Chairman, My Lords, Elected Representatives, Candidates, Association and Party Officers, Ladies & Gentlemen,
Thank you for entrusting me with the honour and privilege of leading this great Party for another year.
I am highly conscious Martin McGuinness described me this week as a "major disappointment". If you think it appropriate, I shall apologise .........
I am not going to rehearse what I have written in the Conference programme, but as we look back collectively at the last 12 months, there is little to apologise about - and much for this Party to celebrate.
We are in better shape than we have been for some time.
We are in better heart.
We are better organised.
I thank you, Chairman, for the huge commitment you have made in the last 12 months to the Party - both as Chair and as an Ulster Unionist "Doing What's Right for Northern Ireland" at Westminster. I urge you and Denis, Lord Rogan to keep on doing what you are doing.
You have taken every opportunity to push the issues Parliament would rather ignore - on the basis they're too difficult, and anyway, devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
On a personal basis, I thank you for delivering the books of condolences for Drummer Lee Rigby to his home regiment at the Tower of London, following his brutal murder last year by Islamist terrorists. I also thank Councillor Mary Hamilton and everyone else who organised those books of condolence that affirm our view of the United Kingdom as an arrangement where Northern Ireland gives as well as receiving.
We have a long and proud tradition of service in the Armed Forces - from the greatest of great Generals to the thousands upon thousands of foot soldiers who signed up for the service and sacrifice that united the peoples of this island 100 years ago this year on the outbreak of the Great War.
This week, a hero of Afghanistan and Iraq - a man who was awarded the Military Cross for what he did in Afghan - joined this Party. Captain Doug Beattie MC sends his apologies. He has a long standing commitment to the Help for Heroes Charity.
Captain Beattie took his time in joining us, and rightly so. I invited him to our Annual Conference in Armagh nearly three years ago. He has spent the intervening period reflecting which party is for him. He started thinking Ulster Unionist - more importantly, he finished thinking Ulster Unionist.
I invite others, who like Doug Beattie have service in their DNA, to join us. This country needs a Party committed to Doing What’s Right for Northern Ireland. That means the Country’s interests come first - before the Party’s - and the Party comes before the individual.
I commend all our elected representatives who Do What’s Right for Northern Ireland. We understand it is not easy.
It’s not easy at Stormont while the DUP and Sinn Féin cancel each other out, in a stalemate that is, to coin a phrase, a “major disappointment.”
But Ulster Unionists seek a way around the impasse. I have a Private Members Bill aimed at reforming our outdated libel laws. Roy Beggs has one on the better regulation of scrap metal dealers. Tom Elliott on a ban on the naming of publicly funded properties after terrorists. Jo-Anne Dobson on organ donations. Sandra Overend on measures that could prevent another horse meat scandal. And Robin Swann's Private Members Bill has forced the Minister of Justice to take action on farm fraud.
Meanwhile, Danny Kennedy continues to do great things in Regional Development, not least in promoting public transport and active travel.
Over the next 54 days, you and I have an opportunity.
An opportunity the likes of which has not come our way in a long time.
An opportunity to engage with an electorate who are fed up with being told if they do not vote a certain way, something bad will happen.
In recent years, something bad happened anyway.
Voting patterns are changing.
Old alliances are breaking up.
People have detached themselves from the parties they have supported for years.
The opportunity is to give them a nudge.
A nudge out of the No Man's Land where they are today.
A nudge in our direction.
It's an opportunity to persuade people to attach themselves to Ulster Unionism.
I urge you to grasp that opportunity to tell them it’s okay to vote for what they hope for.
In truth, it’s not asking much.
But you cannot hope for better if you have no Confidence in the people you elect to lead you.
You cannot hope for better if you have no Trust in their motivation.
You cannot hope if no one creates that hope.
Look at the Health Service.
This week, we are told patients lay on trolleys in the Emergency or Accident & Emergency Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for over 24 hours.
My mother's birthday is tomorrow - Mother's Day.
I cannot tell you how I would react if my mother had to wait over 24 hours for a bed in one of our National Health Service hospitals.
What is the point of government if we cannot get that fundamental right?
What is the point of a devolved government if its First Minister uses the word "obscene" when the Health Minister, our own Michael McGimpsey, has the vision to foretell the problem three years ago - only to be ignored.
What is the point when the current Health Minister reduces 80 and 90 year olds to tears because they think they are going to be thrown out of their residential homes onto the streets?
What’s the point when families wonder if their loved ones died because of what did and did not happen AFTER they entered what we all have the right to expect to be the Sanctuary of an acute hospital's Accident & Emergency Unit.
I have to say, the current Health Minister has proved to be a "major disappointment".
The BBC reported on Wednesday night that 18 people were on trolleys in the Royal's A&E, 11 waiting for beds, and 2 had been there for 29 hours.
Now, I accept some people go to A&E when they shouldn't - broken fingernails and all those other reasons.
But that does not explain 11 people lying on trolleys waiting for a hospital bed.
We measure these matters numerically - the number presenting at A&E, the percentage seen within 4 hours, the total who had to wait beyond 12 hours, and the rest.
These statistics are important. They are the evidence base. But the issue is not numerical. It is value-based.
Trust - Confidence - Hope.
Who trusts the political Leadership of the Health Service?
Who has Confidence in the political leadership of the Health Service?
Who feels the political leadership of the Health Service offers them Hope for better days ahead?
There is the problem.
Trust - Confidence - Hope.
Values, attributes, without which policies and strategies have little meaning. They are no better than houses built on sand.
On the 22nd of May, I urge people to vote on values.
Who do you trust?
Who inspires confidence?
Who offers hope of better days ahead?
When it comes to Europe, two words spring to mind.
Jim Nicholson has an unmatched record of success and influence as a Member of the European Parliament.
Jim Nicholson’s experience on the European scene has never been more important to Northern Ireland.
The EU is emerging from a prolonged Eurozone crisis, BUT next comes a period of uncertainty over the UK's future relationship with the European Union.
So, we need MEPs who know what they are doing.
The challenge for any Member of the European Parliament - among the hundreds and hundreds of MEPs - is to get known. You do not do that in a single term. The system in Brussels is all about networking and knowing your way around the corridors of power. Nobody can match Jim in this regard.
As Chair of the Committee of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I scrutinise the relationship between the EU and the devolved government. The Executive has its own office in Brussels - in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings. It's impressive and impressively central. Every time I ask those officials who represent us in Brussels to name the single thing they would change if they had a magic wand - they say "More personal time with Commissioners"
Colleagues, while our officials cannot attract EU Commissioners across the road, Jim Nicholson has had not one, but two, in Northern Ireland in the last year. That is not because Northern Ireland is a special case. Or because of the Barroso Task Force, which I fear has a whiff of "smoke and mirrors" about it.
It is because Jim Nicholson knows Brussels - and more importantly for the people of Northern Ireland - Brussels knows Jim Nicholson. And Brussels values Jim Nicholson. And Brussels respects Jim Nicholson.
Europe means much more to Northern Ireland than support for agriculture. It impacts on business and the economy, health, education, fisheries, tourism and community issues.
Yes, Europe makes mistakes, like agreeing to fund the terrorist shrine at the Maze, but Jim was there to blow the whistle that brought European support for that project to a grinding halt.
The EU of today is a far cry from the Common Market we joined 40 years ago. Back then, it was only about a free trade zone that would open opportunities for our economy. But today, it has encroached on our sovereignty. The European Union needs reformed.
We need a sensible, intelligent debate on Europe.
Our policy is simply. Review what the EU does.
Renegotiate the terms and conditions of the UK's membership.
Then let the people decide, in a Referendum.
The 3 Rs - Review, Renegotiate, Referendum.
There is no one better to lead that debate than Jim Nicholson.
He will lead a considered discussion, not just on the cost of membership. What about the cost of withdrawing from the European Union? Lost opportunities, lost jobs, lost privileges.
As a committed and passionate Unionist, Jim Nicholson stands four-square for the Union, with all of its political, economic, social and cultural benefits for all our citizens, including those whose identity is not British.
Jim, thank you for all you have done for us in Europe.
Thank you for your commitment.
Thank you for being our candidate.
You have my Number 1 on the 22nd of May!
The 22nd May also sees elections to the new Shadow Councils, and the start of the most radical reform of how we do local government in a generation.
I do not sense the public is that exercised by how local government is organised. I think people are much more interested in the services we deliver.
We understand the concerns on the ground. People are worried about rates, anti-social behaviour, the cost of leisure centres, the lack of social housing. These are not all matters for local government, but voters do not care whether the fix to their problem is the responsibility of the Council, or Stormont or Westminster or Brussels. They just want someone to fix it. Those fixers are in this room today.
The exception to voter indifference to how local government is organised is in Belfast. Some, like us, have seen how the new boundaries will ensure nationalists are in the majority in Belfast.
We opposed that change, but others, holding the biggest unionist mandate, voted otherwise. I'm not sure the public fully realise what is happening to Belfast, but when they do, it is important they are told who is responsible.
It's the same people who undermine local identity by forcing square pegs into round holes, ignoring local identities in the ideological drive to create 11 councils from 26.
This May we offer the electorate a team of candidates with a fine blend of experience and youth, with a professionalism, integrity and understanding of local issues.
The new Super Councils will have new powers, not least in Planning matters.
I say this to our candidates - learn from the mistakes of others. Do not risk your reputation by getting involved in sordid little land deals.
Voters want elected representatives they can trust to do what’s right for Northern Ireland.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you our Council Candidates.
Martin McGuinness asks: How would Mike Nesbitt, the journalist who interviewed him many years ago for UTV, interview Mike Nesbitt, the politician?
It’s not such a hypothetical question. I question myself on a daily basis. I lie awake at night, doing the same thing - Am I doing what's right for the people of Northern Ireland?
My wife questions me. My children question me. My family and friends question me.
People stop me in the street, in the supermarket and in church ... to question me.
I could have stayed in UTV. Great job.
But I wanted to serve. I wanted to contribute. I wanted to Do What's Right for Northern Ireland.
Politics is not an easy road but it is the only path that leads to better days for our people.
We are all better off in the United Kingdom....
We know that we are better placed economically, socially and politically as a constituent part of the United Kingdom.
The Union made sense 100 years ago, when the Ulster Unionist Party secured Northern Ireland’s existence. It made sense in 1998 when we ensured the people of both jurisdictions on this island finally agreed the future of Northern Ireland could only be decided by the people of Northern Ireland. And by the way, never under-estimate the significance of that achievement - history won't!
Economically, there can be no doubt that membership of the United Kingdom is the only game in town.
The World Bank says we are the 6th largest economy in the World. The Republic ranks 46th. You don't have to be a sports fan to know you don't volunteer for relegation!
The vast majority of people in this country, from all backgrounds, agree.
That does not threaten our ability and desire to co-operate. The economies of the UK and Ireland are inextricably linked. We export billions to each other every year. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in both jurisdictions depend on our trading links. Why else would the UK bail out the Irish Government to the tune of 7 Billion Pounds at the height of the Republic's economic crisis? It was more than being a good neighbour. This was also self preservation.
The Republic, of course, embraced the Euro. We in the United Kingdom, did not. Does anyone think it be would be in Northern Ireland’s best interests to leave the Pound for a failed currency union experiment?
Actually, the Alliance Party does, but hey! They're pro-everything, yet at the same time anti-everything ... if that's what you want to hear.
As Groucho Marx said famously: "These are my principles and if you don't like them - well I have others"
100 years ago – in the Golden Era of our economy - we recognised the economic benefits of maintaining the Union. Today, if we are serious about taking Northern Ireland’s economy to the next level and entering a new Golden Era, it is even more important that we retain our global platform by remaining as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Of course, we are not just economic unionists.
As we view with deep concern developments in Crimea and the Ukraine, we should be proud that the United Kingdom is the home of Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law and we remain committed to Do What's Right for the Oppressed around the world.
This is an important message on the eve of the Centenary of the first shots being fired in the Great War.
We can take pride in the fact that people from this Province have played key parts in the history of the United Kingdom. Be it in spearheading British industry in shipbuilding and linen or making the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe.
I can put it no more simply than this. The history of the United Kingdom is our history.
And we are still best placed socially and culturally within our United Kingdom today, because Britishness has always been at its heart a multi-national identity. Membership of the United Kingdom means being part of a tolerant, inclusive, multi-cultural society that is a home for all faiths and traditions.
Those who deny the benefits of our membership of the United Kingdom are not only at odds with the vision of the vast majority of the population – they are at odds with the evidence. If we want a pluralist, prosperous Northern Ireland that punches above its weight, we need to embrace the Union and be proud of our place within it.
In closing, I urge the Assembly to return to its core business in the coming weeks - health, housing, the economy and education.
And I repeat our call that the single most important commitment Stormont could make to creating a truly Shared Future is to dedicate itself to a single education system, where our children mix from the age of 4, inoculating themselves against the toxin that is sectarianism.
Martin McGuinness wonders what Mike Nesbitt the journalist would ask Mike Nesbitt the politician.
I wonder what Martin McGuinness the deputy First Minister would say to Martin McGuinness, the Terrorist Commander?
I would like to think the man with the mandate would tell the man with the balaclava he was a "major disappointment" for choosing terrorism. No one needed to die for Northern Ireland to get where it is today.
I would like to think Martin McGuinness the deputy First Minister would grab Martin McGuinness the terrorist by the lapels, strap him into his seat, and drive him to the point where he understood, in a blinding flash, that terrorism wasn't inevitable, it was a choice. A bad choice. A choice with consequences we continue to endure today.
That would be a start to dealing with the past.
The Ulster Unionist Party accepts the issues remain, and we need to deal with the legacy of the Troubles to move society on.
But Fairly. Honestly. Without disrespecting the rights and needs of victims and survivors. Or disregarding the rule of law.
Chairman, my final words are words of thanks to our candidates. It is not always easy or comfortable to put yourself forward.
Over the next 50-plus days, I wish you every good fortune, and the fortitude to withstand the heat of electoral battle.
There are two other values I urge you to bring to the next two months – Effort and Desire. I want you to succeed. This Party wants you to succeed. Northern Ireland needs you to succeed.
If you show the determination, we have a winning formula.
I look forward to congratulating you on the 23rd of May. Let's get out there and Do What's Right.