UUP Conference: Mike and Colum address the party faithful; opposition policies still sketchy #UUP16

uup16-nesbitt-top-teamThe venue was familiar, but there were some new faces and a shorter than usual agenda at this year’s UUP conference in the Ramada Hotel. Coming after disappointing Assembly results with fewer gains than hoped, and coming at the beginning of a three year election lull, there was time to introduce new MLAs and new councillors, as well as time to reflect on Mike Nesbitt’s first “full election cycle” as leader of the party. Europe was celebrated, The Somme was commemorated, and the Shadow Secretary of State was welcomed.

But opposition was foremost in the minds of delegates. (In my opinion) Mike Nesbitt has a job of work to convince his own party of the wisdom and benefit of being in opposition. While the unanimity of the elected MLAs in deciding to go into opposition was emphasised, the speech also devoted a section to “anyone looking to press the panic button” and acknowledged “the occasional whisperer and malcontent”, sentiment that was more than occasional and louder than a whisper in some parts of the hall today.

The party leader also needs to persuade voters to back the UUP at the next series of elections. His speech today and the appearance of the SDLP leader is only a start of an uphill struggle to put the opposition on the map of the electorate. “Vote me, you get Colum; Vote Colum, you get me … and you get a whole new middle ground politics,” is a good sound bite, but one that weds together the two middle-sized party’s future success.

And finally the combined UUP/SDLP opposition need to be sure-footed and significant enough that the Executive pay attention to this minority voice in the Assembly. In short, they need to punch above their weight, with the lightness of foot that an opposition can enjoy (and none of the funding to justify having every proposal properly costed) but the gravitas of an alternative government that isn’t just playing knockabout politics.

The hall filled up at noon to hear SDLP leader Colum Eastwood address his fellow opposition party’s delegates. The ice was broken with a well-received joke and he received a long standing ovation at the close of his ten minute speech – probably the best reaction an SDLP leader has received to a conference speech in years!

I was very grateful to be invited here by Mike Nesbitt. I think this is the beginning of something very, very important. I’ll say you’re probably surprised to see a bearded leader of Irish nationalism standing on this stage today [audience laughs] but I’m also pretty sure that in a few years time Gerry Adams will be telling everybody it was him that was here. [applause]

The speech began with the observation that “remembrance and commemoration” had been expected to be “the dominant feature of 2016”.

Throughout this year both traditions on these islands have remembered the diversity and depth of our shared history with a maturity and an openness of which I think we can all be very proud.

But “managing momentous centenaries was the easy part” of a year that proved “problematic”.

The Brexit referendum fallout, unprecedented flows in refugees and migration, continuing tension between a more protectionist or more open economic model and the sheer awfulness of the violence in Syria and in particular in Aleppo. As things fall apart, the centre ground is struggling to know what is worth holding on to.

The SDLP leader stated that “if cooperation is required in Europe it is equally required in Northern Ireland”.

Since the election there has been plenty of interest as to whether the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party will work together in opposition. The answer is simple: of course we will. [applause] We are already doing so. Only this week we have scrutinised and offered solutions to ongoing emergencies in housing, homelessness and in our health service. That will continue and expand during the course of this mandate.

uup16-colum-eastwoodHe acknowledged that differences would be held in healthy tension with shared interests.

The commitment to co-operation does not mean absolute unanimity or uniformity, and nor should it. Let me state the obvious: we are different parties with different policies and different visions of the future. Our Irish Nationalism and your Unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon.

However, this difference does not diminish our ability to pursue the commonality of our immediate cause. Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work. [applause] That’s a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow. The constitutional change of the future will be the product of persuasion.

Addressing constitutional change …

Amongst all that pleasantness let me say something slightly more difficult. Let me say something about the possibility of that constitutional change. If the last year has shown us anything, it is that we can’t blindly trust the permanence of the status quo. As a Nationalist party leader I have been honest that we have thus far failed to develop a credible and detailed vision of what a New Ireland might look like. We’re now beginning that work.

As the SDLP engages in that work, I would welcome if unionism began its own process of mapping out how it sees the future. The United Kingdom, as you know it, as we all know it, is no more. We all need to renew our thinking as to what political shape Britain and Ireland will take in this new century.

My appeal is this: try to convince us of your vision for the future and we’ll try to convince you of ours. Let it be a discussion based on hard facts and hard truths. Most of all let it be creative, and then in time let the people decide. That’s the way politics is supposed to work. It’s how it works at its best, without threat or theatrics.

He recalled that “both of our parties were the architects and the builders of the institutions which stand today” with the “bravery to imagine and build the change we now live amongst”.

We continue to believe that high politics is capable of delivering the radical change we all wish to see. In contrast, the DUP and Sinn Féin have no such ambition or aspiration for our people or this place. They never had. They believe the symbolism of their coalition suffices, and offer nothing more.

They’re all guff and no government.

Even with 55 press officers, 16 special advisers and their new press secretary they struggle to fabricate the illusion of progress. Together we must break up and break down that cosy establishment.

We do that by building trust and credibility across this society. We do it by embracing the politics of partnership and cooperation. Let’s be honest – we are not there yet. We have work to do and that work goes on. Our success can permanently transform the politics of this place. Old battles of identity will be replaced by a new battle of ideas.

For me, for the SDLP, that’s work that’s well worthwhile.

uup16-nicholas-trimbleThere hadn’t been a Trimble standing behind a UUP lectern for quite some time, but Lisburn and Castlereagh councillor Nicholas Trimble had that opportunity in a local government slot before his party leader’s speech.

After a rather American hyped-up introduction, Mike Nesbitt strode up the aisle with his wife Lynda Bryans to the music of Something Good Can Work by Two Door Cinema Club. He took up his now traditional place in front of the podium and began by saying that the last twelve months had been “eventful” and “momentous” for the party, Stormont and the United Kingdom.

With “big changes” ahead he said that “the challenge is to identify the opportunities, and make the most of them”.

We accept that challenge. We have moved to address that challenge, even though others are still on the starting line.

uup16-nesbitt-up-aisleIt was a well-delivered speech, and Mike Nesbitt casually and without fuss slipped back behind the lectern when he heard his radio mic begin to distort.

But it was a speech that could have been reshaped (to remove the false ending and develop some of the policy ideas in more detail) and shortened (to bring it to a close well within the live TV slot and cut the page count). And the liberal unionism willing to tackle moral issues was not on particular show this year. (Though neither was there any mention of the Orange Order or parading.)

Noting the transformation of the UUP Assembly group with eight newly elected members in May, the leader said that “our 2016 group is acting as a team in a way the Class of 2011 never could: there is a coherence and cohesion that bodes very well for this mandate”.

He noted that he had complete a full cycle of elections as leader.

Two years ago, Jim Nicholson retained his seat in the European Parliament – and given what happened on the 23rd of June, everyone should be very relieved he did. There is no British MEP – none – who commands more respect in the corridors of Brussels than Jim Nicholson.

2014 also saw us record local government results beyond the dreams of most. Comparing like-with-like between the old 26 council model and the new 11 Super Councils, we achieved double-digit growth in numbers.

Then last year, we recorded not one but two successes in the most difficult elections of all, the first-past-the-post General Election to the House of Commons.

Which brings us to this May and the Assembly Elections. You know I wanted better – and I know you did too. But we did nothing wrong. We had great candidates. We planned well. We published no fewer than nine policy documents. Not just a manifesto, but a Vision for Northern Ireland, looking decades ahead. Plus, detailed action plans on specific areas. Mental Health. Cancer Care. Animal Welfare.

We campaigned for Northern Ireland’s first post-sectarian election, where the issue was belief in a party’s ability to deliver on the issues that matter – the economy, education, housing and health. Not playing on people’s fear to secure a vote – not “support us, or you get “them-uns” for First Minister”. Not “Vote Arlene or you get Martin”. Of course, the irony is this. When you vote Arlene, you’re basically guaranteed you get Marty. Politically, they’re joined at the hip.

Maybe next time, we can persuade people if you vote Mike, you get Colum. If you vote Colum, you get Mike. If you vote for the middle ground, you get better.

Marking the SDLP leader’s attendance and contribution at the UUP conference:

Colum Eastwood is here, and I am very glad he is. And without prejudice to all the issues we may not see eye-to-eye on, but also recognising our common aim of Making Northern Ireland Work, I offer you, Colum, a warm, personal and heart-felt welcome.

Like the SDLP, we tried for an Assembly election focused on bread and butter issues, but we all know from the doorstep, the fear factor remained dominant. I can’t tell you how often I heard people tell me they would love to vote Ulster Unionist, but they had to keep Marty out.

Despite that, we left Stormont in March with 13 MLAs, and we returned in May with 16. None of the other big parties grew their numbers.

[Ed – nitpicking I know, but the UUP the started the Assembly in May 2011 with 16 MLAs, lost 3 and dropped to 13 before returned with 16 after the election.]

I’m not saying it was the greatest result in the cycle, but in its proper context, it was a very, very solid performance – and in its own way, it represented growth and completed a set of Elections we can look back on with some pride and satisfaction, but no complacency!

So, to anyone looking to press the panic button – to the very few who have jumped ship – to the occasional whisperer and malcontent – I say this. Are you so weak, you want to unravel four years work, just because we didn’t get all we wanted first time around? Are you so easily led that a Siren Voice in your ear is enough to make you change course?

The 72 new members signed up to Young Unionists at the QUB Freshers Fair was a sign of “steady, sustainable growth” and made the YUs the “the biggest unionist grouping at the university”.

uup16-champagneThe swish video wall was put to good use illustrating the DUP’s recent event at the Conservative Party conference.

After six years mercilessly attacking us for our electoral pact with the Tories in 2010 – six years in bed with Sinn Féin attacking Tory austerity – the DUP sponsored a Champagne Lunch at the Conservative Conference. No austerity there! The DUP seemed to sense they had made a mistake with their Champagne Luncheon. They tried to imply it was Champ, not Champagne. [Pointing to the screen] For the avoidance of doubt, this is Champ; that is Champagne.

My Vision is not just for a post-sectarian society. I also want a post-peace process society.

In a section that criticised Sinn Féin, Mike Nesbitt asked: “what is the peace process?”

I’ll tell you what Sinn Féin think it is. Sinn Féin think it’s a weapon. Anytime something inconvenient comes along, Sinn Féin call it a threat to the “peace process”.

It helps maintain the illusion we remain in a state of transition, that there is something about our political challenges that needs special treatment. It also helps keep the godfathers of the IRA in place, on the pretext there is a peace process that is incomplete and therefore could be endangered.

I think Sinn Féin have milked the “Peace Process” for all it is worth. It’s time to move on. Time to end the implicit threat to stability, that runs as a dangerous undercurrent through our politics. The “peace process” is nothing more than Sinn Féin’s weapon of choice for getting their way. Winston Churchill once spoke of a “bodyguard of lies”. The “peace process” is Sinn Féin’s bodyguard.

Successive British governments since 1998 have been only too willing to sustain this state of affairs, in league with Dublin and Washington. They have been willing to repeat the mistakes of the past, preferring to placate Republicans, rather than uphold the law. The main conclusion of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 1916 Easter Rebellion a hundred years ago was just that – the report said “it was safer and more expedient to leave law in abeyance if collision with any faction of the Irish people could thereby be avoided.”

uup16-nesbitt-sidewaysOn money “supposedly ring-fenced for community development being filtered through so-called gate-keepers” he commented that “it happens on both sides”.

If working class unionist communities had wanted these Gatekeepers to represent and lead them, they would have voted for them! The Gatekeepers would share the blue benches of the Assembly. But they don’t. Although they may have proxies in the biggest party.

So, it is high time we delivered an unambiguous message. If you want to work positively, we will help you. But if you do not, there will be consequences. That is what has been missing over the last eighteen years. Sanctions!

I have little confidence in the arrangements in the so-called Fresh Start Agreement. We do not want annual reports on progress towards the disbandment of paramilitary groups. We want disbandment today … with sanctions for non-compliance.

He set out his principled vision for government:

I want a government that spends taxes wisely, protects its citizens, cares for the vulnerable and punishes the guilty. A government that is fair, open and transparent in its actions. In return, I want citizens who aspire to be self-reliant, take responsibility, work hard, pay their way, plan for the future, help their neighbours and the needy. In a properly post-sectarian society, things would be different. There would be a focus on the track record of our Executive and its Ministers.

Next he turned to Arlene Foster’s political record.

I know it’s not the done thing to criticise our First Minister, but take a look at her record. As Environment Minister, Arlene Foster allowed the new Super Council boundaries to be drawn up in a way that has meant our capital city no longer has a unionist majority.

That doesn’t sound very post-sectarian for the UUP leader to criticise not gerrymandering council boundaries?

Then as Enterprise Minister, Mrs Foster presided over the scandal that is the Renewable Heat Incentive, a scheme so badly mismanaged that it will cost over £1 Billion pounds – and you and I – and our children – will pay for it out of the Block Grant for the next 20 years.

From the Economy, she moved to Finance, at a time the public were rightly seeking an explanation for the NAMA scandal that has seen our international reputation dragged through the gutter, as tens of thousands of pounds are handed over in hospital car-parks … and that’s only scratching the surface!

And then, in search of a vote five months ago, the First Minister scare-mongered on the doorstep over the dangers of Sinn Féin, only to return to Stormont to vote for a Sinn Féin Principal Deputy Speaker; collaborate with Sinn Féin over the appointment of a Justice Minister; and collude with Martin McGuinness to use the Royal Prerogative to appoint a Spin Doctor. And on it goes.

There was a cheap gibe at “King Marty”.

But think about this. The DUP supported Martin McGuinness, a self-styled proud and principled republican to take upon himself the powers of a Monarch – King Marty – to avoid a public appointment process. Of course, Arlene Foster also conferred those regal powers upon herself. A far cry from her promise to hold rogue and renegade ministers to account!

uup-mike-nesbitt-rehearsingAnd so to Opposition.

Holding all Executive Ministers to account is a role for us, the Official Opposition, Stormont’s first since 1972. I want to put on record how proud I am of my MLA colleagues for the way they came to that decision.

We fought the Assembly election seeking a mandate to enter the negotiations that were supposed to follow on from the elections – two weeks for the parties entitled to be in government to – and here I quote paragraph 61 of the Fresh Start Agreement -“resolve the draft Programme for Government”.

We had two tests to decide whether we were to enter the new Executive. Was it a progressive plan? And did we sense a determination for once, from the DUP and Sinn Féin to work collaboratively with their partners in government to deliver it?

They failed both tests on Day One.

As we speak, the draft isn’t even published, and the final document may well emerge between Christmas and the New Year, with the Assembly in recess. A good time to publish bad news.

I am proud our MLAs were unanimous in their decision. We met twice that day. The first time, we debated the pros and cons of Opposition. I made clear Opposition can be an exposed and lonely place. I suggested it could make for a long, five year mandate. I also asked them to think about what would happen if – miracle of miracles – the DUP and Sinn Féin actually got their act together and how that would play in 2021 when we next seek a vote from the electorate.

And I sent them away to reflect. They came back unanimous. Doing what’s right for Northern Ireland is not an empty phrase. The phrase is not just warm words. It represents a set of values that are ingrained in Ulster Unionism: Country First; Party Second; Individual Third.

As a responsible Opposition, we will do two things. Firstly, we will scrutinise the work of the Executive. And let me again emphasise that scrutiny is not synonymous with criticism. Scrutiny means taking a close look at the words and deeds of the DUP / Sinn Féin government. If, at the end of that scrutiny, we think the Executive has done a good job, we will say so … low flying pigs withstanding!

The UUP Executive’s decision to campaign to Remain in Europe is still the subject of discontent by some within the party. So it was perhaps unnecessary and unwise of Mike Nesbitt to push the ‘Remain’ button so much in the Brexit portion of his speech.

The other function is that of offering an alternative to Executive policy. I would say, like this document, our Vision for Northern Ireland Outside the European Union. But, of course, you cannot offer an alternative to nothing, and to date, the Executive have offered us nothing on Brexit. No vision, no plan, no list of priorities.

The UK Government has reconfigured itself to create a whole Department, with a Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has a business advisory group. The Scottish Government has an advisory panel. So do we, the Ulster Unionist Party, and I thank the participants, who represent the private sector, manufacturing, agriculture and agri-food processing, the universities, the community and voluntary sector, the trade unions – in short, the people, groups and sectors who will be most affected by Brexit, whenever it happens.

No one doubts Northern Ireland will be the most affected nation or region of the United Kingdom by withdrawal from the European Union, yet extraordinarily, we are still the least prepared, because of the paralysis of our DUP / Sinn Féin government.

For us, the days of Remainers and Brexiteers are over. I know Colum and many others take a different view, and we respect that, without supporting the position. For us, the people have voted. The result is the result. We must now plan for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and do so in a manner that will maximise the opportunities for all the people of Northern Ireland – Unionists, Nationalists, and Others.

We recognise the need to ensure – as they are doing in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Dublin – that we have the intellectual capacity and back-up resources in the right place to monitor “live” as it happens, the twists and turns of the negotiations.

We understand the need to scope this out, identifying the policy options, choosing our priorities, and critically, assessing whether our priorities complement or clash with the UK Government’s, because where there are clashes, we have a massive problem.

We also need to know what we want out of the negotiations for Northern Ireland. We have identified ten key “asks”. Some come at no cost. Others will require hard-nosed negotiations with the UK Government, not least our calls for a step change in skills and education, and a massive increase in investment in Infrastructure. Why pick those areas? Because we are fed up with a devolved government that thinks Dependency is a good thing.

Every time there is a problem, out comes the DUP / Sinn Féin Begging Bowl and it’s off to London or Dublin or both. If you cherish Northern Ireland – as I do – then you will fight tooth and nail for the tools to make us less dependent on others. You will argue for the infrastructure that represents a set of economic accelerators that will generate serious wealth for our people – transport, communications, energy; above all energy. Not just the cost of energy which puts us near the top of the league table of the most expensive in western Europe, but security of supply.

There has been a shocking failure to address the need for an energy strategy over the last nine and a half years. That also falls at the feet of our current first Minister, who spent many years at the Department of Enterprise Trade & Investment. If we do not act soon, we can look forward to sections of our population celebrating Northern Ireland’s Centenary by candlelight! We are already paying power plants to generate electricity we do not need, because of the fear of failure in the supply chain.

The key functions of opposition at Stormont are “scrutiny and an alternative”. Some alternative ideas were listed, but none were elaborated upon in detail (other than showing the nine policy documents), which was a missed opportunity in the speech.

And we have plenty of ideas: ending our status as the fuel poverty capital of the UK; a Social Value Act to recognise the importance of the third sector; transforming the scope of GPs within the National Health Service; and in the wake of the NAMA scandal, regulation of the relationship between lobbyists and Executive Ministers, as they do in London and Dublin.

Forming an Opposition is entirely consistent with who we are – a Party ready and willing to do what’s right for the country, whatever the consequences for ourselves.

It has been a bold step, but a necessary one for those of us who seek normal, democratic politics in Northern Ireland. What we did in 1998 was fit for the times, encouraging everyone into the political tent and away from violence. The last thing e needed then was an Opposition, as we tried to create an environment where everyone worked together, for the common good.

We are in a very different place today. We have achieved inclusive political frameworks. Now we need a political system that delivers. Opposition will be key to that.

The First Minister welcomed it at the Conservative Conference earlier this month. It will make us “up our game” she said. No sign of them “upping” anything yet, but it’s good to know Marlene are looking over their shoulder.

It’s been welcomed by the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Sir Malcolm McKibben. And the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has welcomed the formation of the Opposition. She wrote to me a few days ago, expressing a welcome for the fact – and I quote – “the institutions have evolved to accommodate an official Opposition at Stormont.” I look forward to meeting Mrs May next month.

Of course, if the Opposition is going to offer an alternative to the current Executive, we need to convince the electorate we are a viable replacement for the current DUP / Sinn Féin Government.

That means working in partnership with the SDLP and once again I welcome the appearance earlier of their Leader, Colum Eastwood MLA. And Conference, you will recall this is not the first time we have invited a senior member of the SDLP to speak to us. I wouldn’t hold your breath for the two parties of Government to catch up?

Vote me, you get Colum. Vote Colum, you get me. Vote Colum and me, and you get a whole new Middle Ground politics, dedicated to Making Northern Ireland Work, whatever our different motivations.

Do we agree on everything? Of course not! But can we find a way of doing business together? Absolutely!

It was “early days for the opposition” but Mike Nesbitt said “I look forward to better times ahead”.

Who knows? Maybe a proper Shadow Executive, promoting policies that actually address and solve the problems of a post-sectarian, post peace process era for Northern Ireland.

I have said the days of Remainers and Brexiteers are over, but we must move on in a way that is mindful and respectful of the impact on our Nationalist brothers and sisters.

Identity can no longer be defined in the narrow, binary terms of Unionist or Nationalist, Orange or Green, Protestant or Catholic. The Belfast Agreement made arrangements to respect complexity. We must honour that commitment and respect the fact there will be new “norms” as we build a new Northern Ireland we can all take pride in.

He noted the UUP’s April meeting in Dublin during the year of the 100th anniversary of the Easter rebellion. This “contribution to understanding this historical event” was in contrast with Sinn Féin who “used 1916 as a recruiting sergeant”.

They formulated a slogan which invited people to ‘Join the Rising’. These words are designed to interpret the past, visualize the present and imagine the future. In reality the events in Dublin that took place one hundred years ago were led by a minority of a minority. This year, nationalists reclaimed 1916 from that minority.

He remembered that “over 200,000 Irishmen were fighting to prevent Germany from subjugating a number of European states including Britain” as well as “the service and sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme” and “the service and sacrifice of the 16th Irish Division”.

Let us remember we have a shared past, as we struggle to define and build a shared future. And let me repeat my call that all schoolchildren should be given the opportunity to visit Flanders Fields to observe our shared history.

On dealing with the past: “answers on how to deal with our recent past still prove beyond the reach of the Executive”.

There lie two, unanswered questions. What do we mean by dealing with the past? And for whose benefit do we want to take action? Politicians tend to answer the first question in the narrow terms of those seeking Truth, Acknowledgement and maybe Justice. But the legacy of the past is much broader than that. The severely injured from the 1970s and 80s never had a chance to work and contribute to their pension. There is a compelling case for fixing that problem. And you know my view that the biggest, most toxic legacy is poor mental health and wellbeing, not just of victims, but their children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren.

My question is this: Why wait until everything is agreed before moving to fix the problems we already agree on?

The other question is difficult. For whose benefit do we want to deal with the past? If it is for those most affected, we will continue to look at the Troubles, incident by incident, knowing some will get a lot of truth and some will get none. Nobody argues differently. It’s a lottery. We can continue to litigate the past, but it’s a game of chance. Random and therefore, in isolation, reckless.

If we also want to do something that allows society to move forward, we need more than new institutions that focus on justice and information recovery. We need political courage. The sort of courage Her Majesty the Queen demonstrated on her State Visit to the Republic of Ireland, when she made an Acknowledgement Statement, speaking of things we could wish had been done differently, or not at all.

The Ulster Unionist Party governed Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972, half a century which ended under intolerable pressure, not just from the Civil Rights movement, which wanted to transform Northern Ireland, but from violent Republicans, who wanted to destroy it, in the same spirit as all the other international terrorist organisations of the time.

What we need is a series of acknowledgement statements, from governments and parties. I speak to many victims and survivors, and they would welcome some high end thinking on the past.

He focussed in on steps Martin McGuinness could personally take to break the logjam.

The bottom line is people made choices. Republicans cannot justify their terrorism by blaming others. It is perverse to argue that someone forced them to pick up the gun and the bomb. They made that choice. If Martin McGuinness was prepared to make such an Acknowledgement Statement, he might be surprised by the responses that could follow, from the British Government, and from Dublin and Washington, and from the local political parties.

This is not about shallow apologies. It’s about acknowledging our past, our choices, and their impact, still felt today. I believe that would transform how we deal with the past. But will it happen? Will Martin McGuinness stop the nonsense of claiming circumstances forced Republicans to take up the bomb and bullet? Will he admit it was a choice, freely made, and acknowledge the legacy of that choice continues to poison community relations?

I do not believe anyone needed to die to get where we are today. Is he prepared to admit he chose differently, rather than maintaining we left him no choice?

Sir Edward Carson warned us in 1920, in a quote to the Commons I used in my first Conference Speech. I repeat it today, because it remains valid: “If Ulster sets up an example and a precedent of good Government, fair Government, honest Government, and a Government not for sections or factions, but for all, her example may be followed….and may bring about peace”.

Paying tribute to his mother and his wife, Mike Nesbitt announced that the UUP’s new president would be May Steele.

He finished by recalling words from the then SDLP MLA Margaret Ritchie when she addressed the UUP conference as DSD Minister.

She wanted to send out a signal that the SDLP would not be bullied by the bigger parties, and that’s a sentiment that is worth repeating today, because it’s clear the DUP and Sinn Féin would like to push the Opposition Parties around.

It’s not going to happen, Conference.

As Margaret so neatly summed it up …. No Surrender!

As he left the venue, one young unionist commented to a friend that “Mike’s speech was very good but I though Colum’s was excellent”. That’s not a problem as the young man’s vote won’t be transferring to Colum anytime soon!

But for some – probably a minority – of the delegates, the strains of Avicii’s Wake me up when it’s all over that could be heard while the conference hall was filling up will have summed up their mood. Pro-Europe and pro-Opposition are two bitter pills to swallow in the one year.

Party. Electorate. Executive. All three groups will still have unanswered questions after today’s UUP conference, and all three will still need to be convinced that Opposition is credible, working and demonstrating an alternative.

Mike Nesbitt has shown over the past years that he can adequately perform the role of leader. However, he needs to help the party to step up to the challenge of leading in opposition and to quickly build confidence that it can be a success. At the moment, my jury is certainly still out on whether there are any electoral gains to be collected, and whether the standard of life in Northern Ireland will improve as a consequence of the challenge and alternatives offered by the UUP and SDLP.

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