Confident Mike Nesbitt challenges UUP party faithful on cold spots like same sex marriage and Irish #UUP15

UUP15 setThe Ulster Unionist Party were in upbeat form at their annual conference held in the Shaw’s Bridge Ramada Hotel outside Belfast.

There was a certain amount of self-indulgence as the party celebrated their success at Westminster and emphasised how they are distinct from other unionist parties.

Party leader Mike Nesbitt was confident, challenging the party on its attitude to same sex marriage as well as outlining some policy suggestions around children’s literacy, older people, same-day access to GPs for the vulnerable, and a more accountable but operationally independent health service.

UUP eating DUPHe called for accommodation to warm up cold spots in society like the Irish Language. The state of Northern Ireland government was criticised, but the leader was careful not to commit to any specific targets for May 2016’s election. The UUP will consider returning to the Executive in May if the Programme for Government is progressive and there is a collective will to deliver it. But no bold statements about preparing to beat the DUP.

Even the playlist before the conference and during breaks was buoyant, including “Don’t stop me know” and “Don’t worry about a thing”. [Ed – They’ll not be playing those tunes at the SDLP or DUP conferences!]

For the UUP, October 2015 celebrates the glass being half full and no longer half empty. Further success in May 2016 requires making fewer mistakes than their larger rival, and ruthlessly taking advantage of any ground that is lost as the DUP deal with leadership pressures, the outcome of negotiations to restore a working budget and a revived Stormont House Agreement, and any distractions by off-message MLAs.

Party chairman Lord Empey introduced the conference following the opening prayer and his comments were followed by a conversation between Lynda Bryans and the UUP’s two MPs Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott. Councillors and Assembly candidates were given an opportunity to speak before the morning debate on the UUP’s withdrawal from the Executive and their plans to publish a costed Alternative Programme for Government. Danny Kennedy led the contributions from MLAs (and stood up for the arts sector which could not continue to be “decimated”).

Two Young Unionists took to the stage to introduce the party leader. Jordan McMullan was followed by Sarah Minford, described as the party’s newest member. After lunch David Burnside spoke briefly about a constitutional reform initiative seeking a new Act of Union before Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Vernon Coaker addressed the delegates who remained behind for the afternoon.

While the conference agenda was relatively simple, only the Sinn Féin ard fheis is more technically complex in its set-up. A lighting truss was hung across the width of the room to properly light the stage at one end of the Ramada Hotel ball room, video editors packaged up beautifully shot footage of the first day’s private sessions and yesterday’s public conference, and the attention to detail on stage suggested that money had been invested in running a professional conference.

David McCann grabbed a quick word with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt too.

– – –

Mike Nesbitt’s speech was built a number of quotations from Charles Dickens.

It really is like Charles Dickens said – the best of times, the worst of times. It’s the best of times for the Ulster Unionist Party – unfortunately, it’s the worst of times for the Devolution we fought so hard for 17 years ago …

I am getting used to acknowledging the fantastic work of our Lords and Elected Representatives. So, thank you again to our member of the European Parliament, our members of the House of Lords, our Members of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont, and our Aldermen and Councillors across Northern Ireland – 89 of you at the last count, as we welcome a number of converts and returnees, not least John and Jenny Palmer. Jenny, John, Welcome home!

UUP HOPEThe two new MPs were brought up on stage.

Danny won a seat for us. Tom won for all Unionism. I was reminded a few days ago of what one political commentator said about me negotiating with the DUP. He said I would be gobbled up. It would be a case of “the cat and the canary” – and I was not the cat! In that case, some canary ……

We’ve had two good years, Conference. Jim Nicholson safely returned to Brussels; double digit percentage growth at local government level; and a return to the Green Benches of the House of Commons.

I don’t know about you, but I am hungry for more. But it’s not just us who are hungry. The country is hungry. Hungry for better politics. Hungry for Hope, because no-one is arguing this is as good as it gets.

In 1998, Northern Ireland needed a unionist party that understood the concept of the Greater Good – we were that party. In 2015, Northern Ireland needs a unionist party that understands the pressing need to put the Greater Good above party politics. We are that Party.

He spoke about the recent political crises:

In the last few weeks, we have given firm, decisive and unambiguous leadership in the face of the latest crisis. As others flip-flopped in and out of Government, we drew a line, and took a clear, resolute, principled stand.

We brought a focus to continued paramilitary activity, including murder. We refused to turn a blind eye to what even the Taoiseach Enda Kenny called Sinn Féin’s “incredible” denial of the IRA. We refused to accept the fig leaf of Sinn Féin’s Single Transferrable Speech of Denial. That denial is threadbare, and has worn a hole in the fabric of Devolution.

We forced terrorism to the top of the Talks Agenda. We left the Secretary of State no choice but to commission this week’s published report on paramilitary activity. A report quite shocking in its explicit analysis of paramilitary groups today.

We are vindicated. Others do what others do. If a unionist party reads a report that says (1) The IRA still exists (2) It has access to weapons (3) It is still run by the Army Council and (4) the Army Council oversees Sinn Féin … and then that unionist party concludes: “That’s Alright then, we’re back into government” … well, fine. The cat can lap it up like a bowl of very attractive double cream, but this canary is warning there is something toxic in the air.

Mike NesbittHe called out the “utter dysfunctionality at the heart of this round of Devolved Government” and said “this is not as good as it gets, for us, and more importantly, for the people of Northern Ireland”.

The UUP leader pointed to OFMDFM only spending one third of the £12 million intended for investment in childcare. Despite a 2011 announcement to spend £80 million through the Social Investment Fund to tackle poverty, Mike Nesbitt was underwhelmed with the £27,610 (0.003%) spent in 2013/14.

You could not make it up. It’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a Franz Kafka novel. A Salvador Dali painting. Surreal, grotesque, monstrous!

As of today, this mandate has seen no fewer than 27 Ministerial resignations from the Northern Ireland Executive by the First Minister’s party alone.
We’ve checked with the Guinness Book of Records. It turns there is no world record for Ministerial Resignations – not yet! We applied on their behalf on Thursday!

Accusations that his party leadership was ‘managerial” were “fair comment” but reflected the poor shape of the party when he was elected.

We weren’t exactly playing a team game, and while there’s no guarantee people will vote for you just because you’re playing as a team, there’s a very good chance they won’t, if you’re not! So, yes, I have spent time on management.

On the current negotiations:

I read the Belfast Telegraph on Monday. The First Minister wrote it was time to finish the deal. Finish the deal? He’s had eight years to finish the deal. How much longer does he want? How much more evidence do people need to recognise we are the only Party who will stand up to Sinn Féin. We are the Party to deliver positive outcomes.

The UUP leader’s vision …

My vision of Northern Ireland is simply expressed. I want Northern Ireland to become the most attractive small country in the world. Why shouldn’t we? …

What would I find attractive? First of all, a proper commitment to a peaceful, politically stable and prosperous society … Self-praise is no recommendation, but I was pleased the panel report on the paramilitaries confirmed our analysis of the three big negatives. (1) They oppress communities (2) They suppress the economy (3) They damage our international reputation.

I have always taken the view that there are people who populated those organisations who had energy and commitment which they used it in terrible, destructive ways during the Troubles – maiming, murdering, manipulating communities.

I believe it is the duty of every responsible politician to encourage those people to redirect that energy and commitment to positive outcomes, and not leave them to go to the dark side, engaging in racketeering, organised crime and the rest. And that applies to former paramilitaries across the board.

To be positive, the current Talks represent an unique opportunity for a collective political will to be expressed that we want to rid Northern Ireland, and the island of Ireland of paramilitarism and the associated criminality, once and for all. But we will not be standing shoulder to shoulder against paramilitarism with a political party that insists the IRA no longer exists. It looks like the DUP will. What a pity they won’t stand strong with us. But we will not be deflected. It’s not the first time we have had to do the difficult thing on our own.

He also wants to see “a peaceful, politically stable and prosperous society”.

In my vision, we do not measure prosperity simply by the old, economic yardsticks of GDP and GVA. Yes, Gross Domestic Product and Gross Value Added are important measurements of our ability to put a few more pounds in the back pockets of our people. And putting more money into the hands of our citizens is a key to transforming society. And we know how to do it.

But prosperity has to be about more than money. It is also about Wellbeing, and I make no apology for returning to my theme of good mental health and wellbeing. Since I started my campaign, I have had the opportunity to take the issue to the Prime Minister’s private offices in London. I have taken it to the Stormont House Talks. To the Irish and American Governments. To communities and voluntary organisations. I have taken every opportunity to raise the issue and its profile, and I am certain Mental Health’s time has come as an issue politicians can avoid or ignore no longer.

This is an area where Westminster can offer bipartisan support for Northern Ireland and I applaud former Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis for his support. Because it is a legacy issue, it is not covered by the Barnett Formula. Because it is a legacy issue, we can argue we are a special case deserving additional funds and support.

To achieve his vision, Mike Nesbitt said that the UUP’s Alternative Programme for Government would “put the Wellbeing of our people at its core”.

I promise our Alternative Programme for Government will include the creation of a Mental Health Champion. We have a number of champions – for Victims and Survivors, Younger People and the rest …. The 1 in 4 who suffer mental health issues deserve their own Champion to promote and advance their cause. It’s marginal money for the Northern Ireland Executive – £200,000 should do it easily and I am sure the mental health charities would contribute. And a first objective – zero suicides. No more wasted lives.

Mike Nesbitt spoke about identity:

Our Alternative Programme for Government will shred the old binary approach, that insists everyone and everything has to be labelled Orange or Green and the money follows the labels. For me, Identity is much more complex than a binary carve-up. I am a unionist leader, but I am not an Orangeman.

I’m unionist – but in one very specific regard, I am as Irish as Catriona Ruane. We have both represented Ireland at sport. It was clearly a long time ago for me! Some, of course, see themselves as pure of stock. I am not so sure that is always honest, or helpful.

Henry Joy McCracken that leading figure in the 1798 Rebellion was a United Irishman with one Ulster Scots parent and one French Hugenot – same combination as me! So, let’s stop pretending life is binary and accept the challenges of complexity. Many of you may feel even more British than I do.

Some of us will feel more comfortably European than others. And some of us will think more deeply than others about our role as world citizens. But it doesn’t stop us being members of the Ulster Unionist Party. And this Party must be the defenders of our minority communities – zero tolerance for hate crime – total commitment to educating our children about tolerance and diversity.

Later he added:

I do not have to “hold my nose” to work with nationalists. I do not endorse the idea of “rogue” and “renegade” Nationalist Ministers. We cannot build a better future on those sorts of sentiments. Our children and our grandchildren do not want that as their inheritance.

Republicans spent decades trying to bomb and bully us into a United Ireland. Now, they sit in Stormont, passing legislation that doesn’t become law until it’s signed off by Her Majesty the Queen!

You know, there is a lot to be said for that old adage that Unionists are too thran to admit they won, and Republicans too cute to admit they lost. But we need to move on.

Republicans, Nationalists want a United Ireland? Then try to persuade me. I’ll have that debate. Just don’t try to bomb or shoot me into it. But Republicans and Nationalists know, the argument is lost. The United Kingdom is our home, so I encourage Unionists to get on the front foot.

Sinn Féin will defend the indefensible by saying the IRA are butterflies who have flown away. I make this offer to them. Get real. We want to respect your political mandate. Make it possible for us. Get on the same page as the rest of the world – or accept the consequences of the stance you have chosen to adopt.

To make Northern Ireland somewhere with a good reputation, “suspicion” needs to be changed to “envy”.

To get there, we need to be accommodating. We need to identify the cold spots in society and warm them up. For example, we need to address the fact that some people who cherish the Irish Language feel we do not respect them and their love of the language.

It’s all very well saying Sinn Féin politicised it – and they did, and they still are in places – but where does that get us? What’s the next step for us? Many unionists see it as their heritage too, so wouldn’t it be better to support them? Or at least make sure our words and deeds do not convey the wrong message to those who do cherish the Irish Language.

Mike Nesbitt behind podiumHe made significant comments on same sex marriage.

We also need to think about the cold spot that is how we are perceived by members of the LGB&T community. What if it was your son? Your daughter? What would you want for them? What would you offer them? I hope the answer is Unconditional Love.

Some of us support same sex marriage, some do not, and it’s part of the beauty of the Ulster Unionist Party that we can respect each other’s positions.

I shall not labour the point today, but to those of us who cannot bring ourselves to support same sex marriage, I say this – we are on the wrong side of history. There is a new generation coming and they simply do not understand why there is a problem.

Some UUP MLAs may vote in favour of same sex marriage in the 9 November debate (which is already blocked by a DUP petition of concern).

Today, I commit the Ulster Unionist Party to publish that Alternative Programme, properly costed, ahead of the next Assembly elections.

Some policy ideas were introduced based on outcomes of “Better Educated Citizens, Healthier Citizens, Wealthier Citizens”.

Take educational underachievement, a blight on the same sections of society, generation after generation. Tackling educational underachievement isn’t the sole preserve of the Minister for Education. We all know healthier children do better at school, so the Health Minister has a role. And so does the Minister for Social Development, ensuring children live in decent houses. Good governments demolish the vertical silos, and create horizontal co-operation.

But there are actions an Education Minister can and should take. Underachievement in literacy is nothing new, nor is it unique to Northern Ireland. So you do not have to re-invent the wheel to find a solution. The great educationalist Ken Robinson writes of a primary school in Oklahoma where the pupils were well below the State average in literacy. The school hooked them up with a group of older people in a fold. One-to-one, the pupils spent time reading with an older person. In very quick order, the pupils’ literacy shot ahead of the state average.

The scheme is called Book Buddies, and as part of our alternative Programme for Government, I will for an Army of Book Buddies volunteers – of all appropriate ages.

[Ed – don’t Business in the Community already do this?]

A thousand volunteers, willing to give up a couple of hours a week to help our hard-pressed teachers by working one-to-one with children who need additional help, in both primary and post-primary settings.

The only cost is the police checks. Access NI charge £26 per person for Standard clearance, so if the volunteers do not want to pay for their own police clearance, the total cost of eradicating literacy is a maximum of £26,000. That is out of a Department of Education Budget of nearly £2 Billion in this financial year 2015/16.

Our Alternative Programme for Government will identify low and no-cost eradication programmes.

Another will be for the benefit of older people who are so starved of resources they spend their winters with the dilemma of Eating or Heating. That is no way to treat our elder citizens. One small step to eradicating the problem is Energy Brokerage, bringing households together to negotiate en masse with energy suppliers for discounted rates of energy supply. All it takes is a commitment to establish a dedicated support unit within Government to empower people to make it happen.

Another is to guarantee the vulnerable Same-Day Access to GPs, starting with pregnant women and those with babies under 12 months of age.

These are relatively small steps, with little or no cost, that would offer short term improvements in the delivery of government and statutory services.

More broadly Mike Nesbitt favoured an accountable but “operationally independent” but accountable health service “overseen like the Police Service, with a Chief Executive operating like the Chief Constable”. This would “free up politicians from the hamster-wheel that traps them in a Not In My Backyard mentality” and allow big decisions to be made.

He also seeks “power further devolved – away from Stormont”.

It was natural for the political class of 1998 to grab and hold the power that was lost in ’72, but the mature thing today is to let it go. We should stick to the Vision but recognise delivery will be different depending on local conditions. Delivering a shared future in the leafy suburbs of Stormont on the Upper Newtownards Road will be very different from the challenge two miles nearer the City Centre on the Lower Newtownards Road. And that will be different from Dungiven, or Newry, or Ballymena. We need to have the confidence to let go of the levers of control and stick to the big picture – trusting the people to deliver the vision, in their own way, in their own time.

While still seeking a reduction in Corporation Tax, he also saw the importance of the social economy.

In these times of austerity, the third sector’s time has come. In our Alternative Programme for Government, we will listen harder to the social economy experts, maximise the social economy’s potential to contribute to the wellbeing and purpose of communities, and celebrate the fact our economy will flourish when the public, private and social economy sectors are respected equally.

He reiterated the UUP’s desire to run the Department of Education “in a future Executive”.

On our watch – in our Alternative Programme for Government – we would move schools away from the false god of standardisation and start respecting the individuality of the pupil.

… the answer to underachiement is not a return to the 11-Plus. Because the 11-Plus asked the wrong question. It says to a ten year old: we want to know how intelligent you are, but we are only allowing you to show us in terms of your academic ability in English, Maths and Science. That’s far too narrow a measure.

The right question is this: In what ways are you intelligent? Are you academic, vocational, technical, sporty, artistic? We will continue to fail a large number of our children unless we start asking the right question and react to the fact the answer will be unique, demanding an educational system that designs Individual learning plans that respect the spark of ability, creativity and talent within each and every pupil in our schools. Each and every one! Including the many with Special Educational Needs. It is the opposite of standardisation!

I am not arguing against academic excellence. Where it fits the individual, it’s to be encouraged. But we should not value those who achieve academically above those whose talents lie in the vocational, technical, artistic or sporting arenas.

And we should – we must – commit to a single education system and offer our children that virtual inoculation against sectarianism from Age 4.I fear the DUP and Sinn Féin see shared campuses as an end in itself. We do not. My vision is of all children being educated together. It may take time to get there but it’s a journey we must commit to, acknowledging some will take longer than others to get there.

His conditions for the UUP returning to the Executive:

We will use the next Assembly Elections to seek a mandate, not to go back into Government, but to enter the Talks on the new Programme for Government that will be the first order of business next May.

If we believe that Programme is progressive and positive, and we believe there is a collective will to deliver it, we will consider taking our entitlement at the Executive table. If not, we will remain in Opposition.

Mike Nesbitt hug at end of speechAs he drew to a close:

We have some precious political characteristics. We believe in ourselves again. We have credibility with the public again. And we have the big one – Momentum. How many of the five parties in the Talks can say that?
I want to build on that Momentum in the coming months. Conference, this is not as good as it gets, politically, economically, socially, culturally. It is time for that Dickensian concept of Flowers and Gold.

May the fifth will be a memorable day. Let us offer everyone – Republican, National, Unionist, Loyalist and None of the Above, a party with a vision, a party with a plan, a party with an Alternative Programme for Government that has the delivery of positive outcomes at its heart.

Peace, Political Stability and Prosperity. Deliver that and it may just be As Good As It Gets.

– – –

After lunch Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker addressed the conference. During his speech and answering questions from the floor afterwards, he avoided any mention of the Labour party leader.

I welcome the opportunity to come here today to speak to you. To come here to reassure you, because as I am sure there are serious concerns about the position of the Labour Party, so I know there have been questions about our position with respect to agreements, to terrorism and to the future of Northern Ireland.

So let me be absolutely clear – I speak for Labour in Northern Ireland, and what I say is our policy, remains our policy and will be our policy.

So, we are committed to honouring the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and all of the subsequent agreements. We believe in the maintenance of a bi-partisan approach. And above all, we believe in the principle of consent. There can be no change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the agreement of a majority of people in Northern Ireland.

On last week’s report into paramilitary activity:

But the report published earlier this week on paramilitaries did contain some uncomfortable statements. So again, let me say paramilitary groups have no place in Northern Ireland. And whilst the report said that the remnants of any groups now have a solely political focus there are still links to criminality and organised crime. I want to be clear that this is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.

It is unacceptable for any group to be involved, as the report says, in fuel laundering and in drugs and extortion. It is gangsterism and it undermines communities and the work of decent people. In a democratic society there is only one body to enforce the law of the land and here in Northern Ireland that is the PSNI. The rule of law is a principle on which there can be no compromise.

So the ongoing talks will have to address how to respond to the issues raised in the report and will need to do so as soon as possible. And we cannot and must not forget the threat that there continues to be from dissident republicans who continue to try to use terror to undermine the progress that has been made. And so I want to restate my support for the PSNI in the important work that they undertake on our behalf to keep us safe and in the bravery and dedication of their officers.

Despite devolution, Westminster still mattered …

It is almost certain that Westminster will soon start legislating to implement the Stormont House Agreement. And let me congratulate all including the Ulster Unionist Party for their role. Of course there are challenges, of course there are difficulties but I commend you for seeking to deal with the legacy of the past, for once again discussing how terribly difficult issues can be addressed …

And I say to the Government that on this it needs to progress on the basis of the widest possible agreement as to the shape of the Historical Investigations Unit, the work of the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and the independence of an Oral History Archive … The search for truth goes on but let me say to the Government that if this legislation is to proceed at Westminster there must be proper time for debate and security.

He praised his predecessor Ivan Lewis and the “excellent Heenan-Anderson Report” which “called for a refocusing of the joint working between the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Executive”.

I have suggested that perhaps one of the ways out of the welfare reform debate is for the Treasury to look at targeted finance supporting efforts to tackle long term worklessness, antipoverty strategies, economic inactivity and, above all, mental health.

The trauma caused by the long period of conflict makes Northern Ireland a special case among the UK regions and as such requires specific, tailored policy responses. The overall prevalence of mental health problems in Northern Ireland is estimated to be 20% higher than in England or Scotland. The Treasury must ensure it finds funds to address this.

These problems do not stand in isolation but are interlinked. Poor mental health can drive worklessness and economic isolation which in turn drives poverty. The prevalence of long-term unemployment (those who have not worked for over 12 months) accounts for over 40% of the total unemployment count, demonstrating how difficult it is to break the cycle of poverty.

The intergenerational nature of the problem means that children who grow up without a working role model are much less likely to secure employment when they enter adulthood. This has to change.

And are there ways in which cooperation between the Treasury and Executives could create more enterprise zones? Or could the idea of city deals, again suggested by the Heenan –Anderson report, be extended to Northern Ireland?

As the Heenan-Anderson Report states: “Northern Ireland’s greatest asset is its vibrant, talented, well educated, young population. We must make the most of this valuable resource and ensure that every individual, no matter where they come from, is able to achieve their potential.” I could not agree more.

Northern Ireland actually has the highest retention of students of any UK nation or region with 91.9% of those who studied here gaining employment within six months after graduating. Every business I speak to talks about the need to retain a high-skill workforce. But it is also vital to build the critical infrastructure to attract the businesses of the future.

So as in the rest of the UK we debate the third runaway at Heathrow, HS2 and a new Infrastructure Commission, what are the Barnet consequentials for Northern Ireland and how can any of this thinking support the Executive here?

He finished:

One of my prime purposes of coming today was to reassure you about Labour’s approach. But I also wanted to say that, as your leader and your MPs have said, amongst others we can also drive on socially and economically and the Treasury has a key role to play in this. So much progress has been made in Northern Ireland, it is unrecognisable from just a few years ago. New jobs, more investment and tourism have created a Northern Ireland that is vibrant and open for business.

But political problems emerge, challenges exist and huge difficulties around combatting the continuing issues of sectarianism, paramilitary activity and criminality remain. But there is once again a chance, an opportunity for Northern Ireland to take another step forward as it moves out of conflict.

I believe that my role is to support that democratic process within the parameters of the agreements that were historically reached. Our task now is surely to try to accelerate the dividends from the peace process so that poverty, worklessness, the despair of mental health problems and decades of under investment in infrastructure become problems of the past.

So much has been achieved and so much progress has been made but there is yet more to do. Now is the time for that refocused effort, for Westminster to recognise the continuing role that it can play in supporting progress. And that the challenge and rewards are economic as well as political.

The challenges remain but the reward is great.

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