The DUP should have taken more time to “sell” its decision to go into government with Sinn Fein, First Minister Peter Robinson has admitted.
On the eve of his second annual conference as party leader, Mr Robinson for the first time said if the clock could turn back he would do things differently.
In a frank interview with the Belfast Telegraph he said with hindsight: “We should have spent more time to stop and sell before we took the step.
“I have had many people saying to me they are unhappy with what we have done, but if you take the time to explain the circumstances at the time you can convince those people.”
He declined, however, to describe the decisions of early 2007 as “a mistake” because that would be interpreted as criticism of his predecessor Ian Paisley.
The party is now planning to go door-to-door to meet its critics and explain its past choices and future strategy in an attempt to reconnect with the wider unionist base and win back supporters who have drifted towards hardline Traditional Unionist Jim Allister.
Mr Robinson’s call for a revamp of Stormont structures and voting rules have now become party policy after being ratified by the DUP executive, which held its latest meeting in the run-up to the conference this week.
An interim proposal suggests that if a new Executive supported by 65% of MLAs can be formed a week after the next election, due in May 2011, it should be allowed to — without the need to run the controversial D’Hondt procedure.
“This would open up the option of a natural progression to a voluntary coalition without precipitating a crisis if it was not possible to form such a coalition and the existing arrangements had to be used,” a new party document, Building On Success, argues.
A variant of the document, also to be taken to households over the coming weeks, points out that the party indicated it was prepared to participate in a mandatory coalition as far back as 2004.
Further pointing to its last manifesto and glossy leaflets inserted in newspapers including the Belfast Telegraph, it argued the suggestion by the DUP’s political opponents that it said one thing at the time of the last Assembly election and did another afterwards is “simply wrong”.
Insisting the decision to restore devolution after a gap of almost five years had been right, Mr Robinson said: “It has not been easy, but it has been worth the effort.”