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Speech by Tom Elliott (UUP) to the Ulster Unionist Party Annual Conference, (22 October 2011)

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Text: Tom Elliott ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Tom Elliott, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), to the Ulster Unionist Party Annual General Meeting, (22 October 2011)


"Ladies and gentlemen, it is common for the media to describe some leadership speeches as "the most important" that the leader has had to make.

In this case it would be true, but that is true of all my speeches!

For it is about laying the foundations for the growth and expansion of this party.

This is about continuing the fightback and working to regain the votes of the electorate.

When I became leader in September 2010 it was at the very beginning of the Assembly election campaign. Many of our candidates had already been selected. There wasn't going to be time to begin, let alone complete, the changes I had identified as necessary during my leadership campaign.

I'm not going to offer any excuses for the outcome of the election. Like all of you, I would have liked a better result.

We didn't do as well as I would have wished. But I want to thank all of our Assembly and Council candidates for flying our flag and fighting our corner. I want to thank all of the members who knocked the doors and joined the campaigns.

This party exists because of the huge efforts, enthusiasm and sheer determination of our grassroots and; as Leader, I am enormously grateful to them. And to you here today.

But with some breathing space until the next election I want to make sure that we are better prepared and fit for battle when the next contest comes.

This is not about reinventing or re-positioning the Ulster Unionist party. My primary task as leader is to set out the process for recovery and ensure that we have a very clear agenda upon which we can be judged at the next election.

What is clear, though, is that we can't fool ourselves that if we sit about and wait for other parties to get it wrong, that somehow we will reap the rewards.

We can't just content ourselves with attacks on others and imagine that such a strategy will deliver dividends.

Yes, we will point the finger when we believe that our political opponents are getting it wrong, or not delivering what is expected of them.

But let's be blunt: There's no point in complaining about the failures of others if we don't have something better to offer the electorate.

It's fine to say that an awful lot of people seem to have concerns about poor government, but as the Assembly election proved, many have not yet been persuaded to vote for US yet.

That has to tell you something. And what it tells you is that people aren't yet ready to come back to us or even come to us for the first time.

So our job - my job in fact - is to give them reasons to vote for us.

Let's look at the Assembly and Executive.

The only job of a government is to seek to deliver for its citizens. It's not rocket science. It really is that simple.

And it needs to be a government which addresses the pressing socio/economic questions affecting everyone here.

With policies to meet the needs of all the people of Northern Ireland.

It can't just be a transfer of power from Direct Rule Ministers to locally elected ministers. It has to be a government for Northern Ireland. Tailored to Northern Ireland.

Surely we didn't spend forty years working to restore devolution just to end up by splitting the block grant between a group of people who choose to do their own thing!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what our government looks like:

No Programme for Government worth speaking about.

Self-interest rather than collective interest at the heart of the Executive.

Serial delay on just about every decision.

Silo mentality.

Indecision on key issues like our shared future.

No over-arching strategy for our 'new' Northern Ireland.

A two-party carve-up serving purely sectional interests and lack of collective ministerial responsibility.

How long must we put up with this seriously deficient and flawed democratic process?

How long do we keep telling people that: "It's better than what we used to have"?

Our own Assembly is certainly better than Direct Rule. But being better than Direct Rule is certainly no excuse for poor government.

At the last election the UUP put forward what was widely regarded as 'game-changing' proposals for improving government.

Proposals which would have put a Programme for Government up front, rather than as a cobbled-together afterthought.

Proposals which would have begun an immediate process to address the other flaws and areas of concern.

Yet here we are, six months later, and there still isn't anything concrete which either the media or general public could describe as a Programme for Government.

Ladies and gentlemen: that is utterly unacceptable. It is bad government. It is the sort of leadership in government which will add to the number of people who are choosing to stay at home on polling day.

Coalition government, whether it be mandatory or voluntary, must be based on mutual respect and mutual interest.

Yet what we have is a coalition government in which both the DUP and Sinn Fein often seem to aspire to nothing higher than mutual veto and mutual avoidance of uncomfortable realities and difficult decisions.

The Ulster Unionist Party was key to assembling the building blocks for a new Northern Ireland.

Irrespective of the attempts by other political parties to re-write history, the fact remains that there would not now be an Assembly and a recognisable peace process if it were not for the UUP.

Standing up for unionism was the right thing to do. Standing up for Northern Ireland was the right thing to do.

The conditions for negotiation were never perfect, but they were conditions beyond our control.

The First Minister recently made a speech in Liverpool. The most telling paragraph was, I quote: "Whatever anyone may say now the position we adopted was consistent with our electoral commitments and in the long term proved, at least, to be in the best interests of the DUP."

It didn't matter if it was in the best interests of the Northern Ireland public or even in the best interests of the Unionist population, so long as it was in the best interests of themelves. That says much in itself - Ourselves alone!

By contrast the Ulster Unionist Party wanted devolution. We wanted good government. We wanted genuine power-sharing, collective responsibility and levels of cross-party cooperation that would make Northern Ireland a better place. And unlike others we were motivated not by selfish Party political advantage, but acted to benefit Northern Ireland and its people.

There has been a great deal of publicity recently about Inquiries, dealing with the past and victims.

Many families lost loved ones during the Troubles in shocking and cruel circumstances, and those loved ones included Pat Finucane.

All families are entitled to the truth surrounding the circumstances of the death of a loved one. There has been much time and energy devoted to the case of Pat Finucane, and I know that the families of many other victims have expressed hurt that their loved ones have not been afforded an equal degree of attention. I understand that hurt.

I believe that it is time to call a halt to the incomplete, flawed and imbalanced series of arrangements that are currently employed to deal with our past.

What we need is an agreed mechanism, rather than a series of processes that serve to re-write history, painting the State and the agents of the State as the villains.

Let me make it clear where I stand on this issue. The Ulster Unionist Party acknowledges the massive debt which this country owes to the bravery, the service and the sacrifice of our security forces who chose to put themselves in harm's way and to protect the citizens of this country. It is a debt which can never be repaid, but the very least we can do is to stand up and defend their reputation when they are being slandered by those who chose to inflict violence on this society.

Currently I see no prospect of finding a mechanism where everyone feels empowered to tell the truth about what they did during the last 40 years. In the absence of that, we operate a very uneven playing field where the great majority of victims see all the focus and resources dedicated to a very few high profile cases, and even their relatives often end up feeling dis-satisfied with what they get.

It is ultimately a question of trust, and clearly trust, like the truth, is in short supply.

We now have the task of addressing the everyday issues that affect all of our lives: Like Health. Education. The Economy. Jobs. Housing. Unemployment and safe Roads. A climate of change is required in every single area and aspect of life over which the Assembly has responsibility.

We must reconnect with the electorate and re-engage their interest in politics. Create a form of devolution which not only delivers, but is seen to deliver.

All of the Assembly parties - and I really do mean all of us - should be very concerned by the growing levels of public disengagement with the Assembly and the Executive.

After 13 years it seems that increasing numbers of people have lost faith in local politics and local politicians.

And I don't believe that either of the two largest parties should take any comfort from this.

Many people who voted for those parties did so in an attempt to stop the other from taking the First Minister's position. Put bluntly: rather than voting for the combination which they believed would deliver the best form of government, they were, instead, voting to do down the 'other side'.

That may suit the two parties involved. But on the evidence available, it doesn't lead to good government and public confidence.

All of this represents a huge challenge for the UUP.

It is up to us to attract the tens of thousands of Unionist voters who were voting at the start of the Peace Process but who aren't voting any longer.

It's about making ourselves a credible alternative to the current stalemate.

It's about a bank of policies which reflect the needs of our economy and our society.

And don't think it can't be done. Don't ever believe that the mountain is too high.

Sometimes in politics you have to make a stand all by yourself.

There is so much talk about the need to get agreement on everything in advance that people forget you can set out your own platform and programme.

What matters most is that people know what the UUP stands for. What our values are. What our mission is.

I'm not sure enough people do know that. And if we don't tell them you can be certain that our opponents won't tell them!

But I don't want people to vote for the UUP just because they think others are making a mess of things and failing to deliver good government.

I want them to vote for us because we have proved to them that we have a vision for Northern Ireland that is worth developing.

I want them to vote for us because they trust us to act in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Yes, we are a unionist party: and of course we are pro-Union.

But the job of government is to meet the everyday needs, demands, hopes and expectations of our people. And those people are here in Northern Ireland.

Let us remind ourselves of what we have committed to:

  • A fair post primary education transfer system that gives the best opportunity to all our young people, and ensure that we end the era whereby many leave school without even the bare essentials of being able to read and write;
  • A Health Service that will meet the needs of the community, and one which is free at the point of delivery, for everyone in society;
  • An economy that is driven by an inventive Private Sector and produces efficiency within the Public Sector.

Let us remind ourselves of what the Ulster Unionist Party has done:

  • We saved the Northern Ireland Taxpayer approximately £88m by prescribing generic drug brands;
  • We provided free prescriptions for everyone;
  • We put £53m per year back into frontline health services by completing the Review of Public Administration in the Health Service and reducing the number of Health and Social Care bodies from 38 to 17;
  • We led on the progress of devolution of Corporation Tax varying powers;
  • We led the campaign to reduce Air Passenger Duty from £60 to £12 on Transatlantic flights;
  • We delivered on our promise not to introduce the Sinn Fein commitment of town centre car parking charges in 30 towns throughout Northern Ireland and
  • We delivered our commitment to ensure a fair solution for the Presbyterian Mutual Society savers and investors.

Let us also remind ourselves what we didn't do:

  • We didn't bring forward proposals for a Terrorist Shrine at the former Maze prison site;
  • We didn't bring forward the 11 council model that will enshrine a Nationalist/Republican majority in our capital city of Belfast;
  • We haven't overseen the increase to the highest unemployment rates in Northern Ireland for over thirteen years and
  • We didn't close accident and emergency services at the Lagan Valley and the City Hospitals.

The Ulster Unionist Party will fight for what is right for everyone in Northern Ireland.

I accept that the UUP cannot, by itself, provide the government. I accept that it is a task that must be shared by the main parties.

But it is vitally important that at the core of the Executive there must be a party-or, better still, parties - which actually believe in proper power-sharing and collective responsibility.

Parties which actually want to make a positive difference rather than parties which just wish to sustain stalemate and protect their own interests.

That is both the task and challenge for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Now that the review of the Justice Minister appointment process is fast approaching - it is due in May 2012 - there is a perfect opportunity to streamline and develop a more efficient Northern Ireland government.

All parties have said they want to reduce the level of government structures at Stormont - Now is your chance!

With this ongoing review we have time to reduce the current number of government departments from 12 to at least 8, which would be a reduction of 1/3. I now challenge others to follow the lead of the Ulster Unionist Party - Lets cut the burden on our tax payers, make ourselves more efficient and give the public value for their money.

But let me make this very clear: if we don't do this together then we will convince no-one.

Our opponents seek to put us down at every opportunity. That's politics.

But if we don't demonstrate internal collective responsibility and promote a clear, united vision, we only help those who seek to do us down.

If we don't exercise personal loyalty to the party and collective loyalty to our own policies, we are doing the job of our political opponents.

Presenting ourselves as an organised, disciplined, efficient political and election machine is important.

But if we don't have the vision to excite interest and enthusiasm then it doesn't really matter how well organised we are.

We must ensure that WE are providing the vision that the people of Northern Ireland share.

Our recovery depends on two key elements: a strong, disciplined party and a clear, relevant platform for good governance.

And there is one other element: if members of this party do not stand shoulder to shoulder and quote from the same agenda, then we will continue to damage ourselves. Teamwork and unity of purpose are essential. We can only succeed if we do it together acting in a spirit of co-operation and goodwill.

I cannot let this occasion pass without mentioning the outgoing President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese.

We come from different ends of the political spectrum.

We have different beliefs and loyalties, and obviously have different opinions on many issues.

But the one thing we share is an inherent belief in the goodness of people.

We also have a commitment to build bridges, sturdy structures based on mutual respect and not founded on meaningless words and phrases.

As she prepares to leave office, I wish to acknowledge the immense contribution she has made during her fourteen years in office.

I never did get to one of her 12th July celebrations in her official residence in the Phoenix Park - I was walking somewhere else!!! - but I'm told they were great occasions for the hundreds who were there.

The initiatives taken by President McAleese have helped to create better understanding and I wish her well for the future.

The challenge ahead of us is a difficult one. But it is a challenge we can and will rise to.

Some of our political opponents - on both sides of the fence, I should add - would like us to disappear. It would suit them very nicely if we weren't around to provide criticism and offer alternatives.

It would suit them very nicely if we weren't around to offer the electorate a wider choice at the next election.

But there is a role for the Ulster Unionist Party. There is a role for a party which wants to make government better.

There is a role for a party which will not settle for stalemate and sectarian carve-up.

There is a role for a party which has a vision for Northern Ireland in which a 'shared future' is an everyday reality rather than a consultation document.

There is a role for a party which wants to build cooperation rather than bed down an 'us-and-them' society which will only bring new problems for the next generation.

There is a role for a party which sees the Assembly as the vehicle for real change rather than as a barrier against pluralism and progress.

There is a role for a party which has never been afraid to take risks and which has always acted for Northern Ireland rather than just itself.

Ladies and gentleman: that party is the Ulster Unionist Party.

A strong party and a proud party.

A party which will prove that it has learned lessons.

A party which will come to the next election with candidates, policies, solutions and strategies which will be the best on offer."


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