Speech by Peter Robinson to the Republic of Ireland's Small Firms Association, Dublin Castle, 7 September 2004
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Speech by Peter Robinson, then Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP),
Mr Chairman, I very much appreciate your invitation and I am delighted to be with you today at your annual conference.
Small businesses are the backbone of any economy and I know the important role that your organisation plays in business life here and the influence your members have in the wider community. Whilst, in every country, investment from abroad is to be welcomed and invariably gains the news headlines, it will be the thousands of small local businesses that form the backbone of any economy. I know this is certainly the case in Northern Ireland and I am sure the same is true here. Small firms are at the cutting edge of the economy but too often are taken for granted and bypassed when incentives are on offer.
I know from my own experience back home that far too often, rather than assisting small firms, our government can impede them. In Northern Ireland poor infrastructure, high taxes, unnecessary regulation and an inadequate planning system have all served to reduce competitiveness and render some businesses unprofitable. High local rates can cripple businesses. My own council in Castlereagh has consistently set low rates and provided the best facilities. It can only be done by fiscal prudence and vigilance. Testing the cost of your supplies in the market; ensuring your product is geared towards your customers; cutting out waste; getting the most out of your workforce; ensuring your staff ratios are right and testing your services against the wider market. I have been in local government for nearly 30 years and at times I watch councillors make expenditure proposals without a care in the world. It’s as if nobody had to pick up the tab. If businessmen acted that way they would be begging in the streets before too long. For many firms operating on the margins of profitability high Rates can mean the difference between survival and closure.
Another impediment faced by business in Northern Ireland has been the quagmire they call the planning process. Too often bureaucracy has bogged down decision making. Waiting for years to get the go-ahead for major projects is often commonplace. I believe that a local administration can start to tackle the necessary reforms but we must face up to the reality that just as parties have a different view on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland some approach economic policy from very different directions.
I welcome this opportunity to speak to people who are instrumental in making the economy here work. Politicians can often be quick to claim credit for economic progress and upturns but inclined to focus attention on the business community when jobs are lost and the economy performs poorly. The reality is that while government can create a framework to allow enterprise to flourish, it is generally people on the ground who make the difference.
In Northern Ireland your contemporaries have had a much more difficult business environment in which to exist. They have had to deal with the normal competitive issues and the challenges of meeting the changing needs of a modern society but having to do it against a backcloth of instability and violence. Too often that violence damaged or destroyed the product of their years of endeavour but with determination they struggled on they rose from the ashes and rebuilt their businesses. The makeshift cardboard signs outside bombed shops and commercial premises with the bold, scrawled lettering "Business as Usual" became the defiant proclamation of a business community that refused to lie down.
Given all the difficulties that Ulster businesses have faced my respect and admiration continues to grow for those who have charted a course through the troubled waters and survived. In the same way as your own political leaders will acknowledge your entrepreneurial zeal and the contribution you have made in your local economy I applaud the dexterity and skill of the Northern Ireland businessman and woman. If they can succeed while carrying the handicap they do, what will the result be if some of the burdens they are shouldering can be lifted?
Those same business people have suffered not only the direct effects of terrorism but they continue to suffer because government funds which should have been used to maintain and improve the province’s infrastructure were redirected to contribute towards the high cost of security. For example when the terror campaign "the troubles" began, Northern Ireland was far ahead of the Republic of Ireland in terms of roads infrastructure. Now, in most areas the situation has been completely reversed. Moreover, there is no doubt that the huge investment that has been made down here on roads is paying very significant economic dividends. The person who cannot see the relationship between business on the one hand and roads and transportation on the other must understand neither.
I lift roads and transportation out as an example because I had Ministerial responsibility for them and I therefore know the scale of the deficit and its cause. We have only just begun to address that massive infrastructural underinvestment so it is important for Northern Ireland that this issue is dealt with as an integral part of the outcome from the upcoming talks.
Some months ago my colleagues and I told the Prime Minister of our proposal for a "Peace Fund" that should be available to a new government. The money would be sourced from the savings in security spending that would attend a genuine settlement. Just as our infrastructure was disadvantaged because funds were diverted to the security budget so too can it be enriched by savings being re-directed from the security budget to modernise the ageing infrastructure. Such a financial dividend would boost any restart of devolution.
We face intense political negotiations in the next few weeks but even if those issues are resolved the real work of improving people’s lives will go on. We see economic improvement as a fundamental and vital aspect of that task. Big issues still lie ahead to make life better for everyone in Northern Ireland. In the transitional period a devolved government must be given the tools to put things right.
I know I will not have to convince anyone here that a settled and rejuvenated community in Northern Ireland will radiate such a warm and bright glow that it will disperse the economic shadow and chill that the troubles have cast – not least because of proximity – on your economy.
I believe that the opportunity exists to finally obtain a lasting settlement which will allow us to concentrate fully on the economic and social issues which are vital to people’s everyday lives.
I come here at both an interesting and crucial time in the political process. Next week the process moves to Leeds Castle in Kent for intensive discussions. Only time will tell the extent of the progress that will be made but I believe that the ingredients are in place, if all parties are willing to embrace entirely peaceful and democratic means, to achieve an agreed settlement.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk to you about the situation in Northern Ireland and our hopes and aspirations for the future. It also gives me a chance to speak directly to people in the Republic about our vision for Northern Ireland’s future relationship with the Republic and the prospects for the years ahead. I believe that a number of factors combine to dangle before us the tantalising prospect of peace and stability, but the pace of progress is dependant on the willingness of the paramilitaries to leave the stage and the ingenuity of the politicians in meeting the challenges and opportunities to establish a wholly democratic, fair and just society.
I want to see the threat of terrorism removed, I want to see a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland, and I want to see a congenial and positive relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Let me say something about North South relations. Don’t worry, I do not intend to give you a history lesson. Though if I did, you would soon see that one of our problems we face is that there is more than one version of history.
Omar Khayyam’s memorable words come to mind
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
So, while we each are the product of history none of us can alter it – nor if we could would we agree how. We will each be proud of our own traditions and historic remembrances; we will learn what lessons we can from our history; we may even derive inspiration from it but if we want to resolve today’s problems we must direct our energies to changing the future rather than arguing over conflicting accounts of the past. Solutions come from recognising the situation and conditions that exist no matter how they were created.
So let us deal with realities. The key to achieving a sound and beneficial relationship is mutual respect. For nationalists this means respecting Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom and for unionists it means recognising nationalists’ special affinity with the Republic of Ireland.
As unionists see it relations have been undermined since the foundation of our two states by a failure to accept the outcome of an historic reality. The result led to a failure to respect each other’s existence. Unionists approached this issue with a belief and fear that the Republic intended to have Northern Ireland subsumed against its will into a united Ireland. Their fear was fuelled by constitutional provisions and fortified by political rhetoric and action. The fear bred hostility and the hostility formed itself into firm resistance. The resistance expressed itself in opposition to virtually any and all ties between our two countries.
This outcome has not served well the cause of those who feel a close affinity with the Republic, rather it has served to deepen divisions and exacerbate differences. Whilst many people on this island undoubtedly wish to see a united Ireland there remains in Ulster a solid and sizeable opinion that the link with the rest of the United Kingdom should remain. Is it not a better approach if we all deal with the reality of the situation and work from there? Though the old Articles 2 & 3 have gone the clear recognition of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom is at best distorted or at worst denied. A smokescreen of semantics is thrown up to avoid accepting the reality.
It is clear from the 2001 census in Northern Ireland that there is no prospect of a united Ireland in the foreseeable future. This I hope will encourage people to concentrate on how we can best deal with the present actuality rather than chasing moonbeams which only serve to undermine the prospect of better relations. It must be obvious that the best prospects for co-operation exist where both sides have constitutional certainty and have confidence in their political position. Paradoxically, it is those who use the cover of greater co-operation to progress the goal of a united Ireland which creates the greatest single limitation on maximising co-operation.
I know from my time as Regional Development Minister that there are areas where co-operation is not simply desirable but vital and valuable. I had no difficulty is cooperating in the running of the railway service or road construction to name but two cross-border activities. I even encouraged co-operation on regional planning issues. It is only if the co-operation is driven by political ideology rather than practical considerations that unionists can take exception.
If the North South axis is fashioned to impel towards a political goal not shared by the people I represent then a unionist foot will be applied powerfully to the brake. Nationalist have nothing to gain in those circumstances and unionists would have everything to fear.
If, however, shared practical advantages flow that profit those involved, then my party will drive co-operation forward with enthusiasm and vigour. In these circumstances unionists would have nothing to fear and nationalists would have much to gain from such a relationship.
Mr Chairman, the DUP victory in the Assembly election last November was seen as damaging to the prospects for a political settlement in Northern Ireland by many political commentators and most of the media. I believe they made a fundamental miscalculation.
The election transformed the agenda, it gave a greater sense of confidence to the unionist community, it ensured that any agreed settlement would be conclusive and it replaced the tendency to rely on obfuscation and fudge with the need to bring clarity to the critical issues. Unionism had become disillusioned over the last six years with the direction of its political leadership. There was a sense that every round of negotiations paved the way for yet more concessions without any final resolution of key issues. The sense of drift and defeatism was palpable. That all changed in November.
There is no doubt that the single biggest problem facing our society is the scourge of terrorism. For too long it has blighted the lives of people in Northern Ireland and, on some very tragic occasions, has also affected this city and other parts of the Republic.
Since September 2001 terrorism of the kind previously practiced by the Provisional IRA is no longer a tenable option. The world-wide attitude to terrorism is not a forgiving one. The IRA’s violence has not removed the border, it has merely served to more deeply divide the land they want to see united. The reality is that a full-scale return to violence by republicans is virtually impossible today and they know it. Yet they continue with their terrorism they have merely altered its nature and scale. Paramilitaries are still able to exert their influence through the threat of violence, they exercise territorial domination at times by using violence against those in their own communities and there are periodic bursts of high level terrorist activity. This capability must be eliminated completely.
Whether they are yet at the point of coming to terms with all that is required will become clear in the next few months. But they must not be allowed to blame their refusal to divvy-up on anyone else and hope to escape behind the dust they throw up. The political process has been crippled over the last six years by a lack of clarity and certainty. It has been a process where expediency has triumphed over sound judgment. Deals have been cobbled together only to collapse when touched by the first political tremor. Ambiguity led inexorably to instability. Some have argued that this ambiguity was required to get the process underway, but the truth is that it was a mechanism to avoid taking hard decisions. Reaching a lasting and durable settlement must be valued more highly than getting an early deal cobbled together.
The victory of the DUP last November will contribute towards ending that lack of clarity. Few would accuse us of ambiguity. No one need be in any doubt as to our position. What we require is crystal clear and we have been forthright in indicating what our consequential position would be. People here may not support the political stance which we adopt but I hope they have no doubts about our intentions. In our Manifesto for the European election we repeated the terms for our participation in what we described as-"A Mandatory Coalition involving all the major parties."
Consistent with our Assembly Manifesto and our published Policy Paper – Devolution Now – we declared that-
‘A mandatory coalition to include Sinn Fein is only possible when they are demonstrably committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. This requirement must be rigorously judged against the words of Prime Minister Tony Blair. For example, on 15th January this year he said, ‘We cannot have a situation where people are expected to sit in Government with political parties attached to active paramilitary organisations.’ We believe that only when the Blair Necessities have been met can Sinn Fein be entitled to a place in government.’
We received a massive endorsement for this policy position.
The choice for republicans is simple. The terms will not change. Our mandate is clear. The days of half-measures, hidden gestures and woolly words are over. There can be no more each-way bets. Either republicans commit to exclusively peaceful and democratic means or they will have no place in government. Terror and democracy can not co-exist. Those who believe that it can – even for a transitional period – merely legitimise the former and damage the latter.
On this issue we are immovable. Both the British and Irish Government have expressed these sentiments in the past yet until now they allowed themselves to be lured away to follow more expedient paths. We are unshakeable in our determination to hold the line. We have seen the result of allowing violence and democracy to co-exist and it has not brought peace. Those who take a softer line on this issue – perhaps even with the best of intentions – merely increase the bargaining price of the weaponry and further corrupt the political process. This issue must be faced once and for all. It is now over ten years since the first ceasefire yet the IRA is still in existence with its arsenal largely intact.
Too often the demand for an end to paramilitarism has been characterised as a unionist demand. This has allowed republicans to dress up a fundamental democratic requirement as yet another issue to be traded in negotiations. That must not be allowed to continue.
This has been deeply damaging to the political process and the credibility of those involved. Indeed, on many occasions the failure of the IRA to disarm has been given equivalence with the refusal of unionists to share power with those associated with terrorism. This is absurd. It sends out a dangerous signal and gives an excuse for paramilitaries to hold on to their guns. Gerry Adams recently remarked that unionists have been using the IRA as an excuse and that our bluff should be called. Well if that is what you believe Mr Adams then call our bluff! Put us to the test! Destroy the guns! End the terror campaign!
I am glad that, at Lancaster House, both the government of the United Kingdom and the government of the Republic of Ireland in agreeing the agenda for the Leeds Castle talks gave priority to the decommissioning of all the illegal weapons and the ending of all paramilitary activity. We will expect their support in reaching that outcome. Just as we make clear that completion of these issues is a fundamental precondition, we equally make it clear that the position we will adopt on all the Talks matters will be fully in line with the published commitments we have given. The DUP and its leadership do not go back on their word. We will not break our pledges. We are a mandated party and no one has a stronger commitment to living up to their policy pledges than we have.
With the increase in support for Sinn Fein on this side of the border this is no longer simply a question for the people of Northern Ireland. The prospect of having the colleagues of the killer of Garda Gerry McCabe in your Government can be no more appealing to you than having the colleagues of the killers of police officers in an Assembly Executive is for people in Northern Ireland.
Mr Chairman, dealing with paramilitarism requires looking at the position of more than republicans. Loyalist groups continue to be in breach of their ceasefires. Incidents are a daily occurrence. Many terrible attacks have occurred and there is no indication of an end to their campaigns. The concessions given to Sinn Fein were never offered to them and many of the political opportunities are not open to them. The government must address the issue of loyalist paramilitary groups with purpose and resourcefulness. I would admit to having limited influence with loyalist paramilitary groups but increasingly this issue calls out to be addressed. If the IRA were to do what is required of them then securing a complete end of loyalist paramilitary activity would become an imperative which could not be ducked.
In conclusion, Mr Chairman, I genuinely believe – in Ian Paisley’s words – that "the faint outline of an acceptable deal can be detected." I hope we can make real progress at Leeds Castle. There is much to be gained for people here and in Ulster if a stable settlement can be secured this month. However, I must caution that if it takes two years to put together a deal that collapsed it is "a big ask" to put together, within a year, a deal which will work.
Nonetheless, do not doubt our determination, if there is more work required after the Leeds Castle negotiations we shall not walk away. We will not give up. We will not turn our back on the negotiating process. We will not discard our responsibility to work for a solution. We have an electoral mandate to seek a fair deal for all the people of Northern Ireland and we will continue relentlessly until it is accomplished. We are dedicated to this task and determined to see democracy endure and terrorism terminated.
The prize is an end to violence and terror; a good neighbourly relationship between our two countries based on mutual respect; stable, accountable democratic political structures in Northern Ireland with every citizen equal under the law and equally subject to it and a shared agenda to promote policies for the social and economic betterment of every section of the community.
That, Mr Chairman, is a prize worth winning.
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