Conference 2012 - Leader’s Speech

24 November 2012

The Leader’s Speech to the 2012 DUP Annual Conference by Rt Hon Peter Robinson MLA

Peter Robinson MLA

DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland

Peter Robinson

Thank you.  Thank you for that warm welcome.  Thank you for the faithful work each and every one of you have been engaged in over the past year.  When we last met at Conference we celebrated a resounding Assembly victory having won more seats than at any time in our history.   But we’re not done yet!

Over the past twelve months opinion polls have shown DUP support continuing to increase.  The last published poll showed our support has risen while the Ulster Unionist Party’s has fallen.  And we still have a year and a half until the next election!

Let me welcome all the new members who have joined the party whether they have come to us from other parties or arrived fresh and ready to make a contribution in this new era of Northern Ireland politics.

For we stand on the verge of a defining period for unionism.

The siege has lifted, the Troubles as we knew them are over, and the constitutional debate has been won.

A century ago this autumn our forefathers overcame the greatest crisis which ever faced unionism, and in this decade, I believe that we have been presented with unionism’s greatest opportunity.

And this time our purpose is not to defeat, but by words and deeds to persuade.

Having failed to convince people back here of the value of a United Ireland Gerry Adams – like the undead from a “B” movie - roams around the globe lecturing people about creating a united Ireland.   But I want us to use our powers of persuasion here at home, where it matters, to expound the benefits of belonging to the Union.

That means challenging ourselves as well as challenging others and it means building a society where everyone feels equally valued.

In promoting the benefits of the United Kingdom, unionists have a product that none of our political opponents can match.

This autumn other parties have used their conferences to debate opposition, to criticise their political opponents – and sometimes their so-called friends – and to decry what Northern Ireland has achieved.

Today, I want to take a different approach.

I want to talk about the Union, about jobs, about programme delivery and about reconciliation.

I want to focus as much as possible on a vision of hope,  of progress, of optimism and accomplishment - a future built on advancement, on prosperity and on positive politics.

As other parties look inward, we must look outward and beyond our normal horizons.

This has been an historic year.  We have celebrated and commemorated the generation of Ulster men and women whose bravery in 1912 maintained our British citizenship when it faced its most serious threat.

Those were defining days for unionism and for the Union.

They made us what we are today.

But the era we are living through will, I believe, when future generations look back, prove to be equally important.

The forty year campaign to wrench us from the Union may be over, but the new equilibrium has not yet been fully established.

Few generations face the defining moments that confronted our forefathers a century ago.  And few will face the opportunities that are being afforded us now.  

That past generation of unionists saved the Union and ensured the creation of Northern Ireland.

This generation of unionists, yes, our generation, has the opportunity to reshape politics and guarantee Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for centuries to come.

As the leaders of unionism today our responsibility is to hand this Province on to those who come after us in better shape than when we inherited it.

We in this party are the custodians of unionism.

My goal as leader is to lay the groundwork that will cement our place within the Union.

If that means taking tough decisions or abandoning out-dated dogmas, then I’ll do it.

Because the essence of our success has been, and will be, that of remaining true to our enduring values, but doing so in a way relevant to this modern world.

This is not the time for easy contentment about what we have already achieved.  Rather, it’s time to fire ourselves with ambition about what more we can do.

In an age when politics is too often seen as being about the small or the trivial, let the peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland be our driving ambition.

We mustn’t be influenced in this task by the ups and downs of the 24 hour news cycle, only by the perspective of history.

The economic difficulties that we face today are tough, but they will pass and in time our Province will emerge stronger than ever.

On 28th September 1912 our forefathers came as one to sign the Ulster Covenant and the following ten years shaped what became Northern Ireland for the decades that followed.  So too in this generation, will these next few years shape our Province well into the 21st century.

This month we remembered once again those who died in the service of our country and in just four years’ time we will commemorate the centenary of the supreme sacrifice at the Battle of the Somme.

Some people say we live in a selfish and pampered generation and they wonder whether we have people today who would be prepared to make the same kind of sacrifice for their country and community.

I have no doubts.

I look back over that long formation of brave Ulstermen and women who faced terrorism over recent decades and in that same tradition, in the defence of country and community, gave up that most sacred gift, their own lives. 

This month during one of the saddest weeks of my term as First Minister I attended the funerals of Channing Day and of David Black.

Lives lost in the service of others.

Words cannot ease the pain that their families and friends will be feeling now, but we are humbled by their sacrifice.

Both at home and half way around the world these people chose to serve their country.

Nothing can bring them back, but no one can erase the lives they lived nor the service they have given.

Just as we remember those who died serving us all, let us also remember those who continue to do so whether it is here or abroad.

Their extraordinary work allows each of us to live normal lives.

We honour all those heroes today.

As a party it is also right that we spend a moment this afternoon in solidarity with one of our own.   One who terrorists tried to murder but due to his courage and adeptness - he survived.  In spite of facing a hail of bullets and being shot several times, he managed, though injured to shoot one of his would-be assassins before  struggling to his vehicle and driving to the local police station from where he was transferred to hospital.

Not content with their failure to murder him, his home continues to be attacked and he and his family face on-going abuse.  This recently reached a new low when councillors in the same council of which he is a valued member – in his presence – voted to have one of his would-be murderers released from jail.  Conference, I ask you to rise and show support and solidarity with our colleague – our friend – Dungannon Councillor Sammy Brush.

We cannot rewrite history, but we can add a new and better chapter to it.

That responsibility falls to this party. The DUP has triumphed because it is united and strong; because it looks to the future and not just to the past and because it does not just say things to court a popular tide but rather it says what it believes and believes what it says.

And although we have been very successful we must not be smug or complacent.

Just recall how quickly other parties have fallen from power.

I don’t need to warn anyone in this hall what division does to a party’s prospects.

I don’t need to warn anyone in this hall because the DUP has always been as much a family as it is a political party.

During this past decade in particular we have gone from strength to strength, not by closing our doors but by welcoming in all those who share our outlook and values.   And, let me say tantalisingly - we’re not finished yet.

Those who have joined us have made us stronger and in turn it has made unionism stronger.

At every level – in council chambers, in the European Parliament, at Westminster and in Stormont – this party continues to serve the people of Northern Ireland.

I want to thank all of you who have contributed to the party’s continuing success.

As someone who has been in the DUP since its formation – over forty years ago – in good times and bad – when I look around, I have never been more optimistic about the future of our party and our Province.

This year I have attended many mayoral installations.  They included three of our youngest council leaders, the Mayor of North Down, Wesley Irvine, the Mayor of Craigavon, Carla Lockhart and of course the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson.

Young people who are a credit to this party and they and their generation can ensure its success, not just for years, but for decades to come.

It is the work of all our elected representatives that lays the foundation for our success.

In Europe Diane has been tremendous, not just for what she has achieved in the Parliament but what she has delivered for so many individuals and groups up and down the Province.  Our MPs work, complements everything our Assembly team is doing at Stormont.

And when it comes to friendship and loyalty I suspect Mike Nesbitt and Alastair McDonnell could only dream of the level of support that I can rely on from Nigel. 

Our MPs are making their mark and with the Commons arithmetic as it is, we are in a strong position.

At Stormont we have the largest and undoubtedly the most talented team. That makes choosing Executive Ministers one of the  toughest jobs I have. And I want to pay tribute to the work of our Ministerial team. Sammy, Arlene, Edwin, Nelson and of course Johnny, thank you for your service to this party and to the Province.

Together, as a party, we have done extraordinary things over the past ten years.

For almost a decade now this party has been entrusted with the leadership of unionism.

And in that time we have transformed the political map, restored devolution and put Northern Ireland on the right track.

Even the undoubted economic problems that we face don’t alter the fact that at long last we can look towards a better future.

I don’t need to remind you what it was like a decade ago.

Stormont stumbling from one suspension to the next, unionists divided and dispirited, the IRA still armed and active.

Defeatism and despair were common-place, but today we have the confidence of knowing that a majority of Protestants and Catholics alike support our constitutional position within the United Kingdom.   They know they are better off with Britain.

The one party that seems oblivious to the shifting sands of opinion is Sinn Fein.

One of the most bizarre developments in recent times has been the Sinn Fein call for a Border Poll.

Now, I know opinion polls are not a perfect gauge of public opinion, but when the last one showed that fewer than 10% want a United Ireland now, republicans really should take the hint.

Republicans asking for a border poll makes turkeys voting for Christmas look like a carefully considered strategy.

As a unionist, sure of the outcome of such a vote, it would be easy to support a referendum, but that would not make it the right thing to do.

At the heart of the St Andrews Agreement was the knowledge and strength that what was agreed allowed politics in Northern Ireland to move away from issues about the existence of the border.  What Sinn Fein is doing only drags us back into that sterile and divisive debate.

Republicans need to accept Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom and leave the playacting aside; just as Unionists have had to accept the present arrangements at Stormont.

Power sharing is not something that many unionists would place as their first preference, but the reality is that cross community government has increased support for the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland.

Understanding the significance of that trade-off is important as we plan for the future.

It doesn’t mean that every aspect of the present arrangements should be sacrosanct.  It means that any new structures have to be able to command support across the community.

That’s not just my view. It is accepted by virtually every unionist politician.

I get frustrated, when every time I suggest changes that could make Stormont work better, nationalist and republican politicians accuse me of wanting a return to majority rule.

It’s as if they believe I am hatching a cunning plan to return to the 1930s.

I’ve been around politics long enough to know that if any significant part of this community is disaffected then none of us wins.

So I call on nationalists and republicans who are fearful of change to look afresh at our political structures and ask themselves the question: what will best deliver for the people we all represent?

I say to them, “Even if you don’t yet feel ready to create a voluntary coalition government, surely there can’t be any reason not to provide for a credible voluntary opposition.”

I don’t fear facing an opposition. Why should I?  The DUP has by far the best and most able Ministers and there are no better ideas coming from any other party or member in the Assembly.   In truth, I would prefer the UUP to work alongside us in harmony and in partnership but I am prepared to facilitate them or indeed any other party if they feel they cannot make a positive contribution in the Executive and wish to opt for an opposition role.

Let's be open and honest, being in the Executive has not prevented some from positioning themselves in opposition when it suited them.  I forced myself to listen to Alasdair McDonald speak to his party faithful - and some not so faithful.   He attacked the Executive for what it had done and he attacked the Executive what it hadn't done. He criticised the Executive for its ideas and he criticised the Executive for having no ideas. What bemused me most was not just the nonsense he was uttering but that he appeared to be completely unaware that his party was in the Executive. 

In the SDLP’s world - and not theirs alone - they are in the Executive when positive announcements are to be made but they are found heading the opposition charge when hard decisions have to be taken.

But let me be clear – as the party that has consistently sought to improve the Assembly structures - the DUP is remains willing to support additional resources and speaking time for a genuine opposition as a modest first step towards normalisation of our democratic structures.

Look, governing is never easy, and governing during a recession is particularly challenging.

There are those who have nothing to contribute other than attacking others and attributing blame.

But criticising the banks, our national government, the Executive or global capitalism doesn’t amount to a strategy for recovery.

Some politicians seem to think that their finest achievement will be to pass the buck to save their own jobs rather than to take the difficult decisions necessary to get the economy moving again and thereby saving other people’s jobs.

This party, sometimes virtually alone, has taken the difficult and responsible decisions while others have preferred to play politics.

Make no mistake, although we will eagerly work with others ours is the only party capable of leading unionism through the years that lie ahead.

And we can only do that if we retain the confidence of those we serve.

That will mean challenging ourselves again and again.

After all, we are not just the largest party within unionism; we are the party for Northern Ireland.

So as unionists we cannot afford to push a narrow agenda. We must embrace the whole community.  Because it is our responsibility to make Northern Ireland work.

That means winning the battle of ideas and it means making hard choices – not just the popular ones.  It means being able to compromise when we need to reach agreements and it means standing firm when matters of principle are at stake.

Above all, it means representing the whole community, not just one section of it.

In a society that is as politically divided as ours that’s not always easy.

However, I would argue, that failing isn’t the real crime when striving for a worthwhile goal; the real crime is not having the guts to try in the first place.

I admit, it is still a challenge to reconcile the future with the past and to reconcile one community with another.

Some people still wonder, after all that has happened, how we can work with Sinn Fein.

The answer’s simple: it’s really not about us; it’s about making life better for the people we represent.

It’s not always easy, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

Northern Ireland is stronger when we work together at home and abroad.

Because working together means working for every citizen of this Province and getting things done. 

It means attracting foreign investment into Northern Ireland and it means opening up new international markets for our local businesses.

Presenting a united face abroad, whether it’s in the United States, India or China, is the surest sign that the political stability exists for inward investment.

It’s a demonstration that as a society we are moving forward.

It’s a signal to the world that politics works and that the peace we have achieved is here to stay.

It’s an indication that Northern Ireland is a place in which international business can safely place its money.

And isn’t it far better to have all of the main political parties in Northern Ireland committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means?

Working together doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, it’s about working through issues and finding the maximum degree of consensus possible.

But while politics has made huge strides forward in Northern Ireland, every so often we are confronted with the horror of what was once an everyday occurrence.

I welcome calls from the leadership of Sinn Fein to bring dissident murderers to justice even if some of their members are still stuck in the past. 

I see it as real progress, but I reject absolutely the notion that there is any moral difference between those murdered by dissidents and those murdered during the Troubles.

There’s never been the slightest justification for the forty years of terrorism that blighted our Province and divided our people.  None of the problems in our society required a single life to be taken.

We will not permit Sinn Fein to erase those parts of history that are inconvenient.  We will not allow them to engage in revisionism.  Recently Declan Kearney under a banner of “reconciliation” sought to blame all the sins in Christendom on everyone other that republicans.  You would have thought that the IRA had never existed.  His personal and bitter unionist-hating rant exposed his intention to use the worthy goal of reconciliation to airbrush the evil acts of republican terrorists from the history books.

It would be a betrayal of the legacy of all who have suffered if history were to be rewritten to salve the consciences of the perpetrators. 

The DUP’s goal is to craft a new and better future for Northern Ireland. 

But we will not allow history to be re-written! 

I seek true and genuine reconciliation, but it will not happen by trying to spin a false or sanitised version of the past.

Though we all arrived at this point by very different routes, we all have a part to play in building better relationships.

I am increasingly impatient to publish our “good relations” strategy which is all but ready to go to Party Leaders.  It doesn’t contain everything that either I or any other leader would want - but it is a hugely positive step.  I must say I take a dim view of any political party that seeks to use a sensitive issue like this to cause division in order to garner votes.

Consensus government means we have to move forward with the highest level of agreement possible.  Nobody gets everything they want, but even so, let us be clear about one thing, ultimately, reconciliation will not be brought about by the words of a document, but by changes in people’s attitudes.

And in this current year I have sought to reach out to those with whom we would not traditionally have been associated.  

It’s a slow process, but politics here is changing and the small steps taken today can soon become the new norm.

Mr Chairman, the electorate is turning its focus increasingly on the search for solutions to their everyday problems and the DUP is the party that can provide the answers – and it will do so by seeking support right across the community.

Now, I’m realistic enough to know it will be a slow process but our direction of travel must be clear.

The critics who doubt that we can achieve this goal, are the same ones who scoffed at the thought of the DUP becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party.

The reality today is that the ‘left’ and ‘far left’ policies of both of the nationalist parties leave many Catholics effectively disenfranchised.

As the leader of a party that seeks to represent the whole community I’m not prepared to write off over 40% of our population as being out of reach.

And I know that building this new constituency will require as much of an adjustment from us as it will require a leap of faith from those whose votes we seek.

The exact same disconnect also applies to our rapidly-emerging new communities from Eastern Europe and farther afield.  These are people who have come to Northern Ireland in search of a better life and greater opportunity.

Our policies are perfectly tailored to their hard working culture of aspiration for themselves and their families.

The DUP’s aggressive economic policies offer them the right sort of deal – one that boosts inward investment, creates jobs, and is geared to generating prosperity.

We shouldn’t be afraid to strive for any of these votes.

Despite the economic difficulties, the past twelve months have offered a tantalising glimpse of a better future for Northern Ireland.

Despite what you might see or hear in the media, it isn’t all arguing and bickering.

No one knows better than I do how frustrating operating a multi-party coalition government can be.  But that’s the price we pay for an Executive that commands such widespread support.

As First Minister it frustrates me to hear some commentators and politicians take every chance they get to talk Northern Ireland down.

To listen to them you would think that nothing good had happened over the last five years or that devolution hadn’t made a difference to ordinary people’s lives.

And because that diet of defeatism is all that people hear about the Executive and politics it’s hardly surprising that they are cynical about Stormont.

So let me take a few minutes to highlight just some of our achievements that have made a real difference.

Because the Executive deferred Water Charges and froze the Regional Rate we have the lowest household taxes in the entire United Kingdom.

And for people over 70 living alone, we have provided a 20% discount on their Regional Rate bill.

As a result of policies set by the Executive, Northern Ireland has the most attractive business taxes in the UK.  We retained industrial de-rating and are now extending the Small Business Rates Relief scheme to make it the most extensive anywhere in the Kingdom.

We also have a more generous free travel policy than anywhere in Great Britain.

And don’t forget we delivered a £225 million rescue package for Presbyterian Mutual Society savers.

As a party we negotiated a £20 million gratuity package for Part-Time Reserve Police Officers and ensured an end to the discriminatory 50-50 police recruitment policy.

This Executive has ensured that Higher Education is open to all by freezing Student Fees, in real terms, for Northern Ireland universities.

And we have ensured the survival of grammar schools by retaining the option of academic selection.

My top priority for this Assembly term is more jobs. We can’t buck world-wide trends, but we can make a difference.

Executive Ministers have mounted the most ambitious campaigns ever to attract investment from abroad.

Our goal is to create an economy which will allow our young people to make their lives here and to attract back many of those who have previously left for foreign shores.

We would be enormously assisted in this task if we had Corporation Tax-setting powers and, I’m glad to report, we made further progress on this on Tuesday with the Prime Minister. I believe it would help to rebalance our economy and reduce our economic reliance on the Treasury.

Just remember that before the Troubles began over 90% of all expenditure by the Northern Ireland government was met by money raised here. And that should be our goal again.

Not reliant on the central exchequer, but an engine of economic prosperity in our own right.

While our existing economic levers are limited, we have still been able to make a difference.

Earlier this year the Assembly agreed our ten-year economic strategy and earlier this month the Executive agreed a short term economic stimulus plan.

We have listened to business and we have sought to respond.

We are moving forward on an agreed basis pursuing the 83 commitments set out in our Programme for Government.  These targets represent a real and viable business plan to move Northern Ireland forward, grow our economy and achieve the social changes that are necessary to ensure that our community — a single, unified community — moves from strength to strength.

The targets we have set are spread across all our departments and although they are ambitious and will stretch every Minister we are determined to maximise delivery and be judged on the level of delivery we can achieve.

In spite of the downturn we are on course to meet our PfG commitment against the key economic target of supporting the promotion of over 25,000 new jobs.

Despite the economic challenges the Executive is starting to change the face of the Northern Ireland economy.

We have gone across the globe bringing back foreign direct investment and opening new markets to our local businesses.  None of this would have been possible without the peace and prosperity that has been achieved.

Today, Belfast is gaining an impressive reputation as an IT hub and key financial trading centre - hosting not just the New York Stock Exchange but the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as well.

Belfast is now among the world’s top 10 cities for financial technology investments ahead of Dublin, Glasgow, Toronto and even Bangalore.

Outside of London, Belfast is now the UK's most attractive city for foreign direct investment.

Not only did we attract HBO to come here to film their most successful television series ever, but we invested in the future by contributing to the building of a second studio.  And such is our confidence in this sector that we are currently in negotiations to build a third studio as well.

This year Titanic Belfast opened its doors, one hundred years after the ship’s first and final journey.  It’s a visitor attraction that will rival anything, anywhere in the world and makes Belfast a must see tourist destination.  In less than six months it has already exceeded its annual target.

The project was made possible because the Executive invested £371/2 million in it.

This year we also opened the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre where the Executive invested over £9 million.  Both facilities are heading towards one million visitors this year and both have over 60% of their visitors coming from outside Northern Ireland.

For the first time in many years because of Executive investment, Northern Ireland hosted the Irish Open Golf tournament and brought record European attendances across the four days of the championship.  In the years to come I hope we will see other major Golf tournaments come here and we are working hard to accomplish this goal.

Northern Ireland also played its part in this year’s truly national events. The Royal Jubilee, the Olympics and Paralympics showed the United Kingdom at its very best.

For many of us the absolute high point of the year was Her Majesty’s visit to Northern Ireland as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It was another tangible sign of how things have changed.  For the first time in decades we were able to invite tens of thousands of people to Belfast and Enniskillen for a celebration befitting this most Royal occasion. The Queen has been an ever-steady hand at the helm of British life over six decades.  In the best and worst of times she has been an inspiring example of steadfastness, tradition and wise counsel.   

On this Jubilee year let this Conference send a message on behalf of a people upon whose loyalty and support she can always depend - “Long may you reign over us.  God save the Queen.”

It didn’t take the Diamond Jubilee or the Olympics to make us proud of our nation, but there’s no doubt that for many it was a reminder of what we have to offer.

Ours is a nation that is made up not just of those from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland or those for whom English is the language of their birth, but of those who have come to live here and who share our values and ideals.  I’m proud that Britishness is about diversity and inclusivity.

That’s why the story of Mo Farah was an inspiration to us all.

Born in Somalia, he moved to the UK when he was just eight years old.  He ran for Britain and became a national hero overnight winning two gold medals in the London Olympics.

When asked by a journalist whether he would rather have run for Somalia, he replied, “look mate, this is my country.”

His story epitomises the spirit of this nation.

And just as Mo Farah has done it, so too can any of the new settlers who have come to these shores to build their lives.

Next year will be another great year when Londonderry will be the UK City of Culture and Belfast will welcome the World Police and Fire games.

And, next June, when Northern Ireland hosts the G8 summit on behalf of the United Kingdom we will take our place on the world stage and we’ll have a once in a lifetime opportunity to market the Province to an international audience.

None of this would have been remotely possible just a few years ago.  None of this would have happened without the political progress that has been made.

And none of this progress would have occurred if republican paramilitary dissidents or unionist political dissidents had got their way.

So, as you can see, the DUP is putting Northern Ireland on the international map.

It’s encouraging, that just as we have had the confidence to take Northern Ireland forward, others have shown confidence in us, by bringing the most significant major events here.  I believe we have in this generation made a positive difference.

And when we gather again in twelve months’ time we will be facing into a fresh electoral challenge.

Let us not squander the opportunity that is before us to reshape politics in this Province for future generations.  Let us rise to the challenge as did our forefathers and let us leave the legacy of Northern Ireland as a shared society at the heart of a permanently United Kingdom.

Someday, long after this generation of unionists has passed, let it be said that when our time came we too gave of our best.

Let giving of our best be the goal that motivates us in all that we do in the months that lie ahead.

It was H G Wells who said, “The past is but the beginning of a beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.”

We have the opportunity to make tomorrow a better day. And in so doing it must be a better day for everyone.  That’s the task that faces us.  Let us never lose sight that the people democratically conferred upon this party the honour and responsibility to provide leadership to move Northern Ireland forward.  It’s our task to harness and direct the potential, the promise, the greatness of our people and to lead Northern Ireland into a future based on our vision of a peaceful, stable, united and shared community.

May God grant us strength and wisdom and give us favour with the people empowering us to bring about that better day.   Thank you.

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