I think that we can be certain after Saturday’s conference that the UUP are against an Irish Language Act. That was the message that dominated the platform contributions from councillors, MLAs, ex-MPs and its leader.
The sustained anti-ILA rhetoric was an effective smokescreen that diverted attention from any focus on the party’s disappointing election results when they lost their 2 sitting MPs and dropped from 16 to 10 MLAs in an election which reduced the Assembly constituencies from 6 to 5 elected representatives.
Despite any sense of depression – meteorological as well as political – there was good attendance at the UUP’s conference in Armagh, the first under the leadership of Robin Swann. The mood was not sombre or downbeat, illustrated by Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down that accompanied the leader up the aisle towards the podium and Ain’t No Stopping Us Now by McFadden and Whitehead that encouraged the rapturous applause at the end of his thirty minute speech.
There were young people in the hall and up on stage: however the demographic was noticeably older than the DUP conference last year. Three former leaders could be seen wandering around the conference: Sir Reg Empey, Tom Elliott and Mike Nesbitt. A number of non-delegates at the conference (amongst them some UUP supporters) wondered out loud whether Robin Swann would be the party’s last leader.
But the party was keen to move forward, albeit whilst looking sideways at Sinn Féin and the DUP and keeping a steady eye on the ghosts of Carson and O’Neill in the rear view mirror.
While the leader talked about radical moderates, some moderates who agreed to stand as (unsuccessful) candidates over the last two or three years might not recognise the party they once campaigned for. Commentators were scolded for claiming that the party had lurched to the right … but there was little evidence of centrist never mind left wing thinking.
While Robin Swann’s speech felt quite traditional, there was a total absence to references about ‘moral issues’ such as same sex marriage or abortion (which might have been themes for ‘radical moderates’) and no nod to the Reformation, faith or religion. The thirty minute speech was quietly witty, well delivered, and well received by the delegates.
There was a brief mention but no real policy detail on how the UUP could work together with other parties “to tackle the real issues of deprivation, educational under-achievement, inequality in opportunities and the clear perception of communities that feel they have been left behind”. Those positive, cross community, transformative ideas were suppressed in favour of expressing dissent at the idea of legislating about language.
While the same shiny video wall set was used as last year – no letters could drop off the UUP backdrop! – memories of SDLP leader Colum Eastwood stepping on stage to address delegates seemed like a lifetime ago. Today the party would cringe at the notion of “Vote Mike and you get Colum”. In fact the leader made no mention of previous leader Mike Nesbitt, Colum Eastwood or the SDLP.
The party has failed to make itself heard above the grunts and squeals of the squabbling DUP and Sinn Féin which fill the otherwise empty political vacuum. No issue has been ‘owned’ by the UUP. Even Mike Nesbitt’s enduring demands for better mental health provision in Northern Ireland were absent this year.
The borrowing of the Alliance strapline “For Everyone” was at odds with the absence of what Mike Nesbitt described as “the values and principles of 1998 [the Good Friday Agreement]: reconciliation, tolerance, trust building and the demonstration of mutual respect” in his outgoing speech to the Ulster Unionist party Executive in March.
It will take time to discover whether the “new unionism” Robin Swann promises can be “confident, proud and embracing”, and whether his attempts at resuscitation are effective and deliver results for his party and the people of Northern Ireland.
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The morning was dominated by remarks from a series of councillors speaking to a sharply worded motion:
“This conference believes that rights, culture and identity are important but should not be used as a political weapon; and that we should continually challenge those who attempt to use and abuse rights, culture and identity to impose their narrative on others.”
Given that wording, it should be no surprise that the speeches were strident, attacked Sinn Féin, and were anti-Irish Language Act.
Couching his remarks with the statement “there is not one person in this room today who would wish to deny any citizen of Northern Ireland respect in terms of their rights, culture or identity”, Councillor David Taylor (Newry, Mourne and Down) went on to talk about his minority community “experiencing first hand Republicanism’s warped notion of equality and respect”.
He highlighted the “the clear fact […] that no member of the Unionist community has been afforded the honour of serving as First citizen of our district for over a decade”. On Irish Language promotion within the council district:
“An unnecessary burden has been placed on ratepayers as a consequence of Republican and Nationalist demands on this issue and yet still, this is not enough. An Irish Language Strategy working group has now been established by the Council to further develop Irish Language Policy and this may lead to further financial support in the form of grants and bursaries being offered. Something I genuinely fear most is that a recommendation may come forward which requires anyone seeking employment within the Council to have knowledge of the Irish Language.”
He finished: “Sinn Fein will never want Northern Ireland to succeed despite the fact that most of our citizens wish to see our Country flourish. Such a scenario would serve as an obvious impediment to their sinister attempts to coerce the people of our province into a United Ireland.
“It is clear the time has come to firmly reject Sinn Fein’s narrow sectarian agenda and to let the rest of Northern Ireland move forward in a spirit of genuine compromise with the hope of a better and prosperous future being achieved for all of us.”
Councillor Sonia Copeland (Belfast City Council) greeted the delegates in English, Irish and Ulster Scots and spoke about her children being able to “speak Gaelic, a language referred to by some as Irish” and linked in the Gaelic place names the give their names to many Orange Lodges.
She insisted that an Irish Language Act would do nothing to help “vulnerable citizens” who face hardships.
She turned to the DUP and the Northern Ireland NHS’s “failing to meet its health targets, despite making it easier to hit the goal planned operations and care”.
“Since March 2015 it has gradually reduced the target from 80% to 55%, despite this cheating they still can’t meet the targets. Do the DUP really think people are stupid? They must do, for they treat us all as if we are fools. This is the very same DUP that poured scorn on the Belfast Agreement until they became the biggest party.”
But Copeland returned to Sinn Féin:
“… they have become the greatest example of political apartheid on the face of this planet”. They do not see culture, the arts or the Gaelic language as ‘a method of communicating with their friends, but as a weapon to discomfort their enemies’.
“The fragile peace that is being squandered by the two main parties did not come cheap, nor did it come from the magnanimity of Sinn Fein. It came by the unrelenting diligence and sacrifice of the men and women of the RUC and the UDR, and all other innocent victims sacrificed on the altars of the terrorists and their blood lust.”
Before the resolution was unanimously passed, Tom Elliott summed up the sentiment with “a couple of point which I think are important”. He recalled what Gerry Adams told RTE in 1997:
“Ask any activist in the north, ‘did Drumcree happen by accident?’, and he will tell you, ‘no’. Three years of work on the lower Ormeau Road, Portadown and parts of Fermanagh and Newry, Armagh and in Bellaghy and up in Derry. Three years of work went into creating that situation and fair play to those people who put the work in. They are the type of scene changes that we have to focus on and develop and exploit.”
Elliott followed this up with Adams’ remarks some years later in Enniskillen about breaking “these bastards” [though Elliott didn’t say the full word] and keeping the focus on “the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is to reach out to people on the basis of equality”.
“This is what Sinn Fein think of equality and respect” said the former MP.
“I don’t believe that they want to see rights and equality for everyone. They have their narrow focussed agenda. What more could I say in this debate except to finally say to Sinn Féin – who have their long term strategy of denouncing anything that is unionist or British – Stop trying to enforce your narrow Sinn Féin bitter agenda on everyone. Just as the IRA enforced their narrow bitter murderous agenda on the people of Northern Ireland for thirty years.”
Councillor Alex Redpath (Lisburn and Castlereagh) introduced the policy work of the Ulster Young Unionist Council. He said that the UUP was “firmly on the side of commuters” with its proposals for “free wifi” to be extended to all services, a new concessionary scheme for job seekers and insisted that the (delayed) integrated payment card be extended to the rail service and not just buses and rapid transport schemes.
Maybe I missed the announcement that Translink had taken a cutting from the Westminster found the magic money tree and nurtured it to pay for these seemingly uncosted policies!
There was time to hear from both the Shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Chloe Smith. Mark Tipper from the Hyde Park Justice Campaign also addressed the conference.
Robin Swann began his speech quipping “I never imagined that one day I would be addressing it as your Leader, it’s still a title I am getting used to – although I have been called worse.”
He challenged “opponents or some commentators want to put me and this Party into [a box]” and opened up about his own background, his working class family background in a Housing Executive house in Kells, his first job in a meat factory and his completion of a part time degree through the Open University.
“So when I chaired the Employment and Learning Committee and extolled the virtues of Northern Irelands third university and the importance of life long learning, I did it because I know the value it adds.
“I may not reflect who the Party used to be, but I believe that I do reflect who we are now and who we represent. And looking out today I can see in front of me teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, farmers, carers, veterans, Ladies and Gentlemen – you and me.
“I say we no longer fit inside the old box, nor do we occupy the big house. In our make-up: now more than ever: we reflect society: we reflect Northern Ireland and we reflect Unionism.”
One theme of the speech was that Ulster Unionists should be “proud” and should hold onto the “principles and values of this party” which “truly believes in our place in the United Kingdom and knows that the best way to safeguard our future place there, is through making Northern Ireland a successful, welcoming and fair society”.
“As Leader I want to ensure that this Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, recognises the talented hard working people that we have in the province, people like my mother and father, people like you and me.”
On his new leadership:
“It has been six months since you placed your trust in me as leader, and what a six months it has been, not just for us but also for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Just ten days in to my leadership, the Prime Minister called a general election.
“And I know. We all groaned. Sitting down to enjoy what was left of the Easter holidays and suddenly faced with the prospect of thousands of doors to be knocked, many leaflets to be delivered and hundreds of dogs licking their lips on the far side of the letter box.
“And it wasn’t even for the first time this year. And yet we all did it again just as we had weeks previously. Without a second thought you were all out there once again, taking the Ulster Unionist message to thousands of people across the country.
“Both elections were polarising. Both drove people out to the extremes. And we lost good people along the way. Our Assembly team feels the loss of Danny, Jo-Anne, Sandra, Harold, Jenny and Philip.”
And he paid tribute to the commitment and support of former MPs Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan:
“They are the proof that you don’t have to be an army to make a difference. In just two years, as just two voices, they more than made their mark at the heart of UK politics.”
He reflected on changing politics at home and abroad.
‘”Old certainties no longer exist. The electorate the world over is sending a message that they want politicians who listen to what they want, not tell them what they need. There is a challenge for us in how we respond. It is my mind that we must see change too.
“Those steps and changes will be challenging and at sometimes difficult, but they are necessary. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.”
He expressed his admiration for younger activists within the party.
“… it pleases me to see a new generation getting involved in this Party, and see them taking up prominent roles and from this morning’s contributions and presentations they have a lot to give. That blended with the wisdom and experience of our established representatives, we have a very strong team.”
The party had started to and needed to “rebuild, re-energise, re-connect” and had already begun preparations for the next “scheduled” elections for local government in 2019.
Swann’s “guiding influence […] remains the last Ulster Unionist from North Antrim to lead this Party, Captain Terence O’Neill”.
“However when I have been reflecting on the results of this year, and what path we need to take, his words when addressing the North Antrim Association on the 23 January 1967 – and no I wasn’t there! – but he said:
“’The times are changing, and will not wait for us. Unless we move with them we shall be left behind. We must make progress, economically, politically, socially, culturally – if we are not to fall behind and risk everything for which our forefathers fought and worked.’
“Conference, for those of you who know me, will know that I am not someone who gives up, but I am also a realist. The road ahead is not easy. But who ever said it would be. We must be focused, we must be dedicated, and we must work together as a team – it`s time to get things done.”
“When we reflect on and analyse the results of the last two elections, we must do it with total honesty. Conference it is clear to me that we have to win back the hearts and minds of unionism. It isn’t something that will happen overnight. It will mean days, weeks, months, years of consistent hard work, organising and patience.
“It will mean that today, every single one of us – from elected representative, to grassroots activist – commits to rebuilding this party into one that can credibly challenge for a place in the Office of First Minister.
“And let’s face it, there’s only so many Spotlight specials people can take before they look for an alternative.
“So we must be ready. We need to break and shake off past preconceptions of this Party, and start the next chapter of our story.”
The next chapter is about “new Unionism”.
“I am more convinced than ever that it is this party that offers the vehicle for unionism that will secure our place in the United Kingdom for generations to come. There are those who have tried to make unionism a dirty word. Who try and split off society from “unionists” in a pathetic attempt to further their own political project.
“I have said before that when I look into this crowd I don’t see Traditional Unionists, I don’t see Liberal Unionists – I see Ulster Unionists – I see Unionists – I see people who have and share the same hopes and aspirations for this country and for our United Kingdom, that I do.
“I see people who are confident in their unionism. People who are more than capable of going head to head with Republicanism in any debating forum and coming away with a comfortable victory. People who are ambitious for the future of Northern Ireland. People who are respectful and tolerant.
“Conference, we need to make sure that everyone outside of this hall sees this too. I have said before that we are moderate people, but now is the time for us to be radical moderates.”
Swann said that it was “time to leave behind Parties that cannot govern”, characterising them as “incompetent at governing” and “parties that cannot agree a way forward”.
“It’s time to leave behind Parties that are bankrupting Northern Ireland. Parties that want it all their own way. Parties that don’t keep their promises. It’s time to leave behind Parties that put themselves first. Parties that are corrupt.
“Politically Northern Ireland has made little progress in the last few years, and on occasions it has gone into reverse gear. I was part of the generation which saw the opportunity of what was possible. I don’t want to be part of the political generation that loses the vision of what we can become.
On the Assembly and the current political deadlock:
“In a restored assembly and Executive – if there is one – what we need is ‘good government, fair government, honest government and a government not for sections or factions’. That’s what Lord Edward Carson said he wanted 93 years ago, and that is what we seek today.
“Government can’t or shouldn’t simply be, lining the pockets of those who support you, or lining your own pockets – it should be about a good education system, an education system where our children are educated together, a funded health service, housing and jobs that meets the needs of everyone.
“That may sound like a fantasy – but it’s what I believe we are about. And that`s what we should aim to achieve. I want to ensure that our representatives, in Council, Stormont, Westminster and Brussels – are standing up for you.
“With regards to the current impasse, deadlines have come and deadlines have gone, windows of opportunity have been opened and slammed shut, glide paths and landings have been commenced and then aborted.
“And as the stalemate at Stormont rolls on the difficulties across every aspect of our public services continue to deepen. Whether it’s roads disintegrating with no budget set aside for even basic repairs or people with the most serious disabilities getting caught up in delays with the new benefits system, there is no Executive or Minister in place to take the decisions necessary to fix them.
“The pressures are particularly acute in the Education system. Not only as a politician, but as a father of two young children, I can see that our schools are struggling. Northern Ireland should be proud of the high standard of education it delivers, but that’s increasingly being placed at risk. Schools simply cannot continually see their budgets cut by tens of thousands of pounds and be expected to deliver the exact same level of outcomes.
“Our health service is in the midst of its most unprecedented waiting times crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are waiting for either a diagnosis or treatment, and as every week goes by the delays get longer and people continue to suffer. The brutal and tragic reality right now is that patients are coming to harm. To quote a warning from the Health and Social Care Board – ‘spiralling waiting times could lead to severely delayed diagnoses of life threatening illnesses’.
“That was two years ago, yet the situation then was unrecognisable compared to just how precarious things are right now. This period of prolonged neglect and mismanagement has witnessed politics being placed ahead of patients. That is an abhorrent situation. And it is a result of that, along with the wider chaotic state in public finances and the absence of any budget or any certainty, that Health Trusts came up with ludicrous proposals to cut capacity… at the exact same time as demand has never been higher.
“Conference, I welcome the last-minute reprieve most of the worst health cuts got last week but let me be clear – they should never have even been proposed in the first place.”
The UUP leader said that “if a good Brexit deal cannot be agreed, Northern Ireland may have more to lose than any other part of the country, yet the lack of a functioning Executive significantly weakens our position compared with that of Wales or Scotland”.
“Any deal that puts a de facto border up the middle of the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and pulls us out of the UK single market would be totally unacceptable.
“The days of ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ are over – if we are serious about securing the best deal for all the people of Northern Ireland then all our energies should be focused on making sure our voice is heard in the negotiations – not on trying to re-run the referendum.
“And I appeal to our nationalist friends and neighbours, don’t get sucked into fighting the battles of the past over Brexit. If this is turned into questioning Northern Ireland`s constitutional position, we will be winding the clock back by decades.
“The constitutional position was settled in 1998. We should be looking to the future together, building a better society together, not getting drawn into using Brexit as a proxy vehicle for a United Ireland. It won`t work, but it will further divide what we have already got.”
His mention of Jim Nicholson as “a strong voice for Northern Ireland in Europe” and “one of the United Kingdom’s most well respected and influential MEPs in the corridors of Brussels” was met with strong applause.
Avoiding mentioning Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams by name, Swann said:
“Conference, I am sick of progress in Northern Ireland being held up because one party is being swung by the tail by a TD who has no mandate in Northern Ireland.”
He called for an immediate shift from mandatory powersharing to an alternative system of voluntary coalition:
“It is time for the institutions to move on, it is time for politics to move on, it is time for that change that allows Northern Ireland politicians to form an Executive of the willing. A voluntary coalition.
“So today I call on the Secretary of State to start that process, and for those who either can’t do it or aren’t willing to do it – get out of the way!”
Later in the speech he returned to Sinn Féin:
“One of the most frustrating things about politics in Northern Ireland, is the constant lecturing from Sinn Fein about rights and respect, and claims about the need to implement previous agreements.
“As we heard so eloquently earlier today, Republicans did more than anyone else to remove rights from others – not least the right to life. They are masters at demanding what they frame as ‘rights’.
“Just because they call their demands ‘rights’ does not make them a right – but they are negligent when it comes to meeting their responsibilities.
“If Sinn Fein want previous agreements implemented, let them start with the Belfast Agreement which states that the participants ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland’.
“And that is where Michelle O’Neill fell down following her performance in Manchester. Because while Michelle may not be British, I am, you are, and Northern Ireland is. I’m not sure I would even need one finger to count the number of occasions Sinn Fein have shown respect to that part of the Belfast Agreement since 1998.
“International law clearly states that there is no right for anyone to engage in any activity or perform any act contrary to the fundamental principles of international law and in particular of the sovereign equality, territorial integrity and political independence of States.’
“In terms of Northern Ireland, no-one could seriously say that Sinn Fein has respected the national legislation and the rights of others. It is perfectly clear to me that republicans have failed repeatedly to respect those principles for decades. Sinn Fein demand respect when they themselves refuse to show it. It is time to end the hypocrisy.”
The party leader was less outspoken and a little more moderate on the Irish language than some of the councillors in earlier sessions.
“Conference, I want to touch briefly on the Irish Language, because attempts to portray our stance as lurching to the right or becoming hard-line are unfair and untrue. In fact, our stance on this issue has not changed since 1998. Ask Lord Empey or ask Michael McGimpsey!
“The Irish language and an Irish Language Act are two separate issues. I have said it before, and our track record stands. We have no issue with those who cherish the language being facilitated in doing so. But the intention was to put in place measures that allowed the language to grow at its own pace, free from political interference. An Irish Language Act contradicts this thinking.
“It is not scaremongering to express concerns that legislation would lead to further division in society. We would no longer be reliant on flags or painted kerbstones – we would know whose territory we were in by the road signs. For Northern Ireland to succeed we need to build trust and respect, not just between political parties but between the electorate and politicians; and no matter how hard people may try, it is impossible to legislate for trust and respect.
“We cannot simply legislate our way out of every political disagreement. The Ulster Unionist Party is very clear that trust and respect can only be established by what we do, not by the use of polished sound bites or expertly crafted communications. Actions really do speak louder than words.
He was unambiguous in outing distance between political unionism and paramilitaries.
“Let me be clear on the issue of the continuing existence of paramilitary groups, whether Republican or Loyalist. You have no place or role to play in a democratic society, and almost twenty years after the Belfast Agreement, it is long since time that you left the stage.
“What this Party will not do in any circumstances, will be to give political cover, or show any ambiguity which allows any individual or group to be community workers by day and extortionists or political bullies by night. Loyalist or Republican.
“Let me be clear – whatever about others – we will not trade our principles for possible cheap electoral gain by buying votes, whilst turning a blind eye or ignoring unacceptable practices which continue to cause sheer misery in their communities.
For those who genuinely want to transform themselves and be part of our democratic structures, we will continue to work with you. Let’s work together to tackle the real issues of deprivation, educational under-achievement, inequality in opportunities and the clear perception of communities that feel they have been left behind.
“There were things I planned to do when I took over as leader which were over taken by the general election that were then overshadowed by the result. But my commitment and resolve remains:
“We must be able to deliver a new Unionism, we need to sell our message to everyone, so they understand what our Unionism is about and what our Unionism represents. The union cannot be promoted and will not be protected, or secured, by those who show ambivalence to it or who are agnostic on it.
“That is where I see the purpose and reason for the Ulster Unionist Party. To be a vehicle of political consensus that allows peoples desires in their daily lives an opportunity to be represented through their politics as well. Where people can say openly, I am proud to be a unionist, but I am not afraid nor threatened by those who differ from me.
“I believe that we are the Party that can deliver a New Unionism. A Unionism that can be confident without being arrogant. A Unionism that can be proud without being condescending. A Unionism that can be embracing. A Unionism that doesn’t rely on fear. A Unionism that can win for everyone.
“A new Unionism.”
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.