Ulster Unionist Party Leader, Robin Swann MLA
Spring Conference Speech, 9March 2019
Park Avenue Hotel, Belfast
My Lords, Ladies & Gentlemen, fellow Unionists.
Thank you for again putting your trust in me to lead this party for another year and in what will be an important year for our party.
This is now my third Annual General Meeting as Leader of this Party and in that time we have gone to the polls on three occasions – the fourth is only just around the corner.
We have seen the nation grow ever more divided over our exit from the European Union and Stormont has been in political paralysis for the entirety of that time.
Be in no doubt that this is a vital election year for our Party.
We had a strong result in 2014 that we will be looking to build on with our candidates who are standing for re-election and those who will be contesting seats for the first time.
And going in to it we have plenty to talk up.
I can look across the country and see Ulster Unionists delivering for the people in Local Government.
People like Councillor Julie Flaherty who stood up for grieving parents, waiving burial fees for those who had lost a child within her council area. It was so inspiring that Councils across Northern Ireland quickly followed suit.
People like Councillor Jeff Dudgeon who refused to back down in his campaign to see all those who lost their lives in the Belfast Blitz fittingly remembered with a memorial.
And people like Councillor David Taylor who I know will continue to fight to see the disgraceful decision to name a children’s play-park after a terrorist overturned.
We have a record of delivery and work ethic in Local Government that I am proud of and that each of you should be confident to offer up to the electorate.
It was this Party that first put in motion the reform of our local councils. The priority then was the same as it should have been for every year of the most recent council term; to deliver better, more effective services more efficiently. But we all know that hasn’t happened.
Instead of a swathe of new powers, only planning and a few tools for economic regeneration were actually handed over.
Even the boundaries of the new council areas were hijacked and manipulated by the DUP and Sinn Fein for entirely political reasons. How does it make sense that only a couple of miles away from here, heading up the main arterial road in East Belfast that people in Dundonald find themselves in a Council area almost entirely focused on Lisburn instead of the City that they all will say they live in? It doesn’t make sense, but wisdom or common-sense never had a role to play in the ‘one for me, one for you’ sectarian carve up.
Even when this Party has asked for details on how much the reforms have actually saved – we’re told that savings have not been centrally or separately monitored.
Equally, with this week’s further almost 5% increase in the regional rate, the finances surrounding local government have never before been as unclear and deceptive. I suspect the vast majority of ordinary ratepayers aren’t even aware that most of their rates bill now goes straight to Stormont rather than their local council.
I want to strengthen our local council chambers, and with even greater Ulster Unionist representation across them, I want to see them given greater powers and resources to address the many challenges that we as a society face.
I want to see our councils take the lead for economic and social regeneration in their local areas, I want to see them take responsibilities for providing greater youth services, and I want them to be given the powers on what they can do to help struggling businesses on their highstreets and I want them to start considering solutions as to how they can start fixing the annual problems of poor footpaths and roadside grass cutting.
But all those will require money, we want to see the money raised locally spent locally.
Fighting for better, more effective Local Government is a manifesto pledge we will be taking to the doors across Northern Ireland.
You deserve better. We will deliver better.
But we cannot be ignorant to the climate that DUP and Sinn Fein are trying to create in this election.
They are already warming up as though this election is a border poll.
Rubbing their hands at the thought of turning local government into 11 mini-stormonts where the only options are carve-up or stalemate.
Look at how they have ground Stormont to a halt, with even General Elections reduced to fear-fests.
They’re only going to get louder as we get closer to 2nd May.
If this election is even remotely about the future of the union, then I say to the pro-union population of Northern Ireland that it is about the type of unionism you want to represent you.
We will be offering our brand of unionism that is about confidence and hope and not fear.
We will be offering unionism that is the check and balance at councils.
We will be offering unionism that you can trust will deliver for you.
We will be offering unionism that is both accountable and responsible for their decisions.
The 2nd May represents an important poll for the future of democracy and political accountability in Northern Ireland.
There is a real and definite danger that in these elections the dysfunctionality, chaos and ineptitude that ultimately became Stormont’s downfall will spread to Local Government.
We cannot simply allow the last operating vestige of local democracy to be destroyed as well.
The DUP and Sinn Fein wrecked all round them at Stormont, we cannot let them wreck Local Government too and bring the country to its knees.
At the Party Conference in October past, I said that there was a battle to save the union from the DUP. I cannot say my view has changed.
With the DUP at the helm, pro-union politics lies in the gutter.
As the lead party of unionism I have yet to see them offer anything close to strong, confident unionism.
Instead time and again they seem more focused on destroying other unionist parties rather than protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the union.
Now they say they want more strength to deliver.
Let’s look at what they have delivered to far:
- Stormont hasn’t met in over two years
- The RHI scandal nearly bankrupted the country and now stands to bankrupt legitimate users.
- Unionism is in a minority at Stormont
- Unionism is in a minority in Belfast City Hall
- Their fingerprints all over the disastrous Historical Investigations Unit
- Arlene Foster has radicalised nationalist opinion in a way the republican movement could only dream of.
Members I say to you now, that when they do get louder – when they try to turn up the fear - we cannot allow ourselves to be drowned out.
Remind them of exactly what they have delivered for Northern Ireland.
What they are really asking for is more strength to do less.
We can’t let them away with it.
Be in no doubt.
The Union is safest when this place works. When people are seeing delivery. When things are good there is no need for anyone to question the constitutional status quo.
The Ulster Unionist Party is the party to deliver on a secure Union.
Unionism needs champions and converts.
Unionism should be the comfortable home of choice for people irrespective of their class, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
You can be strong in your Unionism without being belligerent and disrespectful.
And we can demonstrate that the Ulster Unionist Party is the party For the Union by being confident in our Unionism, by being champions for Unionism, and by bringing converts to the Unionist family.
And to quote Councillor Nicholas Trimble, ‘you can be a unionist AND want honest and transparent politics from your representatives – the two aren`t mutually exclusive!’
We are now into the third consecutive year without an Assembly or Executive in place.
In the two years since the public cast their vote in the 2017 Assembly election, Northern Ireland has been without governance, without direction.
And it has just been allowed to become the new normal.
Spiralling waiting lists taken for granted.
Schools having to ask parents to send their children to school with toilet roll.
Victims and survivors of historic institutional abuse forced to continue to continue their long wait for redress because politicians can’t get their act together.
It’s gone from red lines before a deal can be reached, to red lines before we can even discuss a process.
And while Stormont remains in deep freeze, there is zero pressure coming from the UK Government who seem content to allow Northern Ireland to stagnate as long as we give minimum bother until they’ve finished with their internal battles over Brexit.
So Sinn Fein intransigence is being facilitated rather than challenged and exposed. They should be tested to see how serious they are about returning to the power-sharing institutions.
They have been an absolute disgrace.
Slurs against the PSNI.
Treating IRA victims with contempt.
They won’t even engage in talks to attempt to restore devolution.
They’ve totally checked out of power-sharing.
The hope that was created in 1998 has been suffocated by the DUP and Sinn Fein who colluded to carve up when it suited them, without managing to miss the opportunity to poke one another in the eye every so often until all trust was broken and we find ourselves where we are today.
I say to the UK Government and Irish Government that you now reap what you have sown. You pandered to the DUP and Sinn Fein. You allowed them to exclude the other parties. You were happy as long as it kept Northern Ireland off the top of your agenda.
And now where are you?
I’m sick of listening to our Secretary of State dodge her duty to the people of Northern Ireland as if devolved matters are not her problem.
The Secretary of State is fine with direct rule when it suits.
Budgets passed, public appointments made and the Policing Board reconstituted.
But nothing for those who are coming to harm as a result of the current political stalemate.
At the end of last year there were 213,752 patients waiting longer than nine weeks for an appointment with a consultant – and of those 94,953 were waiting longer than 52 weeks. A truly horrifying and depressing statistic for a country of only 1.8m people.
We are in the midst of unprecedented crisis - never before in the history of Northern Ireland have so many people been waiting, and for so long. And yet our health service is completely rudderless – just when it needs leadership the most.
If this isn’t an example of why we need Direct Rule I don’t know what is.
We need Direct Rule now.
For all the talk of vetoes and red lines the reality is that even if the DUP and Sinn Fein had managed to get their deal over the line last year, Stormont would still have been deeply broken.
Power-sharing here must be built on trust, it must be built on respect and it must be built on fairness in sharing space, fairness in sharing power and fairness in sharing responsibility.
Before the Ulster Unionist Party would even consider returning to an Executive there must be fundamental reform to governance and to the petition of concern.
The RHI inquiry gave a startling insight into the state of Government under the DUP and Sinn Fein. We will not be going back to that.
Nor will we be going back to the days when the Petition of Concern could be thrown around to block or protect whenever the DUP and Sinn Fein fancied it.
The public need to feel that the power-sharing institutions are worth saving. A return to the status quo won’t do much to give them confidence.
The power-sharing institutions were designed to bring an end to the ugly days of our past. We need to give the people of Northern Ireland hope that we can deliver a better future.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in the last few months alone there have been ugly scenes that hark back to darker days in our history.
We extend our deepest sympathies to the Ogle family and to all those who have borne the brunt of continued paramilitarism in Northern Ireland.
There is no need or justification whatsoever for those who continue to threaten and exert control over our communities in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Unionist Party made it clear in 1998 that for those who wished to abandon violence there was a path for them to take. However, there are those who have refused to do so and continue to cast a dark shadow.
We commit to challenging criminality in all its forms and we call on the leaders of the UVF and the UDA to take the civilian path and bring all paramilitary activity to an immediate end.
For those who continue to engage in criminality we say that you must get off the backs of our people, or face the inside of the jail cell.
We want a better future for all our communities. One where everyone can look forward to better days without having to look over their shoulders at those who still seek to control and coerce.
In the coming week, Parliament will decide the future direction of this nation’s future outside of the European Union.
The two years following the referendum have hardly been edifying, but there is still time left for people to act within the best interests of the entirety of the United Kingdom.
The Ulster Unionist Party has been clear that the Prime Minister should not attempt to run down the clock to make this a choice between no deal or a bad deal.
Leaving the European Union without a deal would be detrimental, particularly for Northern Ireland. Those who are still championing this as a successful outcome should reflect on the immediate consequences for our people, and the long term damage it could cause to our union.
There will be many twists and turns before the 29th March. But our focus must remain on making sure there are legal changes made to the Withdrawal Agreement text that acknowledge unionist concerns over the backstop.
This Party took a stance that, on balance, the UK was better to remain within the European Union, but has fully accepted the democratic outcome of the UK—wide referendum. I know many of you who were strong advocates for remain during the referendum now feel totally misrepresented by the commentary around support for the backstop.
You did not vote to leave the United Kingdom and you have been vocal in your opposition to the backstop which drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement.
The DUP’s inept handling of Brexit right from before the referendum has now led us back to the NI only backstop that they first missed in 2017 despite my warnings. I say to London, Brussels & Dublin that Northern Ireland will not be a dowry to the EU for the delivery of BREXIT. And Leo Varadkar and Michel Barnier should go back to the negotiating table and respect and honour the principle of consent as it is actually written and not as they wish it was.
Our exit from the European Union will also bring down the curtain on the career of one of the longest serving Members of the European Parliament. Jim Nicholson has served his country and his Party well at the heart of the European Union for 30 years and we owe him a debt of gratitude.
I look forward to toasting his achievements this evening at a dinner in his honour in his home County of Armagh. I know that Jim will continue to be a valuable member of this Party and we are lucky to have someone with his knowledge and experience in our ranks.
As we as a Party prepare for the next local elections, can I as leader and on behalf of the Party, thank and acknowledge the contribution, dedication and service of those colleagues who are not seeking re-election and members can I ask you to acknowledge their service.
Now to those who are seeking re-election and election in May, to you I say don't under estimate the challenge that rests on your shoulders.
It is a challenge that generations of Ulster Unionist candidates and their predecessors have taken up for over a century, and it is a challenge that I issue to each and every one of you in this hall.
You believe in the Union, you believe in Northern Ireland, you believe in the Ulster Unionist Party, now go out and convince others that our Union & our Party, is something that they can believe in, is something that they can trust and something that they can vote for!