Peter Robinson light-heartedly suggested that DUP’s first ever spring policy conference today in Fermanagh “means that the G8 Summit has now been demoted to the second most important event in Fermanagh this year!”
The DUP leader reassured delegates that Nigel Dodds “will be back at work on Monday and happily he’s been given a clean bill of health”. He hoped that the health scare would “bring about a greater understanding of the enormous workload, gruelling schedule, intense pressure and heavy burden constantly placed upon our elected representatives”.
In the speech he didn’t directly address the recent soap opera of falling out and making up with Martin McGuinness.
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.
Peter Robinson delivered a report card on the various shares of unionism:
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.
On the Maze Long Kesh site:
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 …
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.
On the Union Flag …
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.
Peter Robinson sought not to apportion blame but came perilously close two sentences later to …
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.
Stormont needed to “take advantage of the opportunities that we have” in terms of international goodwill.
He cited the Unionist Forum as an example of “positive action [resulting] 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?
He thanked Nigel Lutton for “agreeing to be the agreed Unionist candidate and congratulate him for an outstanding result … in a seat where there was never any realistic chance of victory was a remarkable achievement”.
On future cooperation and the European election next June:
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.
Peter Robinson commented on nationalist and unionist outreach campaigns, and reminded DUP members why votes from those who felt more culturally Irish would be important in the future:
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. [Emphasis added]
On the Executive’s priorities and a shared future:
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. [Emphasis added]
Corporation Tax was still on his agenda and would be a “game changer”.
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.
Everyone in the party was encouraged to play a part in shaping policy.
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.
Divided unionism cropped up again in the speech:
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.
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.
Perhaps Slugger readers who attended the policy conference will comment on what kind of policies were on the table for discussion today, and the ways in which the membership was being actively involved in exploration, debate and decision.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.