PETER Robinson has insisted that the DUP’s fundamentalist position on moral issues is not an impediment to the party’s growth.
Speaking to the News Letter ahead of the DUP’s two-day party conference on Friday and Saturday, the First Minister said that he did not believe that the party’s position on issues such as abortion or homosexuality would put off unionists who do not share those views.
During his four-and-a-half years as party leader Mr Robinson has significantly repositioned the DUP, moving it from the right to the centre, calling for shared schooling and inviting Roman Catholics to join the party.
On many big moral issues the DUP operates a whipped vote, where MLAs are instructed to vote according to the party policy, unlike the UUP and many Westminster parties which allow for votes of conscience on many moral matters.
However, there have been signs in recent months of a new DUP circumspection in speaking about issues such as homosexuality and abortion, with the party choosing just one MLA to read a speech in a recent Assembly debate about gay marriage and moving quickly to distance itself from comments by future health minister Jim Wells who said that abortion should not be permissible in cases of rape.
Some have viewed such moves as signals that the DUP is attempting to move away from its fundamentalist evangelical Protestant base and long association with the Free Presbyterian Church.
When asked if the DUP can grow to represent all of unionism if it maintains its historic opposition to things like gay marriage and abortion on which pro-Union voters have a range of views, Mr Robinson said: “I don’t think anyone takes their position on those issues on the basis of what DUP policy was 10 or 20 years ago.
“They take their position because that’s what they believe today. I think that the position that we’ve adopted on those issues is very representative of the unionist community.
“Obviously with a community as independently-minded as unionism is, there will be people who will have different views on every issue so you can never represent all of the people all of the time in terms of the position that you adopt.
“I think that people understand and respect our position in these matters – they’d be surprised if we did anything else.”
He doesn’t see it as a barrier to growing the party further?
“Well it’s not a barrier because we have grown and polling indicates that we continue to grow.”
As the party expands into new political territory, Mr Robinson faces a delicate balancing act to satisfy the desires of traditional DUP members and the aspirations of those attracted by the new rhetoric of recent years.
There have been private mutterings from some traditionalist members when he attended the funeral Mass of Constable Ronan Kerr while others were delighted by the decision, though no significant dissent emerged in public.
When asked how the Protestant fundamentalist base which carried the party for much of its history now fits in the new-look DUP, Mr Robinson said: “Very comfortably, I suppose is the answer.
“I can’t recall any angry words in the DUP since Jim Allister left it. The party operates smoothly, there’s a very high level of respect for each other and friendship with each other.
“The party is and always has been a family organisation so there’s a good relationship with every part of it. Some people obviously have come through very difficult times and will have more difficulties than others in operating within the present environment but I think all of them recognise that it is the right thing to do even though it is a difficult thing to do.”
Mr Robinson says that the DUP is in a strong position electorally, in opinion polling, and in its membership figures, meaning that one of the challenges facing the party leadership is to resist complacency.
“I don’t think that you take any of these things for granted,” he said. “Complacency is the last thing that will benefit any political party but I think there is a recognition that a strong unionist party is good for the Union and is the best way to have unionism represented.”
Northern Ireland’s politics is in the midst of an unusually long gap without an election – there is a space of three years between the 2011 Assembly elections and the 2014 poll for Europe and councils.
Mr Robinson said that he could not remember such a long break in campaigning and added: “It’s odd not having the interruption of a campaign.
“Of course from the Assembly’s point of view it could be a five-year term that we’re dealing with – that’s one of the issues that we’re discussing with the Government at the present – but it does give us an opportunity to deal in an uninterrupted way with some of the issues that we’re facing.”
Mr Robinson also signalled his intent to lead the DUP into the next Assembly election and beyond, despite in the past having said that he intended to have retired by then.
Two years ago in a BBC documentary Mr Robinson said that he had told his family “that somewhere around the 60 to 65 age I would retire and put my hand to something else. By and large that’s what I still intend to do”.
However, last year Mr Robinson gave the first suggestion that he was thinking of going on for longer, telling UTV that “you don’t choose when you retire on the basis of what your age is”. However, this week the 63-year-old East Belfast MLA, who will be 64 next month, made clear that he is planning to run in the Assembly election which will be in either 2015 or 2016.
When asked about retirement, Mr Robinson told the News Letter: “Whenever I was a lot younger and I listened to some politicians saying they’d like to be taking it a lot easier and all the rest, I said: Yeah right, I believe that.
“The truth is that on a personal perspective it would be very nice to take life an awful lot easier. I’m 63, next month 64. From my point of view it would be nice to sleep in to nine o’clock in the morning, it would be nice to have an extra week’s holiday over Christmas or something like that; that’s natural.
“But in politics you do take on a duty and a responsibility and obviously those around you suffer most because of it.
“There are certain things that I want to achieve. I want to ensure that we have a stable Northern Ireland, that our structures are well-established. I want to see the party continuing to grow and to consolidate and I’m determined that the Union is not only maintained but strengthened.
“You look for an ideal moment in the future when the time might be right for you to hand over. Whether that comes exactly as you might imagine it, only time will tell.
“I know that it’s not here and now; I know that there is work to be done and while I feel that I can make a contribution to achieving those goals I’ll continue.”
There have been suggestions that some in the DUP are concerned about the succession in leadership from Mr Robinson, where the next leader will be the first not to have been there from the start of the party.
But Mr Robinson said: “I’m certainly not concerned. We have a fantastic bunch of people in the party. I look around the Assembly sometimes at the other offerings that are there from political parties and I feel very relaxed and comfortable about the future.”