PUP party conference sees opportunities, but can they seize them?

The Progressive Unionist Party gathered in Clandeboye Lodge Hotel outside Bangor for its annual party conference. Around a hundred delegates packed the room. You can listen back to the full day of speeches, panels and motions.

Attendance was strong with around 100 delegates – members, associates, critical friends and media – packed into the room along with a number of elephants which were hidden and left unreferenced. The statement from some loyalist groups expected next week was not trailed. Neither was last week’s sentence that “the UDA are still in existence and won’t be leaving any stage whilst republicans of any faction still exist” found at the end of an article in a South Belfast UPRG/UDA magazine a subject for discussion.

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Many younger members helped propose the eclectic bunch of motions, though some need to overcome the fear that prevents them going up and speaking from the podium at the front. Gone this year were the cries of woe over the treatment of bands, and the beating of breasts about the constraint of loyalist culture was much diminished compared with the last couple of conferences.

The PUP have clearly improved their capacity to run a political party. Winning seats in an Assembly election will be a tougher challenge, though a total focus on two or three candidates could give the larger parties a run for their money for fifth or sixth seats in some constituencies.

In the PUP’s favour, there’s a directness and an instinct to work with partners and compromise that should serve them well, particularly on Belfast council. But slung round the party’s neck and holding it back is the unquestionable shadow of the UVF with its seemingly never-ending process of demilitarisation and normalisation. Until that impairment is finally and convincingly removed, many voters will be deterred from giving the PUP a high enough preference to help elect their candidates.

Visiting panellists were treated respectfully and there was good humour, even when the Chief Constable delivered home truths. The party’s elected members and spokespeople should remember their deputy leader’s words of advice on how to treat their political foes and how to conduct decent debate. Not always speaking ill of ‘the other’ would start to set the PUP apart from many other unionists and might accentuate the P for Progressive in their party name.

Seizing the electoral opportunities will require leadership from both inside and outside the PUP …

– – –

Councillor John Kyle (PUP deputy leader) message to the party faithful was that “these are days of opportunity”.

It’s hard to think of a time when there was greater disillusionment with politics. Stormont is constipated. The budget deficit is growing. Health service waiting lists are escalating … Trust between politicians has hit a new low. But it’s a time of tremendous opportunity for the PUP. People are looking for something different, fresh, fair and progressive. A new type of politics. This is our opportunity. We’re not obliged to following in the footsteps of other unionist parties … historically we haven’t … and we can plough our own furrow.

He reminded delegates that the PUP must always be conscious of the fact that it’s in the service of the people.

Our opportunity today and in the year ahead is to do politics that is characterised by honesty, decency and always democratically. Our policies are important: we have built up a portfolio of excellent, relevant policies.

Dehumanising those with whom we disagree makes progress less likely and compounds our problems. There’s a world of difference between robust and forthright political debate and gratuitous disrespect … We need to build partnerships: cooperation creates solutions. It’s not weakness or rolling over. It’s getting the business done for the benefit of our people.

The councillor for Titanic ward said that “the challenges Northern Ireland faces are complex”. He spoke about the party’s Firm Foundations report on educational underachievement and said that resolution of the issue requires “different players to work together”.

He listed many of the current political hot potatoes: issues around poverty, mental health, welfare reform, and budget deficit amongst others . “No party can solve these issues on its own”. Settlement “requires mature political action on behalf of the common good”.

The party’s training officer Billy Mawhinney briefed delegates on proposals to tighten up the party structure and rules, including the publication of a pocket and handbag-sized A6 party handbook.

A motion on mental health provisions in Northern Ireland was proposed by Councillor Julie-Anne Corr Johnston. Philip Lynn introduced a motion critical of the Trade Union Bill (though noted that employment law is a devolved issue and the DEL minister has no plans to extend this legislation to NI). ICTU’s Peter Bunting briefed the delegates on some of the facts to keep in their back pockets when discussing welfare reform down the pub. He also exhorted the party to return to marching in the May Day Rally on behalf of the protestant working class and to ignore their anxieties about plough and stars flags and the “éirígí head bangers”.

Prof Kieran McEvoy addressed the conference before Malachi O’Doherty chaired a panel of PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, victims campaigner Jude Whyte and Tom Roberts from the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre. Following their opening statements, delegates posed questions.

The comments by the Chief Constable broadly reflected his remarks on stage at Féile’s event in August with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

He challenged loyalist concerns about one-sided policing by reminding delegates that out of the 104 paramilitary cases that were with the HET for full investigation, 69 were for republican activities, and 35 attributed to loyalists.

Mentioning the Boston Tapes:

I’m not going to ignore the fact there’s a source of evidence or intelligence that we need to pursue … the Police [should be] unfettered by statistics … it’s called playing with a straight bat.

The Chief Constable said “I’m going to do all that I can to support those who are seeking answers … but I’m not going to do anything to compound people’s expectations” about promising answers and timeframes that cannot be delivered.

Sometimes it feels like broader society places everything about dealing with the past at the Police Service’s door.

The PSNI would continue to play their part to deliver a workable Stormont House Agreement. But the solution was larger than the police.

There is no doubt that our society would benefit from a collective acknowledgement of the pain of our past and a shared commitment that it will never happen again.

Asked by Malachi whether he felt uncomfortable sitting in a room with people who had paramilitary involvement and had handled weapons, the Chief Constable said “no”. He would continue to engage with people who he previously would have locked up, but warned them that he had a statutory duty to investigate and there could still be a day when police officers would turn up at their doors.

Jude Whyte was well received by the PUP delegates as he spoke of his experience of loss during the Troubles and his difficulty in forming meaningful relationships with unionists. Laughter erupted when he suggested that “You’ll know it’s over when George and I are in Casement Park having a pint [and watching a GAA match]”.

EPIC’s director Tom Roberts spoke of the work with prisoners, the ‘standing’ in government of former prisoners, and gave a “gloomy” assessment of the political “unchartered water” NI is currently navigating. He disagreed with the Chief Constable’s evaluation of that “it’s not always clear to me what the loyalist position is on issues”. George Hamilton went on to suggest that loyalism should try:

… standing up, opening your mouth and letting the words come out.

George Hamilton was initially reluctant to answer Malachi’s question on the status of the UVF and whether they were still in existence “bristling with arms and a danger to the peace”? He explained that the Secretary of State’s initiative would publish next week and that it was still being drafted,. However, he eventually went on to – “without prejudice” – suggest:

I do not see the senior leadership of the UVF as being involved in sanctioning criminality or wreaking havoc in communities. There would be some suggestion even just looking at the actions of people on the streets that they are doing their best around interface tensions, around parade and protest issues. But that said regarding the leadership – and these become very blurred lines – there are key leaders that appear to be out of line with the corporate leadership of these organisations. There are individuals peppered throughout the organisation, and even some groups within some areas that there’s a real dissonance, a disconnect between what the apparent intentions of the UVF at a senior level would be and the actions at street level. Around criminality, around punishment attacks: very often unadulterated extreme child abuse.

In contrast with republican paramilitary groups …

… there does seem within loyalist paramilitaries generally – not just UVF – it seems to be a more disaggregated, less cohesive set of organisations. I’m not making any judgement on that, it’s simply an observation and something we’ve commented on in the past.

The Chief Constable reminded PUP delegates that the police could arrest if they had “reasonable grounds to suspect” and that they could “obtain evidence by questioning”. When the arrest of “Mr Adams” was mentioned the police chief explained that the extended questioning (for four days) had involved persuading a court judge that this action was valid.

If I didn’t have confidence in the PUP and its intention, its bona fides to try to take loyalism in a positive direction, do you think I’d be spending my Saturday morning here? Absolutely not. The reason that I’m here is because I want to work with you to help build a more safe, peaceful and confident society.

With proceedings overrunning, Billy Hutchinson’s speech as party leader was postponed until after lunch.

This is the fifth time I have stood before you as leader of the Party; it has been challenging, personally and collectively, but I think we have moved forward together, embracing those challenges and forging ahead in the right direction. I can see some new faces, testament to an influx in membership that has broadened the party in capacity, geography and outlook; and of course I am glad to note the not so new faces who have steadfastly remained the backbone of this Party through our inevitable ups and downs …

So conference where do we find ourselves? Last year I stood before you as time ticked by on what was to become the Stormont House Agreement. Rehashed from Richard Haass’ efforts the year before, Flags, Parades and the Past had been joined by welfare reform and the overall suitability of the institutions; a full agenda crying out for imagination from our ambivalent Government. Gladly the march of progress has dealt swiftly with those issues and we are all the better for it. Or maybe not.

So the calendar may have changed but those issues remain unresolved and with that lack of accomplishment so dissolved any residual confidence left in the institutions; disillusionment with the process is now firmly in the mainstream. Last year’s key issues stubbornly remain, indeed now we have the addition of republican murder on the streets, the continuing existence of the IRA, the NAMA debacle, a hokey-cokey executive and all of it is underpinned by an obvious lack of confidence that our governing Parties can adequately address any of the above.

Last year I cautioned that there appeared no genuine desire to deal with the matters at hand. How could there be when Loyalists looked on from the side- lines, whilst issues like legacy and parades were discussed behind closed doors? It is clear to all of us, that any workable resolution to these deeply divisive issues, would require Loyalist buy in and delivery. Our lack of inclusion, we can only conclude therefore, is reflective of the other Parties lack of desire for success.

What we had then, and what continues to this day, is the politics of the wheel barrow – everything gets pushed ahead, just out of reach but blocking the way forward – but so long as the issues are heaved beyond the next election, the executive parties are satisfied and mandates are renewed.

What we need, what the long suffering and justifiably frustrated people of this country need, is a genuine, honest approach to dealing with the issues. We have just heard a debate on legacy; about the past, victims and the impact all of it may have on our ability as a society to positively face the future. This is too important a topic to be used for politicking. I could submit a proposal that aims to address every Loyalist bug bear in the process. I could outline an agenda where Loyalists selfishly structure an approach to the past that suits our needs above all else. But that would not serve society nor enrich the common good.

So our stated position is an honest one and it is well rehearsed. We believe none of the parties are in a position to drive the process of reconciliation or set the framework for dealing with legacy issues. Each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have contributed to division, and an approach to legacy issues that depends on party political objectives is destined to fail the people who need it most.

But that is what we have at present; a process where victims are used as chess pieces, wielded shamelessly to score points on the past; their expectations cruelly raised only to be dashed when they’ve outlived their electoral usefulness – and both sides are guilty of this.

Sinn Fein by their revisionist attempt to shirk any culpability for the conflict, seek from this process a better past for themselves at the expense of a better future for us all. The relentless caucus of republican satellite groups whose myopia sees only on the state and so called collusion, follow an agenda aimed not at justice, but on retrospective justification of the IRA for its resultant windfall to Sinn Fein’s southern electoral fortunes.

On the other side, Unionist politicians are making commitments they simply cant keep, promising justice where none may be achievable. Political parties need to be honest about their motivations and realistic about expectations when dealing with legacy issues. The HET trawled somewhere in the region of 1600 cold cases and whilst heavily resourced and heavily financed, achieved just four convictions.

How hopeful should any victim be for their day in court when the HIU assumes the remit of the HET, albeit with less manpower and a fraction of its funding. And if we are to raise fragile expectations and destabilise this not yet stable political firmament, what value can truly be seen in these proposed changes.

And I fear also conference that Loyalism may once again become the whipping boy of the process. The Sinn Fein created industry aimed at undermining the state role in the conflict will come face to face with state agencies keen to protect what it feels is the national interest. And Loyalists, isolated, will again pay the heaviest price, effectively shouldering blame for a conflict our community neither wanted nor deserved.

And conference I say that without paranoia because time and again it has been supported by the facts. And I have no doubt that we will see evidence of it again this week again with the forthcoming report on paramilitary activity.

Two republican murders, involving a direct link to a Party of Government, have contributed to the current political crisis but you can rest assured that the report on paramilitary activity will concentrate every bit as much on Loyalism. The purported actions of Loyalists will offer cloud cover to diffuse the focus on Sinn Fein and serve as the fig leaf covering the DUPs apparently robust position on sharing government with republicans.

Because lets be honest, we had to endure the feigned shock of politicians, journalists and commentators to this supposed revelation that the IRA are still in existence and are heavily involved in crime. It was no surprise to me, nor I’m sure anyone here. The surprise for me has been the wilful ignorance of those who heard no evil, saw no evil and obviously reported no evil for so long. And that position is in stark contrast to the treatment of Loyalism; criminalised at every turn, subjected to a constant torrent of abuse, dehumanised and marginalised.

And what are the facts? Notwithstanding previous headline events like the Northern bank raid, the most senior leaders of the IRA have been charged and convicted of criminal acts conservatively valued at hundreds of millions of pounds. The evasion of excise duty, mortgage fraud, profiting from illegal waste, international criminal money laundering conspiracy, the list is long, varied and of very high value.

But the chattering classes view of republicanism is unchanged; republicans aren’t involved in crime and the butterflies have all flown away. The logical fallacy proffered by Sinn Fein that the IRA don’t exist, so the IRAs actions can’t then be, of the IRA, surely has now been fatally exposed. Contrast that to the constant flow of low-level criminal tittle tattle and innuendo thrown at Loyalism, and the result is that despite the facts, the official line sees Loyalism and crime as synonymous while republicanism and crime remain alien concepts.

Conference, we are realists and simply going away has not ever been a realistic option. The process of transforming this conflict was never going to be an event, and always destined to be a process. And processes move incrementally, dependent on mood, opportunity and circumstance, in fits and in starts. But we have witnessed a very lopsided attempt to help navigate this process to its successful conclusion.

Republicans have been cheer-led by three governments, a judicial system, the Police and a compliant media; each eager to ensure their version of the process remains on track. Yet Loyalists have been criminalised; the primary focus of the Police, the HET and a super grass system, widely discredited but resuscitated from its demise in the 80s; the actions of the state and its agencies a bitter impediment to Loyalist transformation at each and every turn.

Like much else, if we are to address the continuing existence of paramilitaries we need to do so with honesty and integrity. We need to do so by recognising the problem and potentially by collectively delivering a genuine and structured demobilisation plan. I have no doubt that Loyalists would positively engage with such a plan. I am heartened to see the good work of Loyalist former combatants and activists adding value to our communities on a daily basis. Through groups like ACT, NI Alternatives and EPIC, the process of transformation and reintegration is being pursued with sincerity, energy and vision. From the Brooke ceasefire in 1991 to the present day, Loyalism has shown leadership and freely taken the steps necessary for the greater good. I have the utmost faith, that in the very near future, Loyalism can be relied upon to rise to the challenge once again.
And as all of these issues occupy the political arena, everyday politics is all but shelved, and it is the people who suffer most from the resulting political stalemate. As Sinn Fein play their cross border bluff with welfare reform, the penalties go up and the people suffer. As the DUP play revolving ministers, key decisions are missed and the people suffer. As inept ministers preside over chaotic departments, public finances are squandered and ultimately the people suffer.

These are not new issues or recent problems. Again we have had reported this week the shocking levels of educational underachievement, especially amongst working class Protestant pupils. For over twenty years this Party has been pointing out the problem and offering our thoughts on the solution. But solutions need resourced, challenges need faced, vision needs shown and we seem to be lacking all of the above.

My colleague John Kyle spearheaded a report into this very problem a few months ago and delivered a plan with very concrete proposals aimed at tackling this hope and aspiration-limiting obstacle for our young people. Clear and sensible policies that would expand early years, empower parents, incentivise teaching excellence and finally address the millstone issue of academic selection.

Much of this is neither prohibitively expensive nor politically contentious but the inaction that has met it is letting generations of our young people down and consigning their potential to chance. Things cannot continue like this; the future is too valuable a commodity to be left in the hands of those whose focus lies in government, not in governing.

Last year at conference I submitted this Party’s support for a new system of Government; a move by the Assembly toward voluntary coalition. Today I renew that call. We need change; we need the system shaken up and formed in the image of successful institutions where delivery is the rule not the exception.

Almost forty years ago we formulated a policy of Sharing Responsibility; we envisaged a system of Government where our traditional divisions could be recognised but where they would not be entrenched into a system of Government that created ministerial fiefdoms and executive hegemony. Where Government business would be scrutinised by departmental committee, headed by a Chair who would reflect rather than preside; a system of Government much like that successfully operating for decades in Councils across the province.

Today we remain convinced that by Sharing Responsibility, we could have avoided many of the pitfalls seen with the selfish division of power. The institutions envisaged in the Belfast Agreement were a compromise, agreed at a time and place when an honourable outcome was needed and stability was demanded. But the system was never designed to last forever; it was a temporary measure to deal with a contemporary problem. And just like the devolution of justice or an extension of fiscal responsibility, the institutions always had the capacity to mature for best practice.

So in that context, and with executive party talks on-going, we again propose that full consideration be given to a voluntary coalition, scrutinised by an official opposition. Confidence in the institutions is at a depressing low, and without change, Stormont risks moving from a crisis of confidence to a crisis of legitimacy.

We need an executive working towards a clear and previously agreed programme for Government; entering into Government as a manifesto commitment, not a default reaction to keep someone else out. We need Government where coalition works for the common good not for your good, then my good, then yours again until it stalls and hits crisis as usual. And we need an official opposition to scrutinise the work of the executive, with speaking rights and resources on par with that afforded the departments it hopes to review. And of course we accept the need to protect minority rights and a system of weighted majority voting can reconcile that historic challenge.

Conference the current round of talks provides an opportunity for the executive parties to make a big decision but one that would engender stability into Government and reclaim some of the confidence lost by inaction, confusion and ineptitude.

And conference when I speak of the Assembly I do so on the understanding that this Party will soon return to it. We are still growing, signing new members every week, developing new branches and spearheading new campaigns. There is an energy about the Party that is self fulfilling and that we must tap into if we are to move to bigger and better things.

I must say that it was with some regret that we didn’t stand in May’s general elections and I’m sure some outside the Party assessed that as a weakness on our part. I would argue however that it was a sign of strength. We are charting a path with clear goals in our immediate focus and strategic objectives beyond.

Prior to the 2014 Council elections we identified the 2016 Assembly elections as the most valuable opportunity available to propel the success of the Party. This year we made a choice to forgo, what would have been largely a distraction, for a total focus of effort and resources on the Assembly next year and the resultant boost in party machinery that could bring.

And I say that not because we yearn for the spoils of office; what we yearn for are the resources to deliver more help to more of our community. We yearn for more access to the levers of power that remain out of reach to the marginalised and the dispossessed. We yearn to have the Loyalist voice back in the Assembly and the Loyalist people represented in its highest chambers. We yearn for the day when all of our communities can be at the table, crafting a vision for the future, not subjected to the afterthoughts of someone else’s.

For it is now clear that those elected to represent our communities have no respect for the privilege of elected office or the duty of public service. Career development will not cut waiting lists, fight educational under achievement or develop our necessary infrastructure. It is clear now, after seventeen years of devolved Government that the DUP and UUP are not prepared or equipped to offer our communities the representation they deserve and demand. It is clear now that we must assume that responsibility ourselves.

So we need to leave this conference renewed and reinvigorated. We need to spell out our vision for a future of hope and a future of change. We need to re- enfranchise those who feel left behind by politics and politicians and spell out how things could be different and how we would be different.

Conference we have within us the vision and the capacity to bring real and meaningful change to our communities, but only if we commit wholeheartedly to doing so. So lets do that today. Lets leave this conference with our focus redefined, our energy recharged; lets recommit to the vision of hope and justice and community that underpins the character of our Party. Conference by moving forward together and by putting people first we can, and will, force the change our people so desperately desire.

Coleraine councillor Russell Watton presented the Billy Mitchell Award and updated conference on his 17 months in local government. A further five motions opposed TTIP, addressed cyber bullying, separated families, fuel poverty and Easter Week licensing laws.

Finally Teena Patrick updated conference on the role of women and the Section 1325 review. During her half hour talk she asked why there were no (loyalist) murals celebrating the journey of women? Did men not value their contribution and support?

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