Arlene Foster: Siege mentality is gone and unionism has never been stronger
The rhetoric of political enemies will not force unionists to retreat to the bunker, writes DUP leader Arlene Foster
In 1998, I was still in my twenties and embarking on the early stages of my professional career. Like so many who have lived through the horrors of the terrorist violence, I desperately wanted a peaceful future, for the bloodshed to be behind us and for normal government in Northern Ireland.
But I was concerned at the price many seemed only too willing to pay. For decades the community had been ravaged by the men of violence. The prison gates being thrown open for scores of terrorist prisoners to walk free was a moral outrage. A proud police force was humiliated. And republicans could be in government while retaining their weapons, despite their recent use of tactical temporary ceasefires.
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Unionists didn't believe the words of Sinn Fein and didn't believe they wanted Stormont to work.
The text of the agreement was full of ambiguity, and deliberately so. Yet unsurprisingly it was endorsed by practically all of nationalist Ireland but at best half of unionism, and that only after additional promises quickly ditched by Tony Blair.
The UUP was divided but chose to support the agreement. Things only deteriorated for them over ensuing years. It was evident the Democratic Unionist Party was by far the best party to represent unionism and secure improvements, and I joined in January 2004.
Achieving any change to the content of the agreement was extremely difficult, and some argued impossible, but the DUP proved many wrong by persevering to ensure IRA decommissioning and support for policing and the rule of law.
Twenty years on now from the agreement, people would have expected better.
Undoubtedly Northern Ireland is an entirely different and much safer place for our children growing up.
We have made significant economic progress over recent years and begun the desperately needed rebalancing towards an innovative outward looking private sector-led economy.
But efforts to justify the terrorism continue, whether it's Gerry Adams to the international media or speakers addressing republican commemorations.
There was never the justification for taking human life. That message of non-violence should have been then and must be today, clear and unequivocal. Otherwise we risk impressionable young people and those who would exploit them seeking to claim some element of cover to replicate those actions and 'continue the struggle'.
No one would have imagined that in 2018 play parks and banners could eulogise an individual arrested with the weapon which killed 10 men in cold-blooded sectarianism at Kingsmill.
Sinn Fein-dominated councils block armed forces recruitment events, the sale of poppies and the Union flag flying for even a few days, and their mayors snub members of the royal family and refuse to present awards to teenagers in the cadet forces.
An independent three-person panel finding that the army council still runs the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein was deeply depressing. Paramilitary-linked groups continue to exert control on communities, but work we instigated is seeking to change this and promote lawfulness.
Victims are mocked. The consent principle is ignored when it doesn't suit. Even our actual name, Northern Ireland, is disrespected.
The evident progress in turning from violence is welcome but clearly there remains a great deal more to be done.
Reconciliation has been limited, and attitudes have hardened since the tearing down of the Executive by Sinn Fein.
Unfortunately, stable government has not become embedded. While some positive changes have been secured, we envisage further work to arrive at a more normal form of government.
And the same question still remains for republicans. Do they genuinely want to make Northern Ireland work? They are entitled to long-term political aspirations, however fanciful, but they must prove a willingness to govern in the here and now in the best interests of the people rather than their political project.
For all of the challenges, I remain optimistic about Northern Ireland. We are resilient. We have wonderful people. Our prospects are good and devolved government can improve them.
However, Stormont needs to be sustainable. We can no longer be at the whim of those fretting over tough decisions or who feel there may be electoral advantage in collapsing the government.
It is difficult to comprehend, after the efforts to secure devolved government, the manner in which it is being blocked today.
In the same way the people of Northern Ireland were right not to bow to the threats of the IRA, it would be wrong today to simply concede to threats and ultimatums of a political nature.
I believe there are some in Sinn Fein who want to get back to proper politics, who recognise the damage that is being done to the community, and our reputation to international investors; their voices are being drowned out by the hawks in their "movement".
We have overcome much greater challenges and I am confident we will overcome the present one too, and see devolution restored.
The Union today is secure.
The understandable siege mentality that existed throughout the Troubles and beyond need no longer apply.
Yes, opponents of unionism are only too keen to talk up the challenges of exiting the EU, but no one from any party is advocating an outcome that would damage Northern Ireland, and a sensible way through will be found.
And calls for border polls can be unsettling, but I have full confidence in the people of Northern Ireland who appreciate and recognise the strengths inherent in our United Kingdom.
In the coming months, I will be stepping up a campaign in Northern Ireland and further afield the benefits of the Union, and the safety, security and stability it offers, at this time of change in Europe and across the world.
The rhetoric of our opponents will not force unionists back into a bunker, into a negative or defensive mind-set.
Unionism has never been in a stronger position, or had greater influence.
Our Confidence and Supply arrangement with the Conservatives has been demonstrated to bring benefit to everyone in Northern Ireland.
Unionism succeeds through being confident and forward-looking, and indeed through embracing all our cultures and perspectives.
If we begin to genuinely respect each other and our different outlooks, then we can achieve a settled community in a way we haven't experienced before.