Unfortunately due to the WiFI collapsing at the La Mon hotel Saturday afternoon, we didn’t get a copy of the party leader, Peter Robinson’s speech until later. Here are my initial thoughts on what he said:
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.
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.
I really do not believe that the constitutional debate has been “won”, I don’t think it can ever be finally “won” because history does not work along logical, linear lines. I do concede, however, at this moment in time, the pro-Union movement is in a very strong position.
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.
The “majority of Catholics supporting the constitutional position” is what has made the headlines this year (last it was his attack on religious segregation in the education system). This assertion has, as is to be expected caused much subsequent spluttering and metaphorical head exploding in Irish republican circles. Robinson hasn’t said the majority of Catholics are now Unionists, he hasn’t even said they consider themselves British. He merely said the majority of Catholics are content with the status quo at the present time. Which is true, or at least, according to the most recent opinion polls is true. With regards the border poll- Gerry Adams needs to prove that all Catholics and a sizeable minority (5-10%) of protestants would be likely to vote for a 32 county state before the Belfast Agreement would permit the Secretary of State to call such a vote.
I do have a suspicion (be it based on cynicism or be it based on paranoia) that both Robinson and Adams are anticipating the religious breakdown results, which will be released on December 11th. Robinson is preempting an increase in the catholic population by trying to calm his backwoodsmen; Gerry on the other hand is trying to raise the sectarian temperature by second guessing the same change and by implicitly adopting the Old Catholic=nationalist equation. I have a post coming on this later on in the week.
“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.”
They are republicans and that’s what republicans do but they will only have a “sterile and divisive debate” if Unionists decide to play their bigoted game.
“I’ve been around politics long enough to know that if any significant part of this community is disaffected then none of us wins.”
That’s an indisputable truth and it would have been an unthinkable statement from a DUP leader even five years ago.
“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?
“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.”
That goes to the very heart of the Stormont system’s weakness- power without the accompanying responsibility. If the UUP and the SDLP pulled out that would leave a DUP-Sinn Fein governing coalition which could prove to be a very interesting hard sell for both parties’ faithful.
“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 have bunched those sentences together because I think they are the core internal message that Robinson is passing onto his party and it is not the mere fluffy propaganda which is the standard core of most leaders’ conference speeches.
Unionism needs to sell its message to the whole “community”; no “ifs”, no “buts”. The problem for Robinson is that “persuasion” might increase the pro-Union feeling but it is unlikely to increase the voting numbers for the party. In other words, DUP representatives will be asked to come out of the communal bunker for the sake of the Union as opposed to the possibility of an increased personal vote at the next election. That is a very hard thing to ask of any politician.
“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.”
This is the justification for working with Sinn Fein and really there is nothing I could argue with there. First priority is always what is good for Northern Ireland- if that means working with Sinn Fein in a business-like manner, if that means working closer with the Dublin government, then that is what Unionists should be doing.
But the fight against Sinn Fein’s attempted rewriting of history (one has only to look how Republicans have whitewashed the likes of the Kingsmills and La Mon massacre on Wikipedia to be aware of their true intentions) is one in which all democratic folk of whatever political persuasion should join in with Robinson:
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.
Again, comes the call for the DUP to start evangelising (in the political sense!) amongst the non-protestant sector of society:
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.
How will his party on the ground react to that and this call?
“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.”
Finally the demand for this generation of Unionists to leave their mark on history:
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.
And that, for me, was this year’s message to take home but it was one aimed much more at the delegates (as opposed to the electorate or media) than in previous years. I think that is because Robinson realises that the first persuasion job, the one internally within his own party, may prove a much more difficult than the external one.
As a Unionist, I can only wish him the best of luck.Share on Facebook