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Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt 2017 Manifesto launch speech
14 February 2017, Park Avenue Hotel, Belfast
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I think it would be fair to say that few of us would have imagined being back in this room launching another election manifesto so soon after the results of May 2016.
It is important to take a moment to reflect on how it has come about.
When I stood here less than twelve months ago, this Party was offering a vision of hope, of normal politics. We hashtagged our manifesto document Make It Work.
Before that, we produced a vision document that was far reaching and ambitious as we approach Northern Ireland’s centenary. We produced specific policy papers on real issues – mental health, animal cruelty, the knowledge economy, veterans and the armed forces ...... nine documents in all.
Others offered little more than fear and a race to the bottom.
Sadly, for Northern Ireland, fear won – again.
We went back to Stormont to enter into the negotiations on the Programme for Government. We did so on the basis of our manifesto commitment, based on the promise of Section F Paragraph 61 of Fresh Start – that a draft programme for government would be resolved within two weeks of the election. On day one of those talks, it became clear the DUP and Sinn Féin had reneged on their own document. Suffice to say, the last mandate never saw a Programme for Government – or a Budget for that matter. In response, we honoured our commitment, Page 5 of our Manifesto, and formed the first Official Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
We did so knowing that if the DUP and Sinn Féin found a way of doing business, we could potentially be consigning ourselves to the political wilderness for many years to come. We discussed it as a MLA group. We agreed – unanimously - that it was the right thing to do for the people of Northern Ireland. Country First, Party Second – that’s our credo. I cannot tell you how proud I was of our MLA group that they voted unanimously to risk their own careers by supporting the formation of an Opposition.
Left alone to govern together what did the DUP and Sinn Fein offer?
Well, to begin with they made big promises and ambitious statements.
Here are three quotes
"I believe in the coming days we can agree a Programme for Government that can deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland"
FM Arlene Foster 12 May 2016
"I am totally committed to working in partnership with my Executive colleagues to deliver further progress"
dFM Martin McGuinness 12 May 2016
“This is what delivery looks like. No gimmicks. No grandstanding..... Day by day, slowly but surely, politics here is changing. And it’s for the better"
Executive Office, 21 November 2016
Today, £85,000 of taxpayers’ money went up in smoke, needlessly. As it did yesterday, will do tomorrow, and may do for another 19 years.
Surely that alone represents grounds to make this Assembly Election a Referendum on how what the DUP Leader calls the “debacle” of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was handled.
That, and ten years of the DUP and Sinn Féin ensconced in the privacy of Stormont Castle, either as the lead parties, or the sole parties of the Executive.
This is about incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and the strong whiff of corruption. I regret the DUP and Sinn Féin did not embrace our call for a public inquiry in time for the full facts to be in front of the public in time for their vote on the 2nd of March. I regret it – but who is surprised?
Incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and the strong whiff of corruption. Those are not unionist values. Nor are they the values of nationalism.
So, the causes of this election are clear, and they are not “orange or green” – but the DUP and Sinn Féin have bolted onto the only ground they know - polarising communities with dog whistle politics, in an attempt to cover up their disgraceful record in government over this last, long decade.
No vision. No hope.
So what alternative is the Ulster Unionist Party offering?
I’m sure everyone realises where the title “Fresh Start” comes from? It’s the first substantive paragraph of the 1998 Agreement. Paragraph 2 – which identifies the opportunity for a fresh start based on Reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust ..... basic principles that should be the foundation of our politics in Northern Ireland
Where is the trust in politics?
Before the collapse of the Assembly I heard one of the younger members – possibly the DUP’s youngest - seek the sympathy of the House, because it has been a hard 10 years for the DUP. Why? Because, he said, they did not want to share power with Sinn Féin – and reminding us of how when Edwin Poots was an Executive Minister, he had to hold his nose to speak to Republicans.
What hope does that offer to anyone? Is it any wonder 45% of the population don’t turn out to vote?
Unionism and Northern Ireland deserve better: a coalition of the willing; parties seeking proper partnerships; leaders who want to share space, power and responsibility because they understand it is for the greater good, not simply because the law says sharing is compulsory.
I want to offer a vision for a Northern Ireland that sees us go confidently into our second century.
Imagine a Northern Ireland where the Health Service actually works as intended, with an economy that generates serious wealth for our people, generating the taxes that fund public services that are the envy of others.
Imagine a single education system, where children mix from age four, receiving a virtual inoculation jab against sectarianism.
Imagine a country that actually heeded the warning of Edward Carson from a hundred years ago about the need for a shared future. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1920, as Northern Ireland was being established, his warning to the politicians who would eventually populate Stormont was clear:
“They must forget faction and section …… If Ulster does what I ask her to do, and what I hope and believe she will do, in setting up an example and a precedent of good government, fair government, honest government, and a government not for sections or factions, but for all, her example may be followed …”
I yearn for an Executive built on a proper partnership, based on trust, equality and mutual respect.
I yearn for an Executive that actually protects the vulnerable.
As a Victims Commissioner, it was immediately clear to me that while victims and survivors are not a homogeneous group, there were common themes, like the fact there was a reasonable expectation that in the wake of the terrible event that made them victims, the state and its services would form the wagons in a circle and protect them and their families, but too often, the opposite happened.
I sat in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in south Belfast on the 20th of January, as Sir Anthony Hart delivered his report into Historical Institutional Abuse. I was surrounded by victims, some of whom had waited decades for this moment. But they were left deeply frustrated, because Sir Anthony’s recommendations sit in a report delivered to the Executive Office in Stormont Castle, and that department is effectively closed to those victims. That is the ultimate obscenity of this political crisis – that people whose early years were cruelly and brutally scarred by those in whom the state put its trust, find in their later years justice and redress is, Tantalus-like, just out of reach .... while £85,000 goes up in smoke, every day.
It’s not an experience exclusive to victims. A quarter of a million of our people are on some form of NHS Waiting List; meanwhile, GPs threaten rebellion. In education, the same families see children under achieve at school, generation after generation; meanwhile, issues like post-primary transfer arrangements remain unresolved. And our economy continues to suffer the imbalance of an under-developed private sector; meanwhile our people are less well off than our counterparts in Great Britain.
Unionism for Northern Ireland’s second century needs to offer better than has been demonstrated over the last decade at Stormont – something offering integrity, something honourable, delivered by people who will put the country’s interests ahead of their party’s, who understand there is such a thing as the common good and the greater good.
We must try to inspire and excite, at the same time reassuring them that we care for our community above our own petty self-interest.
So here is the message that we will take to doorsteps around the country between now and polling day:
Big change is required.
The Renewable Heat scandal will see £85,000 of taxpayer’s money go up in smoke every day between now and the Election.
You simply can’t afford another five years of DUP / Sinn Féin rule.
They’ve had their chance. They’ve had ten long years to provide better and they’ve blown every opportunity they were handed.
A decade of failure: debacles, and disappointments. False starts and broken promises.
It’s time for parties capable of trust and mutual respect.
Parties capable of beginning with a determination to Clean Up Stormont.
This manifesto contains a Five Point Plan to do just that. Greater accountability for Ministers and for their Special Advisers; electing a Speaker by secret ballot, as they do in London, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh; giving statutory committees a legal duty to scrutinise the work of Executive departments, not just “assist and advise”; ending the abuse of Petitions of Concern, and; greater transparency in politics, including financial donors.
Some think the election result is a foregone conclusion. I do not.
This is both a Referendum on how the Executive handled the RHI debacle, and the last ten years.
It is also the first time the public has had a real choice between rewarding the parties of government with another mandate, or offering the Opposition the chance to do better. In our 96 year history, Northern Ireland has never had the opportunity to elect a credible alternative. On the 2nd of March, it does.
But every single vote for the Ulster Unionist Party will be a step closer bringing an end to a decade of arrogance, incompetence and even the allegations of corruption under Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Every vote for us will be a vote for the people who will put the country first and will provide unionism with strong, confident leadership. After Ulster Unionists, I urge voters to support any candidate they trust will do the right thing by their local community, their constituency and this country.
I urge you to be one more vote for change on the second of March.