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FIRST MINISTER ADDRESSES BIA CONFERENCE IN OXFORD 

First Minister of Northern Ireland Rt Hon Peter Robinson MLA today made the following speech at the 2012 British-Irish Association Conference in Oxford.  Mr Robinson said,

"After a break of many years it’s good to be back at a British Irish Association event.   How times have changed since I was last here. Politics in Northern Ireland has been transformed and the agenda for your conference reflects that.   No longer is Northern Ireland viewed as a place apart and now, unionism is seen in a wider UK context.

As we have again witnessed in the last few weeks there are still considerable challenges to overcome, but Northern Ireland is unrecognisable from the dark days of the 1970s.

I suspect that not many of the veterans among you would have imagined that the outcome of the political process in Northern Ireland would be a DUP led administration at Stormont sharing power with Sinn Fein and others.

The upcoming Scottish referendum on independence has put the question of the Union on the national agenda for the first time in many years. Today, I want to not just consider the implications of the referendum in Scotland but to focus the debate on the nature as well as the existence of the Union.

I believe that lessons can be learned from the recent experience of Northern Ireland that have application across the UK.   After decades of conflict and division there is now consistent majority support even within the Catholic community for the constitutional status quo.   Key to this support is participation in Government and a respect for culture and tradition.

The United Kingdom has an evolving constitution and it is essential that our structures keep pace with the requirements of each generation.  Looked at from the perspective of history devolution is a relatively novel development for Scotland and Wales especially. It will be some time before we can draw many conclusions about what its impact has been.   We are still in the early years of the constitutional irony where each part of the United Kingdom is governed by different political parties than those in government at Westminster.

It will be for history to judge whether devolution helped  change but secure the Union or whether it began an inexorable drive to break it up.  What is certain however is that it has fundamentally altered the nature of the United Kingdom constitution.  Parliament remains sovereign, but in a whole range of areas day to day decisions are taken at a regional level, albeit in the context of spending allocations and macro-economic policy that is set in Whitehall.

It is ironic that the debate about the Union is now centred around Scotland and not Northern Ireland.   That’s not how it has been for most of our history.

What better opportunity can there be to consider the Union than the month of the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Ulster covenant which we will celebrate at the end of this month?   Perhaps for the first time in a hundred years unionists in Northern Ireland can do so without any present fears for their position in the UK.

As a unionist I fervently hope that the independence referendum can settle Scotland’s place in the Union for generations to come.

Though given how uncertain events can be, some caution is appropriate in seeking to predict the future.

Few could have suggested in the summer of 1912 what the next decade would bring for Ireland, the Union or indeed Europe.

As Yogi Berra, among others, famously said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Just a few years ago who would have predicted a majority SNP Government in Scotland or a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster?  And you would have been fitted out with a straitjacket if you had predicted a DUP/SF coalition at Stormont.

Who could have foreseen the dramatic rise, and, I hope, the temporary fall of the Irish economy?

Who could even have dreamed of the demise of the News of the World?

And then, perhaps the event for which the bookmakers would have given the longest odds - who could have predicted a British tennis player winning at Wimbledon?

But let me reassure my friends in the SNP, I will draw no inference from the apparent ease with which Andy Murray wore the Union Flag!

Having cautioned against making predictions, I can’t resist making just one: I don't believe Scotland will vote for independence in 2014.

Polling - which I recognise is not an exact science - is presently showing a clear majority of people in Scotland wish to remain within the Union.  This will be put to the test after a two year debate and who can with certainty say how the campaign may impact on peoples' opinions.

As someone involved in politics I admire the electoral success of the SNP, but I do not believe that this support will translate into support for an independent Scotland anymore than support for an Irish nationalist or republican party automatically means support for a united Ireland.  In survey after survey in Northern Ireland we have seen considerable support for the constitutional status quo from those who vote for nationalist parties.

An SNP Government of an independent Scotland would face very different challenges than it does running a devolved administration.

Independence for Scotland will be the issue on the referendum but I want to see the next two years used to consider the value of the Union and reassess what it means.

Many will see the referendum as a threat to the Union, but it can also be used as an opportunity to strengthen the United Kingdom.

The campaign will offer the opportunity to highlight the benefits of the Union that we all too often take for granted.

Those of us who come from outside Scotland are acutely aware that it must be left to the people of Scotland to take the final decision on independence - but it is a decision that would have implications for the whole of the United Kingdom and it would be odd if we did not make a contribution to the debate.

Independence for Scotland would be a step into the unknown, not only for Scotland but for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.   Experience from Ireland tells us that Scotland outside the United Kingdom, would not continue to have the same social, economic and cultural bonds with England, Wales or Northern Ireland.   As we have seen in Northern Ireland a border is not just a line on a map.  Over time, it makes a profound difference to one’s sense of identity.

While Ulster was always a place apart on the island of Ireland, partition changed things – and not just for Northern Protestants, but for Southern Catholics and Southern Protestants for that matter, as well.

For many in Northern Ireland, the social and historic bonds with Scotland are greater than those with England.

I am confident that even if Scotland were to vote for independence it would not alter Northern Ireland’s desire to maintain the link with England and Wales.   After all, if the exodus of the twenty six counties to our south and west in the early part of the last century did not alter our desire to be a part of the United Kingdom, then I doubt that Scotland’s departure would do so today.

I believe that the best way to secure the United Kingdom will be to create long term governance arrangements which allow many decisions to be taken at a local level while ensuring that decisions affecting the common good are made at national level. That would help to ensure that our national identity is one that respects each part of the UK and reflects the composition of society.

Whether Scotland chooses independence must of course be a matter for the people of Scotland, but any change to the nature of the devolution settlement be it for Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland can only be put into effect by the agreement of the national Parliament at Westminster.  The Prime Minister has indicated that once the independence issue is settled he is open to looking at the nature of the devolution settlement.   I believe that is the right approach to take.

Fundamental to devolution that works to the benefit of the UK as a whole is respect from Westminster for the devolved institutions and of an understanding by the devolved regions of the ultimate primacy of Parliament.

I have no appetite for significant additional powers for the Northern Ireland Assembly other than the much discussed issue of Corporation Tax but I am not opposed to the consideration of additional powers for Scotland or Wales. In assessing such questions a simple test should be applied - can any powers be exercised more effectively at a devolved level without diminishing the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole?

Even should the answer be ‘yes’ I believe that regions should give careful consideration to whether they would want further responsibilities.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Uniquely among the devolved regions Northern Ireland is responsible for social security. But the availability of funding for this from Treasury is linked to our adopting a policy of parity with Great Britain. And so you have the classic case of having to accept responsibility for decisions effectively made somewhere else without having the power to change them.

From a constitutional point of view I believe that there is a benefit from a unified national tax and benefit regime, but even here consideration can be given on a case by case basis.

What must be avoided is a situation where devolution of taxes leads to a material distortion within the UK or negatively impacts on the UK position as a whole.

With the exception of the issue of Corporation Tax, there is no consensus in Northern Ireland for any significant additional powers for the Assembly.   Like most regions of the UK we are a net financial beneficiary from the UK Treasury. Our economic prosperity is tied to a very considerable extent to the prosperity of the UK as a whole. What we want to achieve is the happy position where we not only benefit from a successful UK economy but can also make a significant contribution to it.

The special case we make in regard to Corporation Tax is to help us to be less dependent on subvention in the longer term. What could be more attractive to Treasury one might ask, than a Northern Ireland able to attract sizeable inward investment and which boosts its GVA, cuts unemployment, and reduces its draw on the coffers at Westminster?

As recently as the 1960s Northern Ireland taxes accounted for over 90% of all the public expenditure in the Province. Today the ‘subvention’ runs into the billions of pounds every year.

Unlike other parts of the UK we are competing, not so much with Great Britain, but with the Republic of Ireland which already has a Corporation Tax Rate of 12.5% and even in the most difficult financial conditions continues to attract considerable amounts of Foreign Direct Investment.

It strikes me that one of the biggest challenges in maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom is in getting the relationship between the centre and the regions right.

England is overwhelmingly dominant in the United Kingdom in population terms and this can create dangers.  Devolution has also reignited the so called West Lothian question to which there is no wholly satisfactory answer.

I’m sure even the Prime Minister would accept that it is not a good thing for the majority governing party in the United Kingdom to be without significant representation outside England.  That is why it is so important that the Government’s respect agenda is demonstrated by deeds as well as words.

It can be all too easy for those, who do not value the United Kingdom to play the politics of grievance.  This in turn could lead to a situation where regions of England can feel disaffected with what they see as better outcomes in the devolved administrations.

Before the late 90s there had been lengthy debate as to whether devolution would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom or would preserve it in the longer term. In this regard the issues in Scotland have always been different to those in Northern Ireland.  For many decades most unionists in Northern Ireland have favoured devolution. But the form of devolution we enjoy at Stormont today is very different to that which was in place in the years before 1972.

From a unionist perspective 21st century devolution has proved a stabilising force for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

It is hard to envisage a majority of people in Scotland voting to end the Union when there is no longer even a majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland that would vote to end it. Most Catholics in Northern Ireland are basing their choice, not on a strong British national identity, but upon a rational assessment of their social and economic welfare.

I happen to believe that the overwhelming objective evidence is that the people of Scotland would be better off in the United Kingdom, but coming from Northern Ireland I also understand how important a role emotion can play.

Fundamental to this is the question of identity and a shared history, culture and experience. Britishness is more than Englishness.  Part of the strength of the United Kingdom comes from its diversity.  Equally, it is not an identity that is frozen in time.

The modern Britain is not the place it was in the 1950s and it will continue to adapt and evolve. That should be welcomed and seen as a strength.

There is no conflict between one’s regional and national identity.

In the Northern Ireland context most unionists see no conflict between their regional and national identity. It is because I have such a strong affinity to Northern Ireland that I want to see it as part of the United Kingdom.

Equally I would expect that even the strongest unionist in Scotland will have a proud Scottish identity.

This could be relevant to the referendum debate.  If I may twist the slogan used by Irish Republicans a generation ago - Scottish independence can be defeated with a Saltire in one hand and a Union Flag in the other.

We shall see what the Scots decide on polling day, but whatever the implications of independence for Scotland there can be little doubt that the United Kingdom would be the poorer for its absence.  I feel about this passionately and those of us who believe in the strength of the UK as a joined up entity should make it our business to challenge the flawed logic which suggests that the peoples who inhabit its constituent parts would be better apart.

It is my sincerest hope, when the time comes, that the Scottish referendum will be used as an opportunity to expound the significance and worth of the Union and evaluate how the Union can be improved to ensure its survival.

If we get that right then I hope it will be at least a further hundred years before we have another challenge to the integrity of the Kingdom."

 

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