Peter Robinson: Our brave new world
He may be finance minister in our new coalition government, but he's also DUP deputy leader. Here, Peter Robinson talks about working with republicans
After only 100 days of devolution it may be too soon to make a judgment on the performance of the new Executive, but we can, with certainty, say that the prospects for the future of Northern Ireland are better today than they have been for decades and unionism is at its strongest in over a generation.
Few could dispute that Northern Ireland is now a much better place in which to live than was the case just a few years ago and with a more settled and stable political environment we can start to realise the potential that has been held back by terrorism and political instability for the last 40 years.
Unionism has been strengthened. After 40 years of terrorism our constitutional position is more secure than ever. This is not to claim that there is nothing more to accomplish - there is still unfinished business but we move forward from a strong position.
The last census revealed that the demographic threat to the future of Northern Ireland has disappeared and with nationalists and republicans in a local Executive there is widespread support across the community for the institutions of Government. Perhaps at no time since the creation of Northern Ireland has there been more security about our future. To maintain that position all parties will have to keep their commitments and the DUP will keep their feet to the fire.
The Sinn Fein notion of a united Ireland by 2016 is rightly now regarded as a pipe-dream. Republicans when gathered together may still hanker after and indulge in the make-believe of achieving a united Ireland but few in private could believe it likely in their lifetimes.
Indeed only unionist division and carelessness could feed their craving. It was the DUP who succeeded in placing a veto on any process that can lead in that direction.
While nationalists can - no matter how mindless or futile - yearn and argue for a united Ireland, the real challenge for all of us is to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone who lives here and I believe that the new Executive is committed to this goal.
Getting to where we are today has not been easy for any of us. Unionists have had to face up to the undesirable situation of having to sit in an Executive with Sinn Fein, but more significantly republicans have had to settle for helping to administer Northern Ireland within the UK and so much more.
The return of devolution did not come quickly but what we have now is stronger because we waited to make sure the conditions were right and the IRA had disarmed and given up all of its criminal and paramilitary activity. Who today believes that anyone would tolerate a return to violence or conflict by the IRA? Greater normality is a sign of victory and not of defeat.
Because of this there has never been a better prospect that devolution is stable and will last. This stability provides the most secure foundations for investment in the province and for lasting economic growth. There are few places in Europe today with greater potential than Northern Ireland.
But no one should pretend that devolution is a panacea to all of our problems. Difficult decisions still have to be taken but it must be better that those decisions are taken by those who are locally accountable.
The form of devolution we have at Stormont is far from perfect and we will continue to press for changes to make Northern Ireland a more normal democracy but it is still far more preferable than having no meaningful say in how we are governed.
We now have an Assembly and Executive with a unionist majority. The dominant North South agenda accepted and operated by the UUP has been curtailed and balanced by a growing East West relationship that encourages our proper and traditional link to the rest of the United Kingdom. Moreover, while power sharing means that there is no majority rule, through our negotiations last year we now have the ability to veto any significant decisions we do not support.
I genuinely understand the reservations and concerns of those unionists who opposed entering an Executive with Sinn Fein, but pushing republicans to end violence and criminality and give support to the police tipped the balance, particularly as we succeeded in putting controls in place to protect the unionist community from unaccountable decision-taking, both within the Executive and on a North South basis. We succeeded where others failed.
Of course, people can carp, grumble and complain that perfection had not been achieved. Again my judgment was that we had surrounded the process with sufficient safeguards to control any potential abuse, that moving into the Executive could provide the momentum for further progress. In addition, what future was on offer for Northern Ireland in general and unionism in particular by the continuation of Direct Rule?
Had the DUP not secured devolved government, the Direct Rule administration would have proceeded with an all-Ireland agenda and also imposed an Irish Language Act. The Sinn Fein-supported model for local government would have proceeded. Our successful grammar schools, which have contributed to the best results in the UK again this year, would have been abolished. Does any unionist really trust a Labour Government to take decisions that are in unionist interests?
The reality is that in recent times, no party in Government at Westminster has acted in the interests of unionism. What kind of strategy is based on the hope that once in every 30 years there is a hung Parliament in which for a few years unionists might have some influence?
Many people were concerned with Plan B and a greater role for Dublin in the affairs of Northern Ireland and undoubtedly over time that would have insidiously grown, but in reality even the continuation of Direct Rule was not in the interests of unionism. For decades governments have bent over backwards to meet the needs of Sinn Fein.
While Tony Blair was prepared to concede to Sinn Fein, with devolution we as unionists have it in our power to block the republican agenda. Fortunately now it is unionists rather than the Government that Sinn Fein has to deal with.
We must never forget the past and those who suffered throughout the Troubles. We must resist republican revisionism. Republicans, through selective inquiries and so-called truth marches, seek to imply that others were the villains and attempt to airbrush their own murderous past. The history of the last 40 years must not be rewritten.
Throughout the negotiating process we sought and received assurances from the government that it would continue strenuously to track and recover terrorist criminal assets and that the police would, without fear or favour, persistently seek convictions in all unresolved cases involving paramilitary activity no matter what position such a person now holds or the political consequences. No one can be above the law.
I am under no illusions about the past activities of many of those who are in the Assembly today and I know that they are programmed to act according to republican ideology.
However, in every decision we take we are conscious to ensure it will be consistent with our unionist agenda. The Press might obsess about photographs of the First and Deputy First Minister but the hard work of protecting the interests of the unionist community is the critical task being undertaken by the DUP in the Executive, the Assembly and its committees and even out of the range of the cameras day and daily by our team.
In the months ahead we will formulate proposals to:
÷achieve economic growth and improve the living standards of people here;
÷further develop and improve the Assembly, its structures and other institutions;
÷formulate programmes to recognise and assist the innocent victims of terrorism;
÷continue to keep pressure on republicans to fulfil all the requirements of peace and democracy;
÷safeguard and strengthen the unionist position;
÷keep unionism in prime position and the driving force in local politics
Northern Ireland is stronger and while the system we are required to operate throws us into government with those we would not choose, we are well placed to control any excesses and our people have a better future because of the improved stability that has been achieved. Those who want to go back to the conflict and instability of the past and who offer no attainable alternative route to stability must be faced down and not placated.