Northern Ireland centenary: Peter Robinson on how he is ‘mighty proud to live here and privileged to have served its people’

The former first minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson reflects on his love for the country in which he was born after the war, and which he came to lead

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 4:27 pm
Updated Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 6:04 pm
Peter Robinson as first minister shows the Queen and Prince Philip a gift at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, with the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness looking on, in June 2012, on the Queen’s jubilee visit
Peter Robinson as first minister shows the Queen and Prince Philip a gift at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, with the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness looking on, in June 2012, on the Queen’s jubilee visit

I never felt deprived, I was more than happy in the Mournes or on Fermanagh’s lakes. Portrush, Newcastle and Bangor were regular and desired destinations – and where would you get better vistas than from our north coast. In later life I travelled across the globe but coming home was always my favourite journey.

I suppose, no matter where someone is born, you will hear them say, ‘it’s great to be home’ or ‘there’s no place like home’. Even during Northern Ireland’s darkest days, I never for a moment strayed from that belief.

This is a special place. A land of world-famous inventors, actors, writers, sporting stars, musicians and singers, painters and poets, war heroes and military leaders and a land populated with a special breed of people who display resilience in crises, humour in the shadow of grief and demonstrate a kindness and welcoming countenance to every stranger.

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Peter Robinson writes: "In my youth foreign travel was outside the reach of ordinary folk. I never felt deprived, I was more than happy in the Mournes (pictured), Fermanagh or Portrush"

I often wonder why my early memories seem to be set against a backcloth of dry and sunny days. After all, this is Northern Ireland, it couldn’t possibly have been near perfect weather all the time, could it? The holiday highlights would begin with us fortifying ourselves with a healthy Ulster Fry and setting out in my father’s Ford Popular to tour the Orchard Country, fish off the Pier in Portrush, jump from stone to stone on the Giant’s Causeway or walk Derry’s Walls. We would picnic in the Glens of Antrim or stop in wonder at how the leaning pine trees at the Frosses were still standing.

Then there was the annual visit to Sandy Row to see the lighting of the bonfires and next day to secure our spot on the Lisburn Road to cheer the Orangemen while listening and watching as the marching bands passed by. Too often I took for granted the beauty of our coast and countryside until later in life I discovered how unique and captivating it is.

But it is not just a pride of Northern Ireland – the place; it is a pride of its achievers. Who would deny spilling a euphoric tear when Mary Peters bowed her head to receive her Olympic Gold medal? Who didn’t grow a few inches taller on that sunny June evening when Gerry Armstrong scored the winning goal to beat World Cup hosts Spain in Valencia or hold their breath in anticipation as Rory McIlroy made that final putt to take another golf major and who could resist pushing out their chest with pride when George Best dazzled on the pitch or Carl Frampton sent opponents to the canvass and held his world champion’s belts aloft?

Did you not take pleasure in letting your family or friends from abroad know that Game of Thrones — one of the world’s most popular drama series - was filmed in Norn Iron and did you not smile, as I did, when Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Ted Hastings exclaimed “now we’re sucking diesel”, forcing Google to post a series of links to explain it was “a phrase indigenous to the rural peoples of Northern Ireland which means things are going exceptionally well”?

A Northern Ireland legend. The 1972 Olympic gold winner Mary Peters

In your leisure moments, how many times did you hear Gary Lightbody, Ruby Murry and Van Morrison or watch Liam Neeson, Sir Kenneth, Jimmy Nesbitt or our Gloria and tell anyone who would listen “he or she is from Northern Ireland, you know?”

Having seen for myself the greater part of the first century of Northern Ireland’s existence I have experienced the progress and modernisation of our towns and cities and the employment shifts away from heavy engineering and shipbuilding to knowledge based business and financial services as well as advanced engineering. But the fond memories still remain of my many visits to the yard to view what my friend and closet poet Jake Gallagher once referred to as “the sombre silhouettes, where solid squat leviathans of ships struggled to be free, no more the prisoner of scaffold and slip-ways, bereft now of the fiery welder’s arc”.

I would regard the tough men with gnarled hands and granite faces. Men with sweated brows and work-marked arms. These were the beating heart of labour. The men who built ships that carried passengers around the world, cargo to ports in foreign lands and fighting men to battles on land and sea. Made in Belfast was the guarantee of a well-built ship. But I did more than view, for the yard gripped every sense and engaged every emotion. Yet the world’s labour market pendulum swung towards the metal-bashers of the Far East and Asia rather than the skilled workforce of home and the yard that employed tens of thousands was steadily squeezed, yet from its footprint a new purpose is beginning to form. Though, for me, if I listen hard enough, I still hear the wail of the horn announce another workday has ended and listen as it echoes in the waiting streets soon to be followed by the crescendo of footfall, chatter and banter that announces the men are marching home.

These are the same streets I walked a thousand times to the citadel of soccer during my youth. Getting “lifted over” to watch Trevor (Big Sadie) Thompson miss with an open net and then score the most spectacular goal from an impossible position, then cover my eyes as Billy (The Tank) McCullough, the one-man defensive wall, swept the ball, or attacker, or both, into touch.

A Northern Ireland legend. Gerry Armstrong in the 1982 world cup

I am mighty proud to live here and extremely privileged to have served its people in the United Kingdom Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, in Ministerial Offices and in particular as First Minister.

Yes, we have many problems to solve and much yet to accomplish but this is our wee country. It might be small, but it is great. A great place. Great people. Great food. Great culture. A great past, and the promise and potential of a great future. Do you agree?

Yes!

Now we’re sucking diesel.

A Northern Ireland legend. The Hollywood film star Liam Neeson who is originally from Co Antrim

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A Northern Ireland legend: the broadcaster Gloria Hunniford

Alistair Bushe

Editor