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Robinson backs powersharing in first DUP conference speech

Northern Ireland's First Minister today pledged not to walk away from the troubled powersharing government no matter what the difficulties facing it.

Peter Robinson said his Democratic Unionist Party was committed to devolution for the long haul and said a return to Direct Rule from Westminster would be madness.

The powersharing cabinet at Stormont has failed to meet for over four months amid rows between the two main parties - Sinn Fein and the DUP - over a range of outstanding issues, among them a timetable for the devolution of policing powers.

But in his first DUP conference speech as party leader since succeeding Ian Paisley this summer, Mr Robinson said he was not for turning back

"The form of Government we have entered is clearly not our first choice," he told delegates at the Armagh City Hotel.

"But as a party we will honour all our obligations and deliver on all of our pledges. If devolution fails it will not be because unionists have failed to live up to any agreement that we reached."

The east Belfast MP said Direct Rule could not be contemplated.

"Taking the route back to powerlessness and irrelevance - would be sheer madness: madness for unionism and madness for Northern Ireland." he said.

After receiving a rapturous welcome from party faithful as he took the stage, Mr Robinson went on to hit out at hard line unionists who advocate pulling out of the powersharing administration.

"There are some who say we should turn back," he said.

"They try to fool people into believing there is some better alternative. But they know the options they advocate are unachievable and could not, even for a fleeting moment, be attained."

Sinn Fein cabinet members are currently refusing to attend executive meetings, claiming the DUP is not honouring commitments on policing devolution and legislation to protect Irish speakers made in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

It says until the party agrees to govern on the basis of real partnership and equality it will not return to the executive table.

However, the DUP and the junior partners in the cabinet - the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists - have accused the republicans of holding the administration to ransom until they get their own way.

The DUP leader told his party conference that Sinn Fein's refusal to get down to the business of government, especially in the midst of the current economic downturn, was unforgivable.

"As the global economy is reeling and our local economy looks to the Assembly for leadership and help, what is the Sinn Fein response?" he asked.

"How do they respond to the needs of people in the hour of need?

"They respond by obstructing the Executive from meeting and leaving those most at risk to fend for themselves. The powerlessness of opposition during Direct Rule was frustrating, but the paralysis of the Executive by Sinn Fein is unforgivable."

He added: "It is time for Sinn Fein to get back to work. There should be no hiding place for those who wish to hold politics in Northern Ireland to ransom."

Mr Robinson said his party would not bow to Sinn Fein threats and would only sign up to devolving policing powers from Westminster when there was sufficient confidence in the unionist community for such a move.

Belfast Telegraph