As things wrapped up in the afternoon at the DUP Conference, I managed to get some time with the First Minister, Peter Robinson to discuss the conference, the upcoming election and the DUP’s support for Asher’s Bakery.
I began by asking him how he felt the mood of his conference was this year?
Not surprisingly, Robinson told me that the party was in “good spirits” this year as they had a large overflow of delegates in the main hall, as well as, many successful events throughout the two days.
Now, that I had gotten the nice aspects out of the conference out of the way, I was interested to know about the upcoming election and his views on the various marginal seats that his party or a unity candidate would be fighting?
Robinson identifies three seats, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, East Belfast and South Belfast as places where they can be taken from Nationalists or Republicans or “those who support Nationalists or Republicans” and he says this is part of the conversation he is having with the UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt.
I was curious though to know what he made of Nesbitt’s offer at this conference to step down in North Belfast, for a clear run at Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
Robinson did point out that there was a lot of baggage between the DUP and UUP in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, but that with an agreed candidate last time they came within 4 votes of winning that seat and that it is a “tried and tested” method of producing success. The First Minister did point out to me that he did not question, Nesbitt’s sincerity in making the offer as he believes that both of them “want to do what is best for Unionism as a whole.”
On the key seat of East Belfast, Robinson had dealt with Naomi Long before, what advice did he have for Gavin Robinson as he attempted to take her on in 2015?
He told me that in 2010 there was “a very special set of circumstances”, but that less than a year later the DUP came back strongly in East Belfast winning nearly half as many more votes as the Alliance party, with himself topping the poll and winning the 2011 assembly election. He believes that Gavin Robinson is the best candidate for the job and can deliver the seat back to the Unionist fold.
One of the main talks of the conference was the profile given to Asher’s Bakery and the persistent plugs given to it throughout the entire event, so I asked the First Minister, why his party had given them that level of support?
Robinson told me that a situation has developed where there isn’t any great enthusiasm for recognising the rights of people of faith in Northern Ireland and that they have to be put on the back burner so that other small minority groups can have their own way. He told me that this case seems to be the “big brigade” of the Equality Commission coming into to put public resources at the disposal of those who oppose Asher’s Bakery.
For the First Minister, he criticises what on the surface appears to be an attempt to discover what the exact law is in the area as really a bid to “crush” a small family owned business. He believes that if the real intent had been to discover what the exact regulations in this area were, then equal funding should have been provided to both sides to allow them to make their case. In this instance, Robinson believes that it is important for politicians to stand up and not to leave a business to hang on their own.
Full audio here
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs