#UUP2014 conference review & audio: “We want Fermanagh South Tyrone … we can win the Westminster seat”

07 Mike NesbittAround 300 people filled the Ramada Hotel venue, marginally younger than previous years, and during the morning extra chairs had to be brought in to add a couple more back rows.

It’s clear that the UUP have internally stabilised and while they emphasised their growth in the local government election, it’s not clear yet that their “shrink to grow” policy has come to fruition. Westminster candidates Jo-Anne Dobson (Upper Bann) and Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) were showcased. Both spoke confidently, with Danny in particular sounding like a minister in the making.

Every year there is a reduction in the political capital stored up in the “heavy lifting” of the peace process. In his leader’s speech, Mike Nesbitt mixed confident auto-cue delivery with more relaxed delivery standing out front. Themes of delivering for victims and acknowledging the military emerged, no doubt with the next elections in mind.

Mike Nesbitt prepared the party faithful for an electoral pact in May, suggesting that the DUP take a run at East North Belfast alone and leave the UUP to campaign in Fermanagh & South Tyrone. (Lynda Bryans was prominent at the conference venue but there were no direct references to her electability from the platform.) No mention all day of UKIP, the TUV … or NI21.

However the unspoken elephant in the room is the potential double election in May 2015 if the DUP and Sinn Féin allow Stormont to collapse. It would be in the interests of the largest two parties to combine Westminster and Assembly polls on the one day, and privately senior UUP figures were analysing the potential impact.

Mike Nesbitt started his leadership two and a half years ago in the very same hotel venue saying it would take two election cycles for the party to recover. He’s cracked the stabilisation, but he’ll require more than growth simply earned on the back of a pact to launch the UUP into the future. Is the ambition (and financial injection) of being back at Westminster worthy enough to achieve it by the back door? A two seat deal for one term is a simple negotiating position that the DUP may find palatable. But it brings none of the long-term sustainability that Mike Nesbitt craves – and needs – for the party.

One welcome innovation at the conference was the #CoffeeClub room with free tea, coffee, sweets and fruit from Loaf Catering and Stratagem. A series of fringe events and talks ran in parallel with the official conference sessions, including reflections on how the NI peace process can be exported, unlocking social enterprise, community arts, reflecting on the Scottish referendum result and asking whether the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in NI needs to change or die.

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After an opening prayer, chairman of the UUP Lord Empey welcomed the party members and observers to the annual conference.

While there was no mention of Councillor Bob Stoker who defected last week to UKIP, Lord Empey was “delighted to see that we have begun our revival in the capital city” and singled out “long serving Alderman Jim Rodgers” who had “received the highest personal vote in all of the Greater Belfast area by any candidate”.

Minister for Regional Development Danny Kennedy delivered the first major speech of the morning, beginning by drawing attention to 2014 being his fortieth “consecutive” year “as a proud member” of the party.

He surmised:

Things have just got a whole lot tougher at the Executive. Money is tight and political games are being played more than ever. More than ever we are witnessing the politics of the playground. We are now very clearly in direct competition with DUP/SF party political decisions and SF/DUP deals. And we are in direct competition with their joint and shared party political interests. We have never said never about withdrawing from the Executive. Our Party stance is in support of an official opposition.

Danny’s humour was evidence as he joked about the “two new faces” around the Executive table, first referring back to last year’s new faces.

One of those you will remember raised a few eyebrows – some questioned his experience and competence – his ability even to follow on from his predecessor. The other many on the inside knew would grow into the role – and prove his worth – and those on the inside are being proved right – Mark H isn’t doing a bad job.

The Finance minister – Simon “Wonga” Hamilton – picked up a nickname for his arrangement of a “payday loan” that has led to MLAs wishing that Sammy Wilson was back in charge of money now that

… you have handed that role over to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne now has final sign off on our finances and you gave it to him.

Though it’s a bit rich to talk about the “politics of the playground” at the start of a speech and then continue to name call … with references to “John ‘so what’ O’Dowd”.

Returning to this year’s “two new boys – Wells and Storey” he summed up the DUP reshuffle as “two new faces but no new ideas”.

The strapline for conference, printed on the lectern for the benefit of the TV cameras is “Doing What’s Right for Northern Ireland”.

Danny Kennedy said “the public in Northern Ireland are not getting the best possible outcomes from the resources we have”.

uup2014 young and oldDespite the challenging Executive environment, the DRD minister was keen to list progress in his areas of responsibility: A2 and A8 (with Europe “footing a significant part of the bill”); A26 in North Antrim and the Magherafelt bypass; the Millennium Way; replacement programmes for the Rathlin and Strangford ferry services.

NI finances are out of balance between capital investment and funding for resource.

That means my capital budget for “new street lights” remains but I have had my resource budget to repair existing lights decimated. I have capital funds which I can use to re-surface roads – but a smash and grab by Executive cuts on my resource budget leaves me restricted when it comes to resource funding to repair potholes.

That said, we are Ulster Unionists –we are problem solvers –and we are resourceful and we are creative –and we will deliver the best possible service to the public with what we have at our disposal.

He was disappointed that his proposal to extend the salary sacrifice taxsmart scheme to include rail travel was blocked by the Department of Finance last year.

The Department of Finance has blocked me having that conversation –and failed to progress the issue themselves. We have many users of taxsmart on our buses in Northern Ireland –but my ambition is to see many more. If you work you may be eligible and why not make public transport journeys even cheaper.

Remember it is the Ulster Unionist Party – that is growing public transport and passenger numbers in Northern Ireland. Last year’s record figures – I can say – six months into this financial year –will be broken again over this twelve month period. And that is without additional services –and yet there is news on that too –we will have greater frequency on a number of weekend rail services by the end of this year. We are making public transport more reliable and less reliant on the public purse.

He also spoke at length about sustainable transport options, beginning recursively: “we are making a sustainable option more sustainable”.

It is not just our buses that are doing well – our railways are on course to see 3 million plus more passengers by the end of this financial year and a 30% plus increase during the time we have been responsible for transport …

The Belfast transport hub – this Party is bringing forward – using the design team who did such a tremendous job at Kings Cross – will not just benefit public transport users – it will act as a catalyst for regeneration for the surrounding area. And we have secured over 3 million from the European Union towards that project too.

Flooded residents in South Belfast got a specific mention:

We remember what happened in Belfast in 2008 and again in 2012. And although large drainage schemes – like those we are progressing – the multi-million pound next phase of the Glenmachan Scheme –will improve capacity and flood resilience. Not all good initiatives cost huge sums. Sustainable drainage solutions are commonplace across Europe and can make a positive difference for homeowners in improving flood resilience. I have asked Northern Ireland Water to engage with residents in risk areas to explore and develop opportunities for pilot sustainable drainage solutions.

Back to transport and cycling:

… cycling is one of the cheapest forms of transport. It helps tackle social exclusion and helps access to employment and services. It makes a huge positive impact on public health – not least in Copenhagen where 215 million [Ed – Euros?] is saved each year on healthcare because the population cycles …

So we as a Party embarked on promoting a cycling revolution in Northern Ireland. Only this week we hosted a cycling conference in Belfast to help sell our message. We heard from the cream of cycling experts. From the developers of greenways in Mayo to transport for London engineers, from Dutch experts and Danish campaigners.

And they were all agreed on one important ambition –that Belfast and Northern Ireland has the potential to become the cycling capital of both the UK and of this island. And that is our ambition –an Ulster Unionist ambition.

It may take 25 years to complete …

… yes it’s a long term plan – and I accept by the time the full benefit is realised – I will probably been in a care home. Unless of course [the] health minister has closed them all by then!

Danny Kinahan proposed a motion on Skills and Education for a Modern Economy with contributions from councillors, members and MLAs.

Jo-Anne Dobson spoke to a motion about Why the Health Service is Important to Northern Ireland. Veteran Andy Allen received a standing ovation after his speech – and was moved up to the front of the hall during the leader’s speech to be greeted at the end with the cameras rolling.

Jim Nicholson was upbeat about his Euro election result and introduced Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness who was hoping to pick up a few tips about longevity from Jim.

A series of new “super councillors” popped up in-between the main slots. If fell to Lagan Valley councillor Alexander Redpath to introduce party leader Mike Nesbitt who walked up the aisle with wife Lynda Bryans to strains of Halo by Go Swim.

Mike Nesbitt’s speech began with some ad lobbing in front of the lectern, getting a cheer out of the delegates and reflecting on electoral successes and acknowledging situations were running two candidates had led to failure.

To illustrate a section in the talk about dealing with “the past, and the present and the future” he told a oft-repeated story about one widow’s experience of the Historical Enquiries Team. Initially reluctant to know the results of their investigation, she gave in and discovered that her husband’s death had been less instantaneous and more painful than she had believed for thirty years.

Sometimes, there are things some people are better off not knowing.

So, as we enter fresh talks that include Dealing with the Past, I hope we do what the Haass process failed to do – answer the three key questions. One, can we agree a common definition of what we mean by dealing with the past. Two, for whose benefit do we want to deal with the past? Is it for the victims and survivors, incident by incident? Or to enable society to move on? Because these are not necessarily parallel paths, as became clear through the anger of victims when the Attorney General suggested we draw a line and move on.

I do not support an amnesty, because even though there is little prospect of any more convictions at this stage, it does occasionally happen. RUC Officer John Proctor’s murderer was convicted last year, 32 years after the event. It’s rare and victims know it’s rare, but there is the world of difference between having a little hope and government cruelly extinguishing that hope entirely.

And the third question is this: Do we want to deal with the past, or its legacy? Because we cannot change the past, but we can tackle the legacy. The legacy is toxic and infiltrates every aspect of our lives. And one of the biggest poisons – as I said at Conference last year – is our massive problem of poor mental health and wellbeing.

Northern Ireland needs to “turn the past into a means of creating a better future”.

So, we can transform our society. We can transform our communities. We can transform lives for the better. And the social economy has a huge role to play.

Except too many politicians don’t get areas of life like the social economy. They are obsessed with an old-fashioned, binary approach to everything we do. In economics, it has to be private or public sector. Politics has to be orange or green. It has to be win or lose.

No it doesn’t Conference. No, it doesn’t. Life is three-dimensional. Embrace the challenge and the beauty of complexity.

Mike Nesbitt asked whether “we can collectively commit to tackle the Legacy of our Past in a way that helps transform the wellbeing and prosperity of our people”.

Richard Haass proposed a series of expensive new legacy bodies. He did so with a focus on Human Rights, but it was an approach that did not consider what we can afford. A Human Rights approach must be tempered by a resource-based approach, because our resources are not infinite – and we have to stop failing victims by building up their expectations, only to dash them because we cannot afford to deliver. Today, the HET is now gone, and the Police Ombudsman is now knocking doors to tell families “Remember I promised you an investigation? Well, sorry, I don’t have the resources to deliver”.

Tit for tat politics was not good enough.

People are eager for something a bit more imaginative. Something that reflects their lives as they live them – in multiple dimensions. Within a five mile radius of this venue [Ramada Hotel in Shaws Bridge] you will find Muslims who call themselves British. Muslims who call themselves Irish. You may even find the occasional Irish unionist – remember, Sir Edward Carson himself was a Dublin born unionist.

One more example. We – unionists – tend to look with a jaundiced eye on the influence the United States brings to bear on our affairs. Is that a surprise, Conference. Gerry Adams has been lobbying the United States for 20 years, and John Hume for 20 years before that. What have we done?

What have we done to remind America that when they needed a Constitution, the Ulster Scots helped write it, print it, and design the Eagle that flies above it? When they needed to defend Texas, we sent them Davy Crockett. When they needed a bank to fire their industrial revolution, we sent them the Mellon family. When they needed a great President, we sent them many – Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and a dozen more. When they wanted to land a man on the Moon, we sent them Neil Armstrong. It is time to awaken the power of the Ulster Scots. We have some catching up to do. And we have started.

It was also time to stop “negativity” being the political default position.

UUP2014 audience from the backReflecting on the Scottish referendum:

The Scottish Independence debate should make us think deep about our politics. For decades, policy makers in London and Dublin have peddled a type of snake oil – a geopolitical snake oil – called the Irish dimension. At its core is the myth that because Ireland is an island, a united Ireland is inevitable.

Conference, Geography is not destiny. Geography does not determine political outcomes. Yes, Geography says Ireland is an island. But No! It does not say the whole island has to be one state – any more than geography says the Iberian Peninsula should be a single political entity, so Portugal and Spain have to somehow merge. Geography does not dictate our destiny. We do!

I want us to prosper. If we are, we need to refocus on economic growth. For two years now, we have debated Welfare Reform, not prosperity. Let me deal with Welfare Reform first. Does the Ulster Unionist Party believe in a compassionate state that looks after its vulnerable? Yes we do … Although as a society, we fall short too often. We fail victims and survivors of the Troubles. We fail victims of child sex abuse like Kincora. We fail our Armed Forces and Veterans.

But yes, this Party supports and values the concept of a Welfare State. Is the Welfare system as good as it can be? As fair as it can be? … This Party is clear. Bring Welfare Reform to the floor of the Assembly. We are waiting with our amendments. Everyone knows what we are going to change – we’ll make it fairer, we’ll shape it to best fit the needs of our people. That’s the whole point of Devolution!

The debate over whether or not there is to be Welfare Reform is over. That happened at Westminster! It’s high time the Assembly had the debate on what we are going to do differently from Westminster ….. and move on.

On the £100 loan from the Treasury …

Last week, the SF/DUP Coalition surrendered control of our affairs to Mr George Osborne’s Pawn Shop. Be in no doubt, our Finance Minister isn’t Simon Hamilton anymore. It’s George Osborne, the Chancellor. And the DUP accused us of a pact with the Tories! …

The terms and conditions of the Chancellor’s loan are explicit in his letter. The DUP and Sinn Féin have signed up to the Welfare Reform penalties of £87 million this year and £114 million next. We’re £100 million better off this year, but £301 million worse off next year. It makes a Wonga pay deal look pretty damn generous!

Mike Nesbitt said “if we cannot balance our books, there is nothing more to discuss … so let us do it, but with good grace”.

He pitched his vision for unionists and Northern Ireland:

I want Unionists who are positive and progressive. Unionists who are reconnected with their work ethic.

Unionists rediscovering how the world admired our abilities in service and sacrifice, dedication and determination, invention, and inclusion of others – values that are endless and endlessly positive.

I stand for a Northern Ireland that starts generating serious wealth. They say money can’t buy you happiness, but far too many of our citizens are neither wealthy nor happy. I want people to have the opportunity to experience both.

Party member and Army veteran Andy Allen had addressed the conference during the health debate about the Military Covenant. Mike Nesbitt said that “every Ulster Unionist Candidate for next year’s General Election will pledge that, if elected, they will bring forward as soon as they possibly can, a Private Member’s Bill to introduce the Military Covenant in Northern Ireland”.

You also chose to serve your country by joining the Army. You put yourself in harm’s way to defend this country’s values, and got badly hurt. I am humbled you have joined the Ulster Unionist Party on my watch. I am delighted you see your have decided your next phase of public service is through political engagement …

Andy, a little challenge for you. I want you at Stormont – as an MLA – as an inspiration and role model for people with disabilities. As a man with public service in his DNA. You may not be able to fight on foreign fields any more. But you can fight for your colleagues in the Assembly Chamber and Committee Rooms of Stormont.

On racism:

We have been blighted with sectarianism for decades. We now have the added problem of race hate. Given how the Polish nation stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the Second World War, it is beyond wrong that members of our Polish community – as with any ethnic minority – are being subject to race-hate attacks. That is a perversion of our shared past. We are in the early stages of this process, Conference, but I want your support to secure a memorial to the Poles who lost their lives in the War and are buried here in Northern Ireland. This Party wishes to show respect to our Polish community – and all our ethnic minorities.

Looking to the future:

As to the future, I see good things for this Party and great potential for Northern Ireland. The key is changing the way we do politics. We need an Official Opposition at Stormont more than ever before, and these Talks present the opportunity to make the case in a formal setting.

We need a shift from silo-mentality government where Departments don’t work together – and the fix is easy. After the next Assembly Election, agree the Programme for Government before you divide up the Ministries. We proposed it in 2011 without success, but the logic is gaining critical support.

07a Applauding Mike NesbittAnd as the speech finished Mike Nesbitt turned to the candidates and pacts for Westminster election:

I want us to build on our stability, discipline and teamwork. I want us to build on our successes last May and focus on our next key electoral goal – the Ulster Unionist Party back into the House of Commons.

For those who think we always select our candidates far too late into the cycle, can I ask you, Conference, to please acknowledge our Westminster candidates for Upper Bann and South Antrim, Jo-Anne Dobson and Danny Kinahan. We are on course to have all our candidates in place before the calendar year is out …

The DUP lost East Belfast last time out. There is a real danger they could lose North Belfast next time, and that could leave Belfast, the capital city of this great country without any unionist representation in the House of Commons.

That is not acceptable. That is a danger that should galvanise unionism. That is a prospect that should, and has activated our commitment to Do What’s Right for Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist Party is prepared to support the DUP in north Belfast, because it is the right thing to do for unionism. But in return, we expect them to support us in trying to return the most westerly constituency in the Kingdom to unionist control.

We want Fermanagh South Tyrone. We had a mighty result last May in Fermanagh South Tyrone. We can win the Westminster seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

The speech finished with Mike Nesbitt stepping out to the front of the stage:

Let us set our sights on ensuring that when Northern Ireland’s Centenary comes around in 2021, the Ulster Unionist Party is back where it was at the beginning – Leading – Delivering a Fairer Future for All. Doing what’s right for Northern Ireland.

After lunch the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers addressed party members. The themes of her speech were familiar from previous years and previous conferences.

She said that it was “an auspicious time as we embark on negotiations designed to make Stormont work better and tackle the issues that are holding Northern Ireland back”.

The UUP was credited for its “long and distinguished record of doing the right thing for Northern Ireland” and “the courageous role you played in securing the political settlement which has transformed life here for the better”.

UCUNF got a sideways mention:

In that effort to build a better future, over the years your party and mine have often stood side-by-side, as we did at the General Election in 2010. You’ll probably be relieved to hear that I’m not here to dwell on the history of that project!

Theresa Villiers said that “the Government made a realistic assessment that the time was right for new round of cross party talks to be convened” and implicitly referenced the DUP’s no show at the plenary session.

These began on Thursday and I very much welcome the fact that Mike Nesbitt and his team were there as full participants in the discussions, ensuring that the voice of Ulster Unionism was heard loud and clear.

She emphasised the limited involvement of the Irish Government in the talks.

As one of the signatories to the Belfast Agreement and its successors, there will be some issues in the discussions that directly involve the Irish Government. And I welcome the support of Charlie Flanagan and his team in this process. But under this Government those talks will remain faithful to the three stranded approach that has worked in the past. That means that Northern Ireland’s internal arrangements remain exclusively matters for the political parties here and for the UK Government.

On spending and the block grant:

Here in Northern Ireland spending reductions that the Executive has faced since the 2010 spending review have been around 1% a year in real terms. That is far lower than the reductions faced elsewhere in government.

Public spending per head here remains roughly a quarter higher than the UK average. So the argument that the block grant has been slashed or that Northern Ireland is being unfairly treated is plainly wrong.

But with upward pressure in health spending ever present, even relatively small budget reductions mean that hard choices need to be made to ensure the public sector works more efficiently so resources can be focused on the front line services we all value so much.

On the past:

… legacy matters which can so often embitter community relations and damage the political relationships which are crucial to making the devolved institutions work. Disputes over flags, parades and the past are consuming ever increasing amounts of time and resources. I fully appreciate how very difficult and sensitive these issues are for members of this party and for many across Northern Ireland.

So I give you this assurance. At the last election our manifesto made clear the politically motivated violence … from whatever side it came … was never justified and we will not be party to a re-write of history that gives it any spurious legitimacy.

 I stand by those words. But at the same time I believe there are huge benefits for Northern Ireland if an agreed way forward can be found on how we tackle the legacy of the past.

Crucially, this would provide the chance to develop a balanced, transparent and accountable approach, one that has objectivity and historical accuracy as a golden thread running through all its work and which puts the interests of victims at its heart. So I would urge this party and all others to engage with seriousness and determination on these matters.

The Secretary of State finished her speech saying:

We face a number of really serious and difficult tasks ahead. I’m determined to play my part in efforts to face up to them and overcome them. So too is the Prime Minister who cares passionately about Northern Ireland.

Amongst the questions from the audience, UUP members asked about Conservative support for Stormont opposition should structural reform be agreed in the current talks; whether there was any more flexibility around welfare reform; and the government’s ongoing support for devolution of corporation tax.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.