Tom Elliott walked into the hall to begin his leader’s speech to strains of Arcade Fire’s Ready to Start. A fine sentiment, though the song’s first line may not be UUP policy!
Businessmen drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would / And I guess I’ll just begin again / You say can we still be friends …
All the kids have always known / That the emperor wears no clothes / But to bow to down to them anyway / Is better than to be alone …
Now I’m Ready to Start / I would rather be wrong / Than live in the shadows of your song / My mind is open wide / And now I’m ready to start
(The entrance music before last year’s ‘dinosaur’ speech used A little less conversation a little more action.)
The theme of Elliott’s speech was recovery, or as he put it “continuing the fight back and working to regain the votes of the electorate”. I’ll link to the full speech when the UUP post it on their site. Update – full speech now online.
When I became leader in September 2010 it was at the very beginning of the Assembly election campaign. Many of our candidates had already been selected. There wasn’t going to be time to begin, let alone complete, the changes I had identified as necessary during my leadership campaign. I’m not going to offer any excuses for the outcome of the election. Like all of you, I would have liked a better result.
To some extent, the speech read like a reaction to Alex Kane’s column in last Monday’s Newsletter. That may be unfair?
This is not about reinventing or re-positioning the Ulster Unionist party. My primary task as leader is to set out the process for recovery and ensure that we have a very clear agenda upon which we can be judged at the next election …
We can’t just content ourselves with attacks on others and imagine that such a strategy will deliver dividends for us. Yes, we will point the finger when we believe that our political opponents are getting it wrong, or not delivering what is expected of them. But let us be blunt: There’s no point in complaining about the failures of others if we don’t have something better to offer the electorate.
What reasons could Tom Elliott offer old voters to return, or attract new voters for the first time?
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what our government looks like: There is no Programme for Government worth speaking about. There is self-interest rather than collective interest at the heart of the Executive. There is serial delay on just about every decision. There is silo mentality. There is indecision on key issues like our shared future. There is no over-arching strategy for our ‘new’ Northern Ireland. There is a two- party carve-up serving purely sectional interests. There is lack of collective ministerial responsibility and there is no reasonable opposition.
There is no real choice at elections. How long must we put up with this seriously deficient and flawed democratic process? How long do we keep telling people that: “It’s better than what we used to have”? Our own Assembly is certainly better than Direct Rule. But being better than Direct Rule is certainly no excuse for poor government.
He referred to his ‘game-changing’ proposals at the last election (to force the Programme for Government to be agreed up front before d’Hondt would be run).
… here we are, six months later, and there still isn’t anything concrete which either the media or general public could describe as a Programme for Government.
It was about this stage that the party leader realised that the text scrolling up the teleprompter wasn’t the latest version of his speech and increasingly had to revert to his paper copy. Cross words were exchanged afterwards.
Elliott gave the DUP a quick dig.
Quite recently Peter Robinson made a speech in Liverpool. The most telling paragraph was, I quote: ‘Whatever anyone may say now the position we adopted was consistent with our electoral commitments and in the long term proved, at least, to be in the best interests of the DUP.’
It didn’t matter that it was in the best interests of the Northern Ireland public, it didn’t matter even that it may have been in the best interests of the Unionist population, so long as it was in the best interests of them themselves. That says much to me: Ourselves alone!
By contrast the Ulster Unionist Party wanted devolution. We wanted good government. We wanted genuine power-sharing, collective responsibility and levels of cross-party cooperation that would make Northern Ireland a better place.
Referring to the Pat Finucane case, Elliott called for a change to how we deal with our past.
There has been much time and energy devoted to the case of Pat Finucane, and I know that families of many other victims have expressed hurt that their loved ones have not been afforded an equal degree of attention. I understand that hurt. I believe that it is time to call a halt to the incomplete, flawed and imbalanced series of arrangements that are currently employed to deal with the past. What we need is an agreed mechanism, rather than a series of processes that serve to re-write history, that are painting the State and the agents of the State as the villains.
He talked about the need for the UUP (and other parties) to “reconnect with the electorate and re-engage their interest in politics – we must create a form of devolution which not only delivers, but is seen to deliver”.
All of this represents a huge challenge for the UUP. It is up to us to attract the tens of thousands of Unionist voters who were voting at the start of the Peace Process but who aren’t voting any longer. It’s about making ourselves a credible alternative to the current stalemate.
It’s about a bank of policies which reflect the needs of our economy and our society. And don’t think it can’t be done. Don’t ever believe that the mountain is too high, because it’s not. Sometimes in politics you have to make a stand all by yourself.
So what does the UUP stand for? What should the electorate expect?
I’m not sure enough people do know that. And if we don’t tell them you can be certain that our opponents won’t tell them!
But I don’t want people to vote for the UUP just because they think others are making a mess of things and failing to deliver good government.
I want them to vote for us because we have proved to them that we have a vision for Northern Ireland that is worth developing. I want them to vote for us because they trust us to act in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Yes, we are a unionist party: and of course we are pro-Union. But the job of government is to meet the everyday needs, demands, hopes and expectations of our people. And those people are here in Northern Ireland.
Let us remind ourselves of what we have committed to:
A fair post primary education transfer system that gives the best opportunity to all our young people, and ensure that we end the era whereby many leave school without even the bare essentials of being able to read and write …
… as well as a single education authority, a “free at the point of delivery, for everyone in society” Health Service that meets the needs of the community, and an economy that is driven by an inventive Private Sector that “produces efficiency within the Public Sector”.
Elliott reminded the delegates what the previous UUP Health Minister Michael McGimpsey achieved, namely an £88m saving by prescribing generic drug brands, free
prescriptions for everyone, putting £53m per year back into frontline health services after the Review of Public Administration in the Health Service that reduced the number of Health and Social Care bodies from 38 to 17.
We led on the progress of devolution of Corporation Tax varying powers. We led the campaign to reduce Air Passenger Duty from £60 to £12 on Transatlantic flights. We delivered on our promise not to introduce the Sinn Fein commitment of town centre car parking charges in 30 towns throughout Northern Ireland. And we delivered our commitment to ensure a fair solution for the Presbyterian Mutual Society savers and investors.
And in case that wasn’t enough, he went on to suggest some policies on which the UUP diverged from other parties:
We didn’t bring forward proposals for a Terrorist Shrine at the former Maze prison site. The UUP didn’t bring forward the 11 council model that will enshrine a Nationalist/Republican majority in our capital city of Belfast. The UUP hasn’t overseen the increase to the highest unemployment rates in Northern Ireland for over thirteen years.
And I can tell you the UUP didn’t close accident and emergency services at the Lagan Valley and the City Hospitals.
The Ulster Unionist Party will fight for what is right for everyone in Northern Ireland.
I accept that the UUP cannot, by itself, provide the government. I accept that it is a task that must be shared by the main parties.
Elliott reckoned the May 2012 review of the Justice Minister appointment process would be “a perfect opportunity to streamline and develop a more efficient Northern Ireland government”.
With the ongoing review we have time to reduce the current number of government departments from 12 to at least 8. That is a reduction of a third of the administration right at the heart of the Executive.
He called for party unity. There seemed to be a concerted effort to promote a consistent face of the UUP, with many MLAs commenting about good teamwork in their speeches and media interviews.
If we don’t do this together then we will convince no-one. Our opponents seek to put us down at every opportunity. That’s politics.
But if we don’t demonstrate internal collective responsibility and promote a clear, united vision, we only help those who seek to do us down. If we don’t exercise personal loyalty to the party and collective loyalty to our own policies, we are doing the job of our political opponents …
… if members of this party do not stand shoulder to shoulder and quote from the same agenda, then we will continue to damage ourselves. Teamwork and unity of purpose are essential. We can only succeed if we do it together acting in a spirit of co-operation and goodwill.
Starting to speak later than planned, the live TV output left the conference hall at this point just before Elliott paid tribute to the outgoing “President of the Republic of Ireland” Mary McAleese. Political and cultural differences aside, “the one thing we do share is an inherent belief in the goodness of people.”
We also have a commitment to build bridges, which are sturdy structures based on mutual respect and not founded on meaningless words and phrases. As she prepares to leave office, I wish to acknowledge the contribution she has made during her fourteen years in office.
I never did get to one of her 12th July celebrations in her official residence of Phoenix Park – because I always seemed to be walking somewhere else! – but I’m told they were great occasions by the hundreds who were there. The initiatives taken by President McAleese have helped to create better understanding and I wish her well and her family for the future”.
He closed by reasserting the party’s position in history.
There is a role for a party which has never been afraid to take risks and which has always acted for Northern Ireland rather than just itself. Ladies and gentleman: that party is the Ulster Unionist Party. A strong party and a proud party. A party which will prove that it has learned lessons. A party which will come to the next election with candidates, policies, solutions and strategies which will be the best on offer.
Ladies and gentlemen: we can do it. We will do it. And we will do it together.
I talked to Tom Elliott for five minutes shortly after his conference speech, and before he was whisked away for his Inside Politics interview. He described conference as “upbeat”. He dismissed by assertion that looking down from the podium he would have seen an older audience as “unfair”. Compared to the politician who campaigned to become UUP leader, Elliott has adapted to give very short answers to questions.
I asked what the party would deliver over the next couple of years that voters might reward the UUP for? His answer: “a much more strategic and combined approach to government”.
Should the UUP have an internal dialogue about the practicalities of going into opposition?
It’s no secret I would like to see a proper opposition mechanism at Stormont. We’re now 13 years since Stormont was re-established in 1998, and I think it’s time we moved on and progressed.
A well-attended fringe meeting to discuss opposition was held over lunchtime in an upstairs seminar room. It was so popular that latecomers had to sit in the corridor to listen through the open door.
With the Secretary of State present and on stage at the UUP conference, was that a sign that the Hatfield talks weren’t quite dead and a formal relationship between the UUP and the Conservatives was still a possibility?
What Owen Patterson being here today is a sign of is that clearly we’re still a centre right unionist party. They’re still a centre right UK-wide party. Obviously we see benefits in having discussions with them and we will continue to do that.
Does the historic link between the UUP and the Orange Order turn off new voters or sustain old voters?
We have to absolutely clear that there is no direct link with the Orange Order. Some of our members are in the Orange Order. There has been no formal link between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order for quite a number of years now. You can’t do anything about the historic aspect of it. It’s there and we can’t really do much more about it.
Commenting on the rule changes being proposed at the afternoon’s EGM:
What we’re trying to do is to make the rules more ‘working effective’. Rag Empey changed the rules significantly and he always said it was going to be a work in progress. And he’s very supportive of the changes as he sees it as a further development of his proposals … I’m hoping it will put a much better structure into the party and that we can get decisions made quicker …
And his goals in the Assembly over the next couple of months?
Clearly the Programme for Government is key and we need to ensure we keep the economy right to the fore of society … Also so is Cohesion, Sharing and Integration. We need to ensure we have a society [in which] we can live together.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.