Nesbitt “We are the party with the best ideas – and the most inclusive ideas”

The UUP held their Spring conference yesterday in Armagh, launching their 33 candidates for the upcoming Assembly election.

In his leaders speech, Mike Nesbitt reflected on the gains that the party has made over the past year;

Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott becoming Members of Parliament, ending a short but hurtful exile for this great party from the green benches of Parliament.

Danny winning South Antrim for us.

Tom winning Fermanagh and South Tyrone for all unionism. Remember, colleagues, running Tom in Fermanagh was our plan. We may not be the biggest unionist party at the moment, but we are the party with the best ideas – and the most inclusive ideas – like offering all unionism the opportunity to coalesce around Tom, take on Sinn Féin, and deliver a rare, rare electoral defeat for Republicanism.

I will take to the grave the scenes at the Fermanagh count in Omagh, as Republicans grappled with the shock of loss.

I will also never forget Tom phoning me just before the result.

I want to share the conversation.

Tom phoned me in the wee small hours of the Friday morning. I had just left Danny celebrating his win at the Valley Leisure Centre and I was driving to Tom’s count in Omagh.

And I’m going to change one word.

Tom wanted to know if I was thinking of coming to the count and I said, yes, I’m on the motorway, on my way and I hope it’s going to be worth my while.

Oh I don’t know, says Tom, but I’m leading.

You’re leading! FLIP! I said. Any idea by now much, I asked – and remember the courts said Michelle Gildernew won by a single vote in 2010.

I’m ahead by about 500 says Tom.

500! That’s amazing! How many more boxes are there to open?

There’re all open, says Tom.

FLIPPITY FLIP! Says I. Tom Elliott, is that your way of telling me you are the next Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and south Tyrone?

Aye, I suppose.

Enough about last years election, Nesbitt looked at the DUP and responded to the speech made by Arlene Foster last weekend;

what big idea did the new DUP Leader come up with last weekend? Something equally bold, positive and inclusive?

No. It was a verbal shot, and directed not at Sinn Féin, or Dublin, or any enemy of the Union.

It was aimed squarely at us.

And it was Project Fear ….. Project Scaremonger …. again. Vote for me, or you get Martin McGuinness as First Minister. Like he isn’t already.

The DUP – remind me – aren’t the DUP the party of Smash Sinn Fein?

Now, they are in bed together.

By choice.

In 2016, is anybody really going to vote on the basis of who sleeps on the right side of the bed, or who sleeps on the left?

Or who has the better reading lamp?

Martin McGuinness nearly put the light out on Devolution last year over Welfare – from the position of Deputy First Minister.

So, is Project Fear and Scaremonger the best the DUP can come up with after nine years and two full mandates in charge?

The DUP are welcome to Project Scaremonger. I have no interest in encouraging people to vote out of fear.

Nesbitt pitched a message based on a positive narrative;

I want us to promote Project Hope.

Vote for what you hope for on the 5th of May.

And you can certainly hope for better.

We will campaign as oppositions do, on two planks.

We will highlight the failures of those who have now led our devolved government for the last nine years and two full mandates. And we will offer our vision of how we will change things for the better, and that won’t be difficult because it would need a Herculean effort to do any worse.

Contrasting this against what he calls the shameful record of the DUP/Sinn Fein Executive;

OFMDFM – the DUP and Sinn Féin – promised

v  They would spend £12 million on affordable, accessible childcare by March 2015. They only spent £4.6 million;

v  They promised 5,000 jobs at the Maze through a £300 million investment. If it wasn’t for the RUAS, it would be an empty lot;

v  They promised our brave emergency services the finest training facilities in the world outside Cookstown. It’s a green field.

v  They promised to spend £80 million on poverty by March last year. They actually spent …. £1.5 million. And know what. On Wednesday, the First Minister and deputy First Minister confirmed to me that the £80 million will not be spent before financial year 2019/2020- five years – five years after they promised. For poverty. For the vulnerable. Five years late.

I have studied the latest Budget document closely. It admits we have a prosperity issue in Northern Ireland. Simply put, our people bumble along with about 75 to 80% of the individual wealth of our cousins in England, Scotland and Wales.

This also makes clear the gap was at its narrowest in 2007 – the year Sinn Féin and the DUP took control of government!

Someone will say “Ah but what about the world recession” And I say “Exactly!”. We have such a large public sector, we were better protected than any other nation of the United Kingdom, so the gap should have closed further during those dark days.

And so it goes, BUT if you are the DUP, that doesn’t matter. They think it’s worth voting for more of the same, otherwise …. They would have to clear out of the First Minister’s suite of offices at Stormont Castle.

Turning to the main theme of his speech, he reached out to Nationalists;

I have a vision for a new Northern Ireland. In three words, my vision is to MAKE IT WORK

I hear non-Unionists say they want NI to work.

That is the opportunity.

A new partnership, of those committed to peace and dedicated to the hard work and leadership that will finally transform Northern Ireland into what it wants to be – one of the most attractive small countries on earth, a place people are proud to be born in, to live in, to invest in, to visit, and yes to move to and settle in.

For the UUP, ending disillusionment in politics is a priority;

We need a new Vision for Northern Ireland.

People have lost faith in the politicians leading our devolved government.

They are disillusioned, disgusted, disbelieving.

We need a new Era of Belief.

Belief in Stormont, its politicians and their motivation.

That is one reason why we will not automatically rejoin the Northern Ireland Executive after the 5th of May. We are not motivated by ministerial salaries, chauffeur-driven cars and the rest. This is not about getting our noses in the trough.

We will seek a strong mandate to enter the negotiations on the next Programme for Government that will follow the Elections and precede the formation of the next Executive.

And remember, doing the Programme for Government first was our idea – seeking broad agreement on the work programme before anyone knows exactly what role they will have in delivering it.

On a Programme for Government, Nesbitt set out two tests;

Is it a progressive Programme for Government, capable of improving the lives of our people.

And Two, have we sensed a collective will to deliver it for once.

If the answer to either question is “No” we will form the Official Opposition.

 Interestingly, I hear other parties starting to make similar noises about whether or not they will join the next Executive.

On policy direction, Nesbitt spoke about mental health, education and healthcare;

This is a 15 point plan for helping those whose lives are blighted by mental health issues. People who woke this morning, as they did yesterday and will tomorrow, with no real sense of purpose in their lives. People who crave a more fulfilling existence.

We want a Mental Health Champion. Not an expensive Quango. A champion, paid for by the mental health charities and philanthropic donations, not a penny of public money involved. A truly independent Champion.

We want to do more for our Armed Forces and Veterans and their families. The Armed forces Covenant is an expression of the nation’s moral obligation to those who put on a uniform to defend our values. It is not acceptable that service personnel suffer disadvantage because they happen to be from, or are living in, this part of the United Kingdom.

We support the Knowledge Economy, and its unbelievable potential to put people first. You do not need a big machine, or a dry dock to make money anymore. You need to know things and that takes us into our schools, and the failure of successive Sinn Féin ministers to tackle underachievement. It is a political crime that the same children from the same areas leave school without the knowledge and skills that are essential to a fulfilling life in the 21st Century.

Between now and the election, I will repeat my call for an Army of Book Buddies, people like you and me prepared to give up just an hour or two a week to work one-on-one with children with literacy issues. It’s an internationally tested model, and it works. For the cost of a police check. £33 a head. We could have an army of 1,000 Book Buddies for £33,000, a sum of money that wouldn’t even register in the Department of Education’s budget, which currently sits at over 2.1 Billion pounds.

We offer a new Era of Belief where we restore pride and confidence in our public services. Particularly the NHS, the jewel in the crown of our statutory services.

An era of belief that we will no longer turn a blind eye to violence.

Nesbitt concluded speaking about the different attitude within the UUP;

this will be a different election from 2011, and 2007, and 2003. It will be different and better.

Better because we are healed.

We believe in ourselves again.

And we have new found credibility with the public.

And the belief and the credibility feed off each other in a virtuous circle, that gives us the electoral gold dust of Momentum.

We are the only one of the big five with Momentum.

We have the vision.

We have the Policies.

We have the Candidates.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs