Robinson tells DUP conference his work is ‘almost done’
First Minister gives final address as he prepares to step down as party leader
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson: ‘My successor will face the sometimes ferocious rigour of high office. It is not a task for the faint-hearted. There will be long dark nights but believe me, morning does come.’ Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson has told his party’s annual conference his work is “almost done” and it is now time for “the next generation to step forward”.
Mr Robinson in his final address to conference as party leader said he was bowing out safe in the knowledge that Northern Ireland was on “safe ground” and the DUP was in “good shape to take Northern Ireland forward”.
Mr Robinson did not directly pass on the baton to Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster as prospective leaders and First Minister but he might as well have done so. He used his speech to pay special tribute to them.
“Nigel has been faithful, loyal and wise and always willing to share counsel. You don’t just see him when the cameras role - he’s there to do his portion of the unappealing drudgery that also must be done,” he said.
“And my thanks to Arlene Foster our finance minister who has effectively deputised for me at Stormont. Arlene never refuses to help when asked and is always first to offer support. Hard work doesn’t frighten her and her abilities are recognised in every post she has held,” he added.
“I count myself fortunate to have had both Nigel and Arlene, not just as party colleagues, but as friends.”
At the end of this speech and to loud standing applause, he bade some 600 delegates a “fond and affectionate farewell”.
He also made reference to his heart scare of last May. “My race is nearly run; advancing years and failing health bring with them a sense of mortality and counsel me that in time - though I hope not too soon - I must pass beyond the reach of earthly powers,” he said.
“I thank God that He planted me in this corner of his creation. I thank God that He allowed me to live a life of purpose and service to the people I love. I thank God He placed in my heart a love for my country, its traditions and way of life - and a passion to defend them. I thank God He bound me, in this cause and in this party, to like souls who felt that same conviction and devotion.”
Otherwise though, Mr Robinson was in combative electoral mode, looking to next May’s Assembly elections, and castigating his chief unionist adversary, the Ulster Unionist Party and its leader Mike Nesbitt, while also defending the Fresh Start agreement struck last Tuesday which prompted a lukewarm response from the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance.
“Mike Nesbitt has stated that his ambition is to hear Gerry Adams admit that the IRA still exists: my ambition is to hear the chief constable say that it doesn’t. That’s the difference. The UUP want to wallow in the problem. The DUP want to work to eradicate the problem,” he said.
Mr Robinson said that in the talks the “DUP held its nerve, rolled up its sleeves, did the hard graft and attained the most comprehensive result ever achieved on disbanding paramilitary groups and all their structures and tackling paramilitary criminality and organised crime.
“There is no discomfort in this deal for unionists. There is no pain for those who want political progress. I can with absolute confidence and assurance recommend it to the people of Northern Ireland,” he added.
Mr Robinson slated the UUP for withdrawing its single minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Northern Executive following the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan - an act that exacerbated what already was a developing political crisis.
“As the UUP consigned itself to the wilderness and rendered itself impotent one talks wag summed it up best: ‘How many Ulster Unionists does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer is - ‘None, the Ulster Unionist Party can’t change anything.’
“The truth is that when they left the Executive ‘principle’ and ‘conviction’ were characteristics they never consulted or exercised,” he said.
“This was a base and squalid act of electoral convenience. It was political chicanery at the cost of people’s hopes and future. It was both a short-term and short-sighted political ruse.”
Mr Robinson said he was proud to “state of our party is sound, our province is safe and the union is secure. Ulster is no longer at the crossroads - we’re on the motorway and on a clear path to a better future”.
Mr Robinson said that while the DUP did not hold the balance of power after the May Westminster elections, the Conservatives with their narrow majority may still seek its support.
“Make no mistake, in the coming months and years of this parliament, our influence and our pivotal role will grow and grow. As we said during the election, ‘more votes, more seats, more for Northern Ireland’. I can assure you - when that day comes - we will use our influence wisely.”
He also believed Tuesday’s deal was a pivotal moment. “I believe that it can mark a break with the past and a fresh start. It means that politics can work again and start once more to deliver for those who elected us with the threat of bankruptcy and collapse removed,” he said.
“The fundamental block on politics these last three years has been the refusal of some to face up to financial realities and accept welfare reform. That impasse soured relations; starved key public services of much needed resources, and threatened the Executive with financial ruin.
“This deal ends that uncertainty and removes the obstacles to progress.”
Mr Robinson also thanked his family and his wife Iris, whose affair with 19-year Kirk McCambley almost cost him his leadership in 2010. “They have always sacrificed to give me the space to perform my public duties. I trust the Lord will give me strength and time to make up for the price they each have had to pay,” he said.
As for his successor as DUP leader, Mr Robinson said: “I know how difficult a job this will be but I also know how rewarding it is to be able to change things for the better. My successor will face the sometimes ferocious rigour of high office. It is not a task for the faint-hearted. There will be long dark nights but believe me, morning does come.
“Whoever the party chooses I will give them my wholehearted and unqualified support. I will offer them advice in private and nothing other than support in public. That’s what fidelity and dignity require and what solidarity and friendship deserves.”