Looking forward to 2013 with optimism

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New Year message from Northern Ireland’s First Minister, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson MLA.

I wish everyone living, working and visiting in Northern Ireland a happy and healthy New Year with God’s richest blessing for 2013.

As I look back over 2012, it was a year filled with enormous pride for Her Majesty The Queen and the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, we enjoyed hosting the most spectacular Royal visit when tens of thousands lined Stormont Estate and other towns around the Province to wish Her Majesty well in her Diamond Jubilee year.

This was the first time a Royal visit was pre-announced. Such events would have been unimaginable only a decade ago.

The sporting success of the Province was also a highlight of 2012. No one will easily forget watching the heroic efforts of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Their accomplishments were a great source of pride for Northern Ireland.

We also pay tribute to Royal Portrush for hosting the Irish Open and attracting record spectator attendances.

Last year also saw the opening of Titanic Belfast. Some £37.5 million in funding from the Executive has helped build one of our most successful ever tourist attractions and £9 million invested in the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre has helped transform the visitor experience at that popular site.

In September, unionists united across the Province to mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant. All who participated in those celebrations will have cherished memories of a special weekend when unionists of all shades came together with a common purpose.

However, against this backdrop of celebration I know 2012 was a difficult year in many homes.

While Northern Ireland was second only to south-east England in attracting foreign direct investment, too many homes were launched into uncertainty through job losses as a result of the global economic recession.

Our Executive, through Invest NI, has and will continue to support local businesses and help open new markets for our exporters. That’s why in 2013 we will lead another delegation to China to ensure local businesses utilise the Chinese market. Undoubtedly 2013 will bring challenges but there is much to look forward to as well.

Northern Ireland will host the first United Kingdom City of Culture in Londonderry. This is a tremendous boost for the north-west and will help showcase this historic city to the global tourist market.

This year will also see Northern Ireland hosting the World Police and Fire Games. This will bring tens of thousands of visitors from all round the world with a huge influx from North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and mainland Europe.

Another highlight of 2013 will be the United Kingdom hosting the 39th G8 summit in Co Fermanagh. Not only will the leaders of eight of the world’s largest economies meet on the shores of Lough Erne but the world’s media will also descend on Northern Ireland. This is a tremendous opportunity for Northern Ireland to feature on the world news agenda for the right reasons. Every effort is being made to ensure we capitalise on this once in a generation opportunity.

Being able to host any of these events is only possible because of the stability which has been secured in recent years. I know the people of Northern Ireland want to keep this Province moving forward. The united condemnation of the brutal murder of David Black and the unanimous denunciation of all violence and threats has reinforced the message that our community does not want to go back to the dark days of the past.

Over those past decades young people left our shores in search of work and a better life. Having gained a first class education, I want to keep our brightest and best at home. We can’t afford to lose another generation. More and more people now appreciate that stability is the key to attracting jobs, investment and prosperity to our shores.

The decision to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall was ill-considered and provocative. People are entitled – even justified – in protesting but nobody can justify threats, acts of violence or other unlawful behaviour. Right-thinking unionists will want to channel their opposition to this, and similar decisions, into political activity aimed at strengthening our British culture and identity.

I’m proud of my British heritage. I’m proud to be part of the United Kingdom. I’m glad that support for the Union in Northern Ireland is at its highest level with recent polls showing less than 10 per cent supporting a united Ireland now. It is a mark of success for unionism and Northern Ireland that a growing number of Catholics are now content with the constitutional status quo. It is our goal to make Northern Ireland a place where people of all backgrounds feel a part.

During 2013 I want to see the publication of the Executive’s CSI strategy. Those parties that walked away from the responsibility all politicians have to reach agreement on this issue need to come back to the table. The last few weeks has shown that a party political boycott is not the way to respond to such a significant issue. A worked-up draft is now available. I want political leaders to contribute to moving forward rather than opting out and dodging difficult compromises. I will work tirelessly with all parties to build a truly shared future for Northern Ireland, a future where everyone’s culture and identity is respected.

In my 2012 speech to the DUP conference I said I wanted to cement our place within the Union and I also pledged “if that means taking tough decisions or abandoning out-dated dogmas, then I’ll do it”. I hope in 2013 others will also stand ready to take tough decisions. Whether it is the reform of the Assembly institutions or Executive decisions affecting health, education or business everyone must be prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel.

I am a strong believer in low taxes. I can assure everyone in Northern Ireland that they will continue to have the lowest household taxes in 2013. Indeed, in April the small business rates relief scheme will be extended to make it the most extensive anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Whilst securing peace and stability must always be our goal I have asked our ministers to redouble their efforts to attract and secure more jobs for the Province. I understand that the global tide is against us but that must only mean that we become more imaginative and creative in our approach.

As we enter this New Year, I am prayerfully mindful of those who do so with sadness because of an empty chair in their household. I think especially of those involved in our armed forces. May we each pause to remember those who have sacrificed for our peace and security.

I trust everyone will have a peaceful and prosperous 2013.