Speech by Reg Empey, then leader of the UUP, at the UUP Annual Conference, 21 April 2007
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Speech by Reg Empey, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), at the UUP Annual Conference, Belfast, (Saturday 21 April 2007)
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, and thank you for coming today.
I am grateful to you all for taking time away from your home and family, not simply to make your views known, but also to demonstrate your continuing loyalty to the Ulster Unionist Party.
And thank you, too, for once again entrusting me with the highest honour that this Council can bestow -that of leading the party.
In its 102 year history - during which it forged and sustained the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom - the Ulster Unionist Party has rarely faced such testing times. As ever, though, the bedrock support of the Ulster Unionist Council has ensured that the party remains as committed to its core values as it has been since 1905. And, in the moments of our greatest need, it has been the delegates to this Council who have taken the toughest decisions and weathered the worst storms. I am grateful to you all for your efforts and your loyalty.
Friends, I wish we were meeting in happier circumstances. I believe that we fought a good, gaffe-free campaign; built around a policy agenda that was relevant, costed and forward thinking.
I wish, too, that we were meeting without the shadow of media stories about further splits hanging over us. There never needed to be a public squabble about who would lead the charge for reform, for it is clear from the resolution that it was a matter for review by the Executive Committee and this Council. What matters most is that the job is done. And that is what we have agreed today.
The irony, of course, is that we need the reform to stop this sort of negative story hitting the media in the first place! Have we learned nothing whatsoever in the past decade? Does anyone in this party actually believe that this sort of media coverage helps us?
If you have a gripe, then knock my door and talk to me.
But the reality remains. We have endured another difficult election. The numbers are stark.
We have to be honest about the questions that are being asked of us, and how we answer them.
It has become a cliché to claim that Northern Ireland is today a better place because of the efforts of the UUP. But the reality of clichés is that they are generally founded upon truth. Northern Ireland is a better place for our efforts. A safer place. A less violent place. A more stable place. A place where even the DUP and SF can agree to share in government.
Tempting as it is to keep banging on that the DUP are merely a bunch of hypocrites who have adopted our polices only after we had tested the water and taken the risk - such an attitude doesn’t really get us anywhere. The political process has moved on. The electorate has moved on. Circumstances have changed.
It wasn’t the DUP which broke the UUP apart. It was ourselves. Tolerating an environment in which we allowed our own members to destroy us from within. No other party would have tolerated it. And, as we have seen from recent events in both the DUP and SF, neither of them tolerated it.
Worse, we even tried to kid ourselves that that sort of dissent and indiscipline was somehow ok! We boasted of being a broad church party; of being an open party; of being a truly democratic party.
You can’t be so democratic that a single member or group of members is allowed to behave as if he/she or they are the real or an alternative source of authority within the party.
Membership of a political party in not compulsory. But membership brings with it certain privileges, responsibilities and obligations. And the ultimate success and credibility of any party - indeed, of any voluntary organization boils down to whether or not those responsibilities and obligations will be upheld. Ladies and gentlemen, with your support I am determined that they will be.
WHAT OTHERS SAY
We have heard today what our members say. But what do our opponents say about us?
They say we don’t listen. They say that we’re antiquated. They say that we’re arrogant. They say that we’re disorganised.
Well, what do you think? Honestly, what do you think about such accusations?
Have we failed to respond to challenges facing society in a rapidly changing world?
Are we truly efficient, outward looking and thoroughly modern?
Do we assume we’re guaranteed a place in Northern Ireland’s political life?
Are we robust enough to taken on the challenges of tomorrow?
The most natural thing in the world is to reject what’s uncomfortable. To brush off what your opponents might say about you.
Now we need honest self-examination to guide us. We won’t survive unless and until we smash the shackles which chain us to antiquated structures and a constitution which doesn’t actually serve our purpose.
That is why the resolution on reform was tabled this morning.
And I promise you this: This Review will not be allowed to shrug off the problems. It won’t be allowed to shirk the responsibilities we have placed upon it. It will not be allowed to shy away from making some of the most difficult decisions we have ever had to make.
This is not a cosmetic exercise in tilting at windmills. Rather, it is a crusade to ensure that the UUP has the political, organisational, campaigning, electoral, financial, presentational and media tools to rebuild and move on.
I know that there are people who believe that it is the policies we have pursued, rather than the organisation and structures of the party, which have led to our present situation. I would have some sympathy for that view were it not for the fact that the DUP is presently preparing to share power with Sinn Fein having lock, stock and barrel adopted a policy which was previously exclusively ours.
I would have some sympathy for the view were it not for the fact that, for example, Arlene Foster - a former UUC Officer who orchestrated a campaign against the Belfast Agreement in this party - is today a Minister in Waiting for an Executive constructed upon exactly the same basis as the 1999 Executive!!
The reality of the situation is that it is not just a problem with policy. The real problem is that people, collectively and individually, were and are able to undermine whatever policy is adopted by this Council or the Executive Committee of the UUP. And that is why we need reform - and need it urgently.
NEW AIMS AND VISION
Structures and rules are not the heart and soul of this Party - they are merely means to an end. The Party does not exist to preserve structures and rules - we exist to adapt and make those rules and structures work for us.
In a 24 hour-a-day, media-intensive political environment, we need a streamlined decision-making process that allows the Party to effectively communicate our policies and values.
We currently do not reflect the diversity that exists in modern society in Northern Ireland.
Women, younger people, ethnic minorities and people from all backgrounds must have their rightful place, representing us and making decisions with us.
We need a selection process that ensures talented women and men of all backgrounds can represent this Party.
New voters will only be attracted to this party when they see that their own backgrounds and lifestyles, and upbringings, and gender, and age profile are reflected in the polices we promote and the candidates we field.
In an age when many are cynical about politics, when every membership organisation finds it hard to recruit and retain members, we need a constituency structure and an approach to membership which allows people to serve their local communities through their involvement in the Ulster Unionist Party.
Yet changing our rules and structures is only one part of the hard-thinking that must now take place within Ulster Unionism.
We also need to generate and promote an ongoing vision from this Party.
I am proud and privileged to lead our Party. I am proud of all that this Party has achieved, endured and secured for Northern Ireland. I know that for many in and beyond this room, that came at a great personal price.
Northern Ireland is now more diverse, more outward-looking than ever before. It is a Northern Ireland in which people’s aspirations and expectations are greater.
This is the Northern Ireland with which the Ulster Unionist Party must now re-connect. Not the Northern Ireland of the past - today’s Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Unionist Party is not an old-school reunion society. Yes, we have a legacy of which we can be proud and past successes which deserved to be trumpeted. But we also have a future to think about and a party that needs new blood and fresh thinking.
We are an unashamedly unionist party, a party that passionately believes in the Union as offering the most progressive constitutional, social and economic future for every region of the United Kingdom - and for all of us in Northern Ireland.
But the power and relevance of this - our core message - needs to be communicated to today’s Northern Ireland.
And that is our unique role, the mission of the Ulster Unionist Party in the 21st century: to demonstrate that unionism is not a sectarian power-grab - that the belief in "our cherished position of equal citizenship" within the United Kingdom ensures fairness and liberty for all of us in Northern Ireland.
The recent election has disguised the fact that while the DUP has gained ground, support for the unionism in general has declined. Indeed, one of the most disturbing trends of the past thirty years has been the election-by-election erosion of the total pro-Union vote. The loss of two more unionist seats at the next Assembly election would reduce the unionist representation to less than half of the total.
That sobering fact leads me to what we, as a party, must do in the coming years if we are to copper-fasten support for the Union and reposition ourselves in order to attract a larger share of electoral support.
Firstly, now more than ever, there is a pressing need for a Party that demonstrates that the Union benefits all the people of Northern Ireland; for a Party that promotes an inclusive vision of Northern Ireland’s place the United Kingdom.
We must reach out to that growing number of people who do not classify themselves as either unionist or nationalist - but who would probably be broadly supportive of the Union and of pro-Union policies. We must persuade them that we can represent their beliefs and we can only do that by persuading them of the merits of our cause and our vision for Northern Ireland.
This has been our historic mission - and now is the time when we must recommit ourselves to this task with renewed vigour and in new ways.
Secondly, we must speed-up and build-up the process of "normalizing" politics in Northern Ireland. That was one of the central planks of our election campaign.
This means two things;
(a)the policies we champion at future elections must be steered away from the mantras of the old days and, instead, reflect the socio/economic concerns that have a genuine impact on the everyday lives of the electorate.
(b)the means of forming future Administrations must allow parties of like mind to voluntarily offer alternative coalitions.
The 1998 Agreement provided for what was, to all intents and purposes, a mandatory all party coalition. It was done to give sufficient confidence that all sections of the community would be represented in government. But it was not an end in itself. I firmly believe that the time is coming when we should move away from this form of government, to a form which is voluntary in nature and practice. Again, it’s what we hinted at in our manifesto.
We must work with other parties of the centre to offer an alternative to the Sinn Fein/DUP axis; an axis built around carve-up and party political self-interest. An axis based on mutual loathing and mutual veto. It will not be in the long term interests of Northern Ireland to sustain an arrangement of this sort. I think voters in future will want a choice based on social and economic issues as well as constitutional ones. We must be prepared to offer that choice.
Such developments would strengthen Northern Ireland and provide long term stability. More important, it will build genuine democracy, accountability and electoral choice into the system.
Meanwhile, the UUP will not just be nodding donkeys on the floor of the Assembly, in the Committees, in the Department of Employment and Learning, in the Department of Health and Social Services, and in the Executive. Our team is committed to making devolution a success. We will question and we will challenge - doing everything we can to ensure that the Programme for Government represents the needs of "all of us".
We will use our position in the Executive and the Assembly to put Northern Ireland first. With 55% of the total Stormont budget in our two Departments, we now have a unique opportunity.
We must bring government closer to the people of Northern Ireland, making government better serve the people of Northern Ireland. Making the Union work for all of us in Northern Ireland. Making us relevant.
These are, clearly, challenging times for our Party. But we can change to meet these challenges. We can do it. We have to do it, and today you have given a signal to everyone in Northern Ireland that you want to do it.
That we have the courage to embrace change is telling. It describes who we are; it illustrates how far we have come. It’s the story of a party that built a country, sustained it, fought for it, preserved it and secured it.
That’s quite some story.
Now let’s make the next chapter even more inspiring.
The people of Northern Ireland, all of them, deserve more than a sectarian carve-up where sectional interests come before what’s best for everyone and where party politics comes before real political progress. They deserve, along with their fellow citizens across the United Kingdom, to have a meaningful choice in normal politics; accompanied by a political environment which evolves and matures beyond enforced coalitions.
We live in an age in which the Welsh Conservatives are prepared to share power with Plaid (the Welsh Nationalists) in order to give the people of Wales a real choice. So too must we, the Ulster Unionist Party, seek to build coalitions and partnerships that give real choice, a real alternative to the people of Northern Ireland.
As Northern Ireland moves forward, so must we.
The objective is clear. Think of where we are now. Now imagine where you want us to be.
Imagine the kind of Party you want to be a member of. Consider its values, its ethos, its relevance to your neighbourhood.
Imagine what you want its membership to do. How does the young person at the back of the meeting get pushed to the front? How do we assist the disadvantaged and downtrodden in your community?
Imagine what your representatives will look like. How will they operate? How will they respond to the issues that affect your branch, your association, your townland?
When you imagine what an electable Ulster Unionist Party looks like, you are thinking about what happened today. So today has been a good day at the office for all of us.
The only way to succeed, to realise our vision for a progressive, mature and constructive force for good, is to set about change with urgency.
Colleagues, we have endured such trials but we are unafraid of the future.
The Ulster Unionist Party is strong enough to adapt and to adjust; to react to a changing situation and to rebuild.
The Ulster Unionist Party is strong enough to resist the weight of opinion that writes us off; to be smart enough not to overlook what’s obvious and what’s necessary.
I want us to do all that we can to maximise our potential.
We once existed to make Northern Ireland work. It’s working. Against the odds, against terrorism, against everything that was thrown against us, we accomplished our mission.
Now Northern Ireland needs to hear what we can do next.
There are difficult days remaining; but they are also challenging days. This party has never lacked the courage when it came to promoting and preserving the Union.
Let us not lack the courage to put the Ulster Unionist Party back together again and back in business as the primary voice and choice of unionism."
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