“If you vote Mike, you get Colum. If you vote Colum, you get Mike,” was the prevailing message that emanated from the Ulster Unionists Party’s first conference since its designation as official opposition.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was warmly received and afforded a standing ovation after addressing the conference, where he reaffirmed his commitment to delivering a cross-community opposition voice.
While establishing early on that his primary goal remained to see a United Ireland, he said that it should not prevent cooperation from Stormont’s new opposition parties.
Eastwood pointed to cooperation around housing, homelessness and the health service as evidence that the parties were already working together effectively but added: “The commitment to co-operation does not mean absolute unanimity or uniformity – and nor should it. Let me state the obvious, we are different parties with different policies and different visions of the future. Our Irish nationalism and your unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon.”
Differences he says, should not diminish their pursuit of their “immediate cause” of wanting to make Northern Ireland work. “That’s a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow. The constitutional change of the future will be the product of persuasion,” he says.
Not prepared to brush over the obvious differences between the two parties, Eastwood addressed the all-island question and challenged unionism to counter their map of the future constructively. He states: “Amongst all that pleasantness let me say something slightly more difficult. Let me say something about the possibility of that constitutional change. If the last year has shown us anything, it is that we can’t blindly trust the permanence of the status quo. As a nationalist party leader I have been honest that we have thus far failed to develop a credible and detailed vision of what a new Ireland can look like. We’re now beginning that work.
“As the SDLP engages in that work, I would welcome if unionism began its own process of mapping out how it sees the future. The United Kingdom, as you have known it, as we all have known it, is no more. We all need to renew our thinking as to what political shape Britain and Ireland will take in this new century.
“My appeal is this, try to convince us of your vision for the future and we’ll try to convince you of ours. Let it be a discussion based on hard facts and hard truths. Most of all let it be creative and then in time let the people decide. That’s the way politics is supposed to work. It’s how it works at its best, without threat or theatrics.”
UUP leader Nesbitt pointed to an “eventful” and “momentous” year for the party but said that it must now seek to take opportunities of future big changes.
Noting a shift in cohesion of the party’s MLAs, he says: “our 2016 group is acting as a team in a way the Class of 2011 never could: there is a coherence and cohesion that bodes very well for this mandate.”
Speaking about the party’s Assembly election performance, he adds: “You know I wanted better and I know you did too. But we did nothing wrong. We had great candidates. We planned well… We campaigned for Northern Ireland’s first post-sectarian election, where the issue was belief in a party’s ability to deliver on the issues that matter – the economy, education, housing and health. Not playing on people’s fear to secure a vote; not “support us, or you get ‘them-uns’ for First Minister”.
Alluding to those who have not embraced the move to opposition, he says: “To anyone looking to press the panic button, to the very few who have jumped ship, to the occasional whisperer and malcontent, I say this: Are you so weak, you want to unravel four years work, just because we didn’t get all we wanted first time around? Are you so easily led that a siren voice in your ear is enough to make you change course?”
Turning his attention to the Executive Party, Nesbitt criticised the DUP’s champagne lunch at the Conservative Party Conference and accused Sinn Féin of treating the peace process “like a weapon”.
“I think Sinn Féin have milked the ‘Peace Process’ for all it is worth. It’s time to move on. Time to end the implicit threat to stability, that runs as a dangerous undercurrent through our politics.”
Nesbitt took the time to systematically address issues such as Brexit, paramilitaries, the RHI scandal and 1916 commemorations. He concluded by echoing the words of the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie, when she previously addressed the UUP conference as DSD Minister: “She wanted to send out a signal that the SDLP would not be bullied by the bigger parties, and that’s a sentiment that is worth repeating today, because it’s clear the DUP and Sinn Féin would like to push the Opposition parties around.
“It’s not going to happen, Conference. As Margaret so neatly summed it up …. No Surrender!”