ROBINSON - UNIONISTS MUST CONTINUE TO BE RESPONSIBLE...
Northern Ireland First Minister Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MLA was the guest speaker at the DUP’s Blossomhill Branch Annual Dinner in West Tyrone. During his speech Mr Robinson said,
“These last few weeks we have been commemorating the Ulster Covenant and the events of a century ago. Though it shaped the people that we are and the Province that we live in, one hundred years ago is far beyond the memory or experience of anyone here tonight.
As we gather here this evening in 2012, the great challenges that we face are not constitutional, but economic.
We take for granted the relative peace and the political and constitutional stability that has been achieved these last few years but if we look back, not a century but a mere decade we will recall a very different political environment.
This week marks another anniversary in the political process in Northern Ireland. It is one that has gone almost entirely unremarked but one which was a turning point on the path to long-term stability. It’s hard to believe that it is a decade ago this week that the first Assembly collapsed and Stormont was plunged into a cold storage that would last for almost five years.
Whilst I don’t want to dwell on the past, I think it’s worth remembering just how far we have come in ten years. And I believe that we should reflect with pride on the role that this party, its members and supporters have played in transforming the political landscape.
Ten years ago the IRA was still armed and active. As well as the murders under banners of convenience, punishment beatings and criminality, remember the training of terrorists in Colombia, the break-in at Castlereagh Police Station and the spy ring at Stormont. The so-called peace process had been going for the better part of a decade, but there was no real peace.
Ten years ago the Assembly was flat on its face having stumbled from one crisis to the next and suspension after suspension. Devolution was gone and there was no prospect of its early return on a sustainable basis.
Ten years ago unionism was in retreat, divided and dispirited. Many feared for the future, some believed that we were on an inexorable path out of the Union.
How times have changed. Today the Union is safer than ever because of support from Protestant and Catholic alike. Dissident republicans remain committed to an increasingly futile campaign, but the IRA and its terrorist threat has gone. And Stormont today is judged – as it should be - not on whether it survives, but on what it delivers.
None of this happened by accident. Today, those as diametrically opposed within the Ulster Unionist Party as Mike Nesbitt and John McCallister can both declare that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is safe. And they are right to do so. What they fail to mention is that it is safe – and will continue to be so because of the leadership that the DUP has shown.
Firstly, because we held out for a fair deal and to ensure that violent republicanism could have no part in the political structures and then latterly to seek to build a Northern Ireland in which all can feel at home.
Both elements have been the key to our success. Without the solid foundations built by the resolve to say no, the platform for real progress would not have been possible. But equally, without the determination to press forward when that foundation had been established, our long-term security could not have been guaranteed.
It is no mere coincidence that unionist confidence in the future of the United Kingdom has risen steadily under DUP leadership and nor is it any coincidence that the level of support for the Union as a whole has risen in recent times as well.
But we must not rest on our laurels, new challenges lie ahead and we must be prepared to change and adapt to meet them. Ten years ago we were seen as a voice in the wilderness, an opposition not just to the administration of the day, but to a whole political process. Today, thanks to the votes of the people of Northern Ireland we have a mandate to govern. And it is the DUP that is taking the lead at Stormont.
The system of government at Stormont is far from perfect and but our overriding responsibility is to see that the institutions work as they should.
That means taking the difficult decisions as well as the popular ones. It means compromise as well as it means conviction. It means working with others as well as it means standing our ground. But most of all it means doing what is in the long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
This is a party that has always been prepared to do what we felt was right, not just what we felt was popular.
In 1998 there were those who believed that our decision to oppose the Belfast Agreement would see the end of the DUP as a political party.
In 2007 there were others who believed that our decision to take our place in a power sharing administration would tear the party apart.
Neither decision was wholly popular, but both were absolutely right. And so it is in government on a daily basis. While others are prepared to follow the crowd or react to the loudest voices, we are doing what we believe is in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
Whether it is in the health service, at the Maze, or in our schools, we will make the tough choices and take the right decisions.
In the last few days, once again we demonstrated that we are the responsible party of government on the issue of welfare reform.
Not because we support every aspect of the Coalition policy at Westminster, but because Northern Ireland could not afford the luxury of political posturing about matters that we could not change.
The issue of welfare is one where the Assembly does not so much have a choice but a responsibility.
Our benefits system, for good and ill, operates on a policy of parity with Great Britain. That means we take the rough with the smooth; the money from Westminster is dependant on us following the national policy. It means in effect we have the responsibility for it without in practice having the power to change it.
For once in the Assembly, I am pleased to say, unionists of all hues were united. True, some who stood on an election manifesto supporting this welfare reform seemed keen to forget that fact and muttered darkly about what might lie ahead, but they were still to be found in the right lobbies when the division came.
It was the nationalist parties that were engaged in the unseemly spectacle of outdoing one another with ludicrous arguments and contorted positioning.
We had the absurd spectacle of Sinn Fein putting down an amendment to wreck the Bill.
They claimed that they didn’t want to veto it, but put down a wrecking amendment and voted against the Second Stage.
They claimed they only wanted to delay the Bill, but voted it through the Executive knowing precisely what the timetable was.
They, along with every other party in the Assembly wanted amendments to the Bill, but by voting against it they ran the risk of killing it altogether.
Our strategy was not to kill the Bill and plunge our welfare system into crisis, but to send it to its Committee stage and take the opportunity to press the Government for the changes that we all wanted to see. If the Bill had been voted down that opportunity would have been lost. I hope in the coming days and weeks that our responsible approach will pay dividends.
Sinn Fein wants devolution but they don’t want any of the difficult decisions that come with it.
The truth is that they wanted the Bill to go through but they didn’t want to be seen voting for it.
Lest there be any doubt about this it was exposed when the SDLP challenged Sinn Fein to sign a petition of concern which would have actually stopped the Bill rather than merely being seen to attempt to.
All of this makes one wonder what Sinn Fein was playing at by voting against it at its Second Stage when they clearly wanted the Bill to pass.
Such chicanery may be par for the course in the Republic, where they languish in opposition, but it is not the behaviour of a party of government in Northern Ireland.
Had they brought the Bill down altogether they would have been faced with either a nightmare for many on benefits, or Westminster stepping in to clear up the mess.
I don’t expect much in the way of thanks, but you would think that the least Sinn Fein could do would be to acknowledge that it was the unionist parties that were prepared to do the right thing and put the interests of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland before narrow party political advantage.
This is a Bill that few, if any in the Assembly, left to their own devices would give unqualified support, but the prize of parity and the funding that comes with it is something that every party in the Assembly would do well to remember.
When we protest about the changes to the welfare system in the United Kingdom we should do well to remember that the present level of economic subvention from the Treasury means that it also pays a large part of the bills. Of course we can argue that we are dealing with a legacy of underfunding and economic devastation as a result of the Troubles, but I would suggest that this is not an argument that Sinn Fein is best placed to make.
Yet if there is a silver lining to this cloud it is that their position was so laughably transparent that it attracted derision rather than support from commentators and critics alike.
The SDLP position was little better. Having been prepared when they were responsible for it to implement Welfare Reform measures from Westminster, they now cynically seek to exploit the present situation.
Perhaps it is not surprising that they wish to expose Sinn Fein’s hypocrisy on the matter, but the approach that they are taking is also totally irresponsible.
Even though they only have one Minister in the Executive and fourteen MLAs, their capacity to unnerve Sinn Fein is quite considerable.
Too often Alex Attwood’s position one day is Sinn Fein’s the next. Or worse still, a fear of what the SDLP will say or do can often paralyse their ability to take decisions.
There was a time when we could have been accused of looking over our shoulders at our political opponents but that time is long gone. We learnt that lesson. We were elected with a mandate to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and we will not be diverted from it.
Because to allow smaller parties to set the agenda, or to dictate your position, is the road to ruin.
Time and time again the SDLP takes a stance that Sinn Fein lacks the courage to oppose.
We have seen it on welfare reform, pension reform and parades. This has been bad for community relations and bad for government.
The result is not increased electoral support for the SDLP, just further gridlock as the nationalist parties struggle to come to terms with reality.
In so doing the nationalist parties have made good government more difficult without any party political advantage.
In light of what I have said I think that it is worth making the point that an SDLP in terminal decline is not good news for unionists. It will simply mean that Sinn Fein will take a larger share of the nationalist vote while unionism remains divided.
I have to say that I am somewhat surprised by the stance that the SDLP under Alastair McDonnell has taken. Unlike most of his colleagues, Alastair has been remarkably successful in South Belfast in attracting votes from well beyond what one would see as his natural constituency. However the SDLP appears to be drifting to the left of politics and, if anything, positioning itself as more extreme in some regards than Sinn Fein.
This political positioning is fatally flawed. They can never outflank Sinn Fein and all they will do is to turn off a much broader constituency.
In many areas of the Province there is no real choice for moderate nationalists. Alastair would be far better to roll out what has worked for him in South Belfast than to allow his agenda to be dictated by those who have had far less electoral success.
That would be better for the Executive and better electorally for the SDLP as well.
Whatever the nationalist parties choose to do, unionists must continue to be responsible and take the right decisions. That will be our challenge and our task in the years ahead.”