Arlene Foster's 'Friends of the Union' speech in full
Thank you for the invitation, the introduction and the welcome. It is great to be here in Scotland tonight.
A few years ago in a party manifesto we only half jokingly suggested that we should dig a tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland but it is absolutely clear that the bonds between us go back far longer and go far deeper than any tunnel ever could.
I come here at a very interesting and pivotal time not just for Northern Ireland and for Scotland, but for the United Kingdom as a whole. It is ironic that in recent years the United Kingdom constitutional arrangements have been in a state of flux not because of the position of Ulster but because of the independence threat from Scotland and the issue of Brexit.
I am personally disappointed that in recent months the political institutions which have functioned uninterrupted in Northern Ireland since 2007 have also broken down and that our situation now adds to the uncertainty that presently exists.
Make no mistake, this is a time of threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom and it is a time for care and vigilance. It is however also a time of great opportunity. If we can successfully navigate the challenges of the next few years then I am sure that a period of constitutional peace and prosperity can lie ahead.
Tonight I want to say a few things about the present state of the United Kingdom and in particular the different challenges that we in Northern Ireland and you in Scotland will face in the coming times. I also want us to reflect on the precious bonds that exist between and across the United Kingdom and why the Union is so important to us all.
In particular, I want to announce plans I have to bring people together from all walks of life and unionism to create a document entitled ‘the case for the Union’.
As many of you will know, I come from the most westerly parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom. I grew up and have lived virtually my whole life in Fermanagh. I have moved house only twice.
The first time was when I was just eight years old. But rather than a time filled with the usual childhood excitement of new beginnings, it was a move which was very much forced upon my family after the IRA attempted to murder my father in 1979. Mercifully, he survived but the harsh truth was that it simply was no longer safe for us to remain in the house I’d grown up in.
When I got married and moved for the second time, to set up my own home, I stayed Fermanagh. It is home. It is where my heart lies and it is where I wanted to raise a family. That has not changed.
In some ways life in rural Fermanagh could not be more different than in the large cities and towns here in Scotland but in so many other ways our lives are intertwined by every aspect of our history and culture.
I got involved in politics because I wanted to make a positive difference. I got involved in politics becauseof my pride in Northern Ireland and my passion for the United Kingdom as a whole. My nationality is not simply a choice like the support of a football team but is integral to who I am as a person.
My Britishness is not just about the passport I hold but the identity that I have. It cannot be reduced to a name or a badge but is a culture and a way of life. It is about decency and respect.
It is about a shared history going back generations and hundreds of years, it is about a shared cultural experience which encompasses the newspapers that we read, the television that we watch and the football teams that we support.
It is about a pride in our role for good in the world, not just through two world wars and the fight against communism in the past but the battle for freedom and democracy today. It was that devotion to country that led so many of our people down the years to serve in the armed forces and make the ultimate sacrifice for a greater good.
By today’s standards the UK is not a large county in population terms but our our influence extends to every part of the globe. We retain a leading role on the world stage, not just because our past record but because we can be relied up as a force for good when times are tough.
The United Kingdom has a cultural richness that far exceeds our numbers and that continues to this day,every bit as much as it did in the time of Shakespeare.
Fundamental to all that we are as a nation is our belief in freedom and democracy. For us these things do not need to be codified in a written constitution but are the beating heart of who we are as a society.
The United Kingdom today has a very different cultural make up in 2017 than it did in 1917 but we have retained the values that made our country great. Whatever the debate today about immigration from the EU, there is no doubt that our country has been enhanced by the people who have over decades have come to our shores.
The fact that, to this day, the UK remains a beacon for people from all over the globe to come, to work, to settle and to make their lives tells us more about our country than any other statistic really can.
Our democratic system has stood the test of time not just over years but over centuries. In my view Westminster remains a model and an inspiration for democracy everywhere.
And who can doubt the role our present Queen has played in her time on the throne. I confess that I am an ardent royalist but even those who are not could dispute the part Her Majesty has played in holding this country together.
My belief in and support for the United Kingdom does not rely upon the economic arguments though there can be do doubt that it is overwhelmingly the case that we are all better together than apart. The United Kingdom has allowed the sharing of wealth and prosperity not just between people but across our entire country.
It is because of all of these things and countless more that I want to see our country succeed and prosper. That does not mean that we can not evolve and change but must mean that we retain those things that have made us what we are.
In Scotland that means continuing to make that case that independence is not the solution and in Northern Ireland we must make the case that the UK continues to be the vehicle to protect the lives that we enjoy.
It is appropriate that we meet at a time when the United Kingdom is once again coming together to elect a new government to see us through the Brexit negotiations. I don’t imagine there are too many prizes for guessing who will emerge as our Prime Minister on the 9th June but how each part of the UK votes will have a real bearing for the nature of politics in the years to come.
It is not my role or responsibility to tell the people of Scotland how to vote but elections have consequences. It was the election of a majority SNP administration in 2011 which made possible the independence referendum in 2014 and it was the re-election of an SNP administration that has put the issue of a fresh referendum back on the political agenda.
I have been pleased to see in recent polls that support for independence has begun to ebb away. It is far too soon to be complacent but I believe that the call for a second referendum at this time represents an overreach. Most people understood that the referendum in 2014 was to be a once in a generation event where everyone would accept the result.
The outcome of the Brexit referendum has given an excuse, but not a justification, for the SNP to put the issue of independence back on the political agenda. Such a poll in the midst of the negotiations about the UK’s exit from the EU would not only be a distraction from the important task ahead for the UK government, it would represent an unnecessary danger to the Union.
The truth is that the only way that those who call for a second referendum will be pushed back from their demands is by a response from the electorate. The more unionist candidates of whatever kind that are elected, the greater the chance that the issue of another referendum recedes from the agenda.
The return of more unionist candidates to Westminster would send the very clear message from the electorate that the priority should be, not another referendum, but getting on with governing Scotland.
Political uncertainty is not good and a fresh independence referendum will do nothing to deal with the problems that face every part of the UK.
One of the most remarkable developments in recent years has been the revival of the Conservative Party in Scotland. No small part of that is down to the election of Ruth Davidson and equally I am sure that it has been assisted by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
It is hard to take seriously the proclaimed unionism of a man who was so close to the political representatives of the IRA at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It is hard to see much good coming for the Labour Party from the coming election except the replacement of their party leader.
Ironically, for most of the last decade the greater threat to the Union has been from Scotland than from Northern Ireland. I am hopeful that the danger posed by either will recede further in the years to come.
In just four years time we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland. Given the history and events of the last hundred years that is an achievement of which we can be proud.
It has been possible, not just because of the resolve of the people of Northern Ireland in the face of threats and attacks from many quarters, but also because of the support we have received from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Union will only survive if it is a two-way process. I am delighted that it has always been so. While from time to time British governments have often strayed from the path that we would ideally like to have seen pursued, we have always been able to count on the support of the British people.
That is why as the leader of unionism in Northern Ireland I want us to play as full a part as possible in the life of the United Kingdom as a whole. I want us to be able to contribute as much now and in the future in terms of the cultural and economic life of our country as we did a hundred years ago on the battlefields across Europe.
As well as hopefully settling the independence question in Scotland for a generation, the referendum campaign did offer the opportunity to reframe and restate the case for the Union. While so many of us take it for granted as a fact of life and integral to our existence, it does bear considering what is so valuable about our membership of the United Kingdom.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein have been pushing for a border poll to be held to test opinion on the issue of the Union. I have no doubt that our position in the UK would be resoundingly endorsed and all recent polling makes that abundantly clear. However, as we have learned from the experience in Scotland, such campaigns by their very nature are divisive and disruptive.
In Northern Ireland we would be much better off getting our Executive back up and running and dealing with the problems that face people in their everyday lives. For the next few weeks we will be consumed by fighting the general election and, afterwards, returning to negotiations to re-establish the Assembly in Northern Ireland.
The case for the Union is strong. The case for the Union is sound. And even those who would deny our cultural links have to accept that, quite simply, the case for the Union makes financial sense.
By making and preparing the case for the Union, I believe the facts would ultimately deliver a verdict which would render any future demand for a border poll devoid of credibility.
I see this ‘case for the Union’ being aimed at those in Great Britain as well as our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. I see it as an opportunity to make the case for the Union in terms of our history, our culture, our economy as well as every other facet of life.
I want to use this case not just to remind ourselves of the value of the Union but to persuade others of its worth. I want us to put on the map and on the record the contribution that Northern Ireland has made and will continue to make to the life of our Nation.
This work should not be the property of any political party but should encompass contributions from right across life both in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom as a whole.
I have no doubt that the case for the Union is unanswerable and can and will be able to command widespread support but we should also use this time and this process to ask the question of what we can do to make it even more appealing to everyone within our society
In Northern Ireland at the last Assembly election for the first time, unionists lost our majority in the Assembly. While that has no direct implications for our position in the UK, we should nonetheless be mindful of a trend away from support for mainstream unionist parties.
The 2017 election may yet prove to be an aberration following a decade of nationalism in decline, but it would be dangerous to take such a thing for granted. We need to be proactive. We need to be positive. We need to understand and to react to challenges before and not after they crystallise.
All of this will require us to challenge ourselves as well as others. It may mean that we pose questions about what it is that we value about our membership of the United Kingdom and be careful not to deter support as a result of things that are not fundamental to that vision.
We are just at the start of what I expect to be a long and arduous process. Our goal must be by the time the centenary of Northern Ireland comes around in 2021 to have a persuasive case that those of us who believe in the United Kingdom can confidently make anywhere and to any audience.
Despite the setback at the Assembly election in March, the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not under threat in the short term. But we must use this time, and the opportunity that we now have, to ensure that it is not under threat in the medium or long term either.
If we take the wrong turn now we could see everything we hold so dear under threat in the yearsto come. But if we ask the right questions and take the right steps now, we can ensure that we pass on to the next generation the same rich inheritance that was passed to us.
I am sure that this task will not only take us right across Northern Ireland but also across the length and breadth of Great Britain in the years to come. I hope and trust that as we do that work, we will be invited back to talk to you and to learn from your experience here in Scotland.
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