Peter Robinson made a confident and visionary speech at his party’s annual conference in which he appealed for a “strong united community” comfortable with its place in the UK.
“The siege has lifted, the Troubles as we knew them are over, and the constitutional debate has been won,” he said.
He added: “This time our purpose is not to defeat, but by words and deeds to persuade.”
It was a broad brush address to members gathered at La Mon Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast, concentrating on the big picture and light on specific commitments. But he did make an unequivocal pledge to provide support for a voluntary opposition if the SDLP or UUP wished to leave the Executive “as a modest first step towards normalisation of our democratic structures”.
Mr Robinson predicted that a unionism which would reach out to Catholics as well as Protestants was now possible, noting opinion poll evidence that most Catholics did not want an immediate united Ireland. He spoke of decisions in the next few years which would “guarantee Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for centuries to come”.
He said that “the ‘left’ and ‘far left’ policies of both of the nationalist parties leave many Catholics effectively disenfranchised. “As the leader of a party that seeks to represent the whole community I’m not prepared to write off over 40% of our population as being out of reach”. He admitted this might take some time.
In the here and now, he expressed strong support for power sharing with nationalists as the best tactic for unionists, saying: “The reality is that cross-community government has increased support for the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland.”
He denied republican accusations that he aimed for “a return to majority rule”.
“It’s as if they believe I am hatching a cunning plan to return to the 1930s.”
There were some harsh words for Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams was compared to “the undead from a B movie” while Declan Kearney, its unionist outreach officer, was lambasted over a recent speech.
Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister, was not criticised and there was also a strong defence of power sharing.