First Minister Peter Robinson has said that a border poll would be destabilising, but said his party would have balance the impact of Sinn Fein’s ongoing campaign for the poll, when deciding on a way forward.
The DUP leader made the comments during a lengthy webchat, exclusive to the News Letter website on Friday.
On the flags issue, he said that demands for a return to direct rule - as outlined by the Ulster People’s Forum - would not see the Union Flag returned to City Hall.
On a lighter note, Mr Robinson also fielded a question on whether he would eat a horse-burger, to which he replied ‘neigh’.
Below, is the full transcript of the webchat.
Peter Robinson: Many thanks for all the questions submitted. Unfortunately time has gone but you can continue to submit your queries to our website mydup.com or on twitter @duponline
Peter Robinson: I want Northern Ireland to enjoy peace and stability and its people to experience all of the benefits of being citizens of the United Kingdom. I believe as we move out of the global recession we have an unprecedented opportunity to bring real prosperity to the people who live here. Under devolution we have brought more jobs into NI than at any time since records began. We have spent more on infrastructure than any previous Government. We have the lowest household taxes of any part of the UK and despite our recent difficulties NI is more peaceful than at any time in our recent history. If we can do this during a period of real economic hardship what can NI accomplish when recovery comes?
Comment From Clarrisa J
What do you want to achieve most in politics?
Peter Robinson: Unionists working together on matters that impact on our identity and the future of the Union can only be advantageous. I hope that the Unionist Forum will demonstrate how Unionism collaborating does no harm to any of the participating organisations and significantly advances the Unionist cause.
Comment From phil
how do you think the unionist community feels about greater collaboration between unionist parties?
Peter Robinson: I strongly believe that you can not have a shared society unless our children have shared experiences in their most formative years. I recognise the opposition, particularly from Catholic Church, but real progress can only be made by a step change in how we educate our young people. If we educate children separately and create in their minds a “them and us” culture we can hardly be surprised when children see themselves as different in later life and that difference leads to division and intolerance.
Comment From Ian Cooke
Will the executive continue to Shared Education and make it a central feature of the CSI
Peter Robinson: The “peace walls” in our city are a physical demonstration of the division in our society and can only come down as relations within the community improve. We will work in any locality to create the conditions where there is mutual approval for the removal of the “peace walls” and appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure the safety and security of people in those areas.
Comment From Alan
As a local East Belfast MLA, what can you do to bring the ‘peace’ walls around Short Strand down over the next ten years in Cluan Place and facing onto the Newtownards Road?
Peter Robinson: We recognsie the importance of CAP to Northern Ireland farmers. The DUP has always been the farmer’s friend. We have lobbied HMG and the RoI Agriculture Minister who will have the job of negotiating CAP reform during their Presidency of the EU. We also intend to raise this issue next week when in Brussels dealing with a range of NI matters. My colleague Diane Dodds MEP has been very active on this issue and regularly updates us on the meetings she is holding. This is the advanatge of being the only party in Northern Ireland to have representatives sitting in the Assembly, Westminster and Europe.
Comment From John Hunter
What steps has the First Minister taken to lobby HM Government to retain the amount of money coming from Europe to the UK under the Common Agriculture Policy?
Peter Robinson: The John Lewis proposal would bring 1500 jobs with it. Alex had written to the Planning Appeals Commission indicating what his intention would be in relation to Retail Policy for the future. His intention would have had the impact of damaging the John Lewis planning proposal. At the Executive meeting on Thursday the deputy First Minister and I, in accordance with Section 20 (4) (b) of the Northern Ireland Act, required the decision on Retail Policy to be brought to Executive for discussion and agreement because of its significant and controversial nature. It is not therefore a decision for the Minister to take.
Comment From Bob
Why was Alex Attwood allowed to put thousands of jobs and millions of pounds in danger by banning John Lewis at Lisburn?
Peter Robinson: Neigh!
Comment From Mark
Would you ever eat a horseburger?
Peter Robinson: Many communities in Northern Ireland suffer from poverty and dereliction and the Executive have a number of measures aimed at tackling this need. The Social Investment Fund is perhaps the most innovative in that it allows local communities to determine for themselves local priorities for Executive funding. Instead of government telling local people what they need communities are setting their own priorities for government to fund. £80 million has been ring-fenced and I hope that the assessment of the scheme will encourage a further traunch of funding.
Comment From Kirsty
Why did you introduce a new fund to tackle deprivation?
Peter Robinson: Nothing we or anyone else can do can replace loved ones lost through terrorism or reduce the pain of those who have suffered.
However, since devolution we have tripled funding for victims over the Northern Ireland spending review period. In addition, on devolution we immediately started a fundamental review of provision which has led to a ten year strategy, the Victims Commission and now the new Commissioner and Victims Service. We want to ensure the best quality and professional services are available to victims when needed. We will continue to listen to the needs of victims and will move to address these needs as we continue to progress.
Comment From Rachel
What have you done for the victims of IRA terrorism?
Peter Robinson: Because of devolution students in Northern Ireland are better off than in England. The Executive has frozen fees in real terms while they have been increased up to £9,000 in England. We want univeristy to be affordable for all.
Comment From Samuel McM
Mr Robinson, i’m a student concerned about the rising cost of education, what will the DUP do to keep university affordable?
Peter Robinson: The DUP receives more votes in workingclass unionist areas than any other political party. Indeed, more than all other unionist candidates added together. Our elected repressentatives work in these areas, have constituency surgeries and speak for the whole unionist community. We recognise that there is a section of unionism that does not support our party. That is their entitlement.
The decision in Belfast regarding the Union Flag should be a wakeup call to unionists to register and vote.
Inccidently, it is hard to argue that the DUP have acted in a way inconsistent with workingclass unionists who are protesting when the DUP voted in Belfast to keep the Flag flying 365 days a year.
Comment From John wtt
Why has the DUP leave no other route but protests for the ordinary working class to be listened to. You do not want to know us
Peter Robinson: We have had discussions internally and with others and would be supportive if an agreed candidate can be found to put forward a unity candidate. Unionism is stronger together.
Comment From Shaun Hamilton
Is the DUP running a candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election?
Peter Robinson: The fact that you have to ask the question and I am stumped as to how to answer it shows how questionable their unionism may be. People should be in no doubt at election time on such issues and should vote only for candidates who have expressly nailed their colours to the mast.
Comment From Archie Leetch
Ia the Alliance Party unionist?
Peter Robinson: It was the Direct Rulers who introduced designated days and there is absolutely no intention on the part of the Secretary of State to require the Union Flag to be flown 365 days per year. Those of us who lived through Direct Rule will recall how we judged it to be “Dublin Rule” with RoI Ministers being part of all significant decision taken by HMG and without unionists having any say in the future. We must never go back to that system which marginalised and damaged unionism.
Some people judge the Stormont administration on what it has achieved but another important element has been the damaging proposals that we have been able as unionists to stop.
Comment From Brian Kerr
Some people are calling for a reintroduction of direct rule to get the flag back on City Hall. Would this work?
Peter Robinson: I’m absolutely certain that there would be an overwhelming majority wanting to remain within the UK. The problem is that the campaign would be destabilising. However, we will have to determine whether an ongoing SF campaign, calling for a border poll, would be even more destablising. All recent tests of public opinion show that support for remaining in the UK is solid within the Protestant section of our community and growing steadily among the Catholic community.
Comment From Lyle B Kinney
How confident are you that unionists would win a border poll?
Peter Robinson: In an era of concensus politics it was madness to change the settled status quo in Belfast for flag flying at any time. The proposal came forward from SF and they’re responsible for the damaging timing which has been so costly to the traders of Belfast and beyond.
Comment From James
As a business owner in Belfast can you explain why the flag vote was permitted to happen in the run up to Christmas?