Speech by Party Leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA to Foyle Branch AGM on 26/11/2012

Speech by Party Leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA to Foyle Branch AGM on 26/11/2012

“I want to say a big thank you to Terry Wright, for all he has accomplished down the years for the Ulster Unionist Party in Foyle, and more broadly as a Party Officer. As you know, Terry was Vice-Chair of the Party in 2010, during the ill-fated Westminster campaign which saw us stand on a joint ticket with the Conservative Party, under the UCUNF brand. Terry was the man entrusted by my predecessor, Sir Reg Empey, to conduct the Review of that campaign, and I know Terry was somewhat disappointed that his Report was never published. I have had the opportunity to read that report, and what I would say is that there was nothing in it that anyone who followed the campaign did not already know.

We lost our way in 2010. We surrendered our brand which has stood as a symbol of good government for over 100 years. We went for a quick fix solution that didn’t take hold. So, in the spirit of Terry’s report, my message tonight is that we need to return to doing the basics well.

What are the characteristics of a successful political party in 2012?  What would convince people that the Ulster Unionist Party is a credible alternative to what we have at present.

Maybe part of the answer lies in analysing what we do have at present. Which is a face-off. Two big blocks cancelling each other out. I find it increasingly challenging to find anyone who is truly happy with that position. Inaction is the by-word, but people want delivery.

I woke up this morning to a debate on the radio about the high cost of childminding services. Yet two years ago the Executive ring-fenced £13 million for a childminding strategy – a strategy they have yet to bring forward. That leaves over £12 million still sitting in the bank.

They ring-fenced £80 m for the Social Investment Fund, to tackle dereliction and deprivation. Neither problem is going away, yet the £80m is still in the bank.

We met the Chief Constable this morning. He expressed his frustration that money he was promised for a service for young people is still in the bank.

At some point, people will say “enough is enough” and look around them for a credible alternative.

So, what does a credible alternative look like? What are those characteristics?

One is policies. We’re working hard on that front. At Conference in September, we introduced five papers, covering the Economy, Education, Health Housing and Culture. The first four are those “bread and butter” issues that matter to people on a day-to-day basis. And if anyone was in any doubt about the importance of Culture, they needed only look at the phenomenal support for the Centenary of the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant.

But policies are only a small part of it. Last year, voters were subjected to a “blind tasting” of policies of the main local parties. Without knowing which party was promoting what policy, voters looked at a series of policy statements, and ours were by far the most popular. Yet, we didn’t get the return in terms of votes and seats.

Another characteristic has to be the slate of candidates. Are we producing a sufficient number of credible, trustworthy candidates?

I did say one of the fault lines with UCUNF was the delay in selection. That will not happy on my watch. On Saturday week, in the calendar year 2012, the Ulster Unionist Party will select its candidate for the 2014 European Election. That’s unheard of for us! To give the candidate a clear year and a half to campaign. And as Jim Nicholson is the only person to seek nomination, it looks like we will be going forward with a well known, well respected and highly experienced candidate.

As soon as that is done, we will be turning our attention to the other elections on the horizon. As we stand, we anticipate shadow elections to the new 11-council model of local government under RPA.

If that goes ahead, we need to take urgent action early next year to identify how many seats we are likely to win under the new arrangements, and who is most likely to do the winning.

And the same goes for Westminster 2015, and the NI Assembly in 2015, or 2016, whichever it turns out to be.

Beyond the right candidates promoting good policies, the currently successful parties demonstrate values:  Control; Discipline; Determination.

We know they fight among themselves. We know they bicker. We know there are big personalities that clash – sometime ferociously. But they do it in private, and present a united front to the public. We have to learn that lesson. We know it is true. We know that people do not vote for parties that fall out with themselves in public. Yet we still do it.

I said I would do my best to bring to an end that washing of dirty linen in public.

I promised cohesion in who we are and coherence in what we say.

Are we there yet? No. But I never said there was a quick fix. And I have made a start.

Let me take two issues where I think we could show better cohesion and coherence.

The first is Opposition. In 1998, Opposition was the last thing on anyone’s mind. The objective was to draw everyone into an inclusive political process. That process has been so successful that we are ready for the next stage. The institutions are solid. Devolution is here to stay. The next step on the road to the normalisation of politics in NI is to offer the electorate choice: if you do not like the current government, you can vote for change. Let me stress once again, normal in NI means we will still have a cross-community government. Based on the 2011 Assembly results, that would mean the DUP and SF sharing power, with ourselves, the SDLP and Alliance deciding to what extent, if any, we wished to work together in offering an alternative vision.

Recently, there has been talk of bringing this forward through a Private Member’s Bill. I see no way that a space for an Opposition can be made other than through legislation at Westminster to amend the 1998 NI Act.

And that is all we can hope for from the Bill the NIO are scheduled to bring forward next year – that they create the space. An official opposition can only follow, should the NI Assembly vote for it. So, that is a two-phase process. Westminster makes it possible; the Assembly makes it happen.

Beyond that is the question of whether the Ulster Unionist Party should voluntarily walk away from the current Executive. That’s the plan John McCallister ran on in the Leadership Election in March. The Leadership result answered that question decisively.

I do not rule out that at some point, we might withdraw, but what we need to focus on first are three things: showing the electorate we are cohesive and coherent; two, that we have better policies than the remaining parties of government; and three, that the public understands any withdrawal is to be welcomed as a positive move, and not that of naysayers.

The other issue where we must beware mixed messaging is over unionist unity. It is a pity this has become a matter for confusion, because I am clear beyond doubt. Unionist unity is a myth.

When it is in the best interests of the pro-union people, we will co-operate – a very different concept from unity, not least because we believe that the best interests of the pro-union people are served by this Party offering the electorate Choice and a Credible Alternative.

Peter Robinson talks of unity. Peter Robinson talks of co-operation. Peter Robinson is also talking of fielding a second DUP candidate in the Euro Elections in 2014. I can be no clearer than this: if they do that, they are, once again, declaring war against the Ulster Unionist Party. Of course, they have the right to stand as many candidates as they like, but in Jim Nicholson, unionism has a very transfer-friendly candidate.

At a time when Europe is in a mess, when the Eurozone crisis grinds on, when Euro Leaders fail to agree their long-term budgets, and the depression impacts all our citizens, unionist and nationalist, NI needs a strong, experienced voice at the heart of Europe. Jim Nicholson is that voice. Jim finished as the leading unionist candidate in 2009, and I invite you to join me in supporting Jim – once endorsed – to come back as the undisputed number one.

I’ll finish where I started, with thanks to Terry Wright for his input to this Association. He will be missed, of course, but in every situation lies opportunity. And for all of us in this room, the opportunity is to take the Party to the next phase in this City. As we welcome and embrace the 2013 UK City of Culture, can we use it as a springboard to demonstrate the Ulster Unionist Party is a credible alternative voice for unionists in the Maiden City? The year of Culture is a great opportunity, not just for the City, but for us.

So here is my challenge. Our Executive Minister, Danny Kennedy has promised to complete the upgrade of the railway line as soon as possible. He told the Assembly he looks forward to being on the first train to arrive in Derry/Londonderry on the new tracks. I would like you to welcome him with the news that every member of this Party has recruited a new member to the Association, and invite him to speak to an audience twice as big as the one I am so happy to be with this evening.”

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