Arlene Foster talks about future of unionism ahead of Northern Ireland’s centenary

Arlene Foster, seen in London earlier this year, spoke on Saturday at a DUP event called 'Vision for Unionism: Beyond 2021'
Arlene Foster, seen in London earlier this year, spoke on Saturday at a DUP event called 'Vision for Unionism: Beyond 2021'
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The DUP leader Arlene Foster has addressed an event called ‘Vision for Unionism: Beyond 2021’.

The occasion, which was a theme for the DUP’s Autumn Policy Forum, was held in Co Antrim.

It was also addressed by Professor Arthur Aughey, of Ulster University, who spoke about ‘The Idea of the Union;’ Dr Graham Gudgin, chief economic advisor for Policy Exchange, on ‘The Union Beyond Brexit;’ and the former Labour MP Gisela Stuart, of the Constitutional Reform Group, on ‘A Federal UK?’

Mrs Foster began her address by saying: “At all levels of our party in recent months, people have been working hard on securing agreement and delivering for Northern Ireland.

“It is important though to make time to take a step back and plan for all our futures.

“In the DUP we know our fundamental role is to strengthen the Union and advance Northern Ireland’s place within it.

“This means our key immediate tasks are:

The restoration of a working Assembly and sustainable Executive

Leaving the European Union with a fair deal, and

Maximising the benefits brought through influence at Westminster.”

Mrs Foster also said: “A party with vision must both deliver on the immediate and important, but never overlook the long-term and strategic. Today is about the long-term for unionism and Northern Ireland.

“In less than two years, on 3rd May 2021, Northern Ireland will be one hundred years old. This will be a day and a year that we can celebrate.”

“For all our trials and tribulations over those years, we have endured, and we have succeeded.

“Our supposed ‘failed entity’ should not have lasted a decade let alone a century. Yet it has, and I am confident it will continue to strengthen and be successful in its new century.

“At every milestone of life, you celebrate, reflect and then ask what’s next?”

Mrs Foster said: “What is next for Northern Ireland? What is next for our United Kingdom? What is next for unionism?

“These and other questions are what we are asking ourselves today. As we examine and consider these, we will find opportunity, challenges and the need to face up to choices.

“Today is just the beginning of discussing, shaping and growing what I have termed ‘Next Generation Unionism’.

“The challenges unionism faces evolve and will be different in the decades to come than they were in 1921, or in the years I grew up in.

“Supporters of the Union come in all shapes and sizes. In the years ahead, we have to be as relevant and attractive to the teenager at college, as to the couple with a young family in Belfast, and to the pensioner in a fold in a rural village.

“As the largest party of unionism, some might say the DUP are the custodians of the Union but I believe the real custodians are any and all who believe the best future for Northern Ireland is as part of the United Kingdom, and will vote for it.”

Mrs Foster added: “This is why Northern Ireland will celebrate its Centenary as part of the United Kingdom, as unionism has always commanded a democratic majority to do so. It has always been bigger than any single party, and bigger than any individual. It is through the ballot box that the Union has been maintained; and that is what will secure a next century for Northern Ireland.

“How can we build Next Generation Unionism for that new century?

“First, we must engage with any, and all, supporters of the Union, regardless of whether we hold fundamentally different views on party, policy or society.

“Today at this initial event, we talk amongst the DUP, but this is only the opening stage of this work and from this afternoon on, we must go out, talk and listen to other Unionists. We must find areas of common interest and common cause to work for the common good of unionism.

“People’s party political labels or beliefs will not hold us back from engaging.

Unionism must earn the votes of as broad a coalition as possible. Some may be unionists of the very smallest u, and some may not even consider themselves unionists at all.

“The talents and energies of all must be harnessed.

“Second, we must engage Northern Ireland’s minority ethnic and new communities. Multi-generational ethnic communities became an intrinsic part of Northern Ireland. This diversity has been augmented by the larger migrations of the last twenty years.

“Many came even in our most torrid days. More came as we built and enjoyed our richly deserved peace. They came to make their own contribution to our renewal. They have chosen to make Northern Ireland their home, some as part of their British dream.

“How some were treated, too often was a source of shame rather than pride. Minority ethnic participation in our politics as representatives or voters remains disproportionately low. How can we do more to help involve, integrate and celebrate how these citizens of Northern Ireland enrich our society?

“Third, we must engage with those of a nationalist background. This is the strand of work that will be treated with the greatest scepticism, and will require the longest-term commitment, a generational commitment. We are not planting seeds for Unionism in the hope of a quick harvest. We are planting oaks to grow deep roots, and it is future generations, who will reap the benefit of our work.”