ROBINSON - THE UNION IS MORE SECURE THAN BEFORE
Speaking in Belfast City Hall at an event to celebrate the centenary of the Ulster Covenant the First Minister Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MLA said,
“It is a great pleasure to be here this evening, not simply to mark but to celebrate this great historic event. It is but the first of many milestones in the decade ahead. I know Jonathan will be giving you a history of the period in a few moments time, but before he does I would like to offer some comments from a present day unionist perspective.
For unionists the Ulster Covenant and its aftermath in the early part of the last century are not merely historic events - they ultimately led to the creation of Northern Ireland itself and to the preservation of our position within the United Kingdom. We owe our survival, as British citizens, to those, who when the challenge came were not found wanting. Their legacy is our inheritance.
If a week is a long time in politics then one hundred years is an eternity. L P Hartley famously wrote,
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.
That is a fitting perspective from which to consider the events of 1912.
When I talk about things being done differently then I am not simply talking about the lengths Carson, Craig and those who stood with them were prepared to go in defiance of government and parliament - though that is a factor. I'm talking about the behaviour of government. I'm talking about the idea that a part of the United Kingdom could be expelled from the Union against its will. Such a proposition today seems absurd. There is, in this age, an acceptance of the principle of consent. But not then. The fact that the unionists of Ulster were a distinct people entitled to determine their own future was not accepted. Not only was Ulster to be abandoned by London but it was to be governed from Dublin and placed on the exit road from the UK.
That was precisely what our forefathers faced and fought a century ago. Let nobody tell you they were not justified in resisting such tyranny. They did so confronted by arbitrary power and by using the methods of that age.
Our present tourism campaign says - 2012 is ‘our time, our place’ but it is only 'our time and our place' – and by “our” I am referring to the greater number of people, Protestant and Catholic who wish the link with Great Britain to remain - because of the determination and resistance of the men and women of 1912.
That today the Union is more secure than before has defied all those in Britain and Ireland who conspired to wrench Northern Ireland from the Union.
This present generation also faced a relentless campaign to destroy our link with the rest of the United Kingdom. Our people endured and resisted a forty-year campaign of terrorism but remained determined to preserve the Union - and they too succeeded.
And, let us be clear, future generations will also have to defend that historic Union – and, I am certain, that they too will succeed. The rules of engagement have changed with the passing years but the goal of nationalists and republicans has not. We wouldn’t expect nationalists and republicans to do anything other than campaign for a united Ireland. That is their legitimate right. Our agenda is to offer the better and more attractive alternative.
I firmly believe that, with stable political institutions established, there is a now a quiet revolution in our politics that will secure our place in the Union more than any war or struggle can. And that is because, in this generation, real victory can be achieved by winning overpowering democratic support for the Union across the community.
Today in survey after survey, not only is it the undiminished and convinced will of the Protestant community that the United Kingdom link be retained but since the latest phase of devolution a clear majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland have also indicated their desire to retain the constitutional status quo as well. That will be an enormous strength in the years ahead and we must work to expand that support as far and as wide as is possible.
Of course you are not going to persuade those who are ideological nationalists or republicans to be unionists but more and more there is an acceptance within the Catholic community that they have a full place and future in the United Kingdom. That was always Carson's ambition and objective. It was not secured in his generation but we must work and extend ourselves to secure it in ours.
Unionists want to make Northern Ireland a welcome place to all - even those who do not support our position - but I have to say that respect should be a two-way street. That means respect for our views and respect for our culture.
Regardless of one's long term aspirations it is surely not too much - 90 years after the creation of Northern Ireland - for people to refer to the country they live in by its name. People are entitled to have their own vision for the future, but it is an act of denial and disrespect to assiduously avoid using the proper title - Northern Ireland. If we are seeking to avoid offence, these things matter to unionists.
It is of some comfort that the difficulty of referring to 'Northern Ireland' is largely confined to some of the nationalist and republican political class and the vast majority of ordinary nationalists have no such inhibitions.
In recent years there have been many gestures made and hurdles overcome by both traditions. Let me suggest that those who speak of reconciliation should reconcile themselves to the decades-old reality of the existence of Northern Ireland. History and reality cannot be pretended away.
We have moved forward but to make real progress indisputable realities need to be embraced.
Today, after many trials and tribulations along the way, Northern Ireland has emerged with the Union stronger than ever. And it is a particular honour for me as a unionist to be First Minister of a Northern Ireland with political structures that command widespread support across the community. An Assembly with a unionist majority - with its laws enacted by Her Majesty the Queen and with the Union flag flying from our Parliament Building.
And who among us will ever forget Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee visit during which she moved among the tens of thousands of her subjects in a sea of red, white and blue.
Looking back, to a century ago, I know as a certainty that without Carson, Craig and the Ulster Volunteers the Union Flag would not be flying here today. We owe a great debt to those who stood for the preservation of the Union one hundred years ago.
The Ulster Covenant was undoubtedly a seminal moment in the history of Ireland. It was signed by 471,414 people, both men and women. Viewed from the relative comfort of today’s political scene, it is clear that the events of the early part of the last century, which necessitated the signing of the Ulster Covenant, represented the greatest ever threat to our position within the Union.
The introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill signalled the start of a crisis for unionism. It was a fight for the very survival of the Union. Unionists in 1912 saw their very way of life as being under the gravest threat and they were prepared to do whatever might become necessary to defend their position. The Ulster Covenant, the formation of the Ulster Volunteers and the importation of weapons demonstrated the lengths to which unionists were prepared to go in defence of their heritage. We must use this inheritance to advance the lives of all the people of Northern Ireland today.
And I have to say this - though some people get uncomfortable when I do - Carson and Craig succeeded because unionism was united. We should not be so complacent that we feel we can afford to let unionism take off in a host of different directions. I will return at some other time to this issue but it is one that unionism cannot leave unresolved. Yes, there is party political history and baggage to deal with but we must not allow vested interests in our organisations to block progress that would be in the interests of the wider unionist family.
The decade we are entering presents us with a superb opportunity to revisit bygone days, to grasp more accurately historical contexts and learn lessons from them. Standing here tonight in this great building I am indebted for the stand that our forefathers took a century ago and I hope that we can repay them through our vigilance and diligence for the sacrifices that they made, as they, in their generation, stood for God and Ulster.”