serious mistake if we did not learn our lessons.

The decision to take down the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall was a disaster for Northern Ireland as a whole.

By any standards it was an aggressive and unnecessary step.   Because if republicans are intent on a cultural war you can be certain of one thing - it will be a battle that will have no winners.

The settled, if delicate equilibrium, in Belfast was overturned at a stroke with all of the consequences that we have witnessed in the last few months.

Jobs lost, tourists deterred, business damaged, potential investment threatened, security costs soaring, police officers injured, young lives blighted with criminal records and community relations compromised - these are the product of that decision and its aftermath.

If we want to fight the battles of the last 40 years for the next 40 years then the peace that has been won will never deliver the prosperity the Province needs.

There are enough problems in our society to be sorted out without trying to fix things that weren’t broken in the first place.

There is no profit from spending time apportioning blame, but there is revenue in reflecting on the lessons to be drawn.

If a collective failure caused the problems then only a collective approach will solve them.

Precipitating a crisis by voting to take the Union Flag down from City Hall and then expecting everyone else to pick up the pieces is not a recipe for success.

And making Stormont work better can’t be done by any party alone; only by all parties working together.

None of us should regard stalemate at Stormont as a success.  It is a collective failure.

We are not going to make people’s futures better by re-fighting the battles of the past.

Stormont has delivered political stability unseen in Northern Ireland for generations.

There is enormous goodwill towards Northern Ireland everywhere I go across the globe, but if we do not take advantage of the opportunities that we have then that goodwill, will run out.

From some of the successes that we have seen in recent years we can see the further potential that exists.

To govern is to choose; and sometimes that means making difficult choices.

But despite all of the difficulties some positive action has resulted from the fall out to the flags dispute.

The creation of the Unionist Forum has brought together probably the most representative group of unionists in the last half century. It offers the opportunity for unionists from all backgrounds to hear directly the perspectives from other parties and groupings and from the wider unionist family.

Any unionist who is in touch with the unionist community will know the greatest frustrations among our people are the divisions within unionism itself.

The Unionist Forum is neither a panacea for all of the challenges facing unionism, nor is it an excuse to turn our backs on the rest of the community.

And I say that, because there are nationalist politicians who have reacted to the creation of the Unionist Forum with a response that borders on paranoia.   Some, who have benefitted from unionism being divided, fear the prospect of unionists working together.  But more importantly, others fail to understand that there is greater potential for making agreements across the community which will endure if unionism can speak with one voice on the issues of the day.

Many of the problems that face unionism are not short-term but are deep-seated.  They did not come about overnight and will not be solved overnight either.

Next week the Unionist Forum will meet again at plenary level, but the real work is being done in the sub-groups and I hope that before too long this engagement will begin to pay dividends.

Who can argue that unionism and Northern Ireland are not better off if we can agree a common position on key issues to allow us to move forward?

If we ever needed confirmation that unionists want to see us all working together it was illustrated by the reaction to our agreed candidate for the Mid Ulster by-election.

That was a bright light during a difficult few months for Northern Ireland.

I want to thank Nigel Lutton for agreeing to be the agreed Unionist candidate and congratulate him for an outstanding result.

To increase the unionist share of the vote in a seat where there was never any realistic chance of victory was a remarkable achievement.

The Mid Ulster by-election was an excellent example of unionists working together for our collective good.  And it was not just the fact that we could all agree on a single candidate.  The spirit of co-operation on the campaign trail was an example to all of us of what we should be doing in future.

I am open to working together with other unionist parties to maximise our representation in every elected chamber.  On some occasions this will involve agreed candidates or single unionist candidates and in others it will simply be a case of urging our supporters after they have voted DUP to supply further transfers to other unionist candidates. While we may not agree on everything there is still a lot more that unites us.

I want to see two unionists returned at the next European election and I want as many unionists as possible returned to Westminster at the next General Election.

Given the present state of the parties some colleagues believe that the best chance of getting two unionists elected to Europe is for us to field two candidates.  Others believe it would be better to urge our supporters to give a second preference vote to the UUP. And we must also be aware that there may be other unionist candidates who might seek our support and transfers.

Rest assured that whatever decision the Officers and Executive take will be in the best interests of unionism as a whole.

Last year’s Census results, and the findings of the BBC poll reveal that the Union is more secure than ever, not just because of the outcome of a sectarian headcount, but more importantly because of the support of a majority of Catholics as well as a majority of Protestants.

We all know that Sinn Fein’s so-called outreach campaign to the unionist community stands in stark contrast to what they actually do on the ground.  So we must be careful not to make the same mistake in our efforts to reach out to the Catholic community.

The BBC poll in particular came as a great shock to Sinn Fein.  To this day they remain in denial that more Catholics would vote to stay within the UK rather than join a united Ireland.  And that is because they just don’t understand the complex changes to society in Northern Ireland.

The old Orange-Green, British-Irish dichotomy no longer adequately sums up the myriad of shades of identity here.   Unionists, as much as nationalists, need to come to terms with the changing environment.

The old-style unionist majority is a thing of the past, but we have within our grasp the opportunity to establish a new more broadly based voter consensus which will guarantee Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom for generations to come.

While republicans refuse to face up to the implications of the BBC poll, we should ensure that we fully understand and appreciate what the numbers actually mean.

There are those in the Catholic community who are and always have been committed unionists. But the majority of those Catholics who would opt to remain as a part of the United Kingdom do not vote for the DUP or UUP.  Most of them, if they vote at all, will, at least in the short term, vote according to long-established community patterns for nationalist parties.  For the most part, they support the present constitutional position, not because of the emotional attachment that we feel, but because, quite legitimately, they believe it will provide them with the best opportunities for the future.   Most are more likely to feel culturally Irish than they are to feel culturally British.

In 50 years’ time, it will be the votes of this sector that will help ensure that Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom remains safe.

Our biggest challenge must be to show everyone that devolution is delivering and that politics and devolution within the United Kingdom can make a difference to them.

Stormont must not be seen as “that building on the hill”, but as an active player in people’s lives.

We must devise policies that will help people deal with the issues that are important to them.

Already we have made a difference by taking a course unlike that which Direct Rule Ministers would have taken.

We have deferred the introduction of water charges and kept our household taxes the lowest in the UK.

We have frozen Student Fees in real terms to ensure that Higher Education is open to everyone in our society.

We have retained the right for schools to select on the basis of academic ability.

And we are tailoring the Coalition Government’s Welfare Reform proposals to better meet our local needs.

In this new political era we should seize the agenda with fresh ideas that can transform the community and society in which we live.

New ideas for a new era, let us take advantage of the devolution that we have fought so hard to secure.  For too long Northern Ireland was served up a version of whatever policies were enacted at Westminster.

We will not settle for cut and paste policies, we will continue to introduce Northern Ireland solutions that are tailored to the problems we face.

Throughout our history we have proved that we can rise to whatever challenge is set before us.

Let us use the expertise that is at our disposal from right across the community.

Learning from experience but deciding for ourselves.

In policy innovation, let us lead rather than follow.

Focussing on outcomes and not process.

Putting the needs of those who use public services first.

Looking forward to the future rather than back to the past.

Let us do so and make Northern Ireland the place where others come to see what we have done.

This process has already begun, but let us make it the norm rather than the exception.

We have undertaken three major reforms in Health, Education and Local Government.

These will mean some of the biggest changes in the delivery of public services for a generation.

In the years ahead we will have to improve the quality of public services to meet the ever-increasing expectations of the general public with less and less money.

Doing more with less is not easy and will require innovation and greater efficiency from right across the public sector.

In this new electronic interconnected age new solutions to old problems are emerging.

The Department of Health’s ‘Connected Health’ programme can be a world leader in what can be delivered.

And what we can do in one area of public services we can do right across the system.    I have no doubt that with the right motivation and direction this can be achieved.

Ground-breaking, indeed radical reform of our Planning processes is necessary. Especially in this difficult economic environment.  We cannot afford to turn away investment that will create jobs and benefit our economy.  Over-complex processes and the exploiting of legal delaying tactics have cost thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds of investment.  We cannot afford to allow that to continue.

The two most pressing issues facing the Executive are
Building a shared society and

Growing the economy and consequently creating jobs

Let us ensure that the new Northern Ireland is not just economically prosperous, but that we are living at peace with ourselves and each other.

That will only be done by building a shared and united community.

That doesn’t need the publication of any document, it means taking tangible steps on the ground.

A lot has already been done, but a step change is required.

The economic levers open to the Executive are better tailored to addressing the long-term rather than the short to medium-term needs of our economy.

Given its nature the squeeze in public expenditure will disproportionately hit our economy and hinder our return to economic growth.

While there is no single simple solution to our problems, there is one measure that has the potential to transform things. One on which virtually every economic commentator agrees.

One that would make us less reliant on subvention from

Westminster and allow us to re-balance our economy.

It is of course the devolution of Corporation Tax to Northern Ireland.

I am not prepared to be a First Minister who presides over a Northern Ireland stuck in a long-term irreversible economic rut, trailing the rest of the UK.  Northern Ireland needs a game-changer.

To me Corporation Tax-setting powers would be just that.

I want us to transform our economy and in a decade’s time for Northern Ireland to become known as the UK’s economic miracle.

I know how much we already have to offer.  The addition of a low rate of Corporation Tax would make our pitch unbeatable at home and abroad.

It is disappointing that some have already given up the battle.

Perhaps that would be the safe thing to do.

But to put the safeguarding of one’s own job ahead of the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs for our fellow countrymen would be unworthy of any leader.

To avoid the political risks of failure but consign Northern Ireland to long-term dependency is not my style of politics.

Let us be clear and face hard facts together.

Firstly, without such a game-changer and even with the steady and gradual year on year improvements that we are capable of making using our present economic levers and operating within existing fiscal constraints, Northern Ireland  10 years (even 20 years) from now will have narrowed but not closed the gap in economic terms with other parts of the UK.  Such a long drawn out “rebalancing” is not acceptable.

Secondly, the Conservative Party publicly pledged and committed itself to rebalancing our economy and has developed, with us, what we both consider to be a doable instrument to reach that goal.  I further believe that if the power to enable us to set a lower level of Corporation Tax is not devolved by this present government – during this present Parliament – it will never be delivered by any future government, at least, not within my political lifetime.  That’s why we must relentlessly continue to press for this power.

Our strength on this issue has been the unity of purpose across political parties and business.

I want this campaign to go forward with united political support, but if others want to chase after an undefined Plan B we will not be part of it.  If this party has to press forward alone we will do so.

Of course we will work to improve our present economic offering by augmenting the existing range of measures we can take.  But such additional steps as we may agree in the meantime are not an alternative to the major initiative that is necessary to rebalance our economy.

I am not prepared to give up on what could be the single most important positive transformative fiscal measure potentially available in my lifetime.

Though ultimately the decision lies in the hands of the UK Government, I genuinely believe that for the future long-term stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland delivery on this government commitment is an absolute imperative.

If we are to transform Northern Ireland it will take the effort and commitment of us all.

This party stands uniquely placed to make a difference and I want everyone in this room to play their part.

Not just in knocking doors at election time, but in having a real say in what we do in government.

I want to offer every member of this party the opportunity to play a part in changing our country for the better.

That is why this first policy conference is so important.

It is the start of a process to harness all the talents that we have at our disposal.

People who know and understand every aspect of our society and community because of the lives they lead have a powerful role to play in making a difference.

The task of creating a better society should not rest on our Ministers and elected representatives alone but should be the aspiration and mission of every one of us.

Let us build on the progress we have made.

In just over twelve months’ time the people of Northern Ireland will go back to the polls for elections to the new shadow councils and to elect our Members of the European Parliament.

2014 will mark a new era for local government, fewer councils but enhanced powers.

For the first time in generations, real powers at a truly local level.

This is an exciting time for those involved in local government.

They will have real influence in what happens in their communities across a range of new areas.

That means that it is more important than ever that we maximise our representation.

As a party we will give every candidate our encouragement and support, but at local government in particular, it is feet on the ground at a local level that will really make the difference.

We need to make sure that the DUP is the unionist voice of local government.

At this time of flux within unionism, the DUP is the only constant.
While some parties fracture and others are formed we need to keep our focus.

It has never been more clear that we are the only party that can keep Northern Ireland moving forward.

Other parties may have the capacity to carp and criticise from the bleachers.

But that is no substitute for the leadership that our province needs.

Only the DUP can offer a positive way ahead.

United in purpose - strong and decisive.

Doing what is right for the people of Northern Ireland is our task and duty.

Let us go out from this conference today, our ambition raised, willing to fight without fading for what we believe in.

Our determination multiplied and our passion for the cause undiminished by the passage of the years or the fierceness of the fray.

With a commitment to complete the journey and reach our goal.

And possessed of the humility to acknowledge that we are here above all else - to serve.”




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