Shared society the way forward, says Peter Robinson
Published 26/11/2011 | 09:16
Northern Ireland's First Minister has called for Catholics and Protestants to unite to end sectarian division.
Combining education services and promoting a shared community is the way to secure the future, Peter Robinson added.
He addressed hundreds of members at today's Democratic Unionist Party annual conference near Belfast.
"The conflict of the last 40 years created terrible divisions. It became a case of 'them and us'. And that attitude deepened divisions further," he said.
"If we want a better society it can't be 'them and us'. It can only be 'all of us'."
Mr Robinson entered the packed hall to a rock star style reception with the white and red of the Ulster flag being flown by many delegates.
Mr Robinson said the economic crisis would pass but argued that the lasting challenge was to tackle the causes of division.
He added that there can be no greater guarantee of the long-term security of the union than the support of significant numbers of Catholics.
"An end to the Troubles did not bring an end to division and that dilemma will not solve itself," he said.
"Our critics have claimed that we want a society which is carved up rather than shared. Some of them accuse us of wanting a separate but equal society," he added.
"Let me be clear, nothing could be further from the truth. It is not right and it would not work.
"I do not want a society where people live close together, but live separate lives."
He said the task was to persuade, rather than defeat.
Peace walls are still in place in Belfast to keep apart Catholics and Protestants, he said. Most working class areas are divided along religious lines. Many still vote along nationalist or unionist lines, and last summer saw pitched battles between republican youths and police in Belfast amid Orange Order marches.
Despite this, Mr Robinson said, power sharing has delivered progress on agreeing moves towards creating a shared society and inter-community dialogue.
The First Minister added: "I tell you, now is the moment. Miss it and we may miss it forever. Miss it and we may drift and stray.
"We have the prospect of making a difference that previous generations never had or never took, a chance that future generations may never get or never grab."
The DUP leader pledged his support for victims of the conflict and said he would not allow republicans to rewrite the past.
In April this year new Catholic Constable Ronan Kerr was blown up by dissident republicans in Omagh, Co Tyrone. At his funeral members of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Police Service of Northern Ireland stood side by side, a strongly symbolic moment in the region.
The First Minister added: "The murder of Constable Ronan Kerr showed that the threat from terrorism still exists, but more importantly the reaction to his death demonstrated that this threat will never, never win."
He strongly opposed proposals to remove contentious symbols from the Prison Service.
"We will support sensible reform of the Prison Service but let me make it clear, we will ensure that the Crown and the Royal title are preserved," he said.
The East Belfast Northern Ireland Assembly member also outlined:
:: Plans to attract 10,000 registered party supporters over the next two years, who are not members but who supported DUP policies while feeling unable to join a unionist party, including those from a nationalist background.
- Measures to promote the role of women in politics.
- Proposals to introduce tougher sentences for those guilty of attacking the elderly.
- Efforts to promote the economy.
He attacked the "fifth column" of parties which operate within the ranks of the ministerial Executive but oppose its policies and said there should be open and honest opposition at Stormont.
Mr Robinson said the party's greatest threat was inertia.
With a banner behind him pledging to Keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward, the First Minister received rapturous applause as he walked from the podium.