Any UUP delegates scanning Saturday morning’s papers over breakfast might have choked on their cornflakes when they realised that the Irish News had devoted the best part of a page to UUP conference news, while there was absolutely no mention in the Newsletter! And the date wasn’t 1st April.
The UUP Conference kicked off about 10.15am in Armagh City Hotel. In the absence of the (Anglican) Archbishop of Armagh, Rev Andrew Forster opened in prayer. The local constituency chairman, Councillor Jim Speers welcomed delegates to Armagh, encouraging them to sample the delights of the local city including the planetarium. Was that a subliminal call for the UUP to reach for the stars?
On Friday afternoon in private sessions, delegates heard how other mass member organisations have managed to transition and change, often turning negative perceptions. Geoff Wilson, marketing manager with the IFA was one of speakers along with a representative from the Royal College of Nurses. Fermanagh and South Tyrone members gave delegates a masterclass on fundraising and sustain hundreds of members. These sessions will be distributed on DVD to all associations after the conference.
By mid-morning, around 400 people were seated in the conference hall. While there were pockets of younger delegates, I would estimate that the average age would be close to sixty years old.
The UUP chair David Campbell summarised the conference as one of “rebuilding and recovery”. Between now and Christmas, the UUP will be conducting opinion polls in “unionist constituencies” to discover why voters are turned off by the party and what changes would attract them. He mentioned that the party’s (closed) EGM this afternoon would discuss Tom Elliott’s proposals to change party rules and processes – an evolution of changes Reg Empey brought in a few years ago.
At previous conferences, Campbell has used his address to get a few things off his chest. (Last year he referred to unsuccessful Westminster candidates Paula Bradshaw and Harry Hamilton – “at one disappointment to pack up their bags and leave in an ill-tempered sulk carrying their single transferable principles with them”). He said that “this year’s conference is about rebuilding and recovering”, before going on to address two recent events that caused him “much anger and annoyance”.
As an Ulster Unionist Party member and an Orangeman for over thirty years, I was I was ashamed and disgusted that a Belfast lodge saw fit to try to discipline our leader and out minister because they paid their respects on behalf of this party to a young police officer murdered by terrorists. (applause) They exhibited a greater Christian charity than that lodge’s members can over hope to. But did no more than unionist leaders before them, like David Trimble, Harry West … and right back to James Craigavon and Edward Carson before them. I welcome the dismissal of this issue by Tom and Danny’s county lodges, but this should never have been an issue in the first place, and that Belfast lodge has brought our institution into serious public disrepute.
Campbell’s use of “our” ran somewhat against the UUP’s position of having no official link between the party and the Orange Order, other than an overlap of members.
Secondly, in three weeks time, 14 November will mark thirty years since our Member of Parliament for South Belfast Rev Robert Bradford was brutally murdered in his advice centre in South Belfast service his constituents. Last week in Parliament, a plaque to his memory was unveiled in the chamber of the House of Commons. Not one member of this party – the Rev Bradford’s Party – was invited to attend.
I discovered this outrageous oversight the day before, ironically from a DUP MP who showed me his invitation assuming I would be present. On checking with our leader and our peers, it became clear that this party had been completely ignored. To add insult to injury, on contacting the Speaker’s office in Parliament, I was told ‘Oh, we understood the Rev Bradford was a DUP MP’.
Fellow unionists, you and I know which unionist party took the casualties during the Troubles. You and I know which party’s members in constituencies like this formed the backbone of the security forces. And you and I both know which unionist party took all the risks for peace. We cannot and will not allow this party’s sacrifices to be airbrushed from history. Members, it is time that the kicking of this party and its representatives ceased. It is time for the sacrifices and achievements of this party to be recognised and applauded.
This conference is about our recovery. It starts today.
At this rate, the UUP may end up wearing out the word ‘recovery’.
Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy made some brief remarks at the start of his Q&A session.
It’s almost six months since I entered office as Regional Development Minister and inherited what I can only describe as Murphy’s mess.
He reminded delegates that he had delivered the party’s manifesto commitment to overturn his predecessor’s proposal for on-street parking charges, and highlighted the recent announcement that will mean the Coleraine/Londonderry train line will run “for most of the UK City of Culture year in 2013”. Kennedy indicated that he wanted to see further rail investment to bring about “high speed and fast intercity train service can operate between Londonderry, Belfast, Dublin and even Cork”. He explained some of the measures NI Water has put in place and local councils have agreed to in order to prevent a repeat of last year’s problems during the cold snap over Christmas.
In the Q&A, delegates were called to ask a set of fairly weak, pre-submitted questions that covered plans for roads in their local areas, upgrading Portadown train station and golf. Danny Kennedy quipped “all politics is local!”
An economy debate featured contributions from a selection of the UUP’s team of MLAs around the motion this conference calls on the Northern Ireland Assembly to select the sectors that will best ensure the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy and skill up the workforce accordingly.
I’ll finish with a vision because people often say “oh, you unionists, you don’t have a vision, you don’t have a strategy, you don’t have a policy.” I’ll give you a vision for our economy. Northern Ireland is rapidly coming to the end of its first hundred years. So as we look to our second century, here’s an economic vision.
We become net contributors to Her Majesty’s Treasury. We grow our private sector so it is so big, so powerful, so profitable we no longer need the block grant. It’s a big ask. It’s aspirational. But why not go for it conference? (applause) Why not go for that, be net contributors? If you want to secure the union, that’s a good way to start. Let’s grow our economy to the point where our GDP and our GVA are above the UK average.
Listening to the end of Nesbitt’s speech in the wings was “Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Patterson” who had popped into the UUP conference on a fleeting visit. Sandra Overend seconded the motion and was followed by Robin Swann MLA. (Swann, diminutive in stature, got a laugh when he announced “I’ve been asked to be short … I’ll do by best”.)
Then the Secretary of State was invited to address the debate.
Patterson thanked the UUP for their support for the coalition government (the Westminster one) as they address economic problems. He noted successes, including the Presbyterian Mutual Society, the Corporation Tax consultation, and the announcement on Airport Passenger Duty changes to long haul flights from Northern Ireland. The presence of Patterson adds weight to the UUP’s desire to strengthen its relationship with the Conservative Party but avoid a formal link that constrains their policies.
Next up was Philip Smith, followed Jo-Anne Dobson and Basil McCrea finished up the debate, paying tribute to Mike Nesbitt who “has been a wonderful advocate for the Ulster Unionist Party since he joined the MLA team”, and singled out the other speakers in the debate for praise.
SDLP vice-chair Fearghal McKinney chaired a Q&A panel with Patricia McKeown (Unison), Jim Nicholson MEP, Glyn Roberts (NI Independent Retail Trade Association) and Mike Smyth (Head of UU School of Economics). Neither Baroness May Blood nor Ann Travers – whose sister [Mary] was murdered by the culture minister’s special adviser, Mary McArdle – were able to be present on the panel as originally intended.
In the end the #askuup twitter Q&A with MLAs didn’t happen, though some of the questions were hilarious, if a little off-topic? We never will find out the answers to burning questions like:
- Do you crunch up or fold your toilet paper?
- Where is the best place for brunch on the Ards Peninsula?
- Did Carol Black at least get a ‘comfort break’ or did she have to sit in that front row seat all day to make sure she was on TV?
Michael McGimpsey kept a low profile at the conference, as if his political potential is in decline (as are his chances of being re-elected following the proposed boundary changes). While present at the conference and namechecked by the party leader, he wasn’t up on stage.
Also missing were the majority of unsuccessful Assembly candidates from May 2011: no sign of Lesley Macaulay or Mark Hill or Mark Finlay. And no Eamonn Mallie.
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.