Stormont’s First Minister said he wished to broaden the appeal of the unionist brand to incorporate a “patchwork quilt” of identities and faiths who all share a common belief that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.
The DUP leader set out his vision for the future of unionism – one that Catholics could feel affinity with – as he delivered the Edward Carson lecture in Dublin. The event hosted by the Irish government in Iveagh House, near Carson’s birthplace, reflected on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule in Ireland.
Mr Robinson said a broad-based unionism was the vision of its founding father Carson.
“I believe that unionism will be strongest if all are accepted as part of a patchwork quilt of identity,” he said. “Unionism is not a single homogeneous entity. It must be about opening up to new communities and building a broad and solid coalition.
“In saying unionism must now reach out to others I am not, in any way, being critical of those who have led unionism before me. I believe what has changed is not so much the aspirations of unionist leaders but the existence today of a much more benign environment. We now live in an era of peacetime unionism.”
Mr Robinson said the stability brought by the peace process gave people more confidence to explore political philosophies. He highlighted a recent survey which indicated only 16 per cent of people in Northern Ireland – and 33 per cent of Catholics – were in favour of Irish reunification.
“I believe that number is driven by the new political climate and our new relationship with the Republic,” he added. “I have said on many occasions that from a party point of view I want to see more Catholics supporting the DUP.
“I have no doubt that there are many Catholics in Northern Ireland who have much more in common with the social and economic policies of the DUP than they do with either Sinn Fein or the SDLP, and I welcome some early signs of modest progress.
“However, I suspect that the survey results do not point to an imminent avalanche of Catholics voting DUP but rather, outside party politics, to a wider acceptance of the present constitutional position of Northern Ireland and as importantly – their place in it.
“That is not to say that they will feel comfortable calling themselves British or even defining themselves as unionists,” he said.
“They might be classed as ‘no change’ advocates. But is it possible that we are seeing the birth of a new brand of Irish unionism?
“This vision is entirely in tune with Edward Carson’s vision as he set it out on 4th February, 1921 at the Ulster Unionist Council.
“On that day, he [Edward Carson] said: ‘You will be a Parliament for the whole community. We used to say that we could not trust an Irish Parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority.
‘Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your Parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority … Let us take care that we win all that is best amongst those who have been opposed to us in this community …
‘And so I say: from the start be tolerant to all religions, and, while maintaining to the last your own traditions and your own citizenship, take care that similar rights are preserved for those who differ from us’.”
Mr Robinson added: “What I advocate is not some new variety of unionism but the unionism of Edward Carson – a unionism that can reach out and include those from every background.
“Maintaining Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom simply due to demographics should not be the height of our ambition.
“I want us to create a wide consensus for our present constitutional arrangements. In this new Northern Ireland I want to see pro-Union support grow but in parallel I want to ensure that no-one, whatever their political and constitutional aspiration, is left behind.”