Speech by Reg Empey at the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Annual Conference, (22 October 2005)
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Speech by Reg Empey, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), at the UUP Annual Conference in the Ramada Hotel, Belfast, (Saturday 22 October 2005)
"Thank you, Mr. President for those kind words of introduction.
And thank you, fellow Unionists, for your encouragement by such a warm welcome.
Its four months since you elected me Leader of our great party.
At that time I undertook to begin the task of re-structuring and re-invigorating the party;
Of re-connecting with the wider Unionist electorate;
Of devising policies that had relevance to a beleaguered and disconnected community and in this, our centenary year, of restoring Ulster Unionism to its proper place at the heart of Ulster politics.
I have been listening to what Unionists have to say from the grassroots up rather than from the top down!
We cannot nor should we attempt to downplay our electoral performance in May. It was awful. We must accept the verdict of the electorate and begin to learn the lessons we have been taught.
Four months on, this work is on schedule as we prepare for any and all political eventualities.
I said in June that I wanted to see more women...more Councillors...and more young people in frontline positions.
As part of the challenge of re-establishing the Ulster Unionist Party as a formidable fighting force, I was keen to promote people with ambition and talent - a Team who were hungry enough and dedicated enough to do the job.
This is our future!
This Team of spokespersons will help me restore Ulster Unionism again.
They will shadow Direct Rule Ministers and the Government Departments and will work to shape and promote new policies that are progressive and relevant.
Many I have chosen are well known to you.
Others are new faces that perhaps some of you will not immediately recognise.
All are motivated by a shared vision for our Party and for our country.
Fellow Unionists, this Party has faced many challenges over the last one hundred years - the responsibility of forming a Government in 1921; two world wars; thirty years of civil unrest and the political negotiations over the last fifteen years. However we still face the challenge of continued reform within our Party.
Ten years ago, we set about this process. Despite having to operate within an intensely complex political arena, we realised that this Party had to change if it was to remain relevant. Many changes were successfully initiated including the adoption of our new Party rules. However much more is required.
In four short months of being your Leader, I have had a glimpse of just how ineffective some of our internal structures still are.
I am determined to address this situation immediately and that is why I have asked Danny Kennedy to chair the Party Reform Group which will bring forward recommendations to the AGM in March of next year. These will involve further rule changes and more importantly a change in the internal culture within the Party. I am determined to see this through, and we have very little time to do it.
Mr President, many members will recall that when I ran for the leadership of this Party, I set out a plan which identified a road map to success.
I realise that many people have been anxious to know what has happened in the intervening period, so let me give a brief update.
Firstly, and as you now see, the appointment of party spokespersons has been completed. Each spokesperson was tasked with forming a core team of people drawn from across the membership of this party who together will develop and assess their own respective policy areas. By embarking on this approach, I want to see a team structure being developed so that everyone within the Party, young and old, men and women, have the opportunity to contribute to the formation of policy.
In the area of Party management, I suggested at the time that it would be in the wider interests of the Party if the Officer team was to seek a fresh mandate.
Today, I am pleased to see that the Officers have indeed done just that, and I would wish to convey my thanks to them for undertaking this exercise in what has been a difficult few months.
I also stipulated in June that it would be my intention to designate the new Party Officers with specific tasks. I therefore intend to meet with them as soon as possible after today so that together we may take this issue forward further. The final step in this process will occur on 4th November when a special Executive will be convened to elect the final four Officer positions of Chairman, Vice Chairman, Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer.
Mr President, I can also report today that an advisory group on Party Communications has been formed under the chairmanship of Lord Laird.
I think if we are being honest, it must be stated that Communication both internally and externally has been deficient. That will change. I have therefore asked a number of people with extensive experience within this area to meet on a regular basis so that their wisdom and skills can be utilised to enhance our public relations, and our ability to get our message across.
Fellow Unionists, this Party must address the issue of successor planning seriously. Too often in the past, we have left the selection of candidates to the eleventh hour.
It is therefore imperative that we address this situation immediately and that is why we must, in conjunction with the Constituency Associations, establish a register of candidates. I am supportive of the key role of the constituencies in having a final say, but the choice before them cannot be left to chance or events any longer. We must learn from the success of others and be totally professional from now on. I cannot accept that we can continue to muddle through.
Headquarters, too, cannot be exempt from this process. Steps are being taken to make it more responsive to the needs of the membership. After all, Headquarters is there to serve you!!
You asked in June for leadership, well I can assure you that on all of these issues, you are going to get it.
No political party can function without funds. We have had our problems, but progress is being made on resolving them and I am confident that by the spring a set of proposals will be available for your approval. We need to think long term, be strategic and ensure that the burden is evenly spread. Talking to people in the constituencies, I know that there is a sense of injustice in the burden some are being asked to bear. Our new Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer will be asked to examine there matters and report back in March.
Let me now turn to current events.
So, they finally did it...or did they? The Provos finally stepped up to the plate but in typical fashion, they decided to be curmudgeonly and mealy-mouthed.
Even in their final gestures, the Provisional IRA, could not bring themselves to be open and transparent.
They were desperate to avoid the taint of humiliation or defeat.
They were allowed to dictate and drive the decommissioning process, yielding none of the demands made by the DUP.
The deed that they should have done years ago was shrouded in secrecy.
No Polaroid - whatever that would have proved.
None of the up-front verification demanded by the DUP as a pre-requisite to again entering into Government with Republicans.
Lock, stock and, well, most of the barrels, have been ‘put beyond use’.
We’re told that some handguns have been exempted in case the Provos have to deal with internal dissent or challenges from the criminal gangs they once managed.
Senior churchmen witnessed this last act, and I, for one, believe that a significant act took place. However, Father Reid’s outburst has shocked and alienated unionists and done major damage to the credibility of the process. Confidence in these developments has been severely damaged.
But let’s be clear about this: the Provos have suffered a military defeat. No victorious so called ‘army’ hands over weapons to a commission established by its enemy.
Oh! Yes, they’ll still be around, doing a bit of enforcing here...a bit of smuggling there.For republicans who murdered, maimed, bombed and robbed for 35 years their needless and futile ‘war’ is at an end.
But, generally speaking, they’ll become ‘political’, just as others have, and we in the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP will have to deal with that reality.
Let me say it again: the Provisional IRA has failed.
Ground down by the perseverance and dogged determination of the security forces - the Royal Irish Regiment, the UDR and the RUC - to whom we owe a deep debt of gratitude.
And we acknowledge that debt to individual members of this party who paid the ultimate price in the defence of their families, their homes and their country.
The IRA was exhausted by years of failure to get the pro Union members of our community to bend to their wishes.
Left friendless isolated and repudiated by an international community sick, sore and tired of terrorism in the wake of 9-11.
And the Ulster Unionist Party played a pivotal role in devising and accelerating their end.
It is not being triumphalist when we recall the Republican threat: ‘NOT A BULLET, NOT AN OUNCE’. Or that in 1996 they proclaimed ‘NO RETURN TO STORMONT’.
That’s not all.
The consent principle which we were instrumental in negotiating undermines a fundamental tenet of Republicanism. They have had to accept partition.
They conceded that their beloved notion of a United Ireland could only come about if we agreed to it.
We couldn’t be bombed or coerced into it. But they are trying to achieve their goal by other means now, despite having to make real concessions. They are trying to find reasons to justify their so called war. That is why the Nazi slurs this year, allied to ongoing attacks on the police and bogus claims about human rights and equality, are so significant.
We have prized their fingers off the gun. And we forced them to the position where, imperfect though it was, they did what we demanded all along.
There is no more carnage.
No car bombs or destruction.
So, let’s acknowledge our role in all of that.
And if our opponents try to claim the credit, let’s remind them the gains were made by this party while they stood and preached from the security of the sidelines.
What our opponents did do - and they did this well - was sell the lie that it was all pain for Unionists, and all gain for Republicans.
Our mistake was that we allowed them to peddle this untruth. For them, it was more important to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and blame us for what ensued.
They waited outside or on the fringes as we negotiated away the Republic’s territorial claim; they were ever able to do things better but never to do them first. Now they flounder with power - more concerned with privilege than with principle.
In coming months, the DUP will have their mettle tested as never before.
They will not be able to equivocate.
Bluster, as some of them like to do.
The clock is ticking, and an anxious electorate is waiting to see if the largest Unionist party has more to it than out-dated catch phrases and backward policies.
Our role will be constructive. To continue the job of re-building, not undermining or wrecking.
Since Ian Paisley divided unionism in the 1960s it has left a bad legacy; we have been unable to punch our weight. People say to me that they want to see unionists working together. This has happened in the past. I said before that where there is genuine agreement on an issue I am prepared to play a constructive role. But I am not prepared to adopt unattainable goals or avoid tough decisions just to be able to say that we all agree. That approach brought us the Anglo-Irish Agreement!
I want to lead an Ulster Unionism that grasps opportunity; that respects all citizens equally; that is not able to be misrepresented because we are all working in harmony and we know what our clear objective is - not to be a party merely enhancing itself as other do, but a Party that puts country first and ourselves second.
The Unionist community will take some solace from both parties working in pursuit of shared over-arching objectives, if they emerge.
Of course there are significant differences on policy issues, but I detect a yearning from the Unionist electorate for an end to hostilities.
I have a desire to see Unionism, for the first time in decades, punching its full weight without having to fight inter-Unionist battles that merely comfort and console our opponents.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find the disgruntled, embittered, feuding Loyalist paramilitaries.
Too many lives have been lost as rival groupings battle for supremacy.
The pain they caused, and continue to cause, must end.
Today, I make this direct appeal to these groups: call it a day!
Begin the job of decommissioning the firepower that has brought so much misery.
The Republican edifice you swore to tear down is severely weakened.
Northern Ireland is moving on apace and Loyalist paramilitaries need to recognise that they no longer have any reason to maintain their structures.
Engage with the Decommissioning Commission...place your arms beyond use...and commit yourselves to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
The days when you listened and responded to the blood-curdling speeches of some Unionist leaders in the Ulster Hall are long since past, as are the days of Ulster Resistance and middle-of-the-night mountainside adventures.
I acknowledge that many young men were encouraged to ‘fight’ for their country and take on the IRA - they saw their leaders in paramilitary attire promising to ‘provide political cover.’ It is not surprising that impressionable young men and women took up the cudgels they were encouraged to wield. Many of them are now dead and others had their lives destroyed and in turn destroyed the lives of many innocent victims.
Listen one last time to me: political Unionism cannot wash its hands of what happened 20 or 30 years ago, but if you agree that this chapter can now be closed, you will find in me a politician who will assist in that transition to a better future.
My door is open to you. But you must realise that you cannot continue as you are.
I said in June that the issue of parades should be brought to the top of the political agenda and made part of an overall settlement. I did so because I could see what the potential for trouble was. Sadly, little attention has been paid to resolving the problem at source. We all condemn what happened in September. It was inexcusable.
I want to reiterate my call for the issue to be raised up the agenda by Peter Hain. It cannot be left open. Local communities are being turned upside down by the problems arising from parades. Sinn Fein sponsored residents groups can turn the tap on and off when they wish. Sadly loyalists fall into the trap set for them, and the inconsistent and illogical behaviour of the parades commission does nothing to end this chaos.
I have asked our parades team to keep working for a solution. Northern Ireland will loose out until things are resolved.
Here, I want to commend the tireless work that was done this summer by our Councillors on the ground.
They were there to mediate.
Exert influence where they could.
Provide help and assistance to the vulnerable and, in some cases, the wounded.
Creating mayhem in areas that need urgent attention and help isn’t the answer.
Some of these Protestant areas in particular are screaming out for investment.
Real job opportunities.
Hope. Not abandoned to despair.
I share the sense of grievance many who live in these areas feel.
When I was a Minister, one of my top priorities was to set up a Task Force to see how best to address the needs of a community that feels left behind and abandoned. That report came out in June 2002!
Minister Hanson has announced yet another initiative in Loyalist areas. Can I remind him that two previous Heads of the Civil Service chaired similar groups fifteen years ago! I hope this time that something will really happen, but unless statutory agencies like the Education and Library Board receive funding then there is the risk of stunt schemes being introduced as was the case in the past.
We will not abandon these areas or the people who live in them. They deserve better, and we’ll do all we can to ensure they get what they need.
Royal Irish Regiment:
Earlier today, we had a full debate on the future of the Royal Irish Regiment, a debate that quite rightly reminded us of the sacrifices made by many in the fight against terrorism.
This Party does not believe the time has yet come to disband the Home Service battalions. That argument will continue until both terrorism and organised crime that emanates from terrorism has demonstrably been brought to an end.
That said we should not miss the opportunity to look at the future welfare of those in the Royal Irish who have sacrificed so much for us.
We have proposed a package of measures designed to alleviate and lessen the blow.
And at the same time it is of a sufficiently generous nature to acknowledge the contribution the soldiers made.
The Royal Irish Regiment, and its predecessor, the Ulster Defence Regiment, served this community well.
Men and women in the Regiment have for over 34 years done their duty unfailingly and selflessly, and many paid the ultimate price.
Gunned down in their homes or fields.
Blown up as they set off for work.
The men and women of the Royal Irish Regiment and UDR are a large part of the reason why Republicans called it a day.
And the Government owes it to those who will lose their jobs to exhibit a commitment no less generous as that offered to the RUC.
Earlier you will have heard David Burnside set out our detailed proposals. If delivered by Government, they will provide these soldiers and their families with the means to rebuild their lives and find gainful employment.
The Next Big Push!
Looking ahead over the next few months, what can we expect? There will be a big push by Government following the next report of the IMC in January. I think most people feel this coming. Tony Blair is not going to wait around for two years regardless of what Ian Paisley says. Tony Blair will be anxious to fill the vacuum.
Before that, Parties will have bilateral meetings with Government, and we are told that Assembly Members will be given briefings by Ministers on what is going on in their Departments.
But all of this is a curtain raiser for the New Year’s big push!
I am in no doubt that we cannot let the present stalemate continue. We were elected to the Assembly to carry out a job of work. For three years now we have effectively been locked out. This corrodes the democratic process and holds us up to ridicule in front of the public who see us being paid and unable to carry out our full and proper duties.
I see our present situation not unlike that following the introduction of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Then the Government had as its principal interlocutor John Hume and the SDLP. Today Tony Blair is fully engaged and doing business with Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein. Then as now, all unionists have been effectively excluded from the major decision making process. If you are in any doubt about this look what happened this summer. In spite of his election success, Ian Paisley was swept aside by the Prime Minister when a tidal wave of concessions was made. This process continues and will gain momentum as the debate on policing emerges. This despite the fact that Ian Paisley promised an end to concessions if he was elected! So much for that promise!
This is the worst of all worlds for unionists - a process continuing involving two Governments and Sinn Fein with the rest of us as spectators. Our task in coming weeks will be to restore a proper decision making process. Ultimately, as we shall be debating later today, we will have to make a decision on what we are going to do about the Assembly. I am convinced that we need it now more than ever, as we see major decisions that will affect us for years being potentially taken against our will; the damaging education reforms, water charges and the Review of Public Administration to name but three.
Republicans are increasingly focused on their role in Dublin, and it is quite possible that in eighteen months time an Irish Government could be in office propped up with Sinn Fein support. This is no longer a pipe dream. It is on the cards. This would drastically increase the risk to unionists which is why our present powerlessness is so dangerous.
We will soon have to decide what if any proposals we can make that will result in the Assembly being able to carry out meaningful statutory functions that are consistent with maintaining public confidence. I know that Alan McFarland and his team together with the Assembly Group are fully engaged in this exercise.
It is nearly two years since the DUP assumed the mantle of the largest unionist party. In that time, instead of their promises being fulfilled, we have seen a tidal wave of concessions which continue to gather momentum, a failed so called comprehensive agreement in December last year where the DUP agreed in principle to enter government with Sinn Fein. After two years we still have no devolution. Sinn Fein, Downing Street and Dublin form the main decision making axis. Unionists are back where they started in the 1980s.
All this concerns me greatly, but Ian Paisley is fit to say that unionist confidence has never been higher! I don’t know where he is living at present!
I have pointed out some of the possible developments in coming months, but I want to close by looking even further ahead at what we as Ulster Unionists see as the long term future for Northern Ireland.
Where does Ulster Unionism see our Province going in the years ahead? What have we to offer the disillusioned electorate?
My vision for the future of Northern Ireland is simple. I believe in a Northern Ireland which has one community with different component parts; that community achieves more when those different sections are working together. I am vehemently opposed to the growing ‘Bhantustans’ in Ulster, where each ‘tribe’ elects its own leadership and are content to develop separately as once was the case in South Africa. That route is sure to weaken the Union. Northern Ireland needs the whole community to identify with the Province; to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of pride in our collective achievements.
The DUP is incapable of creating such a society.
This is not to say that robust political disagreement should be discouraged. But I know from my time as a Minister that we are a very small cog in a global wheel. Nobody owes us a living. Only we can influence the future for our children. We should do that in an atmosphere free from threat and sectarianism; this is going to be our biggest challenge; to break through the disillusionment, the bitterness and the anger. But it must be done.
Clearly, the mistrust runs very deep. All of which means that if we’re to develop as a community...a single entity...we face a monumental task of building respect and understanding.
For our part, we stand for inclusivity, tolerance and respect of all creeds, colour and religions.
Writing recently in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, Trevor Ringland reminded us of the words of Sir James Craig who said:"We are prepared to work for the betterment of the people of Ireland, not to quarrel, not to continue political strife."
Or Lord Edward Carson when he instructed Unionists to demonstrate, and I quote:"...in their acts of government a tolerance, a fairness and a justice towards all classes and to all religions of the community."
The best model for achieving these goals is the Union. As the Party of that Union we have a wonderful asset which we must agree we are not fully exploiting.
We must present the Union to new audiences; the young, those who have come to our shores in recent years to make their living here, and those who traditionally would have listened to a nationalist message. All these component parts of our community must hear the unionist message from us; a pluralist constitution that is capable of meeting the needs of all, of respecting rights and differences.
The Union offers the best economic option. We must put more emphasis on our economy. In the era of reduced government expenditure which we are entering, it is essential that this vital work continues.
The United Kingdom has accommodated millions of people from all over the world. People are literally dying in their attempts to get into the Kingdom. Our task is to get that message across and to put into practice what we preach. This is the real challenge as we face into our second century as the Party of the Union.
President, we are a voluntary organisation. We are here because of our great love for the Union and our way of life. We seek to preserve it and pass it on to our successors. As your Leader I have a great responsibility to bring us back to a position where we can achieve this task.
But I cannot succeed without your active help and support. This has to be a team effort, all of us seeking the same goals and pursuing the same objectives.
In the months ahead I will be consulting widely on the major policy issues that will arise.
I am determined that we will not be written off by those who seek to divide and destroy Unionism. I can only restore the confidence and trust of the electorate in this Party if you are with me.
Together we can secure our cherished Union.
We will settle for nothing less. In the slightly amended words of the current Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, WE’LL BE BACK!"
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