Peter Robinson commits to leading DUP into next Assembly election
PETER Robinson has signalled his intent to lead the DUP into the next Assembly election and beyond, insisting he has not contemplated a life beyond politics.
Ahead of his party's annual conference at the end of the week, the First Minister also credited Martin McGuinness as a man who has never let him down on a promise in their time sharing power at Stormont.
But he said Sinn Fein also had to swallow the pill that a future border poll on Northern Ireland's constitutional status was growing more and more unlikely.
The 63-year-old East Belfast MLA made clear he personally has no desire to try to recapture the Westminster seat he lost to Alliance in 2010 but said he was planning to run in the Assembly poll in 2015 or 2016.
However, he ruled out the potential of staying in Stormont politics as long as his predecessor Dr Ian Paisley, who bowed out in his 80s.
Mr Robinson also reiterated his desire for a single Unionist party but acknowledged that UUP leader Mike Nesbitt did not share that view.
"I certainly feel very comfortable in terms of physically and mentally being able to do the job," he said of his desire to remain as First Minister for years to come.
"Of course when you get to my age there comes a time when you would like to take things a bit easier but I have fairly clear objectives in my mind of things that I would like to see in place.
"I want to ensure that my standing down would not affect the forward momentum of our progress here in Northern Ireland.
"I want to ensure that I hand over a party that's in a strong position and I want to do everything that I can to ensure that the Union is secure.
"So I look at issues more on the basis of what would be the perfect conditions to hand over. I may not get that level of perfection but at least I hope to be able to hand over at a stage when we are on safe ground."
Mr Robinson said he was confident the DUP could retake the East Belfast Westminster seat, but he would not be contesting it.
"I think the Lord was kind to me when he took that responsibility away from me and it has given me the kind of time that allows me to do this job more properly."
He added: "Certainly I am planning on the basis of standing in the next Assembly election whether that is in 2015 or 2016."
The DUP figurehead said he did not think it would be necessary to replicate Dr Paisley's political longevity.
"Ian obviously had decisions to take and he wanted to see the Assembly set up and in a secured position before he decided to stand down. I don't think that I will have to wait 10 or 15 years in order to do that," he said.
In regard to the possibility of remaining in public life after he retires from politics, he added: "As I haven't thought in great deal about the standing down element, I certainly haven't thought in any detail at all as to what happens thereafter.
"I don't think any of us should take for granted that the length of our own lives is not in our own hands."
Mr Robinson conceded there was no short-term prospect of the DUP and UUP joining forces as a single unionist party but said the electorate's power in signalling their desire for such a move should not be underestimated.
"I would very much want there to be a united unionist party, I would like to see us moving forward like that but I have to recognise that the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has ruled that out," he said.
"It doesn't stop us having, from time to time, joint ventures or working close together on issues of common interest."
Mr Robinson will use his leader's speech at the party conference in Belfast to highlight the achievements he believes the powersharing executive he leads with Mr McGuinness has delivered.
"It is a relationship (his and Mr McGuinness's) that has worked and I believe it has worked to the benefit of everyone," he said.
"I don't think that there has been any occasion when we have spoken to each other when we have promised to do something when either of us has let the other one down.
"That's the basis upon which I think you can have a fruitful business relationship.
"We are from very different political backgrounds. Each of us has political baggage that the other may not be pleased about and I think the fact that we are so different in terms of outlook and background and ideology is more to our credit that we have been able to work together."
Mr Robinson said while MLAs had achieved a degree of reconciliation within the Assembly, that objective was still illusive in the wider community.
"The reality I think for all of us is that while we have reconciliation in terms of the way we can operate within the Government we have yet to crack the nut of getting reconciliation throughout our whole community and that's a job we are going to have to work on," he said.
While he has reached a number of agreements with Sinn Fein, Mr Robinson made clear that he did not share the republican party's belief that the time was approaching for a vote on a united Ireland.
"I think it is becoming less and less likely there will be a border poll," he said.
"The legislation lays down very strict criteria for the Secretary of State (Theresa Villiers). The Secretary of State calls a border poll if the Secretary of State believes there is a likely outcome that would lead to people voting for a united Ireland - it's going in the opposite direction.
"I could imagine that Sinn Fein don't like this pill and don't want to swallow it but the fact is that the number of people who want a united Ireland is reducing because people are content with the status quo."
He added: "If there was a border poll I would be very confident of the outcome."
The DUP conference at the La Mon Hotel comes at the end of a week when Northern Ireland landed the chance to host the world's most powerful political leaders when the G8 summit is held in Co Fermanagh next June.
Mr Robinson dismissed speculation that David Cameron's decision to let the region stage the event was a sop to make up for a potential future rejection of the Executive's bid to set its own rate of corporation tax.
"I don't think the two are linked in any way," he insisted.
"We had a very useful discussion with the Prime Minister yesterday on the issue of corporation tax.
"I found him still to be positive on the issue, probably more engaged on the issue that on previous occasions when we had mostly been talking to the Treasury.
"He recognises that there is a need to rebalance our economy, he recognises that there is a distinction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of having a land border with a country with a lower rate of corporation tax.
"I went away from yesterday pleased with the positive engagement we had on the subject with him."