Addressing the Ulster Unionist Party conference, party leader Mike Nesbitt spoke of a bright future for his party and Northern Ireland.
Despite the turmoil at Stormont, 2014-15 will be viewed in the eyes of many Ulster Unionists as a good year for the party. Jim Nicholson was returned to Brussels, there was double digit percentage growth at local government level and for the first time in 11 years the party can claim that in Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott they have two sitting MPs amongst their ranks.
It was against this backdrop that the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA took to the stage at the Ramada Plaza to inform his party delegates that next May’s local elections will be a “memorable day” both for his party and everyone in Northern Ireland.
Turning his attention to the current political crisis engulfs Stormont, Nesbitt claimed that “the country is hungry for hope” and said that as the unionist party that delivered the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the Ulster Unionist Party is once again the party determined to deliver memorable days of “gold and roses” and put the “greater good above party politics.”
Nesbitt also noted how it was his party that forced terrorism to the top of the talks’ agenda by resigning from the Executive following the murder of Kevin McGuigan and said the Ulster Unionist Party is the only party offering firm, decisive and unambiguous leadership throughout this crisis. He also claimed that the party will not stand side-by-side against paramilitarism with a political party that insists the IRA no longer exists, unlike in his view, the DUP.
Positioning the party as the only party willing to stand up to Sinn Féin, Nesbitt criticised the DUP and Sinn Féin’s dysfunctional running of government that has seen just £27,610 of the £80 million Social Investment Fund spent. There was also criticism of the role of Special Advisors and the money they receive upon leaving their posts.
However, reaffirming his party’s desire to take responsibility for the Department of Education, Nesbitt expressed a desire to work with a Sinn Féin that was totally committed to peace. “We want to respect your political mandate,” he said. “Make it possible for us. Get on the same page as the rest of the world or accept the consequences of the stance you have chosen to adopt.”
In what may seem like an attempt to attract younger voters, Nesbitt was keen to break off the shackles of the identity stereotypes that have become so entrenched in Northern Ireland. As the first non-Orangeman to be elected as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Nesbitt felt comfortable enough to declare that whilst a unionist, he was, in at least one regard, as Irish as Caitríona Ruane.
Drawing parallels between his Ulster Scots/French Hugenot heritage and that of Henry Joy McCracken’s, Nesbitt urged his party to embrace the challenge of complexity and accept that party members will have differing levels of comfort identifying themselves with different labels be that British, Irish or European. “The Ulster Unionist Party must be the defenders of our minority communities with zero tolerance for hate crimes and total commitment to educating our children about tolerance and diversity,” he said.
Outlining his vision for Northern Ireland, Nesbitt said he hoped to deliver a Northern Ireland that was committed to a peaceful, politically stable and prosperous society and one that would create a country that could be recognised as “the best small country in the world.”
Focusing on how he would deliver this society, Nesbitt claimed that whilst putting more money in the hands of the people was important, it was not the be all and end all. Mental health and wellbeing were also vital metrics against which prosperity should be measured. Announcing his Alternative Programme for Government that will place mental health issues at its core, Nesbitt declared that mental health issues could no longer be ignored or avoided by politicians.
Promising to publish this properly costed programme before the next election, the Ulster Unionist Party leader spoke of a government that would work horizontally rather than vertically, focusing on positive outcomes for better educated, healthier and wealthier citizens. Explaining what he meant by horizontal government, Nesbitt used the example of educational underachievement. He stated that as healthier children do better at school, educational underachievement responsibility should also be shared by the Health Minister and the Minister for Social Development to ensure children live in decent houses and have sufficient access to health care. Nesbitt also claimed he would like the Health Service to be overseen just like the Police Service, with its Chief Executive accountable but operationally independent.
Speaking about the need for further powers to be distributed to local councils, Nesbitt warned time is running out to secure Foreign Direct Investment as investors do not have limitless patience. Nesbitt claimed that by ensuring political stability and committing to a lower corporation tax level of 12.5 per cent Northern Ireland could attract up to “40,000 new, highly paid jobs.” Turning his attention towards education, Nesbitt spoke of his desire for the Ulster Unionist Party to become the champion of educational underachievers and create a school system that was the opposite of standardisation. He set out a plan to establish a unique and demanding educational system that designs individual learning plans that respects the spark of ability, creativity and talent within each and every pupil in Northern Ireland.
Looking ahead to May’s election, Nesbitt claimed his party is in good shape, filled with what he described as the precious political characteristics of self-belief, public credibility and momentum. It is this momentum that Nesbitt hopes to build on ahead of May’s elections. The Ulster Unionists will, he claimed, view the elections not as a mandate to go back into government but to enter talks on the new Programme for Government. A programme that Nesbitt hopes will deliver for the first time, a truly functioning and effective Northern Ireland executive.