Speech by Reg Empey at the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Annual Conference, (6 December 2008)
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Speech by Sir Reg Empey, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), at the UUP Annual Conference, Belfast, (Saturday 6 December 2008)
"Ladies and Gentlemen I am delighted to welcome you to our annual conference.
And bearing in mind that there are only three Saturdays left for Christmas shopping, I am particularly pleased that so many of you have chosen to spend some time with us.
But if you're looking for a bargain basement sell-out and cut-price novelty items, I'm afraid that you've arrived too late for the DUP Conference.
Now, I'm told that many of you came along to hear a speech from someone who could be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Well, that's very kind of you. I still have political ambitions of course and Number 10 looks like a comfortable place to work from!
But seriously, wasn't it good to have the Leader of the Conservative Party in Belfast - and on an Ulster Unionist platform - promoting the Union.
We have waited too long for this day.
David Cameron says he is passionate about the Union. So am I. So, too, is the Ulster Unionist Party.
David says he wants to be Prime Minister of the entire United Kingdom. And that's what we want, too.
A Conservative Leader and Prime Minister who is not neutral on the Union.
A Conservative Party and Government which is not a neutral observer of events here.
An Ulster Unionist-Conservative relationship which shifts Northern Ireland from the "ledge of the Union" to the very heart of the United Kingdom.
That's what the Conservative Party believes in and that's what the Ulster Unionist Party believes in.
Ulster Unionism was forged and formed from the Home Rule crisis in the late 1880s.
The geographical and political shape of the United Kingdom as we know it today is partly the handiwork of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Our Party has taken the significant step of restoring Unionism's historic relationship with the Conservative Party. It is a relationship that is about much more than mere party politics. It is a constitutional statement.
It declares and demonstrates that Northern Ireland is not a place apart - not an internal colony. It is an outward and visible sign of Northern Ireland's rightful place within the United Kingdom.
The Union championed by David Cameron is the Union and the United Kingdom that this party and his party helped to fashion.
So at a time when the constitutional integrity of that Union and United Kingdom is being challenged by a variety of regional nationalisms, how fitting that the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives - the two oldest parties in the United Kingdom as it happens - should again come together to forge a common identity and shared values.
And that constitutional integrity isn't just under threat from regional nationalisms. It is also under threat from the empire builders within the European Union. So it is good to know that Jim Nicholson, our MEP will be standing shoulder to shoulder with Conservatives in the European Parliament and defending our shared heritage and political identity.
This party is not anti Europe or anti EU. We value Europe's cultural identity and diversity and welcome the economic opportunities that membership of the EU brings. We support a vision of Europe that respects the rights and role of nation-states: Which is why the UUP, along with the Conservatives, will continue to demand a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Democracy is about choice. It is about allowing people the right to express an opinion on their constitutional status and political identity.
And when Jim Nicholson is returned to the European Parliament next June, he - along with our Conservative colleagues - will work to promote a European Union which reflects the everyday needs of its citizens rather than the ambitions of some bureaucrats.
And as we remember that next week the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will publish its advice on a Bill of Rights, I have to say that this party will not stand by and allow powers to pass from democratically elected representatives in the Assembly and House of Commons to unelected judges: and nor will we allow Northern Ireland to be separated from the rest of the Kingdom through the imposition of a Bill of Rights that would not be accepted in any other part of the United Kingdom.
For the UUP there is no cause higher than that of defending the Union; no task higher than that of promoting the Union; and no purpose greater than that of consolidating our constitutional status.
I believe in a pan-United Kingdom unionism. A bond which unites Enniskillin with Edinburgh; Cardiff with Coleraine; Lisburn with London and Stormont with Westminster.
Yes, Northern Ireland is a distinct part of the United Kingdom: but it must never be a stand alone part in which a "Little Ulster" mentality is allowed to diminish the cause of real Unionism.
The Ulster Unionist Party wants to offer the electorate of Northern Ireland something more than a continuation of "us-and-them" politics. Something more than a Balkanisation process which will condemn another generation to elections based on sectarian headcounts and pure self-interest.
But Unionism must appeal to as wide an audience as possible in Northern Ireland. What I want to build with the Conservative Party is a political and electoral vehicle which appeals to a wider, broader, deeper vision for ourselves and for Northern Ireland.
There are solutions to our collective problems which can be embraced collectively. An economic downturn is no respecter of religious or political identities. It hits us all.
I want to make a case for the Union which is based on socio-economic and constitutional arguments rather than just background and upbringing.
I believe in the United Kingdom. My citizenship is a fact of life and fact of birth. I haven't been bombed, bullied, blackmailed or bamboozled out of my beliefs. And nor has anyone else in this audience.
The reality of the matter, anyway, is that no-one has ever presented a case which has convinced me that it would be worth exchanging my citizenship of the United Kingdom for the citizenship of any other constitutional set-up.
And let me say this: I have no objection to those who wish to put such a case to me.
But my own view is that republicans in Northern Ireland proffer an agenda which they cannot deliver.
Opinion polls indicate that a majority of people in the Republic don't actually want a United Ireland.
And the Irish Government, by endorsing the Belfast Agreement, proved that it could not enforce a United Ireland, and that the Union would continue.
I also happen to believe that there are tens of thousands of electors out there who may not be by tradition unionist voters, but who have no desire to be incorporated into a United Ireland: and I am determined to promote a vision and version of Unionism with which they, along with our traditional voters, are comfortable.
It is a duty of political leaders to ensure that the problems of this generation are addressed and resolved and not passed down as a burden to the next generation.
I am proud of what the Ulster Unionist Party has done. I think we have a legacy about which we can and should boast. This Party has made a difference to Northern Ireland: A difference for the better.
What we did in 1998 was the right thing to do. We took a lead and we took a stand.
We believed that Sinn Fein could be negotiated into accepting an internal settlement.
We believed that the IRA could be negotiated into the inevitability of disarmament.
We believed that the Irish Government could be negotiated into removing Articles 2 and 3.
We believed that we could create a machinery of devolved government which would allow us to share power and solve problems.
Well, we were right to have those beliefs.
And we delivered on those beliefs.
Had we listened to the Democratic Unionist Party in 1997/98 we would have missed the opportunity to make change and secure peace.
Today though, that same DUP, in a feat of escapology which would have Harry Houdini himself gasping in admiration, has leapt from a position of "100% opposition" to the Belfast Agreement, to 100% cooperation with Sinn Fein.
But the Agreement that the Ulster Unionist Party negotiated wasn't just about standing still.
It was about preparing the ground for the challenge of building a new Northern Ireland which offered new political and electoral choices.
It was about creating a political environment which would attract the tens of thousands of non-voters: and encourage a bright, articulate generation to champion and extend the pro-Union cause.
So let me make this clear. The Ulster Unionist Party, which I am proud to lead, will not settle for a self-interested carve-up between parties which remain shackled to the old ways and old habits.
We want to fashion a plan for the long-term future of Northern Ireland. We want to give people here the chance to vote for local, regional and national politics, like everyone else in the United Kingdom. We want to end the democratic deficit. We want to give people the opportunity to vote for candidates who can actually become members of our national government.
When our negotiations with the Conservative Party are concluded, we will have delivered something that hasn't happened for generations: we will have ended Northern Ireland's status as "a place apart."
The Ulster Unionist Party wants to level the playing field for unionists and place us all on an equal footing with our fellow citizens in Great Britain. No other party in Northern Ireland can achieve this. This is a unique opportunity for us to fulfil one of the principle aims of unionism.
The test of political leadership is not in the easy times. The test of political leadership is when a country faces real challenges. And a global economic crisis is a real challenge.
It impacts on the everyday life of every one of us. On the owner of the small business stretched to breaking point.
On the household wondering where the next mortgage payment will come from.
Or on the older person: facing a choice between fuel and food.
Yet do you know what makes me most angry?
The fact that for 152 days of this global economic crisis Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness allowed government to grind to a standstill while they indulged in a petty, self-serving piece of one-up-mansship.
Believe me, they would still be indulging in those antics had not this Party tabled a motion instructing the Executive to meet in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Ministerial Code and Pledge of Office: and had not a pensioners' protest at the steps to Stormont embarrassed them into action.
Let's be honest, ladies and gentlemen: the DUP and Sinn Fein have failed to deliver collective accountability, individual responsibility, an end to stop-start government and the much talked about "Better Deal."
And could someone from the DUP answer me just one question. If academic selection has been secured, then why have some of our best grammar schools been forced to opt out and provide their own entrance tests?
Our education system has produced some of the best results across the UK - an achievement which needs protected and nurtured. That doesn't mean we don't recognise that too many children are failed by the system. But the answer to that problem is not to be found in an ideological crusade against the 11+
The answer is, actually, to be found at 11 minus - in quality early years provision; in better investment in primary education; in working with parents and local communities to raise educational aspiration; in ensuring that children leave primary school having mastered the basic of literacy and numeracy and with a love of learning.
About two weeks ago the DUP boasted of their success on the Policing and Justice issue, trumpeting the news that no dates or deadlines had been set. But the Prime Minister seems to have a different interpretation of the situation and admitted as much during the Queen's Speech on Wednesday, when he claimed that policing and justice would be devolved in the next few months.
So there we have it, the DUP's definition of a "political lifetime" - 152 days!
Now then, as Minister responsible for Further and Higher Education I have no objection to some of our young people going outside of the Province to study if this is something they have chosen to do; wider experience can be a good thing.
What the UUP always objected to was an unwilling exodus of 18 year olds. What I am committed to ensuring is a sizeable counter flow of young and talented people into the Province either to work or study here (and some of these, of course, could be returning ex-NI people). This is why, this year, my Department began the C'Mon Over campaign.
Whilst our unemployment rate is rising, it remains the case that in several of our key economic sectors such as ICT, employers are finding it difficult to recruit people with the skills they need.
The C'Mon Over Campaign has raised the awareness of employment opportunities in Northern Ireland through the use of Facebook, on-line advertising and a presence at graduate fairs in Scotland, Northern England and Dublin. The majority of people surveyed expressed an interest in the job opportunities in the Province (and many of these people were "ex Northern Ireland").
But, it is important to note that our approach to education and training is not just elitist. There would be little point on concentrating on university graduates if we neglected the extent to which so many people do not have the basic skills to function in our society or economy. The high percentage of the Northern Ireland adult population who can barely read, write or count is not just a statistic, it is not just a loss to the economy; it is a human tragedy and a social shame.
My ministerial colleague Michael McGimpsey will address you shortly. But I want to place on record my personal gratitude for the distinction he has brought to his role as Minister of Health. Michael really has proved that devolution can make a real difference for the better.
He has demonstrated the Ulster Unionist commitment to the NHS and when others would have savagely cut his health budget Michael put patients first and refused to accept those cuts.
This Party owes a debt of thanks also to an Assembly team which has taken on and faced down the combined might of the DUP-Sinn Fein Pact. Oh yes, they would love us to be quiet and play along with their "virtual reality" approach to politics.But this party won't be silenced. We will continue to stand up for the vision we set out in 1998. We will continue to champion the cause of an accountable, credible and honest sharing of power. And we will continue to promote a Unionism which embraces; rather than a hand-me-down form of unionism which recognises nothing more important than the need to build walls and erect hurdles.
People ask - "What's the difference between the UUP and the DUP".
Let me tell you.
The UUP will always put the interests of Northern Ireland above and beyond selfish, short-term self interest.
The UUP believes in a Unionism which embraces rather than excludes.
The UUP is not prepared to sit back while others take the risks and face the flak.
The UUP is prepared to take the Unionist cause to any place and any audience.
The UUP believes in a big Union rather than a little Ulster.
And where the UUP leads, you can be certain that the DUP will follow!
This Party was written off three years ago.
Yet today, the Ulster Unionist Party has a new spring in its step and a new sense of purpose.
We have just completed a review in which we have overhauled all of our structures and made this party fit for purpose again.
We won the Dromore by-election and increased our vote in the Fermanagh by-election.
Our membership is increasing.
Opinion polls indicate that our level of popular support is rising significantly.
We have made ourselves relevant again: in local and national politics.
So today, I ask the people of Northern Ireland - all of them - to join the Ulster Unionist Party's campaign to build a Northern Ireland which can become the place we know it can be,; the place we want it to be; the place it should be.
A place for all of us."
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CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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