UUP members seemed on a high at Saturday’s conference. They were relaxed and not on edge. They’d put the party’s internal troubles (“shrinking to grow”) behind them. Not a single mention of Basil, John, NI21, David McNarry or even Lord Maginnis. No major slip-ups. No longer any talk about Mike Nesbitt taking over as Minister for Regional Development.
Though under the calm water, there was evidence of some thrashing over council candidate selection and some older councillors changing their minds and deciding to stand again (rather than taking the package).
While some fresh young faces appeared on stage to talk about the party’s commitment card, compared with nearly every other party I’ve attended over the last couple of years, the UUP still have few twenty and thirty year olds (other than those already working for the party) seated in the hall. Still, 350 bums on 350 seats in the Ramada Hotel (whose wireless worked perfectly and amazingly quickly all day).
Mike Nesbitt has found a moderate tone that isn’t afraid of nationalism, though some of his party colleagues are still wedded to hard line rhetoric that reduces arguments to more sectarian fears. Perhaps it’s an east|west split that will never go away.
His speech as party leader was well delivered, but the UUP hold very few of the leaders to bring the ideas in it to fruition. [Spoiler alert!] Taking the education ministry from Sinn Fein isn’t going to happen. Expanding the level of local procurement is already underway in some places; where it is not, the UUP have very few councillors on the ground to be able to brand the idea as their own even if it is taken ahead.
Mike Nesbitt’s proposals for a mental health hub will be tested thoroughly next week in the local media and in the corridors of the Assembly. It’s not a stupid idea. But it doesn’t address the difficulty of doing something profitable (morally and financially) with the Maze site, and only addresses one small part of our difficulties in dealing with the past.
With the Haass talks in town, and the likelihood of intensified “hot Haass” sessions in the run up to Christmas, Mike Nesbitt’s rhetoric and ideas may be drowned out by the issues of parading, flags and the past.
What was absent from the speech and indeed the conference was any mention of the Orange Order, the camp and flashpoint at Twaddell Avenue, and advice or support for the Parades Commission (who had a stand outside the hall). While some UUP members and elected representatives are no strangers to the loyal orders, public order and parading was off the agenda this year. Perhaps wisely deemed too controversial to sound bite.
Ulster Unionists looked happy as they left the Ramada Hotel … particularly the gentlemen I spotted carrying Asda’s supply of pink snowballs back home to kitchen cupboards. But while there was much criticism of the DUP, there was relatively little explanation of any clear blue water between the brands of unionism (other than a promise to be more responsible).
Mike Nesbitt’s leadership is secure. His confidence has recovered. But he’ll need to steel himself and his party for a brutal election campaign next spring when the DUP will attempt to annihilate the UUP’s presence in the new councils and an assortment of unionist candidates will threaten to take bites out of Jim Nicholson’s share of the vote.
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I’ve posted already about Lord Empey’s opening remarks that attacked Alliance in a manner that suggested he’s rattled by the electoral chances of a (smaller) rival.
Jo-Anne Dobson spoke briefly.
You will hear today about the private members bills that I and my party colleagues are progressing at Stormont. Many of you know my personal link with my organ donation bill. My son Mark had a successful kidney transplant in 2009 and as a family we know just what it’s like to receive the ultimate gift of life.
… I can reveal here today that over 1,300 responses were received [to her organ donation consultation] …
Conference, I am fed up with Edwin Poots. [Cheers and applause] On organ donation he will do everything but take action. He hops up and down and calls it progress. Well I have news for you Edwin: it’s the Ulster Unionist Party who are making the progress. We are leading where others are failing.
Jo-Anne Dobson went on to introduce Danny Kennedy as “the roads minister who always goes the extra mile”. He began his speech in an upbeat manner:
Let me tell you, it is hard to remember a time when us Ulster Unionists have been so together and the DUP so divided. It is clear to me that the tide is turning.
He felt that “public mood” was swinging back towards the “pragmatism and leadership” of the UUP “after ten years of watching re-runs of the DUP/Sinn Fein circus at Stormont”:
… the clowns have lost their appeal, with their poking each other in public and giggling about it in private, they have long ceased to be of interest or amusement.
In the cycle of politics we have seen the two larger parties grow lazy and arrogant. Who could forget the attitude of John “So what?” O’Dowd or the disgraceful behaviour of the DUP Leadership and MLAs towards Jim Allister over a family bereavement and a will.
He linked future UUP success with an upsurge in the fortunes of the SDLP:
… the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP have the capacity to work together effectively once again, to provide lasting stability, to provide leadership and to once again to provide the solid centre foundations …
Much of his speech focussed on Regional Development matters. His department had listened on the issue of parking tickets.
We introduced a new parking protocol after reviewing a system adopted by Islington. Unlike some Executive Ministers we don’t have a problem with ideas simply because they operate well in the rest of the UK, or indeed if they operate well in the Republic of Ireland for that matter, because we are about looking at best practice from wherever it comes because we are about doing what is right for Northern Ireland.
As I said we listened on parking tickets, we introduced a new protocol and parking tickets are reducing. Last year 16,000 fewer parking tickets were issued that the year before, a drop of over 10% or one tenth, and I am pleased to say the numbers have continued their downward trend this year.
However, Danny Kennedy offered no statistics about whether traffic was flowing better through town and city centres, whether there was any reduction in parked cars blocking urban clearways and cycle lanes.
Water charges to businesses had been reduced and an extended “package” of festive travel discounts and free park and ride schemes would entice shoppers into Belfast (starting two weeks earlier this year). He mentioned Small Business Saturday (the subject of a panel later in the morning) and promised to continue to consult with local retailers and communities over the scheduling of disruptive roadworks.
Danny Kennedy dropped a heavy hint that Simon Hamilton would announce on Monday that money had been allocated to upgrading the remainder of the Ballymena – Coleraine road. and was seeking Executive support to invest in the Enterprise rail link with Dublin.
Cyclists weren’t forgotten:
Over the next year my new cycling unit will work hard to improve urban cycling infrastructure for commuters and explore new leisure opportunities and potential greenways to be enjoyed by all. I said earlier this year I am committed to a signature project, to a new pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Lagan and we will move forward on this too.
The “Londonderry to Coleraine [rail] line” had been “earmarked for closure” when he took over as minister, but “we saved it”. He’s also pushing the Executive to lobby London to extend the ‘tax smart’ scheme to include season rail tickets in Northern Ireland (so a season ticket could be paid out of someone’s salary before tax).
We have continued to support the worthy concessionary fare scheme too despite having the only party leader who’s not ineligible for it! [delegates laugh, applause] The things we do for other parties! But our leader isn’t just the youngest in age but he’s the youngest in outlook too. Like Mike our transport policies are progressive and pragmatic, and like Mike our services are becoming more popular day by day. Momentum with no signs of stopping.
The forty five minutes of conference devoted to a debate opposing the current 11 council model of RPA ended up with its own post devoted to Tom Elliott’s closing speech.
Sandra Overend introduced a small panel to discuss Small Business Saturday. Good to hear that larger retailers are supporting the venture. Asda’s stall at conference was very visible, and a very welcome addition since they were allowing delegates and bloggers to sample some of the produce they source from Northern Ireland.
Tom Elliott introduced the party’s MEP saying:
There are few corridors more powerful than Brussels.
Jim Nicholson – who wasn’t spotted smiling once on stage during the performance of the Major Sinclair Memorial Pipe Band – is standing for re-election to Europe next May.
It was a largely unexciting speech, but it did highlight his work as “a lead negotiator on the Common Agricultural Policy” and his position as “Agriculture Coordinator for the ECR Group”. He understood why protectionist proposals were put forward:
There was even an MEP trying to get support for rabbit farmers included within the new package! But conference I can understand their intentions. They want to do what is right for their constituency just as I want to do what is right for Northern Ireland, and made sure they didn’t get what they wanted.
Jim Nicholson revealed that he has “been selected by the Agriculture Committee to be their rapporteur on the EU/US trade agreement”.
This means Northern Ireland will have an MEP leading the Committee’s response to what are crucial talks, which will have wide ranging implications for our region and the whole EU in the next two or three years.
He was been “working with colleagues to ensure that the new funding package for research and innovation – Horizon 2020 – recognises the particular needs of micro businesses which are a crucial part of the Northern Ireland economy”.
As “coordinator on the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Organised Crime” he has “serious concerns” that the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s opposition to the National Crime Agency operating fully in NI “fails to recognise the very real human costs of organised crime”.
Jim Nicholson is obviously very deeply embedded in the European Parliament and its committees.
On the PEACE funding now withdrawn but once earmarked for the proposed centre at the Maze, the UUP MEP says he will “endeavour to ensure that the £18 million … will not be lost to the people of Northern Ireland”.
Most importantly the halting of this project will prevent further distress being inflicted on those who have suffered the most. I continue to work closely with a range of groups who represent the interests of innocent victims of terrorism. To me it is clear more needs to be done to address their needs. They deserve much better and that is one of our commitments.
Innocent victims should not have to endure parades glorifying terrorism in their towns or plaques erected commemorating those who died whilst murdering innocent people. [applause] They don’t deserve to have truth and justice denied to them. Crucially they don’t deserve to be equated to those who set out to murder and maim. Terrorists are not victims. We must address this issue and do right by those who have already suffered the most.
Jim Nicholson ended by setting out his stall for re-election …
Northern Ireland needs an MEP with a strong voice that is heard and listened to in Europe. I am that voice. Northern Ireland needs an [MEP] who knows how Brussels works, with the working relationships with other MEPs, Commissioners, Ministers and officials and has a track record of getting results for the people of Northern Ireland.
… and issued an electoral challenge:
Remember, I was the first Unionist elected in 2009. Next year, not only am I going to be the first unionist elected, but I’m going to be the first MEP elected! It’s a huge challenge – but I know we can do it!
The first section of Mike Nesbitt’s speech dealt with the Maze Peace Centre and his alternative legacy proposal. He reminded delegates how disdainfully other parties had reacted to the UUP’s long held opposition to the Maze project.
That was the widows of murdered police officers [the First Minister] was talking about. That was the RUC George Cross and the UDR Regimental Association, and Prison Officers, and thousands and thousands of innocent victims. He said they need taken away by men in white coats! And one of his DUP colleagues called us “nutters”. And the deputy First Minister was no better. He said we were in league with “extreme loyalists.”
It was time for “parties who take responsibility not just take power”:
We did it 100 years ago, to ensure there was a Northern Ireland. We did it again 15 years ago, to ensure there was a Northern Ireland with a chance of building a better and a peaceful future. And we’re ready to do it again, because Northern Ireland once again needs a pro-Union party at the heart of government that will put the country first, and do what’s right for the people, taking responsibility and not just taking power.
Some comments were directed at leaders in Sinn Fein:
[The Maze] proposal was wrong because it put too much emphasis on the victim-makers and it trampled on the sensitivities of those they hurt. Our focus must always be on those who were given no choice about becoming a victim. And at this point, let me address some thoughts to Republicans on dealing with the past.
To Gerry Adams, who says he was never in the IRA; to Gerry Kelly, who shot a prison warder in the head but said it was not an act of terrorism; and to Martin McGuinness who told the £200 million Saville Inquiry there are parts of his past he will not discuss “under any circumstances”.
To Messrs Adams, Kelly & McGuinness and the rest, I have a simple message: you’re not always right, you know. And you won’t always get your way, you know. Because we’re not going away.
And we know how to conduct a successful campaign. We forced Peter Robinson into a massive U-turn on the Maze, and we did it without a riot, without a street protest, without so much as a white line protest. We used brains and not brawn and that is the way forward for Northern Ireland.
Mike Nesbitt was against “the Republican campaign for equivalence”.
The notion that there is no difference between a dead IRA man and a murdered police officer or a soldier is wrong, it is abhorrent, and it has nothing to do with the spirit of mutual trust we signed up to in 1998. What some Republicans refuse to acknowledge as they rush to re-write history is that they had a choice.
I was born just in time to live through the Troubles. It was a time of civil rights movements in the United States as well as here, of student riots in Paris, all the rest. The common thread was people try to transform the state they lived in, not destroy it. The Civil Rights movement [here] was cynically exploited by those looking for any excuse to try and terrorise Unionism into surrender.
If I forever associate a United Ireland with no warning bombs like Bloody [Friday], La Mon and the rest, is that my fault? Republicans chose it should be that way. The Belfast Agreement enshrines their right [ie, Republicans] to persuade me I’d be better off out of the United Kingdom. But all available data suggests very few on either side of our traditional divide are so persuaded. Frankly, I believe that history will record that among the many, many things the IRA blew away was the chance for a United Ireland.
He compared the result of the Irish republican campaign with that of Scottish nationalists.
By contrast, in a few months time, Scottish nationalists will see a referendum on Scottish Independence. Not a gun discharged. Not a bomb detonated. Not a single act of terror required. Yet in securing a Referendum on Independence, Scottish Nationalists have achieved more, peacefully, than Irish Republicans have ever done.
Republicans chose violence.
Mike Nesbitt turned to address his big idea: an alternative to the Maze peace centre.
What is missing in the Maze debate at the moment is an alternative to the Peace Centre. Today I want to offer that alternative to you, an alternative that will address the hidden legacy of the Troubles, which is poor mental health and wellbeing.
I am sorry to report, we are world-leaders in this field. So, having created the mental health problem, let us fix it.
This is my alternative to the Maze. Let us create an international mental health facility: a facility that will be a global centre of excellence to help those who suffer trauma, whatever the cause. I am talking about being the best in the world.
Having spent 45 years creating more Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers per head than just about any other country on the globe, let us build a legacy project that cures the problem. Let us commit to helping restore good mental health and wellbeing to our people, not least the young who self-harm to the point of suicide. And be in no doubt, people born after the Ceasefires are among those suffering the trauma of the legacy of our Troubles. So let us do it for them.
[The Bamford Review (and others) would suggest that “approximately 40% of the NI adult population have had one or more conflict-related traumatic experiences”.]
The trauma centre would have a vision beyond this island.
But let us also raise our vision above the problems of the moment here. The world has been very generous to us, with its commitment, support and money. Let us repay world with a centre that will offer help and hope to everybody. Let Northern Ireland become known as the “go to” place for soldiers traumatised in war, for children traumatised by a gun attack on their school campus, to the survivors of train and plane crashes. Making Northern Ireland the world leader for trauma care would be a fitting legacy project not just for our citizens but for the world’s.
Mike Nesbitt’s stance against equivalence did not extend to treatment for trauma.
And let me be clear, when it comes to our Past, this centre is for everyone, even those for whom we may feel little or no sympathy. It’s for everyone, including those whose poor mental health is maybe a consequence of making bad decisions.
Worth noting that the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation (NICTT) set up in Omagh in 2002 had a world-wide vision (New York after 9/11, Sri Lanka following the tsunami, in Bosnia and Nepal) but closed its doors in December 2011. I’ve embedded a 20 minute video from 2010 about its work.
At this stage most delegates probably imagined Mike Nesbitt’s proposed trauma centre would be based at the Maze. But no.
That just leaves location. I want to be clear: I am open to a debate on this. Wherever it is, it would only be a hub; some people will be happy to travel to it, others will need our experts to travel to them. That’s the nature of mental health issues.
But on location, here’s a thought – it’s not more than a thought. A number of years ago, the Assembly bought a building called Ormiston. It’s quite close to Parliament Buildings in East Belfast. It’s in public ownership already, but it’s lying empty. It has over 15,000 square feet and it’s set on 13 acres. In other words, it’s the ideal shell and it could be developed for a fraction of the 18 million Euro the European Union had set aside for the peace centre at the Maze.
Now obviously you would need local buy in from residents for Ormiston, but whether it’s there or not, the international mental health centre is a proper legacy project, that can unite our people, and give thousands of our citizens the hope they so badly need that their dark days can come to an end.
Over the coming days and weeks there will be debate about the relevance, cost and feasibility of Mike Nesbitt’s suggestion. Despite the UUP being in the Executive, it is unlikely that a DUP Health Minister would be willing to adopt someone else’s good idea before trying to rubbish it. But even if the idea is swiftly shelved, it will shine a light onto the figures that cannot be disproven: that the Troubles left a significant legacy of mental health issues.
Next Mike Nesbitt’s speech moved onto “responsible government”.
There is nothing responsible about reducing 80 year old women to tears because they think they are about to be thrown out of their care homes. There is nothing responsible about ignoring the Defamation Act that protects freedom of speech. There is responsible about OFMdFM mounting a power grab to take control of economic planning powers. In fact, it looks as if that power grab isn’t even legal.
There’s nothing responsible about denying our people, the people who live and work in Northern Ireland, the full protections of the National Crime Agency, especially when we are more aware than ever before that we have a problem with human trafficking.
There is nothing responsible about an irrational blood ban, or the Education Minister’s attempt to change the Common Funding Scheme in a way that will rob 80% of our primary schools of funds – money the head teachers tell me they need for the most vulnerable in their classrooms – including those with Special Educational Needs.
The UUP leader moved onto the economy.
Everybody, conference, needs hope. When I was a guest panellist at Féile an Phobail’s “West Belfast Talks Back” event this year, [listen again!] I was surprised by the reaction to my opening statement. I thought I was stating no more than the obvious by confirming that any unionist who thinks we are going back to old-style unionist Majority Rule is badly mistaken. Those days are over. In fact I said so in my speech to you this time last year and I happily repeat it if it helps. The future is about building a warm house for every section of our society. (delayed applause)
It means a society where we can all aspire equally to a better quality of life, to a higher standard of living, to be healthy and happy, and to have hope and to take pride – pride in who we are.
That is what I want, for my children, for your children, for the children of nationalists, republicans, or ethnic minorities. For everybody!
Northern Ireland’s average wage is £22,000 compared with £28,000 in Great Britain.
Having never heard it mentioned after it’s original outing, I was amazed to hear Mike Nesbitt resurrect the “net contributor” idea I first heard him air in a David Cameron-style no-notes speech delivered while Tom Elliott was still party leader at the 2011 UUP conference.
As I previously said to Conference, 100 years ago Titanic Belfast was the Silicone [sic] Valley of its day. We were global leaders in cutting-edge technology, admired and envied for all the right reasons. And in those days, we didn’t need a block grant or subvention from Westminster. We were net contributors to the finances of the UK Government. And I would love us to try to get back there again – just try – because even in the effort, we will transform how we view ourselves.
And yes, the printed and delivered speech did say “silicone” in a couple of places rather than “silicon”. It must be an enhanced policy to boost innovation!
I am talking about restoring ambition, determination, and above all, pride in who we are and what we do.
Part of his solution was to procure locally – something Belfast City Council committed to doing at the February 2012 launch of their Investment Programme: “targeting a rise from 10% to 60% of local [Belfast City] council spend with local suppliers by 2015”.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness travel the world seeking inward investment and quite right too! A sliver of any Chinese market is as much as we can handle.
But what is the easiest market to tap into today? It is our own £3 billion a year procurement budget! Between the NI Executive and our local councils, we have £3 billion a year to allocate. If you are looking for a pot of money to use to boost the local economy there’s no need to fly half-way across the world. The answer is on your doorstep and I have yet to meet a local business person who thinks we could not do more to sweat that budget to the advantage of our people.
Mike Nesbitt’s penultimate big idea was slightly incredulous. It offered ambition, but was such a non-starter I wonder how it was allowed to stay in his speech. He began by restating some of the issues with NI’s education system: high achievers as well as young people leaving school without qualifications; as well as the legacy of the decision to abolish the 11 Plus without an agreed way forward.
We want the Education Ministry. (applause)
Well you can’t have it. It’s Sinn Fein’s number one priority. It’s the ministry they pick first. From education all other dogma can flow. Next!
And if we get it we will not bring back the 11-Plus, because it asked the wrong question. It asked of a child, how intelligent are you? The right question of a child is in what ways are you intelligent, and how can we help you develop? Funny enough, the two guiding principles of Martin McGuinness’s Household Survey all those years ago were that each young person should be valued equally and all young people should be enabled to develop their talents to the full.
So we do agree when you strip away the ideology.
If you think Sinn Féin are not politicising the classroom, here’s two facts for you. The Department of Education spent £22,827 on a consultation on a strategy to tackle the problems so many of our children face with literacy and numeracy. In the same year, they consulted on a review of Irish-medium education, something of interest to comparatively few. Yet the Irish language consultation cost £46,448, over twice the cost of the literacy and numeracy review. That is wrong in any language.
Mike Nesbitt wants a “single education system”.
Give the Ulster Unionist Party responsibility for the Department of Education and we will start that process on day one. (applause) And that will be 100 years too late. The evidence is stark. Our first ever Education Minister, Lord Londonderry, wanted a Single Education System in the 1920s, but was thwarted.
45 years ago, the Belfast Telegraph published an opinion poll: 65% of young people wanted to end segregation in primary school education. 70% wanted secondary education to be mixed. That was 1968. How often will the mood of the people be ignored by those in charge?
At Conference last year, I said I wanted my leadership to tackle sectarianism, the toxic legacy of our Troubles. Educating our children together from the age of 4 will inoculate them against the poison of sectarianism. I can put it no more simply than that.
And I challenge the Catholic Church and all churches and all groups: tell me what your problem is with a Single Education System. I cannot see an issue we cannot resolve. If there is something that works for your sector, I want it for all of our children.
100 years ago, Edward Carson, James Craig and company came up with a covenant. That covenant was of its day. It had a specific purpose, and it was for a defined target audience, the pro-Union people of this island. So it was, if you like, exclusive in that it excluded the pro-United Ireland citizens of the island.
It is time for a new covenant. But this time, an inclusive one, one for everybody, Unionist, Nationalist, Republican. As leader of the Ulster Unionist Party I want to agree a new covenant with the people of Northern Ireland.
A covenant that recognises that we can do better for all our people by shaping a fairer education system, a stronger economy, better housing and a health service not only free at the point of delivery but with delivery points that are accessible and appropriate to the needs of our people.
As mentioned in an earlier post about Tom Elliott’s speech on RPA, Mike Nesbitt’s tone was upbeat on culture and identity.
I say this to the pro-Union community: it is time to get on the front foot. it’s time to be confident. But also to be generous, to demonstrate a generosity of spirit.
I am not the sort of Unionist who feels threatened by an Irish Tricolour. I subscribe to the paraphrase of the great poet John Hewitt, who talked of himself as an Ulsterman, as British, an Irishman, and European.
Think of it: Ulsterman, Irishman, British and European. It’s a much more complicated, but honest world view than the old orange / green, protestant / catholic. And it’s where I am.
I’m an Ulsterman. I am British – but I don’t want to miss out on the Irishness within me – the sort of Irishness which means I think very unchristian thoughts about the England rugby team in Dublin!
But I’m also British and proud to share that identity with the Asians and Africans and ethnic minorities around the United Kingdom.
And I am also European – and particularly when the Ryder Cup golf is on the television!
As a journalist pointed out afterwards, like a good news reporter, Mike Nesbitt summarised his main points at the end of his speech!
The speech was well delivered. No attacks on the media. Not a single mention of departed ex-colleagues.
After lunch – which included fringe events on increasing grammar/secondary school collaboration and the voice of victims – a much diminished audience returned to hear the new Labour shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis deliver his first major speech, less than two weeks into his new role. He was remarkably confident and sure-footed, and also answered (pre-prepared) questions from delegates without notes. I’ll post about his speech later in the week.
In a piece of theatre that nearly out-Nelsoned Nelson McCausland, the UUP conference finished with music from the Major Sinclair Memorial Pipe Band, some Scottish Dancing, and the National Anthem.
If the DUP want to better this cultural display, they’ll need to book the Red Hot Chilli Pipers immediately for November!