Peter Robinson: You Ask The Questions

Northern Ireland's First Minister answers your questions, such as 'Shouldn't you focus on the economy now in Northern Ireland?'
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The Independent Online

Should the people of Northern Ireland expect their government to go into limbo again in future, or is this the final piece of the puzzle? GAIL THOMAS, Antrim

The Northern Ireland Executive should never have been in limbo. Sinn Fein alone refused to allow government to operate fully. Sinn Fein has said that the outworking of the agreement announced last week will allow the uninterrupted functioning of the Executive. No other party has threatened the institutions. The devolved administration in Stormont has made a positive difference in Northern Ireland and has been delivering for the Province in a way which Direct Rule Ministers did not. I recognise that the five-month blockade of Executive meetings by Sinn Fein served to undermine confidence in devolution, however I believe that with uninterrupted government the Executive will prove itself.

It took 154 days for ministers to get back around the table at Stormont. Why did it take so long? LAWRENCE DOYLE, Belfast

The UUP, SDLP and my own Party never wanted the Executive to stop meeting. We were ready to meet at any time. The important matter now is that with all the parties back at the Executive table we advance issues and deal with the backlog of work. We had a very constructive meeting last Thursday and while the Executive normally meets on a fortnightly basis it will be meeting at least once each week to ensure that the backlog is cleared. If however, the question relates to the length of time taken to resolve the policing and justice issue I would point out that other politicians have failed to resolve this matter for over thirty years, so in that context doing it in five months is expeditious.

Why couldn't you just put the policing issues to one side for the moment so you could get on with leading on the economy? HARRY RITCHIE, Gloucester

That has always and consistently been my argument. I proposed this repeatedly. I believe that in the present climate, the majority of people in Northern Ireland are less concerned about where their policing and justice powers reside and more concerned about paying their bills and safeguarding their jobs. While policing is an important matter and we want to see it devolved as soon as possible, the Executive's focus must be on assisting those struggling through these tough economic times. The decisions by the Executive that water charges will be deferred, prescription charges phased out and regional rates frozen will be welcome news throughout the Province. It is matters such as these that the people really want to see actioned.

How much damage was done to Northern Ireland's economy by not having its government meet during the worst months of the credit crunch? ANDREA BROWN, Northampton

It is difficult to gauge the level of damage but people need to understand that ministers were still carrying out their duties during this period. However, businesses take decisions on expansion and job placement based on their confidence in the stability of the location they are considering. Anything that lessens confidence has a detrimental impact on the economy. However, the Executive is now meeting and before it stopped meeting there had been a lot of good work done. It is now time to build upon steps such as the US-NI Investment Conference. We must re-double our efforts to deliver our Programme for Government and bring economic growth to Northern Ireland. I know that many of the businesses which attended the Investment Conference were impressed by our skills and innovation, therefore it is important that we capitalise upon such qualities.

What steps can the Assembly take to combat the financial crisis? DOMINIC MCGOWN, Carrickfergus

We are a small open economy and are therefore not immune from the global economic downturn. We can nonetheless take steps to alleviate some of the hardship felt by households and businesses. The Executive is preparing a package of measures which is being costed and will be announced before Christmas. The steps already taken by the Executive such as freezing regional rates, deferring water charges and capping manufacturing rates are assisting both homeowners and businesses through these tough times.

What's it like working with your wife? CHRISTINA BATTLE, London

My wife has been a tower of strength throughout my political career. Not only is she a great wife, mother and grandmother, but she is also an accomplished politician in her own right, with significant achievements to point to from her involvement in politics. She is a tireless servant of the people of Strangford and is doing a great job as Chairman of the Assembly Health Committee. While we are both active politicians, our areas of activity are not always the same. It is good to have Iris so closely involved and being able to give support to each other.

Martin Luther believed in the separation of politics and religion. Do you? TOM LAWTON, Brighton

Some of the greatest social reformers in the history of the United Kingdom have been men and women with a strong Christian faith, a firm belief in the Bible and a deep Christian compassion. Both William Wilberforce, who led the movement against the slave trade, and the Earl of Shaftesbury, who led the movement for factory reform, were evangelical Christians as well as politicians. Their Christian faith inspired their commitment to reform. Elizabeth Fry, who campaigned for prison reform, was also an evangelical Christian. There are those who want to see Biblical Christianity excluded from the political arena, but such exclusion would be to the detriment of our society, where Judeo-Christian ethics and themes form the basis of our legal system and way of life.

How do you like Chelsea's chances this season? When did you start supporting them, by the way? LOUISE HAMPSHIRE, Reading

I love to relax watching football and particularly like to see Chelsea and Spurs play. I think Chelsea will be Premier League Champions this season but what I really want to see is Chelsea winning the European Champions League.

Can you ensure equality for gay people in Northern Ireland – a task entrusted to your office? JANET GABLER, Manchester

The DUP is committed to equality and fairness for everyone in Northern Ireland. The party's record in government shows we are working hard to bring the maximum benefits of devolution to all of Northern Ireland's people regardless of their background. Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive are bound by a legal code that would prohibit them from discriminating unfairly against any person on the basis of their religious or political background or their sexual orientation.

What were the best and worst things about Ian Paisley as a boss? KERRY STEYN, Nottingham

Ian Paisley is a political institution in Northern Ireland and beyond. When Dr. Paisley entered politics our position within the Union was under attack. Republicans vowed to bring down Stormont. Today they are sitting inside Stormont as a minority part of a Unionist-majority executive. The IRA was armed and engaged in a bloody murder campaign. Today Republicans have been forced to destroy their guns and embrace the policing structures of our British state. Sinn Fein vowed they would never accept the British legal system. Today they are under legal obligation to support the rule of law. Ian Paisley led our party to these significant achievements. I was delighted to serve as his deputy leader for so long. The DUP and indeed Northern Ireland will forever be indebted to Dr. Paisley for his contribution: he is truly a Unionist colossus.

What's your favourite part of Northern Ireland and why? LOUISA BORK Aberdeenshire

East Belfast. The greatest place in the world with the best people. As for a location within East Belfast, Parliament Buildings would be hard to beat. Not only because of its splendid architecture, but because the beautiful Portland stone building now represents accountable local government and puts my East Belfast constituency at the centre-stage of political life in Northern Ireland.

You and Martin McGuinness have been called the Brothers Grim. How do you feel about the nickname? BRIDGET MAY, Glasgow

I will not worry too much about how my political opponents want me to be portrayed. People have different styles and behave in different ways. My own way of doing things might be different from others, but what is really important to people is that devolution is seen to deliver for them and their families rather than questions of style. I will continue to work hard on the issues that matter and won't worry too much about questions of style. People want delivery on issues of substance.

Do you think Scottish independence would have consequences for Northern Ireland? DAVID KERR, Ballymena

It is a measure of the success of the DUP over recent years that when people look for the weakest link in the United Kingdom they no longer think about Northern Ireland, but instead focus their attention on Scotland. I believe in the Union and I hope that Scotland would never opt to leave. I am encouraged by the fact that three out of four of the main parties in Scotland, who poll well over 60% of the votes, support Scotland remaining inside the United Kingdom. The strength of the Union lies in the fact that it can only be dissolved with the consent of the people. I believe that will not happen in either Scotland or Northern Ireland.