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Peter Robinson in appeal to Catholics

By David Young

Unionism must look to its founding principles and once again reach out to peoples of all religions and traditions, Peter Robinson has urged.

Stormont's First Minister said he wished to broaden the appeal of the unionist brand to incorporate a "patchwork quilt" of identities and faiths who all share a common belief that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

This umbrella would cover those who revere the monarchy to those that just think they would be better-off in socio-economic terms if they stayed in the UK, he explained.

The DUP leader set out his vision for the future of unionism - one that Catholics could feel affinity with - as he delivered the Edward Carson lecture in Dublin.

The event hosted by the Irish government in Iveagh House, near Carson's birth place, reflected on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule in Ireland.

Mr Robinson said a broad-based Unionism was the vision of its founding father Carson.

"I believe that unionism will be strongest if all are accepted as part of a patchwork quilt of identity," he said.

"Unionism is not a single homogeneous entity. It must be about opening up to new communities and building a broad and solid coalition.

"In saying unionism must now reach out to others I am not, in any way, being critical of those who have led unionism before me.

"I believe what has changed is not so much the aspirations of unionist leaders but the existence today of a much more benign environment. We now live in an era of peacetime unionism."

Mr Robinson said the stability brought by the peace process gave people more confidence to explore political philosophies.

He highlighted a recent survey which indicated only 16% of people in Northern Ireland - and 33% of Catholics - were in favour of Irish reunification.

"I believe that number is driven by the new political climate and our new relationship with the Republic," he added.

"I have said on many occasions that from a party point of view I want to see more Catholics supporting the DUP.

"I have no doubt that there are many Catholics in Northern Ireland who have much more in common with the social and economic policies of the DUP than they do with either Sinn Fein or the SDLP, and I welcome some early signs of modest progress.

"However, I suspect that the survey results do not point to an imminent avalanche of Catholics voting DUP but rather, outside party politics, to a wider acceptance of the present constitutional position of Northern Ireland and as importantly - their place in it.

"That is not to say that they will feel comfortable calling themselves British or even defining themselves as unionists, but they see their best future as part of Northern Ireland, within its present constitutional context as part of the United Kingdom.

"They might be classed as 'no change' advocates. But is it possible that we are seeing the birth of a new brand of Irish unionism? A brand which is culturally Irish but unionist to the extent that they support the status quo of remaining within the United Kingdom.

"They may not yet, or indeed ever, identify themselves as such but if not Irish unionists in name - they are Irish unionists in practice.

"For unionism to prosper in the decades to come it must be inclusive and not exclusive.

"I want to see a broad and inclusive unionism that can embrace all shades of those who support Northern Ireland's present constitutional position.

"Unionism must reach far beyond its traditional base if it is to maximise its potential. That means forming a pro-Union consensus with people from different religious and community backgrounds."

Mr Robinson said in the past the chance of attaining Carson's dream of an all-inclusive unionism had been missed.

"For almost all of our existence, unionists have been under threat of one form or another, but now in this generation we have an opportunity, free from threats, internal or external - perhaps not the first chance, but undoubtedly the best chance - to put into practice what Edward Carson visualised," he said.

"As a unionist, my raison d'etre is the Union and I want to see as many people from all backgrounds supporting it too.

"But, we must ensure that all who live in Northern Ireland have equality of opportunity, whether they support the Union or favour a united Ireland.

"I value the relationship I have with the present Irish Government - and though we will not always agree - I know we can work together to the benefit of our people.

"If I have learned anything over the last 40 years it is that we will not have peace, progress and prosperity unless we can all benefit from it.

"As First Minister I have sought to reach out to those outside my own tradition, not because it is expedient, but because it is the right thing to do.

"We have come through a period of conflict and upheaval, and the pieces in the kaleidoscope are happily moving into place.

"We have a golden opportunity to mould a new society before the new arrangements are firmly shaped and settled for future generations. That is the vista we now have.

"There is much that can be done and much that can be improved. I want to take advantage of this formative moment in a way that our forefathers could not and did not.

"What I advocate is not some new variety of unionism but the unionism of Edward Carson - a unionism that can reach out and include those from every background.

"Maintaining Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom simply due to demographics should not be the height of our ambition.

"I want us to create a wide consensus for our present constitutional arrangements. In this new Northern Ireland I want to see pro-Union support grow but in parallel I want to ensure that no-one, whatever their political and constitutional aspiration, is left behind.

"Edward Carson may now be consigned to the pages of history, but he still speaks to us today. If this generation of unionists is listening then let us work to broaden support for his vision for Northern Ireland's future.

"That vision of unionism, threatening to no-one, open to all, living peacefully and in co-operation with our neighbours, will truly honour the bravery, the ideals, the sacrifice, the memory and the legacy of those who were counted when the challenge came all those years ago."

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