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Speech made by Party Leader at Ulster Covenant Centenary dinner

My Lord Mayor, First Minister, Secretary of State, Very Reverend Dr Ivan Patterson, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen

 

First of all, may I just acknowledge what a great Master of Ceremonies we have tonight in Ian McElhinney. I know Ian is carving out a reputation as one of the key characters in Game of Thrones, which is spearheading our entry as serious players in global tv and film production, but he also does a mean turn as John Hewitt, my favourite Ulster poet – that’s a semi-commercial plug for Ian’s one-man show!

 

There are many, many people to thank for their input tonight, and at the risk of leaving someone out, let me say Thank You to:

 

The staff of the Titanic Signature Project

 

Our Piper, Stanley Graham

 

Grace Taylor for her wondrous singing

 

The Murley Silver Band, who were magnificent at St Anne’s Cathedral for the Centenary Service last Sunday

 

And a young man by the name of Kyle Quinn, from Richhill, Co Armagh.  Kyle is responsible for tonight’s Dinner Emblem, and put an extraordinary amount of work into making sure tonight was a success. Thank you Kyle.

 

I also want to thank the staffers in the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party who worked closely and well to make this happen. So thank you to Timothy Johnston and the DUP, thank you to Colin McCusker and the Ulster Unionists.

 

I know some applaud the co-operation that bears fruit tonight, and others look on more nervously. So, let me say this.

 

This week, Peter Robinson and I were photographed together at Lord Craigavon’s statue in Parliament Buildings. This week we also issued jointly, not one but two news releases. In fairness, one was an initiative to focus attention on tonight, so not of universal significance.

 

But the other was a detailed analysis and appeal regarding tomorrow’s Centenary Parade. It was a serious attempt to put a context on these Celebrations, and to spell out our joint expectations of what we expected – and expect – tomorrow, by way of behaviour, by those taking part, by those out to object, and by those who will take to the streets to watch or support.

 

I visited the Parades Commission last week. I went on my own, and I went because I was being told by the Commission that unionism’s voice was not being heard. I returned to Windsor House this week, and engaged again, this time with the First Minister.

 

Without breaking confidentiality, I can say with certainty that we presented a united front, focused on what was best for Northern Ireland, and without any thought of seeking party political advantage.

 

So, it can be done, and when it is right that it is done, I will not be found wanting in working for the best interests of all. There are times when Country must come before Party, and that will be a measure of my Leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. It is, indeed, a mantra of the Party.

 

But, with the Union now better positioned to face the threat from Irish Nationalism, I also want to build on that great political achievement, and deliver for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, people like Edgar Graham and far too many others to mention here tonight, and create a normal society, with normal structures of government, and that means offering choice.

 

I do not know how many of you have been on the Covenant pages of the Public Records Office website, but it is quite an experience.

 

On a personal level, I am so proud to read the record of: “Alfred Nesbitt, 113 Agincourt Avenue, Belfast”, my paternal grandfather. Lynda says she has noted her maternal great-grandmother – which I assume is just to say her way of reminding me that she is younger than I am ... 

 

In terms of understanding the reach of the Home Rule Crisis and the Covenant, it’s really useful to see that signatures are recorded from well beyond the six counties that were to become Northern Ireland. Support was international, emphasising that what happened 100 years ago was of political and cultural significance not just in this corner of the Kingdom, but for the whole of Britain and Ireland, and indeed the Empire.

 

Let us not forget that in Great Britain, a parallel pledge secured some 2 million signatures of support by the summer of 1914 and the outbreak of WW1.

 

As someone born well after Partition, it is difficult to imagine Dublin ruled from Westminster. Yet it was. And Dublin, of course, is where Edward Carson was born, it’s where he was elected as a Member of the British Parliament at Westminster, and it was for Dublin as much as for Belfast, that he resisted Home Rule.

 

Again, look at where the signatories to the Covenant come from, not just the three counties of Ulster that were lost, but Kildare, Kilkenny, Leitrim, Limerick, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Sligo, Waterford, Westmeath and Wicklow, as well, of course, as Dublin itself.

 

But if Dublin ruled by London is a difficult concept in 2012, the threat to unionists posed by Home Rule is not. Because Northern Ireland faced the same sort of crisis in the 1980s, with the Anglo Irish Agreement. I was particularly influenced by the words and thoughts and deeds of the late, great Harold McCusker, who articulated brilliantly the sense of betrayal. Why, he questioned, did Parliament let us believe we were British, why educate us as Britons, why imbue the values of the Union, only to deny us that identity?

 

 

When it was clear Home Rule could not be stopped, and that there was to be a Northern Ireland with its own government, Carson was clear about what that government should be. As I quoted in this room at our Conference last weekend, Carson said a government at Stormont should be good, it should be fair, it should be honest, and not for sections or factions, but for all.  That alone connects 1912 to 2012.

 

Let me close as I did in this room six days ago.

Tomorrow, the 29th September 2012, we will all have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of the giants of unionism. Sir James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland - a 6 foot 7 inch colossus of efficient and effective government; and Lord Carson of Duncairn, the leader.  They had a vision for this country, a country united and at peace with itself, functioning as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

By the way, for those who remember the “Ulster Says No” campaign of the 1980s, I travelled to the city of Guadalajara, Mexico for the 1986 World Cup Finals, and during the NI – Algeria game, my attention was drawn to a huge banner away to my left, which read “Guadalajara Still Says No!”

 

Someone – and Danny Kennedy as Transport Minister has volunteered – should go check if Guadalajara has shifted position. Because in 2012, Unionism is in a much more positive, progressive mood!

 

THANK YOU

Ulster Unionists