Shed siege mentality urges Robinson
Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson tonight challenged unionists to shed siege mentality thinking and move forward together with nationalists to overcome the problems facing Northern Ireland.
Reflecting on a troubled last 12 months, when disputes over flags, parades and commemorations erupted into street disorder and damaged community relations, the Democratic Unionist Party leader said there was a need for more strategic thinking within unionism.
Less than 24 hours after he acknowledged the efforts of the nationalist Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to build better community relations in a symbolic address at Queen's University in Belfast, Mr Robinson turned his focus to the current state of unionism.
In a speech to Castlereagh Council, he urged the unionist community not to let recent difficulties throw them off course from the ultimate objective of forging a "shared and united" society.
Mr Robinson insisted there was no prospect of the Assembly falling, but nevertheless warned that such a development would likely lead to an upsurge in paramilitary violence.
"Unionists and nationalists will face some big decisions in the next few months," he said.
"We can get back on track to a shared and united community which can benefit everyone in Northern Ireland or we can go back to the forty year conflict. There is no middle option."
Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is currently chairing a talks process in Northern Ireland in a bid to reach thus far elusive political consensus on the issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past.
While Mr Robinson's address included criticism of, and challenges to, nationalism and republicanism, its intended audience was unionism.
Insisting that the Union was stronger than ever, he cautioned unionists not to "turn the clock back to a bygone era" and urged them to have more self confidence.
"Unionism has historically had a siege mentality," he said.
"When we were being besieged it was the right response. But when we are in a constitutionally safe and stable position it poses as a threat to our future development. Demographic changes and social change mean that we need to build bigger and broader coalitions and not to retreat into an ever-diminishing core."
He said unionism should not be defined simply by the issues of "flags and parades" but by what he described as the benefits of living in the UK.
"Unionism needs to think and act strategically," he said.
"Adopting political strategies that will inevitably lead down a cul de sac is not politically courageous, it is politically crazy. Because if unionists are not seen to make Northern Ireland work within the Union then no one will.
"Unionism will only succeed if it is a broad coalition of interests. I accept that not every person who wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom will share my affection for the national flag or even my cultural heritage. My responsibility as leader of the largest unionist party is to seek to hold that broad coalition together for it is only the capacity to bring together those with differing views under a common banner that gives unionism its strength."
In the speech to mark the installation of David Drysdale as mayor of Castlereagh, Mr Robinson:
:: accused some unionist politicians of defeatism and talking Northern Ireland down: "This is a feeble substitute for a political strategy. They are like Private James Frazer from Dad's Army, running around crying "We're all doomed. We're all doomed". It's hardly an approach likely to endear those politicians to the wider electorate or provide the leadership to overcome the problems we face."
:: voiced support for those who wanted to peacefully protest at last December's decision of Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union Flag but criticised those who engaged in violence: "The violence was not only wrong but politically self defeating."
:: challenged the view that unionist culture was being eroded. "Unionists are the purveyors of unionist culture. Nobody can take our culture away from us. It's within us. It's our values. It's our art and music. It's our beliefs. It's our history. It's how we express ourselves. It's our way of life. Outsiders might try - and from time to time succeed - in limiting our cultural expression in a specific place or manner but they have no power to stop us increasing our expression in other ways. Such a nationalist strategy doesn't make me feel culturally diminished. It just makes me angry. Angry that people cannot respect and tolerate diversity. But that anger should be channelled into overcoming such intolerance. The proper response is to establish ways to counter by cultivating, developing and growing our cultural manifestation while at the same time seeking within the law to overturn those bad decisions that have caused such offence within our community."
:: urged both unionists and nationalists to avoid words and actions that could damage community relations: "That means avoiding decisions that will deepen divisions rather than resolving differences. It also means showing respect by how we behave to those who do not share our culture and ethos."
:: insisted that the support for law could not be conditional: "Attacks on the police, whether now or in the past, are wrong and must be condemned as such. There is no moral defence or validation in robustly condemning republican attacks on the police while being ambivalent or mealy-mouthed about loyalist attacks on the police."
The First Minister said unionists and nationalists had to work together to secure progress.
"One side reaching out the hand of friendship while the other is seen to agitate will not work," he said.
"We must all move forward together."
Mr Robinson said it was foolish to think that the collapse of the Assembly would not result in further conflict.
"Happily, it's only an academic argument but I have absolutely no doubt that if the Assembly were to fall it would leave a void which every malign force would seek to exploit and profit from," he said
"Paramilitary organisations which are presently contained would be reinforced and bracing themselves for an opening to wage terror.
"I remain absolutely committed to delivering a better Northern Ireland for everyone. I want to work with others to see that aspiration delivered. We will see in the months to come if others are up to that challenge."