UUP fight back starts in earnest as Reg rallies the troops…

Well no visit from David Cameron this year to the UUP party conference (and no live blog from Slugger either, for which apologies real life took over this weekend I’m afraid), but a pretty well recieved oration from William Hague who opened by professing his political identity as a Unionist… And who chose to deliver some national headline grabbing remarks (full text below the fold)… The only other thing I would allude to is the apparent change in the demeanour of the party and the party leader as reported by Gerry Moriarty in today’s Irish Times

‘CHANGE IS coming Peter – whether you like it or not!” So said the Ulster Unionist Party leader Sir Reg Empey at his party’s annual conference in the Europa Hotel in Belfast on Saturday. That’s Peter Robinson he was addressing. A couple of years ago such a statement would have drawn guffaws from Robinson and his DUP colleagues, scepticism from political commentators, and “you must be joking, Reg” from many in his own party. But Saturday was different. His taunt to the DUP and its leader drew applause. There is a discernible positive change in the atmosphere the UUP – there is no doubt about that. “We are back in style,” was how its MEP Jim Nicholson put it.

For my money that change has three sources: party reforms in which the centre has been strengthened against an often feral constitutency base; the shot in the arm financially, yes, but politically too of the link up with the Tories; and in tactical terms the damage the TUV is serially inflicting on their main rivals the DUP… The appeal may be limited at first, but this is not the one off, one way deal that many of its critics seem to think… When you lose your widespread base (as the UUP did in the last Assembly election, you start again where the new appeal is strongest and work your way back out again… From William Hague

It’s a huge pleasure to be back in this great city of Belfast and to be addressing your party conference as a Conservative and as a committed Unionist.

As a Unionist I believe with conviction that the future of all four parts of country lies together as one United Kingdom.

I believe that in an uncertain world our country remains a great force for good and that together the United Kingdom achieves much more than would ever be the case if we were apart.

And I believe in a United Kingdom that is tolerant, inclusive and diverse, at ease with its past and confident about its future.

Today, I want to talk to you about a Conservative approach to foreign policy and Britain’s role in the world.

I want to set out why the United Kingdom so desperately needs the change that only the election of a Conservative government can bring about.

And I want to explain how Northern Ireland can shape the future destiny of our country by helping to get rid of this discredited Labour government and putting David Cameron into Downing Street.

In a few months time, whenever Gordon Brown finally summons up the courage to call the election, the United Kingdom will have the opportunity to elect a new government.

And for the first time in decades Northern Ireland can play a real part in helping to shape the destiny of our country.

Politics in Northern Ireland has been dominated for too long by purely local parties that only contest seats here. They can never form the government of the United Kingdom. And their MPs can never be ministers in a government of the United Kingdom.

Only on rare occasions do they have an influence such as when the DUP backed Labour over 42-day detention. Otherwise they are at the margins.

It has always struck me as profoundly undemocratic that when the United Kingdom goes to the polls, Northern Ireland is effectively denied any real say on the outcome.

Now, with the coming together of our two great parties as a new force of Conservatives and Unionists that is about to change.

As Owen Paterson has said, at the next general election the Conservatives and Unionists will be the only party contesting every seat in every part of the United Kingdom.

And every Conservative and Unionist MP elected here in Northern Ireland will add one more to the total needed to make sure that David Cameron is our next prime minister.

Our aim is clear. We want to end the semi-detached political status of Northern Ireland and bring you back into the mainstream of United Kingdom politics.

It’s time to put Northern Ireland at the heart of the Union.

During the past year we’ve made great progress together.

The Joint Committee has been established. We’ve a modern campaign office just around the corner from this hotel that will help us run the most sophisticated and professional campaign Northern Ireland has seen.

I know a lot of people have put in a tremendous amount of hard work into this project and if I may I’d like to pay a particular tribute to my shadow cabinet colleague, Owen Paterson.

There’s barely week goes by when Owen isn’t here in Northern Ireland such is his commitment to what we are trying to achieve.

I’d also like to thank members of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, many of whom are here today.

For years they’ve been at the forefront of the campaign to bring national politics to Northern Ireland.

And it’s because of the agreement they forged with you that this is now really beginning to happen.

It builds on the Ulster Unionist Party’s courageous work and achievements in establishing peace and power-sharing here.

Historically our parties have been closely linked. But today we are creating something much bolder and more significant than anything we’ve ever had in the past.

This is for the long term.

So David Cameron and I are delighted to give our full hearted support as together we build a genuinely new dynamic political force of Conservatives and Unionists.

Earlier this year I was proud to campaign for Jim Nicholson at the European elections.

And what a great result Jim achieved, winning more votes than any other unionist candidate.

Jim is now a full member of our Conservative team of MEPs dedicated to opposing greater European integration and to preserving British sovereignty.

The next step is to ensure that Conservative and Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland take their places as full members of David Cameron’s Conservative team at Westminster.

And I look forward to being back here at the next election campaigning to achieve precisely that.

Let me reiterate what David said to you last year.

Any Conservative and Unionist MP elected here will take the Conservative whip and have the same rights and responsibilities as every other Conservative MP from England, Scotland and Wales.

And that means being eligible to serve as ministers in a Conservative and Unionist government for the whole United Kingdom.

That’s a claim that no other party in Northern Ireland can make at the forthcoming election.

Just as we are the only party standing in Northern Ireland that can claim to have a genuine United Kingdom-wide approach and a real agenda for change to our country.

Only by backing the Conservatives and Unionists can you help to defeat Gordon Brown and through David Cameron bring about the change we need.

Change to fix our broken economy. Change to rebuild our broken society. And change to repair our broken politics.

We’ve now begun the process of selecting our candidates for the Westminster elections. We want to utilise existing talent of course. But we also want to draw upon new talent, including people who have never been involved in politics before.

And when we are selecting our criteria will be simple and clear. We are not interested in a person’s religion or community background, only whether they are up to the job.

It’s not where you’ve come from that matters to us but what you can offer as together we seek to build a shared future for everybody in Northern Ireland.

Of course Stormont is vitally important to that future.

The Conservative Party believes in devolution, just as we believe in the Union.

We support the political institutions that have been established over the past decade and want them to succeed.

Stormont plays a vital role in delivering local services – though I suspect I’m not alone in wishing that it would do it a little better and more efficiently.

Reg and Michael are of course doing great jobs in extremely difficult circumstances, as are the Ulster Unionist MLAs.

There’s no question of me or any of my colleagues seeking to interfere in matters that are devolved to Stormont – even if you decide to take a different course to one we adopt in England.

Devolution is about respecting the unique identities of each part of the United Kingdom. When it comes to local issues, local people should be in charge.

A Conservative government will not start unpicking what’s been achieved in recent years.

And we want to see devolution completed, including the transfer of policing and justice powers.

But it should only happen when there is genuine cross-community support. And building that surely requires the executive to start working like a genuine four-party coalition.

But for all Stormont’s importance, many of the great issues affecting Northern Ireland continue to be decided at Westminster.

Economic policy, taxation, welfare benefits, levels of public spending, the broad thrust of social policy, defence, Europe and foreign affairs – all of these are the responsibility of the United Kingdom government.

Northern Ireland needs to participate fully in the great national debates about all of these issues.

That’s another reason why Northern Ireland should be properly represented there by MPs who see the House of Commons as a full-time job of work.

It’s perfectly reasonable to be elected to Stormont or to Westminster. Yet we have some people here who are councillors, MLAs, MPs and Ministers.

The only person in British politics who rivals them for the number of jobs they have is Lord Mandelson…

So we will end the practice of double jobbing. In future, politicians will have to decide whether they want to be MLAs or MPs.

They can’t be both.

I know there’s another issue that exercises a great many people both inside and outside this room – the Presbyterian Mutual Society.

We understand the unfairness that investors feel, particularly when it was government assistance to other UK financial institutions that contributed to the problems in the first place. It’s another example of Labour’s mismanagement of the financial services sector.

So as David Cameron has said, there’s a real case for the prime minister to look again at this issue. And if he won’t do it in a meaningful and serious way then the next Conservative government will.

And one more thing. When I was leader of the opposition I accepted in good faith Tony Blair’s claim that fresh evidence warranted the establishment of a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

But what I never envisaged at the time was that it would take twelve years for Lord Saville to publish his report and that it would cost the taxpayer £200 million.

So as Owen Paterson said at our conference in Manchester, under a Conservative government there will be no more costly and open ended inquiries into the past.

It’s time for Northern Ireland to move forward.

As Shadow Foreign Secretary I have the opportunity to travel extensively around the world, listening and setting out the priorities for a Conservative government should we win the next election.

Only this week I’ve been in Washington where I held talks with the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

And let me put on record my deep appreciation of the role of successive US administrations in helping to bring about the great improvements we see in Northern Ireland today.

A Conservative government will continue to work closely with our allies in the United States and our partners in the Republic of Ireland.

But what strikes me above all when talking to people abroad is the continuing admiration for our country, its values and the contribution we make on the world stage.

Take Afghanistan, where today our courageous men and women risk their lives to protect all of us from terrorism at home.

Of course I don’t need to give you any lessons in fighting terrorism. For over thirty years it was a daily occurrence.

You can be proud of the fact that your courage, and that of people across Northern Ireland from all parts of the community, ensured that democracy ultimately prevailed.

And we will always honour the police and our armed forces for the sacrifice they made.

Terrorism, whether here in the United Kingdom or abroad in Afghanistan must never be allowed to succeed.

Sadly in recent days here in Northern Ireland we have had a grim reminder of the past. Mercifully the attack in east Belfast did not achieve its murderous objective.

Others have not been so fortunate.

We remember today Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, and Constable Stephen Carroll, brutally murdered by dissidents in March this year.

The threat from dissident republicans is real. It must be met with the full force of the law. And it requires the fullest possible co-operation with the police from everybody.

Dissidents offer the community nothing. Nor do the so called loyalists. They are thugs. The decommissioning was a welcome start – and vindicated the tough stand we took in Parliament. But decommissioning must be accompanied by an end to all criminal activity.

It is time for us all to resolve that Northern Ireland will continue to move forward.