Speech by Reg Empey, then leader of the UUP, at the UUP Annual Conference, 25 March 2006
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Speech by Reg Empey, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), at the UUP Annual Conference Belfast, (Saturday 25 March 2006)
"Nine months ago this Council first elected me as Leader. I can’t pretend that it has been the easiest nine months. But I didn’t seek the role for either the fun of it, or the vanity of it.
I sought the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party because I believe that there was a challenge I could meet. That challenge is to restore and rebuild this great party and turn around our fortunes.
The task is not an easy one. It’s not one that will be speedily completed nor one that requires a rushed change just for the sake of it. That said, important work is now in progress.
There are some things which should have been said earlier.
And some things which need to be said now.
This party has made mistakes over the years and most of them have been made from the top down. Mistakes in terms of strategy, campaigning, tactics and communications. As party leader I apologise to you for those mistakes. And I apologise, too, to the thousands of our electorate who have been hurt and offended by them.
But let me assure you of one thing as I address my first AGM as Leader.
Lessons have been learned.
There will be no more Simply British. No more Decent People. No more making-it-up-as-we-go along. No more cabals running the show.
Instead, there will be a renewed focus on the virtues and values that have been the bedrock of this party since this Council first met a century ago. And there will be more reliance on the collective wisdom of our grassroots. I know that many of you raised your voices over the past few years. From now on, you will not only be heard, you will be heeded.
And let me express my deep thanks to all of you who have weathered this storm with us:
To our army of election workers, who have campaigned for us and taken the flak on the doorsteps. Year in and year out they have canvassed and borne the brunt of the hostility. They don’t do it because they are candidates, or because there is financial reward. They do it because they believe in this party.
To the fundraisers, who have continued with the coffee mornings, cake sales, ballots and raffles. One of the most thankless tasks in any organisation is that of fund-raising and this party owes a huge debt of gratitude to those who keep digging and then digging deeper for us.
To the Branch and Association officers, who have continued to gather in meeting rooms and Orange Halls across the Province and kept the party alive.
And let’s not forget the 127,000 voters who remained true to us under the most difficult of circumstances.
Some commentators have tried to write off this party.
One political party in particular has desperately tried to write off this party.
As Tony Soprano would say "forget about it"!!!
They are making a mistake. They are hugely underestimating the determination of our members, and our voters, to ensure that the voice and values of this party will, once again, become the principal voice and values of the pro-Union majority.
We have roots and a legacy of which we can all be proud. No other Unionist Party has them or can acquire them. They are ours and ours alone.
We forged Northern Ireland.
We sustained our country and the Union itself during some of the very darkest days imaginable.
We haven’t been bombed, bullied, blackmailed or bargained out of our beliefs.
Nor will we ever be.
Just as we held firm during those dark days, we will hold firm through this difficult stage in our history.
I do however believe we are over the worst of it.
There are encouraging signs of recovery across the Party. Our Young Unionists are expanding apace. They have re-opened at Queen’s University after a four year campaign by opponents to block them; they have also opened up at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. Two weeks ago, a delegation of Young Unionists travelled to London to personally deliver their opposition to the proposed education reforms directly to Tony Blair at No 10. They are an enthusiastic bunch of young men and women of which we can all be proud. They are a source of inspiration to us and the next generation of this party’s representatives.
Later this year I will be bringing you proposals for dealing with the substantial gender imbalance of our elected members. This is a national as well as local issue, but it must and will be addressed if we are to be truly representative. I hope you will support what will inevitably be controversial proposals. Putting it plainly, if we don’t offer the electorate a wider array of women and young people as candidates, then we can hardly be surprised if women and young people don’t vote for us.
Let’s Get Real:
Our Policy unit has been hard at work producing a series of well researched papers under the direction of party spokespersons. So far we have launched four such documents under the banner of ‘Let’s get Real’ - an attempt to put bread and butter issues up the policy agenda.
Policies on care for the elderly, the brain drain of our young people, on poverty and recently on care for children in the early years... These are policies that matter.
It may be hard to get media interest in such work, but the support we have had from many professional and non-governmental agencies tells me that we are on the right track.
Also, as I travel around the province, I have detected growing unease amongst unionists in the West. They have borne the brunt of the terrorist campaign, and now see some of their politicians moving to the east. They also see the proposed seven Council model for local government as a further threat. Agriculture, a principle industry, is in serious crisis, and job opportunities have been reduced by a combination of the closure of the Home Service Battalions of the Royal Irish and further job losses in textiles.
To respond to these concerns I have decided to establish a West Ulster Unionist Forum to advise me as Leader on matters of particular significance to unionists in those areas.
I want to send out a clear signal to our supporters in West Ulster that their concerns will be fed directly to the centre of party policy making and that they are firmly on our agenda.
I also want to say a word about the people who work for us. We are fortunate to have a good team who serve our party at Headquarters and the Assembly all day every day. Without their efforts it would be impossible for us to function, and I thank them for their work.
I said to you last October that the New Year would bring a ‘big push’ by Government to move things on. It is about to gather pace.
Within ten days, I believe that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern will appear here to announce their ‘Roadmap’.
This will result in the recall of the Assembly sooner than expected, perhaps before the summer.
We have been calling for this for months.
The public are fed up with a process that has gone on for a decade, but has not been capable of delivering stability. It is an affront for elected Members to be prevented from doing their duty for three and a half years, and an affront to the patient and generous taxpayer.I hope that the Government will not listen to those who want to open a mere talking shop at Stormont. We do not need devolution in that form. But we do need to try and achieve the maximum level of devolution possible under the present circumstances; or, at the very least, establish whether any solution is possible. Alan McFarland and his team are fully engaged with Government trying to ensure that they follow a sensible path. If not, then we must acknowledge and accept the consequences.
I hope we succeed because at least we could reverse some of the ruinous decisions being foisted upon us at present:
On education, they are acting against the wishes of parents as demonstrated in poll after poll. This is not simply a matter of defending Grammar schools, even though we do. Most pupils go to secondary and primary schools and the interests of these children are equally important. Our aim must be to improve the overall level of attainment and added value through our education system to give all our children the best start in life. Today, education is dominated by talk of cash crises. As David McNarry and our education team have pointed out, never before have members of the teaching profession been so demoralised, nor mention of the interests of the children so far from the top of agenda.
I also want to assure our members on Education and Library Boards that as they face unjustified pressure from Angela Smith to cut front line services. They will have our full support should they decide that enough is enough, and tell the Minister that she can do her own dirty work as they are not prepared to do it for her.
Peter Hain flies in and flies out of this Province, and when he stays he flies in the face of political opinion as he produces his model of seven Local Councils. The spin sounds good, that he wants to save money. Don’t we all. But Local Government is much more efficient than central government. Only Sinn Fein supports him. This week he proposes to axe the Housing Executive and create seven new housing authorities! He proposes to abolish what has been the most successful public body of them all. Surprise surprise only Sinn Fein supports this!
Royal Irish Regiment:
It would not be proper for us not to mention the Royal Irish Regiment and its predecessor the Ulster Defence Regiment at this time.
As a party we all worked hard to get as good a deal as possible for the men and women who were so cruelly cast aside last summer.
But we did more. We worked and continue to argue for the retention of a locally recruited element to aid the civil power.
It is too early to conclude that the emergency is over. One IRA statement is not enough.
I wish to thank Sylvia Hermon and David Burnside for their sterling efforts to negotiate the best deal possible.
The fact that it was necessary to deal with redundancies is testament to the failure of those politicians who were elected on a ‘stop further concessions’ manifesto.
The bottom line is that this Direct Rule administration is reckless and bad for Northern Ireland. We want to see the return of the Assembly. In my view we have to avoid the consequences of failure, namely the ‘greening of Direct Rule.’
I haven’t mentioned the DUP yet. Ahhh the DUP...
It would be easy - too easy in fact - to take pot shots at the DUP. But the fact is that their failure to deliver is having an impact on all of us. Neither this party, nor the pro-Union electorate at large, can take any satisfaction when the DUP drops the ball.
Yet, after eight years of telling us that they had all the answers, the DUP has stopped nothing, changed nothing and delivered nothing.
Not a Fair Deal. Not a Fairer Deal. Not a Fairly Similar Deal. Not even a Fairytale Deal!
The DUP has always taken an easy route in these matters. The line of least resistance. Oh yes, they hollered their opposition to everything we did; but never took their rejectionist principles to the point of sacrificing either the pay cheques or the perks of office. They may have pretended then, and continue to pretend today that the Assembly was wrong; but it would take a crowbar effort to get them out of the place!
The DUP called for the return of devolution; we delivered it.
The DUP called for the principle of consent to preserve the Union; we delivered it.
The DUP called for Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution to be abolished; we delivered it.
The DUP called for IRA decommissioning; we delivered it.
They won electoral success on a promise to prevent any more concessions; far from stopping concessions, they have accelerated. They are learning that it is not as easy as they thought to deal with a government that puts its own interests first. They will end up in Government with Sinn Fein, even the famous dogs in the street know that, it is all about finding enough cover, whether from the IMC, which they opposed, or the Prime Minister, for whom they have contempt.
But enough about them.
What about Sinn Fein?
When all is said and done, the fact remains that republicans are principally to blame for the present stalemate. Having been given every opportunity to move on from their blood stained sectarian campaign they failed to seize the opportunity, deciding to abuse the peace process and the patience of the community. When my predecessor David Trimble said "..just because someone has had a past, doesn’t mean he cannot have a future" it was a signal that unionism was prepared to create a chance for a new chapter to be opened.
This offer was spurned when Republicans made successive attempts to hold on to their weapons and structures, to continue their rackets, to engage in a variety of anti-democratic practises and to use the threat of a return to violence to force the government to yield to their demands.
Sadly, Government yielded to these threats and as a result there has been a catastrophic loss of Unionist confidence in the process. But we cannot remain paralysed by this and allow Sinn Fein to hold us to ransom. Unionism needs to re-think its approach to the Sinn Fein question. Unionist policy towards republicans has not succeeded over the years.
The Sinn Fein Question
I well remember Ian Paisley’s campaign in the 1980s. There he was wielding a sledgehammer, before a poster proclaiming that he was going to ‘Smash Sinn Fein!’ Twenty years later does Sinn Fein look smashed to you? Of course not. So we must learn from that era of failure, and also call Tony Blair to account for his role in all of this. He has not delivered on his promise to ensure that nobody not committed to exclusively peaceful means would be allowed to serve in government. I feel sure that unless the Prime Minister steps up to the plate on this issue, it will be extremely difficult to restore full devolution.
As we prepare for what may be the final chapter of this long and tortuous process it is worth reflecting on the past to learn and to improve.
I am neither embarrassed by, nor ashamed of, the many decisions we have had to make.
Some we got right, others we got wrong.
But our motivation was as always to maintain the Union.
Northern Ireland is a better place because of our efforts. Just because others failed to honour their side of the Agreement, or failed to shore up democracy in the face of a continuing challenge from armed and active republicanism - it doesn’t mean that we got everything wrong.
Sitting on the sidelines was not an option. Sticking our heads in the sand was not an option. Allowing our interests to be represented by the NIO or No.10 was not an option.
Standing up to Sinn Fein; facing down pan-nationalism; promoting the Union. Those were the only options and the only priorities and we didn’t shirk from the consequences of political reality and political duty.
This party was created to promote and protect the Union. And the efforts of this party - often acting by itself - have ensured that Northern Ireland has remained in the United Kingdom.
Today, in the second year of its second century, this party, once again, faces a huge hurdle.
We need to rebuild and regroup.
Put bluntly, we need new members. For finance, for succession, for continuity, for solidarity. Perhaps the days of mass membership in the modern era are past, but I do believe that we can attract the brightest and best to help us, advise us and move forward with us.
We need to keep on the "Let’s Get Real" theme. Whether it be through the Assembly, or through the new Councils, local parties will be given responsibility for running Northern Ireland. And that means that we need costed, thoughtful and relevant policies across a whole range of socio/economic issues. We have to prove to the electorate that UUP policies are good for all of the people.
And yes, we need to continue to promote the benefits of the Union and make this party a comfortable, attractive and welcoming place for everyone who believes that the benefits of the Union outweigh the constitutional alternatives.
We have to stop blaming the non-voters and, instead, find ways of reconnecting with them.
In summing up I want to set out clearly under two headings our plans for the year ahead.
1) We will pursue the completion of our rule reform begun on 25th February.
2) I will be bringing you proposals to deal with the gender gap as it applies to elected representatives.
3) I will be appointing a West Ulster Unionist Forum to advise me on matters of particular interest to unionists in those areas.
4) We will be improving our communications capacity, both internally and externally.
5) We will continue with a review of branch and Association effectiveness throughout the Province to maximise our ability to restore our electoral performance.
6) We will strive to make this party a welcoming place for all those, from whatever background, who share our vision for Northern Ireland within the Union.
Policy and political:
1) We will urgently seek to pursue the maximum amount of attainable devolution at Stormont thereby forestalling a ‘greening’ of disastrous Direct Rule.
2) We will seek every opportunity to promote strengthen and maintain the Union, which is our historic mission and principle purpose.
3) We will work with those of like mind to create a Northern Ireland at peace with itself within the Union.
4) We will continue to roll out our ‘Let’s get real’ campaign to bring social and economic matters to the forefront of policymaking.
5) We will ensure that these aims are achieved within the context of asserting out rights as UK citizens, and we will urge our government to guarantee that internationally accepted norms are applied to any agreements already made with the Dublin government.
We have to be seen to be on the ground; in the community groups; in the residents’ associations. We have to be on the doorsteps all the year round and in the forefront of active campaigning.
In electoral terms the past couple of years have been the darkest that this party has ever endured.
But the most important thing to remember is the very fact that we have endured. The Ulster Unionist Party hasn’t gone away and the Ulster Unionist Party isn’t going to go away.
We are into our second century and clearly established as one of the longest serving parties in the world. We have proved, and proved under the harshest conditions, that we have mettle and staying power.
There are difficult days ahead and difficult decisions still to make. And, as always, the Ulster Unionist Party will continue to put the needs of the country before its own short term electoral needs.
Our journey towards establishing ourselves as a modern, effective, efficient, and vote winning political machine has begun.
Our journey back to the centre of power has begun.
We have a legacy to be proud of. A party to be proud of. A country to be proud of.
Under my leadership, and with your help ladies and gentlemen, we will re-shape this party into the best and broadest platform for promoting unionism and continue with the task of building a Northern Ireland which is at peace with itself and secure within the United Kingdom."
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