Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Let's all keep Northern Ireland moving forward

The current system of devolution is far from perfect but until voluntary coalition at Stormont is achieved, we should make the best of it, argues Peter Robinson

The DUP's vision for the future is made clear in its campaign slogan: 'Let's keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward.' But in order to become a reality, every vision needs a plan.

How will we achieve this? The DUP believes this vision will be built on four cornerstones.

The first cornerstone is sustaining and developing devolution. Few unionists who have come through the dark days of the past like the idea of Sinn Fein in government. But more and more people recognise that we have to work with whomever the ballot box brings forward.

Our present system of devolution is far from perfect. It's not easy, but I am absolutely certain that we're travelling in the right direction.

It was right to put power back into local hands. It was right to stop a return to joint-rule with Dublin. And it was right to get Northern Ireland moving forward.

Stormont has started to deliver with deferring water charges, capping the regional rates, introducing free prescriptions, and doubling infrastructure spending on new roads, hospitals, and schools. Yet on issues like academic selection it must do better.

This demonstrates why Stormont must move away from mandatory coalition, and towards the DUP proposals of voluntary coalition. Until that goal is achieved, I believe it is in our interests to make the best of the present system.

The second cornerstone is building our economy. It shows how far Northern Ireland has travelled under the DUP's stewardship, that the economy is the key focus in this election.

It is a reality that our economy is presently reliant on the public sector and we need to expand the private sector. However, sustainable economic prosperity will not be secured by slashing one and simply hoping the other will grow.

Our economy will need a three-pronged, long-term approach. Government needs to spend its budget well. The DUP proposes reducing the number of Northern Ireland departments, cutting the number of politicians at Stormont, and reducing quangos.

While Cameron and Empey put Northern Ireland at the front of the queue for cuts, the DUP seeks to maximise Northern Ireland's block grant. Public sector jobs in Northern Ireland are comparable in scale to elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Its size is not the main problem, but our over-reliance upon it.

Northern Ireland can only move forward if the potential of our private sector is unlocked. To do so the DUP advocates Northern Ireland should have reduced corporation tax, 5% VAT rate for construction, and it should be given economic zone status.

The Ulster Unionists and Conservative proposals to expand Northern Ireland's private sector are as weak as dishwater, and pledge nothing more on corporation tax than another government paper.

The third cornerstone is a more united and co-operative unionism. It would have been easy for the DUP to have simply accepted Cameron's rejection of unity in 2009 as the last word.

However, the Tory refusal was not in the interests of unionism, so we persevered. Our efforts succeeded in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

With South Belfast, we tried, tried, and tried again. We were even willing to sacrifice an Assembly seat to gain an agreement, but Sir Reg Empey followed Tory orders rather than listen to the people's desire for unionist unity. Now reclaiming South Belfast for unionism lies in the hands of the voters.

Our sustained, genuine, and generous efforts to achieve unionist unity put paid to the lie that the DUP is not serious on the issue, and we remain committed to pursuing this goal after the election. A more united unionism can focus all its energies in keeping Northern Ireland moving forward.

The fourth and final cornerstone is a strong voice for Northern Ireland at Westminster. It is a little-appreciated fact that smaller parties have been consistently growing in importance in Parliament. The present national opinion polls also show that no party is on course for a majority. If this is the outcome, then the DUP will grow in influence.

This situation highlights why a one-party arrangement is a one-trick pony. Leaving aside the untrustworthiness of the partner, it only works if that party wins.

It's a deal that is as likely to have you at the heart of Opposition as the heart of Government. As to influence, for once David Trimble got it right when he co-wrote: " ... if one were to ask Scottish Conservatives about tax reform, Kent Conservatives about the Channel Tunnel, Conservative farmers about European Community quotas, it would be possible to accurately ascertain the level of influence that a group of MPs, whether based on geographical or interest basis, has on Conservative Party policy. The level surely lies somewhere between minimal and non-existent."

So on May 6, the DUP offers a vision, a plan and a strong, united team with an unfettered voice, answerable only to you.

This is how we can keep Northern Ireland moving forward.

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