Wednesday 21 August 2019

Northern Ireland is on safe ground and is a place transformed - Peter Robinson

First Minister Peter Robinson makes his final speech as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader to delegates at the party's conference outside Belfast. Photo: Stephen Kilkenny/PA Wire
First Minister Peter Robinson makes his final speech as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader to delegates at the party's conference outside Belfast. Photo: Stephen Kilkenny/PA Wire

Northern Ireland is on safe ground and is a place transformed, Peter Robinson has told his party conference.

In his final speech as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, the 66-year-old veteran politician said the time was right to bow out and let the "next generation" take over.

He said: "My race is nearly run; advancing years and failing health bring with them a sense of mortality."

On Thursday Mr Robinson announced his intention to step down after a 45-year political career.

The widely expected announcement came just days after he signed a political deal with Sinn Fein and the UK and Irish governments aimed at cementing powersharing in Northern Ireland.

The politician suffered a heart attack earlier this year but has insisted he had made up his mind to leave before the health scare.

He received a rapturous reception from hundreds of delegates who had packed into the La Mon Hotel on the edge of east Belfast.

They cheered, whistled, applauded and waved union flags as he entered the bustling conference suite surrounded by photographers.

As a founding member of the DUP in the early 1970s, Mr Robinson recalled how he played a key role in transforming the party from an "irritant to the political establishment" into the largest unionist grouping at Stormont.

The steely tactician widely regarded as the brains behind Ian Paisley's fiery bluster has been DUP leader and First Minister since 2008 - longer than he had anticipated, he revealed.

"My work is almost done, and now it is time for the next generation to step forward," Mr Robinson said.

"I wanted to make sure that I was handing over the reins of a political process that was stable and secure for the long term.

"After a seemingly endless process I am delighted that we have finally reached agreement on the way forward. We have resolved all those toxic issues that threatened the continuation of devolution."

He said devolution was the best way to secure stability for the region and hailed the Fresh Start Stormont Agreement struck this week.

"There is no discomfort in this deal for unionists," he said.

"There is no pain for those who want political progress. I can with absolute confidence and assurance recommend it to the people of Northern Ireland."

He also took a swipe at opponents, branding those who have rejected the deal as "wreckers" and "non-achievers" who belong to a "do-nothing coalition".

And there was further applause when he poked fun at the rival Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

"How many Ulster Unionists does it take to change a light bulb? None, the Ulster Unionists can't change anything," said Mr Robinson.

Among those in the audience was North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, among the favourites to take over as DUP leader, as well as Finance Minister Arlene Foster, tipped to be the new First Minister at Stormont.

Both candidates were name-checked in the speech.

Mr Robinson said: "Whoever the party chooses I will give them my wholehearted and unqualified support.

"I will offer them advice in private and nothing other than support in public. That's what fidelity and dignity require and what solidarity and friendship deserves.

"They will need your support too, in good times and in bad.

"Leadership means taking difficult decisions, it means making unpopular choices as well as easy ones.

"I am absolutely sure that if this party is to continue to prosper we must view outcomes through a long-term lens."

There was also a special mention for his family, special advisers and former health minister Jim Wells, who resigned to care for his ill wife after sparking controversy with comments about gay marriage.

Mr Robinson said if the DUP was to retain its power, it must "connect" with young voters.

"People will be voting at the Assembly elections next May who were not even born at the time of the Belfast Agreement and who were still in primary school at the time of St Andrews.

"If we are to retain our position in the leadership of unionism we must connect with the next generation."

However, there was no mention of former DUP leader Ian Paisley who died last year.

Relations between the pair became notoriously strained following Dr Paisley's resignation in 2008.

Although he had initially claimed there was no pressure to stand down, the firebrand preacher later said he was ousted by Mr Robinson and his deputy, Mr Dodds.

Both denied Dr Paisley's version of events.

After his speech, Mr Robinson embraced his team of MPs and MLAs including his protege and namesake Gavin Robinson who won back the seat for East Belfast in May.

There were also hugs for North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr and health minister Simon Hamilton who has been tipped as a potential successor.

PA Media

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