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Speech by Peter Robinson (DUP), Castlereagh Borough Council, (18 October 2013)

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

Speech by Peter Robinson, then leader of the Democratic Unionist Paty (DUP), at Castlereagh Borough Council's Mayoral Installation Dinner, (18 October 2013)

[Extracts from speech]


"When I spoke at the Mayoral Installation here in 2011 my speech on shared education received a level of attention and controversy that I had not anticipated.  In a relatively short period in political terms that policy has been adopted by the Executive as part of its Programme for Government.  It has been publicly acclaimed as the way forward in breaking down educational apartheid.  It has been given priority funding for capital construction to begin and it has been endorsed by HMG who have offered financial support for shared education projects.

I hope I can gain the same level of progress with the issue I want to touch on this evening.  For tonight, I hope there will be no objections if I speak on the state of unionism.  I have chosen this event not just because the percentage of unionists in Castlereagh is one of the highest in the Province but because unionists in Castlereagh have proven that they can take sensible and practical steps in the wider unionist interest.

I want to contribute to the debate within unionism as to how we should address the challenges we all face and will continue to face in the years to come.  A debate that crosses party lines but one which has the potential for us all to find a better way forward.

The simple and unchallengeable reality is that the Union has never been stronger. We must be careful not to jeopardise all that has been won by trying to turn back the clock to a bygone era.

Of course there are challenges and difficulties, of course things have changed from the way they were half a century ago – and will continue to change – of course compromises have had to be made, but the fundamental strength of our position remains.

Despite the difficulties over the last few months there is still much to be confident and positive about.  The main terror campaign that sought to eject Northern Ireland from the UK is over. 

Support for the Union has never been higher.  When Republicans can’t even persuade a majority of their own people of the case for a United Ireland you know their game is up.  For the first time in generations Northern Ireland has stable political structures.

We need to demonstrate in word and deed that we are confident about ourselves and our future. We have so much to celebrate and reason to be optimistic for the future. We can’t be blind to the challenges that we face as a community and as a society but we must also see these in their proper perspective.

In the last year Northern Ireland has demonstrated on a global stage what a great place this is in which to live, work and visit. We hosted the UK’s G8 summit in Fermanagh and the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast and beyond.  And last week we brought investors from all over the world to see what we have to offer. I am confident that in time that effort will translate into jobs and into greater prosperity for our people. And that is the image of Northern Ireland that I want to preserve and propagate.

It is often telling that those from beyond our borders and shores can see what Northern Ireland has to offer better than we do ourselves. Their testimony should be an inspiration and encouragement to us.

I want unionists to look beyond the short-term challenges and understand just how strong our position actually is.

I’m tired listening to people who talk unionism and Northern Ireland down.  We have every reason to be confident as a community and as a society.  With Northern Ireland’s constitutional position secure for as far as anybody can see into the future the only potential threat there is to our position comes from within.

These have been a difficult twelve months for community relations in Northern Ireland.  Tensions around flags, parades and protests have not only been politically destabilising, they have been economically damaging as well.

The decision of Belfast City Council to lower the Union Flag over City Hall had a profound impact. It’s no secret that I believe that decision was wrong.  It was unnecessary, divisive and aggressive and the legacy of that decision has plagued the political process in the months since.

Ultimately unionists have little or no control over how others behave, but we should have control over how we react.  It was right and proper that people wanted to protest and signal their opposition to the decision of Belfast City Council but when some protests turned to violence, whose interests did that serve? 

The violence was not only wrong but it was also politically self-defeating.  It diminished the protest’s legitimacy and it diminished the volume of protestors – put bluntly people who were and are genuinely aggrieved by the Council decision were not prepared to be associated with unlawful behaviour.  We need to find a better way forward.   The whole flags decision by Belfast City Council has been a sorry episode and one which revealed the fault lines just beneath the surface of this society.  Fears and frustrations which had lain dormant came into plain sight.  I hope that the process chaired by Dr Richard Haass can help solve some of the particular problems that we face but it is up to us to address the underlying issues.

Unionism has historically had a siege mentality.  When we were being besieged it was the right response.  But when we are in a constitutionally safe and stable position it poses as a threat to our future development.  Demographic changes and social change mean that we need to build bigger and broader coalitions and not to retreat into an ever-diminishing core.

Unionism has always been a broad coalition of interests and never more so than today.  Unionism is not monolithic as some believe but diverse and constantly evolving.  That is clear both from the recent census but also from what we see around us.  We are as one over our wish to remain within the United Kingdom but differ in our views and perspectives over social, economic and cultural issues.  We need to accommodate all of those voices.

Unionism must be defined by more than just our stance on issues such as flags and parades but by the benefits of living within the United Kingdom. 

While our position in the United Kingdom has never been more secure, we have to accept that Northern Ireland has changed and we must react to that change. The large majority enjoyed by unionist parties in the old Stormont Parliament does not exist in the Northern Ireland Assembly.  That’s not just down to cross community voting but to demographic shifts.

I fear the real danger for unionism lies not in what our opponents would seek to do to us but in what we sometimes do to ourselves.  When there should be confidence about our future there is defeatism among certain unionists.  This is a feeble substitute for a political strategy.  They are like Private James Frazer from Dad’s Army, running around crying “We’re all doomed.  We’re all doomed”.  It’s hardly an approach likely to endear those politicians to the wider electorate or provide the leadership to overcome the problems we face.

Some even go on about unionist culture being eroded but they have no strategy to tip the scales in the other direction.  Unionists are the purveyors of unionist culture.  Nobody can take our culture away from us.  It’s within us.  It’s our values.  It’s our art and music.  It’s our beliefs.  It’s our history.  It’s how we express ourselves.  It’s our way of life.  Outsiders might try – and from time to time succeed – in limiting our cultural expression in a specific place or manner but they have no power to stop us increasing our expression in other ways.  Such a nationalist strategy doesn’t make me feel culturally diminished.  It just makes me angry.  Angry that people cannot respect and tolerate diversity.  But that anger should be channelled into overcoming such intolerance.

The proper response is to establish ways to counter by cultivating, developing and growing our cultural manifestation while at the same time seeking within the law to overturn those bad decisions that have caused such offence within our community.

Then there are those who would talk Northern Ireland and unionism down.  That’s the role we expect republicans to perform. Such defeatism is self-fulfilling.  We should not do our opponents’ job for them.

What we need is not unionist unity based on the lowest common denominator of opinions, but real co-operation which encompasses the widest possible spectrum of those who wish to remain a part of the United Kingdom. We must never allow any single faction within unionism to undermine the broad consensus that has been achieved.

Unionism needs to think and act strategically.  Adopting political strategies that will inevitably lead down a cul de sac is not politically courageous, it is politically crazy.  Because if unionists are not seen to make Northern Ireland work within the Union then no one will. 

Unionism will only succeed if it is a broad coalition of interests. I accept that not every person who wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom will share my affection for the national flag or even my cultural heritage. My responsibility as leader of the largest unionist party is to seek to hold that broad coalition together for it is only the capacity to bring together those with differing views under a common banner that gives unionism its strength.

In building for the future we must understand and address some of the underlying issues that exist in some communities. What is needed is investment and jobs, a greater focus on education and opportunities to succeed and not a community blighted by drug dealers and criminals.   In the Executive, through its Delivering Social Change Programmes and the Social Investment Fund, I believe we can begin to address some of the long-standing and deep-seated issues. I hope that we will be in a position in the coming weeks to announce the go ahead for the first tranche of projects.

So, looking back, what lessons can we learn from these last twelve months? 

Firstly, both unionists and nationalists have to be committed to wanting to move forward.  One side reaching out the hand of friendship while the other is seen to agitate will not work. We must all move forward together.

Secondly, both unionists and nationalists have to avoid words and actions that will damage community relations. That means avoiding decisions that will deepen divisions rather than resolving differences. It also means showing respect by how we behave to those who do not share our culture and ethos.

Thirdly, support for the rule of law cannot be conditional.  Attacks on the police, whether now or in the past, are wrong and must be condemned as such.  There is no moral defence or validation in robustly condemning republican attacks on the police while being ambivalent or mealy-mouthed about loyalist attacks on the police.

Fourthly, we must think and act strategically and ensure that our actions strengthen and not weaken our position within the United Kingdom.

Lastly, as Unionists we must work together to strengthen our hand.  Our long-term constitutional future requires us to work together to deliver for our people.

None of this is easy. We can be thrown off course by events.  We have seen that all too clearly in the last twelve months. But the direction we should be taking is also clear.

Unionists and nationalists will face some big decisions in the next few months. We can get back on track to a shared and united community which can benefit everyone in Northern Ireland or we can go back to the forty year conflict.  There is no middle option.  I heard someone recently suggest that the collapse of the Assembly would not mean a return to violence and disorder.  Such foolishness.  Happily, it’s only an academic argument but I have absolutely no doubt that if the Assembly were to fall it would leave a void which every malign force would seek to exploit and profit from.  Paramilitary organisations which are presently contained would be reinforced and bracing themselves for an opening to wage terror.

I remain absolutely committed to delivering a better Northern Ireland for everyone. I want to work with others to see that aspiration delivered.  We will see in the months to come if others are up to that challenge"




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