The current generation of unionists can reshape politics, gain a degree of Catholic support and guarantee Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson has told his party’s annual conference.
During his keynote speech at the La Mon Hotel in east Belfast today, Mr Robinson ridiculed recent Sinn Féin calls for a united Ireland, which he described as “bizarre”. Sinn Féin, he added, appeared oblivious to the shifting sands of public opinion.
“Now I know opinion polls are not a perfect gauge of public opinion, but when the last one showed that fewer than 10 per cent want a united Ireland, now republicans really should take the hint,” he said.
“Republicans asking for a Border poll makes turkeys voting for Christmas look like a carefully considered strategy,” he added.
Mr Robinson said the reality today was that the “left and far left policies” of the SDLP and Sinn Féin left many Catholics disenfranchised. “As the leader of a party that seeks to represent the whole community, I’m not prepared to write off over 40 per cent of our population as being out of reach.”
But he told delegates that seeking to gain some of that support would require changes within unionism. “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.”
Referring to the period of the Ulster Covenant 100 years ago, he said the 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.
“Defeatism and despair were commonplace, 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 in Britain,” he added.
Mr Robinson said that “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.
“Some people still wonder, after all that has happened, how we can work with Sinn Féin. The answer is 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 the right thing to do. Northern Ireland is stronger when we work together at home and abroad.”
Mr Robinson said he was frustrated by some republican allegations that proposals to restructure the Northern Executive and Assembly were an attempt to return to unionist 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 - that none of us wins.”
In an implicit comment directed at the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, which each have a single ministry in the Executive, he said, “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.”
He welcomed Sinn Féin calls for dissident republican murderers to be brought to justice. “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,” he said.
“There’s never been the slightest justification for the 40 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,” he added.
Mr Robinson said he was increasingly impatient to publish the Executive’s cohesion, sharing and integration strategy to tackle sectarianism, which was “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.”
Mr Robinson said Northern Ireland would be “enormously assisted” if it had the power to set its own rate of corporation tax. He said “further progress” was made on the issue when he and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness met the British prime minister on Tuesday.