Belfast Telegraph political editor Liam Clarke interviews the First Minister
Liam Clarke: How did China go? You got some orders already.
Peter Robinson: You will find that an awful lot of what will flow from China will flow in the next few months. Everyone came back with fistfuls of business cards to follow up with.
There will be a lot of work going on, it was a very important trip. Both in Shanghai and in Hong Kong we held diaspora events attended by hundreds of people. We were shocked at the numbers who came and it showed a keen interest amongst people who came from Northern Ireland in wanting to assist. There was a pride in coming from Northern Ireland that we haven’t seen in a long time.
LC: What will be the themes of your conference? Last year your speech presented the DUP as a centre right party, promoting integrated education and a liberal agenda.
PR: Those themes indicated a direction of travel and they are not going to change. That is still the right way to go. The party has grown as a result of the position it has adopted so we will keep the same direction.
LC: A lot of people would say that the DUP has in fact delivered on a more fundamentalist agenda. We have no great movement in integrated education.
PR: I notice that you have been saying that in your columns. I have been scratching my head for some time as to why you are taking that position. I assume you haven’t read the Programme for Government which indicated that we were setting up a ministerial group, which has now been set up to look at how we can further the issue of shared education.
We have also committed ourselves to ensure that every child has an opportunity to be part of shared education and to seeing what we can do to have shared facilities between schools.
It has to be a transition and gradual process.
As well as the wider issue of good relations, I am frustrated at the length of time it has taken.
The differences aren’t between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Those two parties have a better understanding of what it means to be part of a coalition Government where everybody doesn’t get what they want.
I am appalled by the position adopted by the Alliance Party, a party which is supposed to be built around consensus politics but runs away with its ball because we won’t accept everything that they have in their document. I would have loved to have been able to announce that we were going the whole way on shared education, but unfortunately the SDLP and Sinn Fein won’t sign up for it. So we have to accept something less and work on it.
LC: You feel Alliance is being obstructive on education?
PR: It is not just education. They walked away from the whole programme on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI).
Any of us could do that. I would find it easy to write a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document myself. I could do it in a week, but you need give and take to get agreement and buy-in from other parties. Alliance weren’t prepared to reach a consensus; it was their way or no way.
I think that is a selfish and self-serving attitude which is not in the interests of the community as a whole.
LC: When will the CSI document be ready?
PR: I have got it on my desk. Here it is. I can’t give you a copy but we are talking about a substantial document agreed between Sinn Fein and the DUP, but we need to get maximum buy-in from other parties.
The UUP and Alliance walked out. When we finish with the SDLP in committee we want this document out and I envisage that within a few weeks we will be talking with the party leaders. Then it will go to the Executive and the Assembly, but if people ask for more time we have to give it to them.
LC: The impression is of strained relations with Sinn Fein, it has been hot and heavy between you and Declan Kearney (Sinn Fein’s national chairman who recently said in a speech about reconciliation that the DUP were stuck in a time warp), and things have been bad since you were away in the summer.
PR: There shouldn’t be any surprise that there are differences between us, we come from very different backgrounds but those differences are not as sharp as between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. We have sustained an Executive by understanding just how far each party can move and recognising there are differences that we have to work around. You can’t work in Government without knowing what is possible and what is not.
LC: You have been critical of Declan Kearney (above), do you think he is going to succeed as Sinn Fein’s unionist and Protestant outreach worker?
PR: I am not sure what Sinn Fein are playing at with that. They seem to think the word reconciliation was something they discovered and it is centred around their project. We have been working on the CSI strategy and that is the basis on which we are moving forward, not some sideshow by Sinn Fein. Our emphasis is on getting the Executive strategy resolved. I should perhaps be encouraged by the fact that they want to launch their “national reconciliation strategy” in London, the heart of the nations. The big issue of contention was welfare reform; I felt that when hard decisions were taken they were leaving us to take them on our own.
LC: Do you agree that the Parades Commission should be obeyed in the absence of a replacement?
PR: The Parades Commission is there, it has a legal standing and therefore that has to be what people accept at the present time. That doesn’t stop us from criticising what the Parades Commission does if we don’t like what it does, or, indeed, seeking a replacement if we can get agreement on something that can work better.
LC: But not defying it?
PR: I do not support defying the law. We have a democratic institution and if we don’t like laws then we change the laws. I am suggesting to people who don’t like what the Parades Commission do, and I number myself amongst them, that it is our task to get together and change it.
LC: How are things going on corporation tax? I was surprised to hear the Prime Minister saying on Wednesday that he had only just got the paper on it?
PR: Some news outlets, not you, have reported that we presented him with it. That is not the case. The ministerial working group that was set up involved ourselves, the NIO and the Treasury.
It completed its work around October 18. Officials were then tasked with turning it into a document to be presented to the Prime Minister. That took several weeks, so he has just received it.
LC: What are the remaining issues?
PR: There are options for the Prime Minister to consider. These options largely involve what process is used to determine what reduction is made in the Northern Ireland block grant from Westminster.
Should secondary effects like increases in VAT and National Insurance receipts to London be taken into account? They include tertiary effects like the reductions in social security benefits payable by Westminster as a result of reduced unemployment.
He has to decide what allowances should be made in respect of profit and loss shifting if we have a different tax rate than the rest of the UK.
The Prime Minister was still talking in very positive terms during our meeting on Wednesday.
We all recognise that there is a lot of work to be done; it requires legislation to be prepared and changes to computerisation. Even with the fairest wind possible we are looking at 2016 before corporation tax can be devolved to Northern Ireland.
We are very keen that those deadlines do not slip any further.
They originally gave us a later date. We would obviously want a decision before that. The big difference is not what the initial cost would be, that is in the £300m range.
The question is what it will involve in years to come, whether it ratchets up as time goes on or stays more constant. We need to know what the consequences are for us substantially.
LC: Are we getting more long haul flights as a reduction of air passenger duty?
PR: We haven’t quite got Royal Assent yet but we can go out and try to get new routes on the basis of a zero rating of APD for long haul flights, DETI are talking to people. We have a Northern Ireland contact in Etihad and we are still talking to them.
‘I’m thinking about the end of my career, but there’s a lot still to do’
Liam Clarke talking to Peter Robinson about his thoughts on the Executive, the G8 and abortionphoto: Darren Kidd
continued from page 5
LC: Are you still intending to make Jim Wells Health Minister midway through the Assembly?
PR: Yes, but we still don’t know the midpoint of the Assembly term; we could have a five-year instead of a four-year term, as happened in Scotland and Wales.
LC: Do you think we should get abortion guidelines? Should it be permitted in cases of incest, rape and foetal abnormality?
PR: We do have legislation, there is not a void.
The courts have told us to work on guidelines and the department are working on that to make sure that the guidelines will be sufficiently robust to stand up to any court challenge.
This is a very sensitive issue. It is not a black and white issue. I believe that if there is any danger to the life of a mother, whether that is a mental health danger or through physical danger, then that must be taken into account.
I can only imagine the stress that a potential mother would have in circumstances where there is incest or rape. I am satisfied that where there is any risk to the life of a mother, it is permissible under existing law to carry out an abortion.
LC: How about the risk of suicide? Is that a threat to her life which would justify abortion?
PR: I would have thought that threats of suicide are a fairly clear indicator.
LC: What message do you want to get out for your conference?
PR: There are certain sections of the Press who say the Assembly has done nothing and delivered nothing. I could go through areas of delivery. We talk about how great it is to have the G8. The G8 wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the existence of the Executive.
You wouldn’t have Titanic Belfast there if it hadn’t been for the decision of the Executive to fund. You wouldn’t have the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre; you wouldn’t have had the Irish Open Golf tournament. All of those happened because of the Executive. If there is something they can nail the Executive on they are always piling in with criticism. I think there needs to be more of a balance. The Belfast Telegraph is by no means the worst. In my speech I will be emphasising all of the things the Executive has done. The fact that we have brought in more jobs than any time in the history of Northern Ireland.
The fact that we have spent more on infrastructure than at any time in the history of the NIO, the fact that we have the lowest taxes in the United Kingdom, the attractiveness of Northern Ireland to foreign direct investment, second only to London, are good news stories but they don’t get the coverage because good news doesn’t sell.
LC: How are you working with Sinn Fein and the other parties in Government?
PR: People are inclined to take for granted something that has been going on for five years, but the fact that it has been going on for five years is a story in itself.
Nobody would have imagined that it was possible to sustain a coalition Government with such diverse parties for such a long time, but it has. The longer it goes on the speedier the decision-taking is. We get a lot of criticism about not having agreed to do something, but that is the system we are in. If I was in a one-party Government it would be fantastic, I could take decisions the same moment they entered my head, but in this Government we have five parties, we have a cumbersome routine to go through in order to get decisions. While it has been difficult and it has been slow and it has been more than mildly frustrating, it is a whole lot better than what we had before, and as soon as those decisions are taken, because they have been taken by such a wide section of political opinion, they stick all the more strongly.
LC: When did you hear about the possibility of the G8 coming here and what do you think its benefits will be?
PR: We have been aware of the possibility since the summer but I don’t want to say who I heard it from. I was very supportive. Could you imagine 10 or 20 years ago that the G8 would be held in Northern Ireland?
Security has improved to the extent that the Prime Minister has been able to recommend a venue in Northern Ireland.
I think that is a massive endorsement of the stability that we have produced here, but it is a great opportunity for us to see Northern Ireland seen throughout the world on news programmes. And where else but the picturesque Co Fermanagh for people to see and hopefully attract them to come?
It sends out a message that Northern Ireland is a place that it is safe to come to.
We have to accept that the decades of terrorism caused reputational damage.
It takes a while to remove that sort of image from people’s minds. This does it.
LC: What was Sinn Fein’s attitude to it?
PR: I think the Deputy First Minister indicated that, while there was important work, it did give Northern Ireland an important opportunity to showcase itself.
LC: Do you expect to stay on past the next Assembly election?
PR: Am I looking ill or something?
I have a fairly clear view of where I want the Union to be, where I want Northern Ireland to be and where I want my party to be, and as long as we are moving in that direction and I feel that my presence assists, then I will remain in office.
At 63 coming on 64, obviously I have to start thinking about the end of my career, but there is a lot of work still to be done and I am pretty sure that carries into the next term.
LC: The SDLP says that this is one-party unionist Government. It says Sinn Fein is just camouflage and the DUP has republicans where it wants them.
PR: A man from Mars listening to Alasdair McDonnell’s speech at his party conference would have thought that “this man is on the opposition benches” and had no connection with the Executive.
If they are on the Executive they should play on the Executive team. If they have ideas they should put them on the table. I would like the SDLP not to see itself so much as opposition, but the SDLP and Sinn Féin as part of the team.
LC: What do you think of John McCallister’s Private Member’s Bill to create an opposition?
PR: It is cranky. It is a publicity stunt. You don’t get into opposition by putting down a Private Member’s Bill. You do it by negotiating with the parties and trying to get it through the Assembly. I just takes one movement by Sinn Fein to veto that Bill. It is not the way to get real progress.