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Speech by Party Leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA to 25th La Touche Legacy Conference in Co Wicklow

I suppose its common on these occasions to begin by trying to make some sort of connection to the area in which you are speaking.  As it happens, that is not a problem for me, because I have fond memories of childhood holidays at the Glenview Hotel.

I remember the peerless views of the Glen of the Downs. I remember the animals the owners kept out back, and their son's train set in the attic.

I was back at the Glenview for my 40th birthday celebrations - a long weekend of poetry reading, nature walks and spiritualism, and definitely nothing to do with Guinness and golf!

So, I feel very at home here and it is important to state that, because it challenges the stale, binary view of life that insists you align yourself totally with one traditional community or the other.

You are probably familiar with the words that are a paraphrase of the great Ulster poet, John Hewitt. I am an Ulsterman, I am Irish. I am British and I am European and to deny any aspect of that multi-layered identity is to diminish me. That’s a paraphrase, of course, and I’ll return to what he actually said in a moment.

I like it because it reflects the complexity of who we are.

I am not the sort of Unionist who feels threatened by an Irish Tricolour. I am happy having a coffee in the Cultúlaan on the Falls Road. One of my sons used to go boxing at the Holy Trinity Club in west Belfast. I have represented Ireland, albeit only at schools international athletics level, but that is part of my Irishness, as is harbouring entirely unchristian thoughts about the England rugby team every time they play in Dublin. But I also cheer Mohammed Farah when he wraps himself in the Union Flag to celebrate a double Gold medal at the Olympics. And when the Ryder Cup came to the K Club, you need hardly ask how European I felt that weekend!


Ulsterman, Irishman, British and European. It’s a much more complicated, but honest world view than the old orange or green, protestant or catholic.

John Hewitt had a second thought that followed his Ulsterman, Irishman, British and European quote. The reason you may not hear it so often is because it is more challenging, not least to unionism.

This is what he actually wrote, in a letter to John Montague, another poet, in 1964, starting with the well-known bit that the paraphrase comes from:

“I always maintained that our loyalties had an order to Ulster, to Ireland, to the British Archipelago, to Europe; and that anyone who skipped a step or missed a link falsified the total.”

Less frequently quoted is what follows:

“The Unionists missed out Ireland: the Northern Nationalists (The Green Tories) couldn’t see the Ulster under their feet; the Republicans missed out on both Ulster and the Archipelago; and none gave any heed to Europe at all.”

I find that statement very telling – and challenging. Did my predecessors deny their Irishness? Did others do the same with Ulster and Britain? Did we all miss a trick with Europe?

In this decade of centenaries, we all have an opportunity to reflect, not just on what we got right and what we got wrong, but also, equally importantly, on the impact we had on others.

I commend your Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore TD, who took an important step at the British Irish Association conference in Cambridge three weeks ago, when he acknowledged those unionists who perceived that successive Irish governments did not do enough to secure the border and prevent the Provisional IRA from using the Republic as a safe haven from which to launch attacks on Northern Ireland.

I know there are unionists who are dismissive of his words, because they only address a perception of a porous border, but I view it as an important first step. Will there be a second step? I hope so, but I do not expect Eamon Gilmore, or anyone else, to engage on a solo run in dealing with our past. If we are to deal with the past, we must say to each other, “you’ll never walk alone”, in engaging with this most difficult area.

The Tánaiste also used his Cambridge speech to indicate his desire to invite Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the UK Government and unionist leaders to join in the events that will commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising. I was pleased to offer an immediate acceptance, in principle. The devil is in the detail when it comes to this sort of thing, and beyond that, there is the question of presuming one’s leadership will survive three years!

But all things being equal, I see no reason not to acknowledge that seismic event in our history. To Acknowledge, mind, is not the same as to Endorse.

The Queen set the tone with her State Visit in 2011. The places she visited, the words she chose, represent the greatest act of leadership I have witnessed in my lifetime. I shall strive to match Her lead.

Famously, she spoke of matters we might all might “wish had been done differently or not at all”.

Unfortunately, that remains the case today. The NI Assembly started up after the summer recess a few weeks ago. Three of the four debates in Week One were backward looking. That was no signal to sent out to a population which is becoming increasingly disaffected with devolved politics.

I am not saying the individual debates were not important in their own right. What I am saying is that to lump so many together sent out a signal that gave no hope to our 63,000 unemployed, particularly the youth enduring long-term unemployment. There is a depressing lack of hope in these debates. The Ulster Unionist’s first debate, by the way, was on opening up public procurement processes for the benefit of local companies.

Yet, the other issues are important. The first was a DUP attack on Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly, for his words and actions over the summer, not least in Castlederg.

Let me say a few words about Castlederg and why opposition to that Republican parade was so important.

Lynda and I have two sons and I cannot imagine any circumstances under which we would stop loving them - even if they were to commit horrific crimes.

We couldn't airbrush them out of history, or stop remembering their birthdays or the anniversary of their deaths. It is the human condition; so I understand why families and friends want to remember their dead.

It is the human condition.

But how it is done is the key question. What is appropriate? What is the wider motivation behind a parade like Castlederg's.

Castlederg is a very small town. Population fewer than 3,000. I understand Greystones has 15,000 inhabitants.

During the Troubles, Castlederg was subjected to some 50 bomb explosions. 21 people were murdered by the IRA in Castlederg and district; a further eight men from the area were murdered by the Provos elsewhere. 28 of those 29 were Protestants, nine were civilians and of the 20 members of the security forces, 11 were off-duty when they were killed. In terms of truth and justice, just two murder charges have been made in connection with all of the above.

How would you feel if that was the story of Greystones? Or if loyalists wanted to commemorate those who perpetrated the Monaghan and Dublin bombings?

What this was about was equivalence - asserting that "their" dead IRA man is the same as a dead police officer or soldier.

There is no equivalence for me, and I sincerely hope it is the same for you. Those who volunteered for the IRA made a choice to join an illegal organisation dedicated to the destruction of the state. Members of the security forces did not. I can put the difference - the reason why equivalence is obscene - no better than by quoting a senior policeman in conversation with an IRA man. The policeman told the terrorist that he never woke up thinking "who can I kill today". The Republican replied: "I did."

And Republicans want to raise the people who terrorised Castlederg for decades to the status of "Ireland's patriot dead". That is issue for the people of this country. Do you agree that people who intended to explode a bomb without warning - just like the Enniskillen bomb, or the Omagh bomb - in Castlederg, but who died because the bomb went off prematurely - are your patriotic soldiers?

Are the people responsible for the murder of Garda Jerry McCabe patriots?

On the evening of the Castlederg parade, 11th August, I wrote to the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Irish Labour parties, challenging them to say whether members of the Provisional IRA are among Ireland's patriot dead, and with the exception of Eamon Gilmore, there has been a shocking lack of willingness to engage on this issue. Enda Kenny and Micháel Martin lead this country's traditional "big two" political parties. One, at least, is not slow to criticise what he perceives as the failures of political leadership in Northern Ireland. This evening, I say to you, beware, please do not allow any of your leaders to fail you - unless, of course, you consider it patriotic to plant no warning bombs in Castlederg, or Monaghan or Dublin. Because I don't.

It seems clear Sinn Féin's primary political focus is on the Republic. Holding the balance of power in Dáil Éireann is both an aim and real possibility. I urge the people of the Republic to study Sinn Féin very carefully. I offer just one example. Their ideology is ruining our schools.

11 years ago, in October 2002, when Martin McGuinness was Minister of Education, his Department undertook a household survey that he described as "the largest consultation ever undertaken on an education issue." There were two key findings: the one he latched onto was that people did not like the 11-Plus Transfer test that was used for the transferring pupils from primary to post-primary education, in other words, to grammar or secondary schools. He used that finding to abolish the 11-Plus. Had I been Education Minister, I would have done the same.

But where he and I differ is that I would have ensured an alternative was in place first. He did not, and 11 years on, the impact of his decision is to further sectarianise education. Many schools now operate their own unofficial Transfer examinations; one is favoured primarily by state schools, the other by the catholic maintained sector. And Sinn Féin do not seem to care, because they have achieved their ideological aim, of smashing the 11-Plus.

The other key finding in that household survey was that people did like the principle of selection. Martin McGuinness ignored that. It did not fit the ideology.

Had I been Education Minister, I would have abolished the 11-Plus, but replaced it with new thinking. What is needed is a recognition that inside every child - every child, no exceptions - is a spark of ability, creativity and talent. It might be academic, but it might equally be vocational or technical, artistic or sporting. It will, of course, be some glorious and unique mixture of them all. And it's more complicated than that. You can be academically good at language while simultaneously awful at mathematics.

So, while I would have abolished the 11-Plus, just as Martin McGuinness did, I would have done it for entirely different reasons. My reason is that it asked the wrong question. It said to a 10 old: we want to know how intelligent you are, and we have decided to measure it very narrowly, based on your academic ability in English, mathematics and science. The better question is: in what ways are you intelligent, and we place no value judgement that says being academic is better than being vocational. Yes, we need scientists searching for a cure for cancer. But if we do not have nurses and ancillary hospital staff, we'll die anyway.

The Ulster Unionist Party on my shift will never by-pass the opportunity to take the Education Ministry at Stormont, and our pledge is to stop fixating about the sign above the school entrance - grammar, secondary, integrated, Irish-medium - and bring the focus back where it should be, on the students, staff and parents who walk in and out of that entrance.

 Literacy and numeracy are vital tools if a child is to have a proper chance in life. Lack of literacy and numeracy effects far too many of our children - protestant and catholic, unionist and nationalist, indigenous and ethnic, urban, rural. Yet the current Education Minister, Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd, spent twice as much consulting on Irish Medium education as he did on how best to tackle literacy and numeracy. Ideology always comes first with Sinn Féin.

I consider all this both a challenge to the citizens of Northern Ireland, but also a warning to the people of the Republic. I have no doubt Sinn Féin aspire to holding the Education Ministers on an all-island basis. Next time Sinn Féin knock your door asking for a vote, remember the experience of a Sinn Féin Education Minister over the last 15 years in Northern Ireland

My aspirations are a little more limited. I would settle for the Department of Education at Stormont. If we got it, we'd go for what NI's first Education Minister, Lord Londonderry, wanted but was thwarted from achieving - a single education where all our children mix together, inoculating themselves against the sectarianism that is the toxic legacy of our past.

 

I was born just in time to live through the Troubles. I remember my father driving me up the Craigantlet Hills adjacent to Stormont in east Belfast; we spent an evening watching Belfast ablaze. I did not understand it then. I do not understand it today, but we all continue to live with the legacy.

I also remember, as a primary school pupil, wondering why we had two motorways that started in Belfast but ended in the middle of nowhere, instead of in Derry and Dublin. I also wondered why our second university was being built in Coleraine, and not our second City. I know the resentment over the refusal to build on the Magee College campus lingers in Derry to this day as another part of that legacy.

I have vague memories of Captain Terence O'Neill, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, trying to do what was right and change things in the face of the civil rights movement. But he came unstuck against the traditional twin towers of Republican ideology and intransigent unionism.

The common theme of the day – the late 60s - in the States, France and on this island - was a series of mass movements trying to transform the state, not overthrow it. I believe O'Neill tried, but what he offered was not enough for some, who pressed on demanding further reform; it was a sell-out to sections of unionism, who overthrew him; and it was the opportunity for violent republicanism to switch on the latest phase of their so-called "armed struggle."

Looking at Northern Ireland today, you could argue with considerable force that little has changed.

We need a Game Changer. Something that will allow us all to move on.

As a unionist, I accept that challenge. First, I have a message for the disaffected within unionism. You are in danger of losing the peace. Republicans fought for a United Ireland. They lost. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so unless and until the majority within Northern Ireland vote otherwise. We all agreed that principle, in the 1998 Referendum. So, why is unionism not offering a more confident, generous face to our nationalist neighbours?

When unionists don't like something, a section take to the streets in protest. It was the story of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985; it is still the story over the vote that brought down the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall last December. The lesson of unionist street protest is that it does not achieve anything.

But there is an alternative. This Party conducted a successful campaign against locating a Peace Centre at the site of the old Maze Prison without so much as a white line protest.

It was the product of strategic thinking, and if there is an over-arching lesson from the story of Northern Ireland over the last 50 years, it is that you only get positive results from long-term strategic thinking, which inevitably requires dialogue with all, including those for whom you have little or no sympathy.

Secondly, I have to accept the perception among many nationalists that my predecessors left stones unturned - which otherwise could have solved the issues that gave rise to the civil rights campaign that was hijacked by the IRA.

There is a strong perception that the unionists who ruled Northern Ireland for so long were slow to bring forward reforms, particularly in housing, employment and voting.

These are matters I believe we should review, once and for all. But these are not matters for politicians, and most certainly not for lawyers. The mind-set required is that of the dispassionate historian. I am more than willing to have such a review.

I have no doubt it will give rise to evidence that will be uncomfortable to unionists, and that there are issues for which we may need to offer apologies and acknowledgements.

But I am equally confident it will confirm my assertion that no one needed to die to get where we are today.

 
On the Thursday night / Friday morning of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, I was working as a journalist with UTV and remember going home around 4 or 5 in the morning to freshen up. Lynda had our two boys in bed, PJ the elder boy still had not stared school. This week, he started university.

It is time.

It is also time to for me to finish, so I do, with these words from John Hewitt:

Patriotism has to do with keeping
The country in good heart, the community
Governed with justice and mercy.

Like Hewitt, I can find no plainer words.

 

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