Joint statement by Sir Reg Empey and David Cameron MP, (24 July 2008)
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Joint statement by Sir Reg Empey and David Cameron MP, (24 July 2008)
"Northern Ireland is a better place today than it was a decade ago. There are grounds for confidence and a framework for opportunities that were, literally, unimaginable in the early 1990s. The country is emerging into new political and economic realities and there is a palpable determination across communities and classes to seize the opportunities, to move ahead and build a new Northern Ireland.
But progress has to mean something more than ongoing stalemate between the existing power blocs. It has to mean the development of a political and electoral environment which allows for the emergence, at last, of normal politics.
In recent months the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have held a series of discussions to consider matters of mutual concern and interest. As leaders we met at Westminster last week and agreed to set up a joint working group to explore the possibilities of a closer cooperation leading to the creation of a new political and electoral force in Northern Ireland. That working group will report to us in the autumn.
The links between our parties have been long and intimate, stretching back to the 1880s. But as Northern Ireland has now entered a new era and entered it as an unambiguous partner within the wider United Kingdom family, the time now seems right for both parties to take stock and to consider how best to take forward our shared values of support for the Union, support for the family, respect for hard-work, self-reliance, law and order, public service and our obligations to others within society.
There would be no clearer signal that Northern Ireland was moving on and becoming a 'normal' part of the UK than Northern Ireland MPs supporting and serving in a Conservative Government. Such an historic move would be the ultimate expression that whilst the Conservative Party supports the devolution settlement, it is the only genuine national party that stands, and is represented in, every corner of the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party and Ulster Unionist Party want the support of all those who share our joint agenda and common vision, regardless of their religion, background, or whatever part of the UK they happen to reside in.
There are too many in Northern Ireland who have been put off playing any role (including voting) in politics by the vicious sectarian divisions of recent years. We believe that the creation of a new political and electoral dynamism will attract a surge of support from people in every part of the community who want to leave the past behind and join together to see a 21st Century Northern Ireland in which every citizen is an equal citizen in the politics of the United Kingdom. We believe the time for change has arrived and we are determined to make it happen.
Northern Ireland has changed over the past decade. Much of that change was generated by David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party. It is a change which has now been endorsed by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein in particular, who are governing together in the institutions created by the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Northern Ireland, by agreement of both sides, is no longer a "cold house" for either Irish Nationalists or Unionists.
However, all the people of Northern Ireland need to be able to address and be fully involved in all the national issues that are not devolved - foreign affairs, defence, the strategic fiscal and expenditure issues and the broad thrust of social policy. Northern Ireland needs to be brought back into the mainstream of UK politics. It needs more full-time MPs working in the House of Commons, taking part in all the national debates. It needs MPs who have the real prospect of assuming office as ministers in the government of the day at Westminster. Northern Ireland needs to be properly represented in the corridors of power - and Westminster needs to benefit from the undoubted skills of its people. For too long many of the most talented have been turned-off by a political discourse dominated by the politics of division rather than the mainstream political debate of the nation.
The Conservative Party and the Liberals were active in that part of the UK prior to the constitutional crises of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Labour Party held one of their first conferences in Belfast in 1907. For various reasons the Liberals withered and the Labour Party withdrew. The Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists maintained links but largely separated due to differences in approach during the period of the Troubles. Political regeneration, however, must go hand in hand with economic regeneration.
Last week aircraft manufacturer Bombardier announced the investment of over £500 million in a new plant to build composite wings for a new series of aircraft. This spectacular investment in state of the art technology will help restore Belfast to the position it had in the 19th Century when its shipbuilding industry set the pace worldwide.
For the peace to be finally secured there is a huge amount to be done. Following the physical devastation of the Troubles, government expenditure is equivalent to nearly twp thirds of Northern Ireland's output; south of the border it is just over one third. Alarmingly, a full 29 percent of the workforce is paid by the state, against 20% for the UK overall. There needs to be a concerted 25-year programme to rebuild the private sector.
For Northern Ireland to prosper in the 21st Century, however, it is going to need more than a reinvigoration of its economy. It also needs to be fully represented at the national and international level. We firmly believe that the Conservative Party, in conjunction with the Ulster Unionist Party, has a pivotal role to play in providing all the people of Northern Ireland a means of becoming involved in the politics of the UK. Through this we can work together to solve the problems we face - social and economic.
To bed down the transformation it will need politicians involved in decision-making at national level. The issues that most concern people are not of a narrow sectarian nature. Many people are becoming exasperated by local politicians concentrating on what appear to be exclusively parochial issues. Like most others in the UK, what really worries them is social breakdown, fuel duties, the 10p tax row, excessive regulation on business, pensions and the Lisbon treaty.
There is a real danger that some of Northern Ireland's politicians will continue to look inwards and become "Ulster Nationalists". Whilst it is right that local issues such as the NHS are now dealt with at Stormont, this new era of peace and potential prosperity gives us an historic opportunity to propel Northern Ireland into the mainstream of UK politics.
We want the Conservative Party to be in the forefront of that process and appeal to Labour and Liberal Democrats to re-assess their current reluctance to be involved in the politics of Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that they continue to find excuses in order to treat the people of Northern Ireland as second-class citizens. We challenge them to follow our lead and act rapidly to end these anomalies.
Northern Ireland's future is bright and we believe that the normalisation of politics can make it brighter still. The Conservative Party and Ulster Unionist Party are committed to radical political change in Northern Ireland. Together we believe that we can provide the leadership which will address the needs of a 21st Century Northern Ireland, serve to provide stability, attract investment, dismantle sectarianism and shore-up confidence in the devolved institutions.
We believe that this could be the beginning of a new and genuinely exciting development in both local and national politics."
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