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Speech by the Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA to the Party`s 2013 Annual General Meeting

I would like to begin with some thanks.

Thanks to the three arms that make up this great organisation: the elected representatives; our staff; and you, the volunteers who are both the foundation and the backbone of Ulster Unionism.

I want to pay particular tribute to the volunteer called the Chairman. Sir Reg, on behalf of the Party, thank you.

Thank you for giving so freely of your time. Thank you for your continued commitment. Thank you for your advice. I am delighted you are staying put for another year.

Similarly to our Vice Chair, Roy McCune, who has worked quietly behind the scenes, on some of those unglamorous but necessary aspects of Party development.

And to Mark Cosgrove, who once again has reported a healthy trend in our finances, but has also put in a great shift as a Councillor and party activist.

I thank all our officers, from the branches, through Associations to the Party Officers.

I congratulate our new Party Officers, and thank all six candidates for allowing their names to go forward today

I admire anyone who allows their name to go forward to serve the Party in any capacity.

Thanks also to our representatives, in Council, at Stormont, Westminster and in Europe.

Thanks for the work – the lonely work - of Danny Kennedy as Regional Development Minister. This must a busy time of year to be Roads Minister!

And rail Minister, and I congratulate Danny on getting one of the world’s most scenic routes re-opened yesterday – in time for the major events of the UK City of Culture in Londonderry.

And for taking a sensible, steady approach to securing our water supply.

Our electricity at home is off – water’s on. Roads are driveable. You wouldn’t phone a friend ......

And my final thank you, which beyond measure, is the most important is this. Thank you Tom Elliott.

I am not going to insult anyone by simply repeating what I have written about Tom in the Annual Report. Anyway, that only scratches of Tom’s contribution to this Party. What I shall add to what I’ve written is this. I sign letters of welcome every week to our new members – and every time I sign one of those letters, I think to myself – if you turn out to be half the Party member Tom Elliott is, the Ulster Unionist Party has nothing to worry about.

Tom, thank you!

 

YEAR REVIEW

When you entrusted me with the Leadership last year, I asked Tom what I was letting myself in for.

He said “Oh don’t worry. Easy peasy. Nothing much happens!”

357 days on, it’s ...... had its moments.

But we are through a very difficult beginning and for me, Year Two starts with relief, expectation, and a huge sense of opportunity.

This is an Opportunity to re-affirm that the Ulster Unionist Party is THE Party of the Union

There wouldn’t be a Union without Carson and Craig and Ulster Unionism

There wouldn’t be a Stormont without the Ulster Unionist Party

And there won’t be a BETTER Stormont without another big push from the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Country is crying out for that push - I am ready for that push, and I invite you to join me!

*****

A year ago, one of my first goals was to ensure we selected our candidate for the 2014 European Elections before the end of calendar year 2012.

For too long, too many candidates have been handicapped by late selection. I am determined we give candidates a full run and every chance.

I am absolutely delighted that we did it for Europe, and that Jim came home unopposed, because I do not think anyone can argue with the proposition that there has never been a time when experience has been at more of a premium for European affairs than today.

Whether it be the crisis in the Eurozone, or the Prime Minister’s promise of an “IN / OUT” Referendum, or the horse meat scandal, Northern Ireland needs elected representatives in Brussels and Strasburg  who have experience, knowledge, and a wide range of contacts – contacts who know him and respect him!

Interestingly, when the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister visited the Office of the NI Executive in Brussels recently, the officials there said one of their key targets was more face-to-face contact with European Commissioners. Now they are talking about the difficulty of working in Brussels, and getting an appointment with a Commissioner whose office is maybe less than a kilometre away.

In the last six months, Jim Nicholson has had not one but two EU Commissioners here in Northern Ireland.

No rookie MEP can match that sort of engagement at the highest levels of the European Union.

That’s just one of many, many reasons why Jim Nicholson deserves everyone’s support next June at the Euro Polls.

 

COOPERATION

As some of you will know, I have already said that if the DUP want to expand our the success of the Unionist Cooperation we brought forward in the recent Mid Ulster ByElection, the next sensible step would be to encourage Ulster Unionists to vote Nicholson 1, and to give our second preferences to whoever the DUP put up, and any other unionist who may stand - if they reciprocate and Vote  Nicholson 2, after their own candidate.

Picture the Euro ’14 ballot paper in your mind’s eye. An Ulster Unionist candidate, a DUP candidate, and who knows, maybe one or two other brands of unionism on offer.

And you encouraged to vote all the way down the card.

That’s a definition of Unionist Cooperation.

It’s also the total opposite of Union Unity, because all parties still stand on their own merits, and are free to stand.

The Union serves the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. And since my Conference Speech September that thought has been endorsed by opinion poll, by survey, and most significantly by the latest Census, in which only 1 in 4 people chose to classify themselves as Irish.

No one needed to die to get that result. In fact, maybe more people would aspire to be Irish had it not been for the bombs and bullets and propaganda of Irish Republicans.

This week, we heard of the untimely death of Pamela Brankin, mother of Mark Quinsey, one of the two Sappers murdered – butchered – at Massereene Barracks in 2009.

As a Victims Commissioner, I heard of many who died – not because they were shot, or blown up – but because of a broken heart from losing a loved one, or a heart attack on hearing the dreadful news.

They are unknown and uncounted victims, and in this week’s news of the death of Sapper Quinsey’s mother, we have proof that the legacy of human suffering goes on and on.

I encourage the new Victims Commissioner to reach out to the Quinsey family, as the Commission did in 2009 to both families. I attended Patrick Asimkar’s funeral in London, and offered help, as well as sympathy to his parents.

The Union is a two-way street. We should be there for the people of Great Britain, just as we expect GB to be there for us.

That is how you strengthen the Union.

There has been much focus on the Union in the last three months.

The Union is safe – so long as people want it to be.

All you have to do is Vote

If you don’t vote - or you vote for parties like Alliance who clearly do not support the Union - you get results like the flag vote in City Hall last December.

So, Colleagues, when you leave here today, take that message to your friends and your neighbours, and your acquaintances. It is time to Register to Vote.

 

SINN FEIN

Because what we saw on the 3rd of December is that Sinn Fein do not object to Majority Rule as such. They only object to Majority Rule when they are in a minority.

As soon as they sensed the opportunity for Majority Rule in Belfast, they abandoned all pretence of being a party of Consensus – and seized the chance for an unnecessary and divisive vote – which not one unionist supported.

So be in no doubt, Sinn Fein may say they want Consensual Politics. But they practice Majority Rule when they can.

Consensual politics, Mutual Respect, Fairness. These are the Values that underpinned this Party’s support for the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

As we approach the 15 Anniversary of that Agreement, it is time to face up to the massive failures in implementation.

We all need to re-focus on delivering what we had in mind back then.

That is a massive challenge given how differently the main parties see things.

 

DIFFERENCES

People ask, what is the difference between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP.

People say it’s not policy.

People say there is no difference.

They are wrong.

There are key differences in social policies, and I’ll list a few in a moment, but the biggest difference of all is in Delivery.

When we are in power, we deliver, even if it is at a cost to ourselves.

For us, it is Country First, Party Second, and Individual Third.

If we had not put the Country first, we would never have had an Agreement in ’98, no matter how imperfect.

But when the DUP finally came on board, at St Andrews, they put Party first, and for six long years since, we have all had to suffer the consequences, across our economy, education, health and housing.

Those are the four key bread and butter issues of government, and three are under the control of the DUP.

 

HOUSING

We differ on housing in many ways, not least in opposing the so-called Bedroom Tax, or Under Occupancy charge for tenants with spare bedrooms.

Why are we against? Because we do not have the housing stock to offer tenants the choice of moving rather than facing an arbitrary and unexpected charge, often late in the tenant’s life.

What’s our solution? Hold off the full implementation of the charge until the housing stock offers that choice, and start only with new tenants. It will cost a lot less than the estimated £17 million a year DSD tell us, but then DSD told us the sky would fall in if the Assembly forced them to defer the Bill beyond March.

Last week, DSD voluntarily deferred the Bill. The sky hasn’t fallen in.

 

HEALTH

There is not a single person in this room who doesn’t owe the National Health Service a huge debt of gratitude. It is arguably our greatest public asset and it itself if one of the greatest arguments against Northern Ireland ever leaving the Union.

We spend £10 million a day on the NHS in Northern Ireland. So I think we are entitled to ask some questions about Delivery, and Value for Money.

For example, the Health Service has a target to treat 95% patients visiting hospital Emergency Departments within four hours or less.

Every single Trust in Northern Ireland experienced a decline in this performance in 2011-12.

There is another target - no patient should wait longer than 12 hours for treatment in an Emergency Unit.

Despite a fall in the actual number of people attending Emergency Departments, there has been a shocking increase in those having to wait more than 12 hours for treatment.

The numbers attending are down 1.6 percent. But the numbers not seen on time are up 38.4 per cent.

Is it not bizarre that waiting times are sky-rocketing while the numbers attending are decreasing? It’s clearly not the system that is failing but the strategic administration.

That needs fixed. Children’s cardiac services need protected so they continue to be provided in Northern Ireland.

Mental Health needs more resource – we have more issues per head of population, yet the NHS is spending proportionately less on mental health than the rest of GB.

And we need to follow the example being set in GB, to cap the amount of money a family is forced to spend on social care, so they don’t have to sell family homes or see a lifetime’s savings swallowed whole in a matter of months.

 

ECONOMY

The 3rd DUP department I want to mention is Enterprise Trade & Investment.

Our economy was once a net contributor to Her Majesty’s Treasury. Imagine that! No need for a Subvention or Block Grant. We might not get back there, not in the short to medium term, but I see no sign of us even really trying!

GB is recovering. Our economy is not.

When Devolution began, our unemployment levels were the lowest in the UK. Now we are among the very worst.

And one in four young people have no really good, positive reason to get out of bed in the morning.

What’s the fix?

Corporation Tax isn’t a silver bullet, but few disagree it is the big one, the one true potential Game Changer.

There is yet another meeting with the Prime Minister next week about Corporation Tax. We called for it three years ago in the 2010 Westminster Election.

The electorate decided to trust the DUP instead. And what have they got? No decision, No Delivery, No Dynamic.

Just 3 years of reports, meetings, and warm words amounting to ... nothing!

 

EDUCATION

And so we come to the key issue: Education.

Take a right out of this building and follow the signs for the Ringroad and you’ll soon encounter a modern Tale of Two City Schools under Sinn Fein’s control. Drive for 10 / 15 minutes and you’ll swap the more affluent south for east Belfast, where you’ll find Ashfield Boys, a hugely successful High school.

Not a grammar school, mind. A successful secondary High - delivering quality education, not least thanks to many years of great leadership and properly funded resources.

Another ten minutes travelling east and you’re at Dundonald, where the High School in under threat of closure. What’s the difference?

It’s not Leadership. Dundonald High has a new Leader. And I’ll tell you two things about the new Headmaster. First and foremost, he’s a former pupil, so do not tell me Dundonald High doesn’t produce quality students.

His name, by the way, is Ken Perry. And here’s the second thing to say about Ken Perry.

That’s him there. Please welcome him.

Ken, I want to congratulate you on your appointment as Headmaster of Dundonald High School. I want to thank you for sticking with your community. And I want to pledge my support for fighting your closure threat.

You told me you need three years to turn around academic achievement. I believe it’s only fair to give you that chance.

You told me the school has been denied the facilities they were previously promised. I believe that’s not fair, and you should have Delivery on those promises.

You told me you’ll fight tooth and nail for your pupils. I believe you will – and if you’ll have me, and you’ll have us, we’ll fight, side by side.

When we secured devolution in 1998, Sinn Fein took Education, as they have done ever since.

They have attacked our Grammar Schools in an ideological war that has taken politics into the classroom.

Enough is enough!

In the big picture, grammar schools aren’t the problem. Yes, there are issues with grammar schools. The sector is too big, apart from anything else. But the real problem lies elsewhere.

The problem is the huge number of pupils leaving school without decent basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

When Sinn Fein took control of the education of our children, protestant boys from working class areas were most likely to underachieve at school.

Remember what that means, that word “underachievement”. It’s not the same as “low achievement”. Everyone schoolchild has subject areas where their achievement levels will be comparatively low. That’s life. But “underachievement” is different. That is a waste of potential. Of a human being.

Under achievement is where our young men and women, are denied the chance to fulfil their potential.

Not because our teachers don’t teach. Because we don’t let our teachers teach. At a teachers’ conference last weekend, I heard Mary Dorman, a primary school teacher and educationalist, tell her colleagues she may not be able to complete a Computer Hygiene Test, but she can assess a child’s educational needs.

What is wrong with us?

We have this High Accountability, Low Trust mentality that needs rebalanced.

Yes, we need accountability. Yes, we need supervision. Yes, we need inspectors – but tell me, who inspects the inspectors?

Ultimately, it’s about Trust. Trust in individuals, and trust that individuals will form a collective that will Deliver.

In short, I believe our schools will produce better results all round, if we change the regime to lower accountability, and higher trust.

In three words:

LET TEACHERS TEACH

Lets also stop this sterile argument over that sign hangs over the Entrance to your local school.

My call is to re-focus on the boys and girls walking in and out of the school.

My call today is for the Ulster Unionist Party to take the Education Ministry.

*****

Four years ago, Arlene Foster commissioned a report on the Economy. The report said the single most important change the devolved government could make would be to create a single Department of the Economy ... effectively scrapping DEL and combining in with DETI.

Earlier this year, I sat in discussions chaired by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and I am sure I heard agreement on scrapping DEL.

Since then, nothing, No Delivery, just lengthening dole queues.

I say, Deliver on that key Recommendation. Create the single Department of the Economy.

Then re-run D’Hondt, so we redistribute control of the other departments, and let the Ulster Unionist Party have Education.

Give us Education, and we will fix it.

Not just for protestant boys from working class areas ... for all underachievers who are not getting the chance to explore and fulfil their potential in life.

 

RECONCILIATION

My final thought today is on Reconciliation.

I suggest two actions.

One – the political parties agree a definition of what it means, because I suspect the five parties of the Executive have five different interpretations. I am happy – willing – to do that. If we can agree, it will bring great comfort to victims who fear Sinn Fein’s definition of Reconciliation means having to hug the person who hurt you, or murdered your loved one.

Two – and I want this to be part of this Party’s contribution to the future.

We are in a decade on Centenaries. We are not far off the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. So, we are close to the Centenary of the Somme.

Let us encourage every primary school in Northern Ireland to study the story of the Somme.

The36th Ulster Division. The 16th Irish Division. Standing shoulder to shoulder. Dying – shoulder to shoulder, in common cause against a common enemy.

And then let us send a delegation of our children to the Somme on the 1st of July next year, 2014.

Put a million pounds aside from the budget and get matched funding from business and elsewhere to make it two million.

And then let us repeat the process in 2015, but bring as many schoolchildren as possible from the whole island of Ireland to the Somme.

And then, in 2016, for the Centenary itself, let us run that process again for as many schools as we can manage.

Let us send schoolchildren from England, Scotland and Wales .... from  Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the Somme, to share that common bond, and common understanding of the human cost of conflict.

Let that be part of our contribution to Reconciliation

Let that be part of our contribution to strengthening the Union.

Let that be part of our contribution to fostering better relations with the Republic of Ireland.

And maybe then, with our support, our children can do what we failed to do.

I am well over 50 years of age. I have never lived in a Northern Ireland at ease with itself, with its citizens comfortable in their own skins, prosperous, healthy, with a positive sense of purpose in their lives.

That’s my vision. 

It could lead to a day when people vote for what they hope for, not because of what they are afraid of.

Together we can make it happen.

Together, that day will come.

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