Chair, Leader, Fellow Ulster Unionists
Good morning and welcome to our Spring Conference and AGM.
It is fantastic to see such a great turnout this morning - both familiar and new faces alike.
Of course this time last year we all battled through snow and ice to get to the King’s Hall which proved yet again that you cant keep the Ulster Unionists down!
That determination really comes into its own in an election year.
This isn’t any normal election year though.
Not only are voters being asked to return three MEPs for another term they are also electing their local representatives for the new super councils.
In recent weeks as I have travelled around constituencies I have had the pleasure of meeting with many of those selected to represent our party.
And I am really looking forward to working with all of our candidates in the weeks ahead as we hit the campaign trail.
I must also take this opportunity to thank the election coordinators and party activists for the commitment they have shown to the election preparation so far and for the work yet to come.
This party is nothing without its dedicated members so thank you.
And we have never been in a better position approaching an election.
Since we last met as a party the political process was dominated by the Haass talks.
And we were of course criticised for rejecting the proposals.
But the Haass document represented a bad deal for Unionists and for victims.
We could not therefore accept the proposals - that was the right thing to do for Northern Ireland and recent developments have - without doubt - proved this to be the correct approach.
The revelations regarding the scheme for On The Runs exposed the fact that the talks themselves were built on a false premise.
The existence of that secret deal between Sinn Fein and our own Government shamefully side-lined the fundamental rights of victims of terrorism to truth and justice.
For Richard Haass to imply that a failure to sign up to a deal could in some way contribute to a return of violence in Northern Ireland was simply wrong.
The entire episode underlined that more needs to be done for victims here and on mainland GB.
However, as a party we are not prepared to leave things the way they are.
We want a resolution to the issues of flags, parades and the past.
That’s why the Ulster Unionist Party published its own proposals relating to these topics.
Proof yet again of a party that is working for Northern Ireland not just for its own self-interest.
Another example of us doing what’s right for Northern Ireland.
I’m sorry if I repeat that a few times today but that slogan represents the Ulster Unionist Party through and through.
If only the same could be said for other parties.
This Party also fought against a shrine to terrorism at the Maze.
And I repeat my tribute to all those involved in that campaign, party representatives including our Party leader Mike Nesbitt, Tom Elliott and especially the many innocent victims and survivors of terrorism who campaigned against the proposals with such dignity.
Although the project has been halted the ripples continue to be felt.
The complex task of spending the money which was originally skimmed off for the Maze is on-going.
Bad enough that money was originally diverted to the divisive project from a host of more worthy causes in the first place but now we find ourselves trying to complete projects to ensure that funds are not returned to Europe - and the clock is ticking!
And on this issue our Party’s leader must be congratulated for relentlessly holding a secretive OFMDFM to account.
The Maze is an example of what happens when narrow agendas are pursued – Northern Ireland as a whole suffers.
This is not the only example – we only have to look at local government reform or education to find more.
Can I say that in all my time in Europe I have never made Agriculture a political football.
Yet sadly here too we have seen this trend in recent months.
Playing politics with agriculture is wrong.
I believe that placing farmer against farmer will damage the industry in the long term and this is clearly bad news given the importance of agri-food to the Northern Ireland economy.
Northern Ireland deserves better than short term political point scoring.
With elections fast approaching now is our opportunity to spread the message that we are the party which has always put Northern Ireland first and works for the long term good of everyone.
And as the 22nd May draws nearer the debate surrounding the UK’s membership of the EU is likely to intensify.
Indeed the first of two debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage took place earlier this week.
An open debate is positive but the public must know the facts about membership, the true costs and benefits.
The upsides of membership are often glossed over.
For example the opportunities for local firms within the single market are immense.
In recent weeks I have been engaging with small, medium and large businesses to learn first-hand how EU membership actually affects them and as a consequence the Northern Ireland economy.
And for those who perhaps think: “I am not a farmer or a fishermen or a business owner - the EU doesn’t affect me”
Think again - it affects us all.
It sets the standards for the food we drink, the air we breathe and the water we drink.
For example event in recent weeks the Parliament has backed proposals which would remove mobile roaming charges and others which seek to protect consumers making holiday bookings.
The EU is also the source of significant levels of funding for innovation, for infrastructure, for community groups and of course for our farm businesses and rural communities.
There are also downsides to EU membership relating to its increased and increasing powers without accountability,
The level of red-tape and the cost that that can impose,
And there is a need for meaningful reform.
We are clear in the Ulster Unionist Party on the issue of EU membership -
We believe in the three R’s:
A REVIEW - to assess the nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU
A RENEGOTIATION - to improve the terms of the UK’s membership
And a REFERENDUM - the public must be given a say on EU membership.
And as the debate on the merits and drawbacks of our membership of the European Union continues one thing for sure is that Northern Ireland is better off as part of a union with England, Wales and of course Scotland.
Contrary to Anna Lo’s comments Northern Ireland is not ‘artificial’ but is a full and integral part of the United Kingdom.
Whilst I do not deny anyone the right to have aspirations for a united Ireland the economic realities make it clear that we are by far better off in the United Kingdom.
A united Ireland is economically naïve at the best of times and totally out of the question given that the Republic of Ireland has just emerged from a painful bailout.
And whilst the Alliance party sought to back peddle from the issue at their Conference last week –
-Indeed so much back peddling you’d be forgiven for thinking the Giro D’italia had arrived early!-
We must not forget that if Alliance had their way our currency would be the Euro!
Northern Ireland did not escape the economic downturn but just imagine how much worse things would have been for our businesses, our communities and our public services if we had been in the Eurozone?
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
In addition to the Eurozone crisis the EU has also grown to 28 Member States since the last European elections making it all the more important that a region such as Northern Ireland has a strong, experienced voice in Europe.
I am that voice
It is a privilege to represent the people of Northern Ireland in the European Parliament.
And in my 25 years as an MEP I have worked to build up strong working relationships right across the Parliament, with Commissioners and with Commission and Council officials.
I know how Brussels operates and I have worked in a range of policy areas to gain access and open doors for local businesses, organisations, officials and Ministers.
And I am pleased to say that our own Minister Danny Kennedy has been to the fore when it comes to engaging at a European level and seeking out vital funding for infrastructure projects which benefit us all.
Well done Danny on your work in the Department and clearing up the mess left behind by Conor Murphy.
You cannot overestimate the benefit of direct access and face-to-face engagement for a region like Northern Ireland as we compete against increasing competition from other regions to draw down funding or influence decisions.
In this Parliament alone this experience and these links have borne fruit for local businesses, researchers, farmers, fishermen and communities.
However, in the next Parliament the need for experienced representation will be even greater.
We now have an opportunity to show how Northern Ireland will benefit from Ulster Unionist representatives.
Representatives with the ethos of country first, party second both in Europe and in the new councils.
That has always been this Party’s main objective.
And I know it drives each of you here today also.
We see on an almost daily basis the negative impact of parties putting themselves first.
There has never been a greater for the existence of the Ulster Unionist Party.
It is therefore vital that we maximise our representation and there is a lot of hard work to do between now and polling day.
But I am up for the battle and I know from meeting candidates and members that you too are up for the battle.
With your support I know that once again l will be returned as Northern Ireland’s Number 1 Unionist in Europe.
And under Mike’s leadership I am also confident that we will return a strong and united team of Ulster Unionist councillors to the new councils.
And may I also say that we have perhaps never had a greater degree of cooperation and coordination.
Of course after the 22nd May is when the real work begins -
The work of ensuring that Northern Ireland gets the best possible deal in Europe in the next Parliament and that the new super councils can deliver something for ratepayers other than a political carve-up.
I wish you well and look forward to seeing you all on the campaign trail across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.
As we go forward hard work is needed - there’s no point in wishing we had put more effort in on 23rd May.
Let’s get out there and show them we’re not yesterday’s party but we’re tomorrow’s party!!
Thank you and enjoy the rest of your day!!