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Speech by Reg Empey at the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Annual Conference, (27 October 2007)

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Text: Reg Empey... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Reg Empey, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), at the UUP Annual Conference, Belfast, (Saturday 27 October 2007)


"My thanks to all of you for coming today; and my thanks, too, to those of you who came along to the EGM last night.

The grassroots are the backbone of the Ulster Unionist Party and I know that it hasnít always been easy being a member of this party over the last ten years.

Membership is voluntary and it takes a certain type of person to raise the funds, knock the doors, keep the branches going and supply the footsoldiers at election after election. I thank them, and I thank you ladies and gentlemen, for keeping this party alive during the very darkest days.

I must pay tribute as well to our public representatives, at Westminster, Europe, Assembly and local council level. Again, because of reduced numbers, a large burden has been placed on their collective shoulders. I am grateful to them for their loyalty and commitment.

In particular, we owe a debt of gratitude to Sylvia Hermon who, along with her colleagues in the Lords, has continued to fly the flag for Ulster Unionism in Parliament against considerable personal and political odds.

And let me not forget our employees: those in HQ, in the Assembly and in our constituency offices. They tend to be forgotten on occasion, but they are often the unsung heroes of our party.

The UUP has weathered many storms since 1905. We created Northern Ireland and we have sustained Northern Ireland. We have never blinked first and we have never allowed the cause of the Union to go undefended.

My ambition, as Leader, is to ensure that our grassroots, our representatives and our staff, are bound together in a re-energized, re-invigorated party, which will see our collective efforts and renewed commitment rewarded with political success and electoral recovery.

Department for Employment and Learning (DEL):

I am here today wearing two hats: that of Party Leader and that of Minister for Employment and Learning.

Given the subject matter of the excellent panel discussion we have just had, let me address my Departmental brief first and begin by asking you two questions:

Which part of the United Kingdom has had one of the fastest rates of output growth, manufacturing production growth, increase in exports and employment since 1990?

Which part of the United Kingdom now has an unemployment rate well below the national average and also well below that of such major European economies as France, Germany and Italy?

The answer, I am delighted to say, is Northern Ireland.

But that doesnít mean that we donít have problems.

Our average living standards remain about 80 per cent of the UK average and are not projected to change by much. An economic think tank recently pointed out that public spending actually contributed 70.5 % of the entire output of the Northern Ireland economy.

Of great concern, too, is the fact that, whereas in most Western economies 2-3 per cent of GDP is devoted to research and development activities, here, in Northern Ireland, the rate is barely 1 per cent.

That is a brief account of where we are at in economic terms. But I am pleased to say that my own Department (Employment and Learning) lies at the heart of the strategy directed at improving the longer term prospects both for the Northern Ireland economy and for all of our citizens.

The wealth and health of all, indeed.

As Minister I do want to see skills upgraded at all levels, because international experience indicates that it is on the quality of the workforce that regions and nations compete in the worldís market place.

Back in May I launched an investigation into the causes of the so-called brain drain. Too many talented people, particularly at age 18 or 21, leave our shores and too few return to bring us the benefits of their wider experience.

Since any society is best tested by the way in which it treats the most vulnerable, I have initiated an independent investigation into the way in which my Department handles the transition of young people with disabilities out of special schooling and into the work force.

Recognising the imperative to improve our game with regard to science and technology my Department will be grasping the opportunities created by the Innovation Fund which originated with the idea of the then Chancellor Gordon Brown back in November 2006.

I will continue to make it a personal as well as a political priority to deal with the scandal and, indeed, the human tragedy, that as many as one-quarter of adults in Northern Ireland do not have adequate ability in reading and counting.

The American politician Robert McNamara said, way back in the 1960s, "...some people look at the world and ask why? Other people look at what the world could be, and ask, why not?"

What I am aiming for is not easy; but it is important. I believe we can shift the emphasis of careers education, so that our young people and their parents may begin to value jobs and professions which very directly contribute to wealth creation.

I refuse to write-off vast tracts of our towns and cities and of our society; we can and should rebuild the culture which valued education and learning; the culture which characterised this city in its days of industrial greatness.

The Northern Ireland economy has plenty of critics. But I reject those Irish republicans and left wing English commentators in particular, who argue that we are some sort of failed entity kept alive only by the generosity of the London Exchequer.

The reality is that a terrorist campaign and political instability prevented Northern Ireland from performing as well as I know that it can perform.

Yet, that said, it does no good to pretend we are world class when we are not! Still, Harold Wilson and (more recently) Peter Hain were wrong to imply we were some sort of spongers.

All that we are asking for is a business tax regime which gives us a chance to compete (and this isnít just about Corporation Tax alone, but fuel duties relative to the Republic - and recent events have emphasized again the tragic consequences associated with cross-border smuggling).

Incidentally, whilst I have been a longstanding supporter of co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic when it is truly to our mutual benefit - and also subject to democratic accountability - we will not gain prosperity by losing our political or economic identity.

In 1999 the Ulster Unionist Party opposed the introduction of a single industrial development agency; the arguments against it remain overwhelming.

I would also say that if you wish the local economy to become more dynamic and entrepreneurial, then it is perverse to load ever more taxes on families and property owners. Our message to Treasury, to adapt Churchillís wartime rallying cry, is "give us the fiscal tools and we will finish the job".

There is, as we are well aware, a significant connection between the political environment of a country and its economic conditions and prospects.

By making Northern Ireland more stable, we are contributing to making more prosperity possible.

So it is a good sign in many ways that so many people are visiting our shores as tourists or as migrant workers.

An abundance of international surveys show that global business prefers peaceful locations, as well as countries with uncorrupt and transparent systems of government.

This is just one more reason why our new Executive and Assembly needs to make every effort to ensure that, like Caesarís wife, it is truly beyond reproach as to the manner of its decision making. Government, here, at every level, must be clean, transparent and uncorrupted by the activities of former terrorists.

The Party:

The Ulster Unionist Party has committed itself to a political and policy process which allows Northern Ireland to complete the transition to "normal" politics.

As a Minister I want to play a part in making Northern Ireland a regional leader in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

As Party Leader I want the Ulster Unionist Party to engage with like-minded allies in Great Britain to promote a pan-UK vision which endorses the over-arching benefits of a United Kingdom as the best framework in which to nurture the benefits available from devolution.

But that promotion shouldnít be confined within the borders of the United Kingdom alone. The Ulster Unionist Party is the only mainstream pro-Union party with representation in the European Parliament.

I would be keen for this party to co-operate with others in that Parliament to ensure that the fundamental and historic rights of the United Kingdom and its constituent parts are protected and promoted. We are not opposed to a Europe of nations. But we are opposed to a European nation state which undermines the constitutional integrity and political identity of the United Kingdom.

A form or spirit of devolution which encourages "ourselves alone", or is exploited by proponents of Scottish, Welsh or little-Ulster nationalism, is a form of devolution which will undo the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.

The Ulster Unionist Party is, first and foremost, a party of the Union and a champion of the United Kingdom. On that basis, we seek to build a Northern Ireland which will be valued as an economic asset to the United Kingdom as a whole; and valued as an upholder of the Union which has been of such huge benefit to all of the people in the United Kingdom.

Now then, let me turn to other matters.

For some time now the DUP has been demanding the credit for every positive development in Northern Ireland. You name it and they claim the praise for it. You point to it and they will say that itís their doing.

The efforts of the Ulster Unionist Party - along with those of other parties, governments and individuals - have been airbrushed out of the shiny new history prepared by the DUP.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am sick to the back teeth of the DUPís orgy of self-praise and self-promotion.

A cheap tin badge with "getting it right" stamped on it, isnít half as valuable as having had the courage and the foresight to getting it started in the first place!

Boasting about a "fair deal" or a "better deal" doesnít take the same degree of political skill as being able to say that you delivered the deal in the first place!

And, letís face it, the sight of Peter Robinson leapfrogging from the front bench to the back bench in order to put the boot into Margaret Ritchie, makes a total mockery of the claim that the DUP had put accountability at the heart of the system.

Insisting that you have "smashed" Sinn Fein and put it in its place, looks like a joke when the reality is that the new deal consisted of a carve-up of office and a ganging-up against the smaller parties.

Indeed, I was surprised that the forthcoming legislative programme didnít contain an UN-Civil Partnership Bill to formalise the new relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The truth of the matter is simple: Had we accepted the DUPís advice, predictions and judgment calls in 1997/98, there wouldnít be an Assembly today.

They got it wrong on just about everything. Sinn Fein would never accept a return to Stormont; or a partitionist settlement; or recognise the legitimacy of the police and justice system. Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

And, as I mentioned Sinn Fein, let us remember that they have been forced to accept the reality that their former "ballot box and armalite" strategy was not going to work. And let us also remember that it was pressure from this party - often acting alone - which forced them to confront that reality.

But however much we may knock the DUP and raise questions about their opportunism, hypocrisy and u-turns: nor however much we say that we took the risks and did the heavy lifting; we cannot deny the fact that they have gained ground at our expense.

But let me say this to you, ladies and gentlemen; and say it to you clearly and unambiguously:

We, the Ulster Unionist Party, helped the DUP into their current position.

Our internal war was a gift to them.

Our public spats were a gift to them.

Our seeming inability to run a coherent campaign was a gift to them.

Ladies and gentlemen - Those days are over.

At our EGM last night we took the first major step to sorting out our internal and organisational inadequacies.

No-one should underestimate the importance of these reforms. Every aspect of how we do our business has been held up to scrutiny and where it has been found wanting, we are changing it.

We are better placed now than we have been for a generation to present ourselves to the electorate as a party once again deserving of support.

Northern Ireland has changed over this past decade and it has changed for the better.

The Ulster Unionist Party has been a key factor in promoting and securing that change.

But as ever, there is more to be done.

We have to prove to the electorate, the media and even ourselves that we, as a party, have also changed and changed for the better.

We have to ensure that this party is, once again, returned to the very heart of political, electoral and civic life in Northern Ireland.

We have to focus on the sort of policies which will appeal to those who donít vote; as well as to those who will be coming onto the register for the first time.

And yes - we have to win back those voters who left us for the DUP or Alliance.

That doesnít mean trying to outflank the DUP on the right or Alliance on the left. It means replanting our banner and our values upon the very centre ground and setting out the vision we have for a Northern Ireland at peace with itself.

Events of the past few days have proved that the shadow of the gunman still hovers across our fledgling institutions. There is still far too much paramilitary, crypto-paramilitary and criminal activity for us to pretend that we are yet a truly peaceful society.

We are on the road to normality, but havenít yet reached that destination. The job we began in the mid-1990s - that of getting all of the organisations to decommission and embrace politics - is still ongoing. As ever, though, we will continue to exert every influence we can. There can never ever be an "acceptable level of violence".

I accept that the IRA has changed in the last few years. But rather than believing that it has gone away entirely, I suspect that it may actually be in a form of suspended animation - a hibernation, if you like. But the "potential" of the IRA still exists; and it will exist for so long as the IRA itself exists.

The IRA needs to disappear all together. Disband. Dismantle all of its structures. That, and that alone, would be the clearest possible sign to unionism that we really are living in a new political dispensation.

The "Argument" over the Executive Minutes, the Causeway Saga and the ongoing hoo-ha over a stadium at the Maze, suggests that there is a very important case to be made for the electorate to have a real and credible alternative at election time to the Sinn Fein-DUP coalition.

And I am delighted, by the way, to welcome Margaret Ritchie, Minister for Social Development, to our conference later today.

Unlike the DUP we have never wanted office for the mere sake of it.

Unlike Sinn Fein we do not want office to sustain the pretence that we can pursue a unilateral agenda.

We have always wanted a form of devolution which is genuinely better than Direct Rule. Mandatory coalition is an alternative to direct rule - but it is no more than that.

Genuinely better means that there has to be proper scrutiny and accountability. And it also means that the electorate has to have a real choice between an outgoing administration and an alternative incoming one.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me assure you on one thing: This party will not shy away from taking any decision, inside or outside the Assembly, which we believe is ultimately in the best interests of the electorate and of democracy.

Northern Ireland has changed. It will continue to change.

The Ulster Unionist Party has to show that it recognises those changes and show, too, that we have adapted ourselves to new realities.

I believe that there is a huge market out there for an Ulster Unionist Party which proves that it is an effective party with relevant policies.

I believe that there is a huge market out there for an Ulster Unionist Party which has a clear identity, purpose and vision.

I believe that there is a huge market out there for an Ulster Unionist Party which champions the values of an inclusive, caring, thoughtful socio-economic agenda.

I believe that there is a huge market out there for an Ulster Unionist Party which rejects the cynicism, opportunism and self-importance of the DUP.

Letís face it; the DUPís idea of choice is Ian Paisley as leader or Ian Paisley Jnr as leader!

There is an overwhelmingly powerful argument to be made in favour of the Union. Whether it be in terms of education, employment opportunities, welfare provision, housing, business, individual freedoms, the economy - the list goes on and on.

Northern Ireland and every one of its inhabitants benefits from the Union. We are citizens of one of the most important countries in the world. We have a range and scale of opportunities and possibilities which would not exist in any other constitutional alternative.

The Ulster Unionist Party is the only party in Northern Ireland which is an unambiguous and unashamed promoter of the Union as a whole; as opposed to the parts that happen to suit us.

The Ulster Unionist Party will continue to champion the Union and the United Kingdom; and within this new devolutionary settlement we will promote policies which enhance our relationship rather than distance us.

We are not Irish Nationalists. And we are not little-Ulster nationalists, either!

This party is ready for a fight-back and a recovery.

You, ladies and gentlemen, are ready for that fight-back.

I am ready for that fight-back.

So, when we leave this conference today, let one simple, united message go out:

The Ulster Unionist Party is back,

Back in business

And here to stay.

Thank you.


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