We are the party of the new Northern Ireland: Robinson

A CONFIDENT Peter Robinson told his party conference that the DUP will be setting a new centre-ground agenda for Northern Ireland.

The first minister, whose political career seemed over when he lost his East Belfast Westminster seat in May, set out a positive vision of building a "new Northern Ireland" open to all.

Mr Robinson called for the party, which he has transformed into the province's most professional, to continue adapting to modernity.

However, DUP founder Lord Bannside and his wife, Baronness Paisley, were notably absent from the conference on Friday and Saturday in the La Mon Hotel in Co Down.

On Saturday night Baronness Paisley said that Dr Paisley was not unwell but had "other arrangements" which prevented them from attending the conference.

At midday on Saturday, Mr Robinson arrived on the stage to loud music and lengthy applause from delegates.

He thanked the party for its support for him over the last year, but there was no mention of his wife Iris, who this time last year was a prominent figure at the conference.

Just weeks later she resigned from the party after it was revealed that she had an affair with a teenager and arranged for him to get 50,000 from two property developers.

He said that the DUP, "once the party of protest, marginalised and isolated," was now "the party of Northern Ireland" adding that it was

no longer "on the margins of politics but at the centre of government".

In lines almost directly borrowed from David Cameron, Mr Robinson said: "The issue of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has been settled for as far as one can see into the future.

"That battle has beenfought and won. Against that settled backdrop, let us focus on the people's real everyday agenda."

He added: "Too often unionists are negative or defensive about Northern Ireland's status but remember this – Gerry Adams leaves Northern Ireland politics for pastures new with his key ambition unfulflled."

Speaking a language more common to the Alliance Party than to the DUP, the veteran politician called for both a "shared society" and integration of the two education systems.

"The real question is how, together, we can achieve a shared society in Northern Ireland and how we create a better future for our children,"

he said.

"We must tackle, head on, the causes of division. Not just for some short-term political gain but because it's the right thing to do."

In a seeming reference to the UUP, Mr Robinson said that the DUP was seeking to broaden its appeal while "others turned inwards and away from the real challenges that lie ahead".

He said that his party's "transformation" had not happened by chance but through a deliberate attempt to widen its supporter base and by adapting to modernity.

"As other parties retreat into themselves, we must reach out to build an ever larger and stronger supporter base.

"That's the way for us to grow and prosper.

"Having won the war, let's not lose the peace.

"Out of the ashes of confict, a new generation is emerging.

"This generation considers, as I do, the constitutional issue to be resolved and they just want a better Northern Ireland.

"They are more interested in the future than the past."

Speaking of Dublin's economic woes, he made clear that "as a committed and sincerely convinced unionist I sincerely want their diffculties to be resolved".

"This is not a time to be a prisoner of the past. You will not win today's battles using the tactics and tools of yesteryear," he said.

"We must fnd 21st-century solutions to today's challenges. We can't pretend that things haven't changed.

"Our values and beliefs remain constant but we must adapt to present needs and the modern world."

He admonished that the real victory for unionism was not to be found by "inficting pain on our political opponents" but about creating a "new Northern Ireland...fair to all, in which everyone who lives here feels a part and wants to share in its future".

He said that "the confict has ended, but still too much division remains. Too much energy has been wasted by strife".

Mr Robinson insisted that the party had learnt lessons from the 2008 Dromore by-election, which saw a big protest vote for the TUV, and

last year's European election, when the UUP-Tory alliance beat the DUP into third place.

Refusing to refer to the TUV or Jim Allister by name, he alluded to his former colleague's party as "wreckers" and made clear that the DUP

is committed to devolved government, despite the unwieldiness of Stormont's structures.

He argued that the TUV policy of seeking voluntary coalition would not be a solution to all of Stormont's problems."We still have to deal with

the people that the nationalist community elect," he said.

"We must tackle the form of government at Stormont not by ripping up all that has been achieved but by working together with others to create a better way of doing things.

"It's not the easy way but it's the only way that will work."

Mr Robinson told delegates that despite the public image of a moribund Stormont executive, it has made numerous accomplishments which have not been well enough articulated, listing everything from new trains to

the absence of water charges.