No distinction between loyalist and republican violence, says Robinson

DUP leader primes party at conference for local and European elections next May

There must "be no distinction between violence by loyalists and violence by dissident republicans", the DUP leader Peter Robinson told his party's annual conference in Belfast.

The disorder that followed Belfast City Council's decision to limit the days the British union flag can fly over City Hall was counter-productive and morally wrong, the First Minister said in his keynote address to some 600 delegates in the La Mon Hotel in east Belfast.

"One of the greatest tragedies over this last year is how legitimate protests descended into violence and economic destruction. This simply damaged the cause and tarnished the image of Northern Ireland, " he added.

"Most unionists were appalled by the flags decision in Belfast but they were also disgusted by the attacks on the police. It was not only morally wrong, it was self-evidently counter-productive. Support drained away from a genuinely good cause when the trouble started. Those who orchestrated the violence sabotaged a sound and just cause.

Also on Saturday, Fr Tim Bartlett, who is secretary to the Northern bishops, became the first Catholic priest to address a DUP conference. He appeared on a panel which included senior Orange Order member David Hume, to discuss the issue of diversity.


Fr Bartlett said there could be common ground on certain issues between the DUP and the Catholic Church, notwithstanding that the “DUP would not be traditionally associated with dialogue with the Catholic Church”.

Fr Bartlett told reporters, “I think the field is becoming more open in terms of people’s choices electorally.

“I think that if the DUP presents a calmer more confident sense of unionism and a commitment to a better society for everybody, if they could avoid any sense of sectarianism and particularly anti-Catholicism I am sure there will be Catholics who will find that the DUP – whether it’s their social or economic policy or indeed their social and moral policies on abortion, same-sex marriage, things like that – who might be inclined to vote for them.”

"And there is no reason why they shouldn't if that's their decision in conscience. The field is wide open and Catholics are free to vote for any party in Northern Ireland."

Mr Robinson used the conference to rally the party for the European and local elections next May. The party also believes it could take a second seat in the three-seater Northern Ireland European constituency, he indicated. The DUP leader made clear that it now has the Ulster Unionist Party European seat of Jim Nicholson in its sights. The DUP's current single MEP Diane Dodds already has been selected to run for Europe and now the party is considering running a second candidate.

Mr Robinson also urged delegates to prime themselves for the elections to the new 11 super councils in May. “We are not simply the largest unionist party, we are the only unionist party capable of leading unionism forward,” he said.

Mr Robinson said he did not know if US diplomat Dr Richard Haass could help politicians reach agreement on a way forward on the past but, but "surely we can at least agree that people must not be re-traumatised in the future".

In an implicit reference to Attorney General John Larkin's call for an end to future inquiries into Troubles-relating killings Mr Robinson said, "It was this party that opposed the Belfast Agreement's prisoner release scheme which flung open the prison gates for terrorist prisoners, so let's be clear, we will block any proposal for an amnesty for terrorists. Victims don't just deserve respect they deserve justice."

Mr Robinson told delegates that the union was secure and indicated there were now opportunities to gain some Catholic support. “We must not turn a struggle with the most obstinate and reactionary forces within republicanism into a conflict with the broader Catholic or even nationalist community,” he said.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times