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Peter Robinson gives last leader's speech to DUP conference, takes aim at Mike Nesbitt

By Claire Cromie

Peter Robinson has delivered his last leader's speech to the Democratic Unionist Party annual conference, reassuring party members "our province is safe and the union is secure".

The First Minister announced this week, in a bombshell Belfast Telegraph interview, that he will not contest next May's Assembly elections. He will step down as First Minister and DUP leader before that, probably after Christmas.

Speaking to his party in Castlereagh, where he was first elected as a councillor in 1977, he used the occasion to take aim at his unionist rival.

"Mike Nesbitt has stated that his ambition is to hear Gerry Adams admit that the IRA still exists: my ambition is to hear the chief constable say that it doesn’t," he said.

"That’s the difference. The UUP want to wallow in the problem. The DUP want to work to eradicate the problem.

"For months Mike Nesbitt, when he wasn’t apologising to republicans for the singing of the National Anthem during an act of Remembrance, has been complaining about the existence of paramilitary groups - but he delivered nothing.

"The DUP held its nerve, rolled up its sleeves, did the hard graft and attained the most comprehensive result ever achieved on disbanding paramilitary groups and all their structures and tackling paramilitary criminality and organised crime."

Mr Robinson quoted a "Talks wag" to aim a jibe at the UUP: “How many Ulster Unionists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is - None, the Ulster Unionist Party can’t change anything!"

As a founding member of the DUP in the early 1970s, Mr Robinson recalled how he played a key role in transforming the party from an "irritant to the political establishment" into the largest unionist grouping at Stormont.

The steely tactician widely regarded as the brains behind Ian Paisley's fiery bluster has been DUP leader and First Minister since 2008 - longer than he had anticipated, he revealed.

He then predicted the further rise of the Democratic Unionists, currently Northern Ireland's biggest political party.

"We may not yet hold the balance of power at Westminster but make no mistake, in the coming months and years of this Parliament, our influence and our pivotal role will grow and grow.

"As we said during the election, “more votes, more seats, more for Northern Ireland.”  I can assure you – when that day comes - we will use our influence wisely."

He received a rapturous reception from hundreds of delegates who had packed into the La Mon Hotel on the edge of east Belfast.

They cheered, whistled, applauded and waved union flags as he entered the bustling conference suite surrounded by photographers.

On Corporation Tax, the outgoing First Minister told the gathering that it is "one of the achievements in the past few years that I am most proud of".

"When a few years ago other parties lost their way and lost their nerve on this issue it was the DUP that pressed forward undeterred.

"In a few years time I trust that our determination will be rewarded by a buoyant and balanced local economy with our young people no longer having to leave our shores to find work."

The 66-year-old veteran politician said the time was right to bow out and let the "next generation" take over.

He said: "My race is nearly run; advancing years and failing health bring with them a sense of mortality."

Mr Robinson paid tribute to his wife Iris and to longstanding colleagues William McCrea, Jim Wells, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds.

"He added: "In a few weeks time I will step back from front line politics and step out of the limelight. The baton of leadership will pass to others.

"This transition does not mark an end, only a new beginning. Because of all that we have now achieved, we are the authors of our own destiny.

"Let our legacy not be remembered simply in the history books, but in the lives of our people."

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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