Speech by Peter Robinson to DUP Annual Conference, 4 February 2006
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Text of speech by Peter Robinson, then Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to the DUP's Annual Conference in Belfast, (Saturday 4 February 2006).
"Our conference today comes at a point when we can reflect with some pride on our successes of the last few years, but also at a time when we are preparing for the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead.
After 100 years of Ulster Unionist domination, which in recent years were characterized by complacency in their constituency representation, contempt for the electorate, and catastrophic errors of judgment, the DUP now commands the political battlefield for unionism virtually unopposed.
With nine Members of Parliament and 182 councillors elected, I think that it is fair to say that 2005 was a good year for the DUP. When we add to that our successes in the 2003 Assembly elections and Jim Allister’s outstanding result in the European Election no one can now deny that the DUP is the undisputed voice of unionism.
The danger to the success of this party in the future will not come from the Ulster Unionist Party. The danger we must guard against - and be ever vigilant in doing so - is any tendency towards complacency or any departure from those traditional unionist principles of upholding the Union, defending democracy and preserving liberty which are and have been our trademark.
The UUP, a once great force in Northern Ireland politics, is reduced to one seat at Westminster and increasing irrelevance to political decision-making here because they lost the plot.
Now that we are in a position of strength we must remain faithful to the carefully charted course we have taken over the last decade. We will certainly not be leaping into Government with Sinn Fein nor will we be walking away from the strategy we have carefully devised and for which we have been mandated. We must do nothing that undermines the progress that we, as a party have made in recent years.
Never again do we want to return to the days when the UUP took the decisions on behalf of the unionist people of Northern Ireland. Let us never forget what it was like when we as a party were forced to sit on the sidelines as our future was being determined, and look on as others squandered the unionist position.
Back in May 1998, the DUP was told it was not relevant; we were sidelined, dismissed, our political obituaries were written; we were told we were finished as a political party and told we would be consigned to the history books. The UUP, on the other hand, was confident its domination of local politics was assured for another hundred years. How times have changed.
Again, not as an annual ritual, nor as a sycophantic Deputy, I pay tribute to the man who has led us throughout these years – yes, in those lean and hard times as well as our present elevated position.
During the last forty years Ian has been vilified more than any other politician. The establishment has castigated him, the media has assailed him, but the voters have never rejected him.
I’m sure Conference would want to join me in congratulating Ian on his elevation to the Privy Council. This recognition is long overdue and a sign that although the establishment may not always like what Ian has to say, it can no longer deny that he speaks for the overwhelming majority of the unionist tradition in Northern Ireland.
But the journey is not over; there are greater heights to be reached and much to do before the union is safe and our province secure.
The transformation of the party’s electoral fortunes should stand as a tribute to our collective efforts over the last number of years but also as a warning that in politics there are few certainties. Circumstances are always changing.
Let us take a moment to reflect on just how much things have changed.
The rise of the DUP has not been achieved overnight. Hard work, sound judgment and a relentless drive to succeed have been the hallmarks of our success. At every level within the party, whatever our individual responsibility, we have striven to be the best at what we do.
At constituency level in caring and working for those we represent – at representative level speaking and negotiating for those who placed their trust in us we have shown absolute commitment.
Our election campaigns have demonstrated professionalism unsurpassed in the Province. We have an election machine which others watch and envy. You are that machine - and as the Party’s Director of Elections I want to express my gratitude to you all for your exertions and loyalty. Can I take this opportunity to especially thank the candidates and election agents in our most recent elections.
I also know you would want me to thank our staff. We are extremely fortunate to have a most able and dedicated workforce. When I read the recently published book which recorded the shambles of the UUP campaign I thanked the Lord for Allan, Tim and Richard – our three Directors and all those in their departments.
Well done, all of you. Your labour has made a significant difference and though in the rush and hustle of political life we seldom take time to express our appreciation to those who advise and serve us – we do it now with genuine gratitude.
After the 1997 Westminster election we had just two MPs to the Ulster Unionists’ ten and ninety-one councillors compared to their 185. Today the situation is reversed.
There have been a few defining electoral moments in the last decade. One of the key moments over recent years was William McCrea’s victory in the South Antrim by-election of 2000. That election showed that we could win in constituencies which had been regarded as Ulster Unionist heartlands. Today there is no Ulster Unionist heartland.
We are all delighted to see Willie back at Westminster. His recapturing of South Antrim from David Burnside was tribute to his resilience and commitment to the cause. We should take nothing for granted, William, but this time round, given the level of dedication and work you put in for your constituents, not even the Boundary Commission will be able to take the seat from you.
If you wanted to demonstrate the extent of DUP representation, and could afford the petrol, it is now possible to drive the whole way from Portaferry to Limavady without ever straying outside a constituency with a DUP MP. The Ulster Unionist Party can manage a journey from Bangor to Holywood – even then Peter Weir is sitting on their bumper.
Of course, in reality, North Down is not a UUP seat. The DUP got a 50% greater vote than the UUP in the council election on the same day in this area. Sylvia’s vote is more of a coalition vote. She represents a mottled uncivil partnership of the Woman’s coalition, Alliance, the Greens along with soft and malleable unionists. When that league breaks up the seat is poised for DUP possession.
We have consolidated our dominant position province-wide. In the Assembly elections of 2003, the European election of 2004 and the Westminster and Local Government elections of 2005 we topped the poll and fixed ourselves as the largest political party in Northern Ireland.
We haven’t had a conference since Jim’s victory at the European election of 2004 when Jim achieved what was, at that time, the highest ever percentage share of the unionist vote for the DUP. Since then Jim has done an exceptional job for Northern Ireland in Europe and he has, with his meticulous eye for detail and his prodigious work-rate established himself as an indispensable part of our team.
Last May the scale of our victory was enormous. It was not just the number of candidates we succeeded in getting elected, but the margins of the victory which were impressive.
Two General Elections ago in East Antrim the UUP had twice as many votes as the DUP. In his first race in the constituency in 2001, Sammy slashed that to just 128 votes. Today the DUP has a majority of over seven thousand with Sammy polling almost 50% of the total vote.
In East Londonderry Gregory turned a narrow majority of under two thousand into a safe DUP seat with a majority of 7,727 and 43% of the total poll.
Not even the mighty Basil McCrea could stand in the way of Jeffrey in Lagan Valley. It is not Jeffrey’s first election victory in the constituency, but it is the first for the DUP which makes it his first proper one, and particularly special.
It is a remarkable tribute to Jeffrey, and the party, that it is now difficult to think that he was ever a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. He has fitted in so well, and the Party is benefiting from the talents that he brings.
Nigel more than consolidated his position in North Belfast by increasing his share of the vote against Gerry Kelly. Nigel’s industry in the constituency and at Westminster will ensure North Belfast stays as British as Finchley.
As for the old hands, Ian and I each improved our share of the vote. I think North Antrim and East Belfast have proved their loyalty to the DUP over the years but it is good to see that even after all these years the percentages are still improving.
I can tell you the House of Commons is a very different place today from what it was just a few years ago. For most of the party’s history there were just two, or if we were fortunate, three DUP MPs dominated by a much larger UUP group. Today there are nine of us and only one of Sylvia.
There certainly could be only one Sylvia. On the day of the count she claimed the one seat the UUP won was a wonderful victory for them. I wonder what a defeat would have looked like. The UUP are now the same size in the House of Commons as George Galloway’s Respect Party. That’s the extent of their influence.
It is interesting that the Northern Ireland public seem to have developed their own Big Brother style system of voting for the House of Commons. Every time there is a General Election, they evict four of five Ulster Unionists.
After George Galloway’s participation, maybe an Ulster Unionist will be in the next Big Brother house! Given the range of characters that seem to participate in that programme, Reg might fit in quite well. Nonetheless, I really hope we don’t see him in a pink leotard supping milk from someone’s hand. Though, when I think of it, he has had a lot of practice eating out of Gerry’s hand for years now.
But let’s put that picture out of our minds and think of something more wholesome. Little did I think during the 1980s that one day Iris would not only be a Member of Parliament but would create the safest DUP seat in the Province.
I know I may be a tad biased, but I think that her achievement has been truly remarkable. In the last ten years Strangford has been transformed from the preserve of our dear old friend John Taylor to a constituency with the highest DUP percentage vote anywhere in Northern Ireland.
I thought gaining almost 50% of the vote in East Belfast was pretty good until I learnt that Iris had won 56.5%. However, the likely boundary commission changes moving Dundonald back to its natural home in East Belfast should narrow that gap.
All joking aside I know just how much work and effort Iris puts in to her constituency and the result was a reflection of that.
Each of us feels especially proud of the party’s achievements in our own constituencies but it was perhaps David Simpson’s election victory in Upper Bann which was the sweetest result of all. Just 9 years ago David Trimble had a majority over the DUP of more than fifteen thousand votes. Today Our David holds the seat by over 5,000 votes.
In the end this contest, which was the subject of so much media attention and speculation, turned out not to be even close. If David Trimble gets back to Westminster it will not be on the basis of votes from people in Northern Ireland.
Whatever history may say about David Trimble will be a matter for another day but the unionist people of Northern Ireland have had their say. He led the Ulster Unionist party from electoral domination to near electoral oblivion and he led unionism and Northern Ireland to having unrepentant terrorists in Government. His resignation as leader of the UUP came years too late to make any difference to their electoral fortunes. The damage of the policies he pursued had been done.
The Ulster Unionist Council, that august body which could command the world’s attention with its seemingly monthly exhibitions of internecine warfare, was given the task of choosing David Trimble’s replacement.
From a field which makes the Liberal Democrats’ choice of leadership candidates look really impressive, and demonstrating its usual impeccable judgement, the UUC wanting to put the disastrous Trimble years behind them selected, yes, the chief architect of Trimble’s surrender programme of the last ten years, Reg Empey. As someone rather cruelly said afterwards, it was like re-electing Trimble only without the ability, charisma or hair.
Though last May we had our best performance at any election – ever - nine seats at Westminster does not mark the height of our electoral ambition. There is unfinished business to be completed.
At the last election pig-headed Ulster Unionists deliberately and selfishly denied unionism two more seats at Westminster. While David Trimble sought to negotiate to try in vain to save his own seat, the DUP wanted a deal which would give the unionist electorate a choice in the areas where nationalists clearly could not win, but ensure unionist representation where there was a significant threat.
I publicly offered them a choice of either South Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone in return for stepping aside in the other. I accurately predicted that the DUP was the stronger unionist party in both constituencies but in the wider interests of unionism we were prepared to share the seats rather than lose them both. It was a very generous offer but they turned it down and handed both seats to nationalism.
Indeed in South Belfast they were even reduced to telling calculated lies to assist the SDLP to win the seat.
On the 5th of May the electorate made it clear which unionist party spoke for the majority of unionists in both those seats.
Let me make it clear, next time round we will fight both constituencies and win both constituencies. The unionists in South Belfast and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone know that only one unionist party can win those seats and they know which unionist party that is.
I believe we will win South Belfast whether or not there is an Ulster Unionist spoiler in the race. Jimmy Spratt fought a remarkable campaign from a standing start entering the campaign only a few weeks out from the election. By the next General Election, with four our five years’ work put in on the ground, there will be no doubt about the result.
In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, although the seat was not won, Arlene put in one of our best performances of the election. The reluctant UUP candidate suffered a humiliating defeat and surely no Ulster Unionist who would stand in Arlene’s way next time would ever be forgiven in Fermanagh and South Tyrone or across Northern Ireland. Take my word for it – the DUP can win this seat for unionism.
At council level our results were equally spectacular, exceeding our wildest expectations. In 23 of the 26 council areas the DUP is the leading unionist party.
We have many new, young and capable councillors, of which other parties could only dream. We also have a good representation of females in local government. But we must yet do more to improve the balance.
It is not easy to single people out, but I feel I have to mention my own long time election agent, constituency chairman and friend, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Wallace Browne. I am sure everyone will agree he has done an exceptional job this year. For a man who is always reluctant to push himself forward, Wallace’s performance at City Hall makes it look as though he was born for the job. I hope we will soon be able to use him in another role.
Our domination in the House of Commons is undisputed. Not just the largest party from Northern Ireland but the fourth largest party in the whole of the United Kingdom. In fact if the Liberal Democrats continue the way they are going at the moment we could be the third party after the next election. With the margin between the Tories and Labour as tight as it is the DUP might have a very significant role after the next election.
With our position in the House of Commons confirmed, hopefully it will not be too long before our success is also reflected in the House of Lords. We look forward to that development.
Since the election I have watched the UUP in desperation and despair flaying aimlessly at every shadow in the hope of directing a blow that might land upon us. It mattered little how hollow the claim, or how baseless the charge, if it could be uttered, they judged it might be believed by someone.
How often have you heard them claim that Sinn Fein had benefited from concessions for which the DUP was culpable? There is no concession - no not one - which can be hung around our neck. Every concession that republicans have enjoyed has had its roots firmly planted in the era of the UUP and was watered and tended by them.
The UUP have not had a monopoly on difficulties over the past twelve months, Sinn Fein has had its fair share of problems.
Probably the biggest surprise was the revelation that the Sinn Fein Director of Administration was a British Agent. Denis Donaldson a British agent? Denis Donaldson was Sinn Fein’s Allan Ewart – and there the comparison ends.
Though Allan has reported that people are clutching their files more tightly when he comes along!
Someone told me that MI5 had recruited a person to infiltrate the UUP. They needed somebody who would not talk and would not seek the limelight – no, it wasn’t Jim Rodgers. It appears they resigned after a week. They said it was impossible to gather anything close to intelligence in the UUP.
It just shows you that the unexpected – the unbelievable can happen in Ulster politics. What shocks might we be confronted with next. Mark Durkan might give a short answer to a question! We might see Michael McGimpsey smile! Lord Laird might go to Dublin on public transport and even pay his own fare! You think not?
Of course, what is worse for Sinn Fein is the knowledge that there are a number of other informers within their ranks. Can you imagine what Sinn Fein meetings are like now? There was even a report the other day that some of their members are so nervous about informers that they have reverted to wearing their balaclavas to party meetings. Old habits die hard.
However, Gerry Adams is not the first party leader to have difficulties with someone called Donaldson.
Mr Chairman, at every level we have the right team to lead unionism. Winning elections is vital in order to put us in the position to make a difference. Without electoral success the government can marginalize and ignore us. In the past we did not have the required mandate to force the Government to listen to us. Today, it is different.
But winning elections is not enough. It is what we do between elections which really makes the difference. And what we do between elections is determined by what we say at election time. Our manifesto is our contract with the electorate. That has always been the case in the past and it will not change now.
What has been absolutely clear is that the stance we have taken has been vindicated and is working. It has brought about a situation in which it is clear to republicans that half measures will no longer suffice. Only completion will do.
The IMC report demonstrates that there is still a very long way to go before republicans are democratised. Democracy can not tolerate a situation where criminality is institutionalized at the heart of the state and that is exactly what would happen if we were to permit an organisation like Sinn Fein, which is still seamlessly linked to paramilitary and criminal activity, into government. It will not happen.
But, in truth, I do not need to argue the case that Sinn Fein has not passed the entry test. Bertie Ahern has pronounced upon their fitness for government. He says he would not countenance having them in government in the Republic. You can be certain that neither Tony Blair nor George Bush would consider sharing power with the Provos for a second. Let me give them a clear message. “Don’t ask us to do something you wouldn’t do yourselves.”
The interests of the people of Northern Ireland are not going to be dictated by short term considerations of either the election cycle in the Republic of Ireland or the Prime Minister’s departure date from Downing Street. It is not the DUP that is holding the process up but the inability of republicans to give up their multi-million pound criminal empire.
It was eleven years from their first ceasefire before the IRA carried out any significant decommissioning. Yet still their fingers cannot be prised from the remainder of their weapons. Without there being even a single IMC report suggesting the IRA has given up its illegal activities it is quite simply preposterous and outrageous to expect unionists to move.
The government should be ashamed of itself. Instead of heaping pressure on republicans to make good their promises Peter Hain has been acting as chief apologist and spin doctor for the IRA. He has attempted to dilute the exposure of their wrongdoing and spin the areas where the IMC reported any positive change.
It is time for the Government to face reality. It is time for them to acknowledge that there can be no acceptable level of criminal activity from those who aspire to be in Government. Rather than pressurising unionists to turn a blind eye or seeking to mask and deny what is happening, it is the responsibility of the Government to eradicate the criminal activity or make it clear to Sinn Fein that political progress will be made without them.
We have made it clear to the Government that, rather than waiting an indefinite and prolonged period for republicans to transform, progress can and must be made in another fashion.
We have set out our plans in ‘Facing Reality’ and believe that this is a basis for making progress. Recent events show the process we have outlined is now the only way forward. The trust necessary to establish executive devolution simply does not exist, so rather than pretend that it does, or wait for it to magically materialize Government should focus on what is achievable and attainable today.
The government talks of Sinn Fein in terms that ignore its past and distorts its present. Why does trust not exist? It is because we remember the mass murders and vile acts these republicans carried out. It is because we know of the victims they left and the pain they caused. It is because they seek to glorify their evil and do not repent of it. It is because they have not turned from their illegal activity and still plan and wallow in it.
We have not forgotten that while they negotiated an end to criminality in December a year ago those same leaders were sitting in the Army Council of the IRA planning the finer details of the biggest bank robbery in the history of the British Isles.
Why does trust not exist? It is because we know them and how they have behaved in the past. It is said that they have left terrorism behind and intend to close their criminal empire down. Talk is cheap and seeing is believing! We will not take it on trust and we will not settle for an acceptable level of criminality.
That is why we have suggested a phased approach which would allow Stormont to get up and running in a meaningful way while the issue of IRA criminal activity is dealt with once and for all and completely.
If republicans genuinely want to end criminality, and the Government genuinely wants to ensure that they do, then the system we advocate will hold no fears for anyone. Those who dismiss our proposals will, as a consequence, be revealing their reluctance, or a less than complete commitment, to ensuring the end of paramilitary criminality. That is a position we could never share.
The very notion that we should ignore criminal activity on a massive scale is an affront to democracy. Devolution remains the clear policy objective of this party, endorsed as it has been by our voters - both long-standing and recent converts - time and again at elections. But it is not devolution at any price. We have repeatedly made it clear what is required.
Trust either exists or it does not. It cannot be manufactured. The lesson of past failures should be learnt. When constructing a democratic structure if the foundation is not morally sound its walls cannot be built thick enough or its roof high enough to save it from collapse.
While no one here is in any doubt that Sinn Fein is not fit for government, neither should anyone imagine that the present arrangements for Government in Northern Ireland are in the best interests of people living here.
Just as this party has faced reality and offered a process taking account of that reality other parties must come to terms with reality as well. For instance there are those who still con themselves and seek to sucker others into believing the fantasy that the Belfast Agreement can be revived.
The unionist community have democratically rejected that deal. That deal was based on the absolute requirement for cross-community support. That support does not exist. Yet Mark Durkan and Martin McGuinness continue to insist that any future structure will be based on it. What is it about the word “Agreement” that they don’t understand? Read my lips – The Belfast Agreement is dead.
We will not be giving life – even for six weeks – to such a rejected and undemocratic process. The future does not lie in breathing life into the failures of the past. There is no future in the past. Sometimes the past can inspire and most times it can teach us valuable lessons. There is much in our own past we can take pride in and much we can celebrate but we cannot live in the past.
The UUP sought to live off the glories of our traditional unionist forefathers while walking a road those honoured men would never have trod. We will present our people with a programme which faces today’s perils and which meets today’s needs while at the same time it keeps faith with traditional unionist principles.
Of course other parties have made suggestions about how to move forward as well. The UUP have published proposals. Their leader, (I’m using the broadest interpretation of the word) Reg Empey – a sheep in sheep’s clothing, if every I saw one – has offered a mixture of constructive and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the constructive ideas are original and none of the original ideas are constructive.
Let me explain. He suggests legislative devolution as a way forward. The DUP advanced the idea of legislative devolution in the early eighties. Our main opponents to that idea were – yes - the UUP. It is constructive but not original. Indeed the stepped approach he advocates is a DUP idea. Again constructive - but not original!
He then mimics the SDLP in suggesting that the Assembly should be recalled on the basis of the failed Belfast Agreement and given six weeks to move forward. That is neither constructive nor original. Only two outcomes are possible under that strategy - either you put Sinn Fein into government or the Assembly collapses. Now, I know which option the SDLP wants so why is Reg parroting SDLP policy? That whole strategy stinks but don’t expect Reg to notice he lost his sense of smell long ago.
As for Sinn Fein, they pout and say it is executive devolution or nothing. Let us be clear if that was the only choice we still would not sanction tainting an executive with those still tied to criminality.
The Sinn Fein rhetoric is simply a sally of anger, like the huffing and puffing of a cranky and spiteful child, who, when he can’t get all he wants, is resolved to have nothing. This trait is always more pronounced in children who are accustomed to getting everything they want but are then faced with someone who stands up to them.
No one could have predicted the twists and turns in the political process here in the last ten years and no one can predict, with any degree of certainty, what the next few years have in store. But one thing is clear. As a Party we will keep our word.
We will not accept half measures or engage in word games, or try to overplay or underplay the significance of events with those who have placed their trust in us at the ballot box.
None of us on this platform would countenance giving our support to any proposal that we could not come back to conference and stand over. We will not give our backing to anything that is not good for the people of this province.
After another phenomenal year, in which our strategy and our judgement has been vindicated we can feel proud of the leadership we, as a party, have given. Leadership is not always about embracing new positions it is often about standing firm and holding to vital principles. When conditions are right and when the ground we are to occupy is solid and safe we will press forward with confidence, reassured that it is this party that has been charged with defending and promoting unionist interests.
We will honour our election pledges. We will be true to the trust which has been reposed in us, and with your continuing support and hard work, we will gain the prize that our people desire and so much deserve."
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