The UUP’s annual conference was dominated by messaging aimed at differentiating the party from its larger competitor in the run up to the local government elections.
“I don’t think I’ve seen unionism in such a mess” said Lord Empey as he addressed UUP delegates gathered at Armagh City Hotel in his role as party chairman. He said that November marks 15 years “since the DUP took over the leadership of unionism”.
“In that time they’ve turned the unionist majority into a minority; they’ve turned moderate nationalists into republicans. We now have a reputation for incompetence and corrupt government for how can it possibly be that Sinn Féin is able to say that ‘we must have integrity in government’? Can you believe it? But that is where they have brought us … A few weeks ago they [the DUP] were swaggering around Westminster as kingmakers; and now they’ve turned themselves in their own words into ballbreakers.”
He added: “We’ve replaced traditional unionism with, it’s like kids released into a sweetie shop, they can’t keep their hands out of the jar”.
Robin Swann worked references to boilers and key phrases from the RHI scandal into his leader’s speech. There was no call for an early return to the political institutions at Stormont. RHI showed that “there is a major piece of work needed before we can restore the institutions” and as well as walking through his wish list for Stormont reforms, he called for the Secretary of State to appoint direct rule ministers.
The letters didn’t fall off the backdrop, but a glitch with the high-tech video wall was a reminder that the UUP needs to tighten up on their messaging.
With no Westminster, Assembly or Executive exposure, the UUP make few waves outside the world of local government. They don’t yet seem to have created a consistent DUP attack narrative around a handful of oft-repeated issues that build up traction in voter thinking, though RHI and Brexit may yet deliver those speaking points.
It’s normal for political parties to have factions vying for influence and policy direction. But the situation seems to be more pronounced within the DUP at present.
If the UUP are to arrest their general decline, it must be with a strong performance in May’s council elections at the expense of the DUP. That is the only test that the UUP will be measured against.
Turnout at conference was good, but the younger activists that were visible on the platform and across the hall looked like clones of the retired men and women that still dominate conference.
Rev Alan Irwin spoke movingly about legacy issues and the murder of his uncle Fred Irwin, a council worker and part-time UDR soldier who was fatally shot on his way to work in 1979. Yet at times the tone of his speech felt more like it was pitched at a TUV audience than the UUP.
The contributions from each of the 11 councils were forward looking. But there was little content to address the issues that habitually bring the next generation of voters out onto streets and to march and protest. The paragraphs that former leader Mike Nesbitt would have added into his speeches about social issue are absent under the Swann leadership. Virtue signalling is of limited value, but ignoring some of the elephants in the room casts a shadow irrelevancy.
Jim Nicholson said that “this could well be” his final speech to conference as MEP. Though he underlined the ‘could well be’ as nothing seems too certain. He thanked UUP councillors and assured them of his support at next May’s election: “I look forward to joining you on the campaign trail next year – it looks like I will have some time on my hands come the 29th of March!”
He suggested that it “goes without saying that the United Kingdom has had a complicated relationship with the European Union. The UK was always at its best when taking the lead in Europe – be it in the creation of the single market, standing by our allies in central and Eastern Europe against communism and continuing to do so against Vladimir Putin. That is when we were at our best.”
Nicholson wants “a Brexit that respects the referendum result, maintains the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, keeps a frictionless border with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland and free trade with the continent. Since then, we have been working in Brussels and Strasbourg to help achieve these aims.”
As well as economic arguments, he issued a constitutional warning that “we did not stand against joint authority with Dublin only to end up with Dublin and 26 other Governments making our decisions for us” if Northern Ireland was to stay in the EU single market or customs union “while allowing Great Britain to diverge [meaning] our laws and regulations on these areas are not decided by us locally.”
“There has been a real sense of deja-vu” said the UUP MEP. “I have seen it all before. My mind went back to 1984, when I was MP for Newry and Armagh, I listened to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher give her press conference after the Anglo-Irish summit. A unified Ireland, two state confederation and joint authority were all ‘out, out, out’. “And yet a year later the betrayal came with the Anglo Irish Agreement.”
He offered a critique of the next steps, but advanced no specific ideas:
“There is no point in rushing through a bad deal for the sake of getting something over the line. At the same time, extending transition is far from ideal. We would be paying into the EU as full members without any representation or decision making powers. I can see why Brussels likes that idea! Both parties should take stock and look at other ways of resolving the border issue.”
Party leader Robin Swann clearly retains the strong support of the party membership present at the conference. He walked through the hotel ballroom and up to the stage to strains of Bon Jovi’s Keep the Faith.
“It has undoubtedly been a testing twelve months for Northern Ireland, to misquote one of my predecessors, Northern Ireland stands at a crossroads. I believe you know me well enough by now to appreciate that I am not a man given to extravagant language.
“So I thought about how I could best sum it up. I could point to incompetence, botched Government, blunders, boilers [pause] but when I look back at what has happened in politics over the last year – actually maybe it’s better to say what hasn’t happened in politics over the last year – it’s not difficult to see why the public are totally scundered with the lot of us.
“We continue to rack up days without a Government and the world moves on without us. At a time when Northern Ireland is at the centre of the one of the most politically turbulent periods since the Second World War, we are without our devolved institutions. The Executive remains in deep-freeze while our future outside of the European Union is debated and decided by others.
“The RHI Inquiry provides a daily drip feed of just how shambolic the last Executive was, as the Inquiry goes into areas that the Public Accounts Committee could never have reached. Ministers who don`t read legislation, minute-taking cast aside and grubby politics. It`s not a political farce on television, but rather an insight into the inner workings of the Sinn Fein/DUP Executive who operated in a state of almost permanent paranoia and self-interest.
“And then I reflect on how unionism has been dragged into the gutter by the DUP. And, Conference, I feel angry. Last year I set out a vision of a unionism that was: confident without being arrogant; a Unionism that could be proud without being condescending; a Unionism that was embracing, didn’t rely on fear and can win for everyone.
“Does any one of us look at the DUP and see this? What then, does the rest of the UK see when they look to those representing Northern Ireland Unionism on the national stage? For me, one of the most shocking and sickening revelations of the RHI Inquiry was the complete disregard for British Taxpayers’ money. How could any unionist stand over that?
“And that’s the problem, the irony is that when the DUP have the perfect opportunity to be at the fore of pan-UK unionism, their Ulster nationalism shines through. It’s grotesque. It’s as bad as holidaying at the expense of a foreign government [delegates applaud] or breaching Westminster rules against paid advocacy. It’s not good enough for Northern Ireland. And it’s not good enough for unionism.”
He then turned his focus to Sinn Féin.
“It’s grim that the DUP have created a situation where Sinn Fein of all people are able to call for ‘integrity in government’ and they’ve gifted them the opportunity to pull down the institutions. Sinn Fein, whose main game-plan after all these years still seems to be to run the place into the ground in a hope that people will submit and limp into a united Ireland.
“Sinn Fein, who themselves lack any self-awareness when it comes to their own role in the current political paralysis here. And who seem utterly incapable of showing any sensitivity towards the victims of IRA violence. You cannot preach reconciliation while in the next breath lauding sectarian killers or shouting ‘up the rebels’.
“Unfortunately, that attitude seems to always be there. You just have to scratch the surface. And although their main act of reconciliation has been to say we could retain our British identity in a united Ireland. I say to Mary-Lou, my British identity is not something that you get to allow me to have. [delegates applaud] Because it’s ours by right, it’s ours by birth and it’s ours as already enshrined in the Belfast Agreement. But then again, their grasp of the agreement has always been loose at the best of times.
“I am not a man given to extravagant language so let me be straight with you. Listening to the rhetoric of Sinn Fein and some within the DUP it is clear that we are not going to see the restoration of devolution anytime soon.”
Swann shared his analysis of the political situation at Stormont.
“Although there is little point in rushing back if we are just going to pick up where we left off. You only have to spend five minutes listening to the evidence at the RHI Inquiry to know that there is a major piece of work needed before we can restore the institutions. The fact is that Sinn Fein and the DUP have strayed so far from good governance that it will take time to rebuild our institutions.
“Politics here is deeply broken. And the Frankenstein deal that wasn’t quite brought to life by the DUP and Sinn Fein in February might have been enough to get them back in the door, but it wouldn’t have fixed our institutions. Nor would it have brought about the openness and transparency that is so badly needed.
“Because if openness & transparency are the currency of democracy, the last executive was bankrupt! If there is no reform of the petition of concern, no brake put on SPADs, no attempt to inject transparency into our Executive, we will find ourselves right back in this mess before too long.
“We cannot go back to Sinn Fein and the DUP colluding together when it suited them or attempting to dominate one another when they spotted an opportunity day in, day out. When they corrupted the partnership model at the heart of the 1998 Agreement at St Andrews for their own ends, they weakened the very foundations of the institutions and brought us to where we are today.
“For two parties that now quote the Belfast Agreement when it suits them, I sometimes wonder if they’ve ever got past the front cover. Because over the last ten years we’ve watched their own warped interpretation lead to a race to the bottom as they ran Northern Ireland into the ground.
“It is clear that over ten years in Government they became complacent and their arrogance grew as things spiralled out of control. If we are to see a return of devolution, then there can be no return to the status quo.
“Of course there are unique challenges that come with our form of Government, but that is not to say we must accept any lesser form of democracy. Power-sharing here must be built on trust, it must be built on respect and it must be built on fairness in sharing space, sharing power and sharing responsibility. [applause]
“We are not going back to the days where the DUP and Sinn Fein thought they could boss the other parties in the Executive. So we have proposed that the running of the Executive must be put on a more formal, even legislative, footing to ensure fairness in any future coalitions. That means agendas and papers being delivered on time and answers being provided to written questions within a period of time that is reasonable.
“If that means new standing orders, so be it. Because it was disgusting how some acted in past in the Executive, and it was a demonstration of total disrespect to the mandates of those other parties. And I would hope that we would quickly be able to find agreement that the days of government by Post-It are gone, so taking minutes at meetings should actually be the norm.
“The days of paranoia must be over. If you call yourself a democrat, you need to act like one. And it can no longer be the case that MLAs are more accountable than the Executive Ministers who are responsible for the public purse. We are proposing that the Assembly Commissioner’s remit be expanded to allow them to investigate alleged breaches of the Ministerial Pledge of Office and Code of Conduct.
“If a Minister is thought to have stepped out of line then their colleagues, Assembly Members and the public must have a line of recourse. And I think it goes without saying that Special Advisors need to be pulled into line. [applause] Because it’s clear that when it is left up to parties it doesn’t work. So we are proposing that Special Advisors must be subject to the Northern Ireland Civil Service disciplinary process for breaching their code of conduct. And we are supporting an independent review of the number, role, remit and salaries of Special Advisors, in comparison to their counterparts across the rest of the UK.
“But there is little point in stopping blockages and frustration in the Executive if we don’t sort out the Assembly too. The petition of concern must be reformed in any future talks process. We have put forward our ideas, like changing the threshold to mean that a successful petition would require signatures from either 90% of a designation or 40% of the whole house. It might not be perfect, and we will listen to any idea other parties bring forward, but we have to start somewhere.
“And we must hear from Sinn Fein and the DUP that they are committed to seeing reform too. Because by kicking the can down the road in their February deal it suggests they weren’t very serious about preventing abuse of the mechanism because both liked how it could be used to prevent their members being sanctioned.
Swann turned to the UK Government.
“And where is the UK Government in all this? While Northern Ireland sits in a state of political paralysis, how is it fulfilling its duty to the people of this part of the United Kingdom? They can’t just sit idly by and hope we keep quiet until after Brexit. People are languishing on hospital waiting lists, school budgets are being decimated. Would the Secretary of State accept this in her own constituency? I’d say no.
“There will never be a “perfect time” to hold talks, so let’s get on with it. And if the UK Government honestly thinks there is no prospect of successfully restoring devolution at this time then they must step in. Appoint Ministers and take the decisions.
“Stop letting the people of Northern Ireland wither on the vine because you’re either too busy looking over your shoulder at the DUP or are frozen in fear at the thought of upsetting Sinn Féin’s sensitivities.
“Stop telling us that you’re the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ like that’s enough. It’s time to prove you are. Stop expecting Northern Ireland to accept less than the people of England, Scotland or Wales. But even without appointing Ministers there are decisions you could take that have been publicly backed by parties here and would benefit people’s lives.
“The Suicide Prevention Strategy, the recommendations of the Hart Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse, the pay award for our Health Service workers. What party would seriously criticise the Secretary of State for moving on these issues? If cover is what she needs, then we proposed she gets the parties around the table and ask them if there is anything here that they would object to? And if any party opposes these proposals, let them tell the public why. I can’t believe the NIO would seriously think that doing nothing is an effective strategy.”
“All of this continues while the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union remains uncertain. As it is, Northern Ireland which stands to be most affected, and is at the core of the current dispute, has no voice at the table speaking for all the people of this place.
“Just last week Jim Nicholson MEP and I made our case directly to all the key parties in Brussels; the UK representation, the Irish representation, European parliamentary groupings and to Michel Barnier himself. We made clear why the proposed backstop is so unacceptable to us and why it should never have so foolishly been included in December’s text.
“It concerns me that there are some out there who either still don’t understand, or don’t want to understand why the backstop proposal has caused such concern to unionists. And this is not just about the immediate constitutional problems it raises, but also the long-term implications as the UK would begin to diverge from EU regulations. It would effectively make Northern Ireland an EU protectorate.
“If this scenario were to become a reality, we would be complying with regulations set by a body we were no longer part of and we had no input in to. So where is the accountability? But some seem to have adopted a “suck it up” attitude towards unionist concerns.
“So let me be very clear to those who claim to represent the 56% who voted to remain as a part of the European Union: Those unionists who voted remain did not do so because they wanted to leave the United Kingdom and it is dishonest and deceitful to portray them as such. And they certainly didn`t vote for the backstop either!
“While you continue to swing wildly between assuring people the backstop is an insurance policy no one wants to then have to refer to it as the best of both worlds, it leaves the impression there are those out there who have their fingers crossed behind their back that the UK Government won’t get a good deal and we will default to the backstop. This position is as reckless as those chasing a hard, or even a no deal Brexit.
“Let me also be clear that we want a good relationship with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, but it`s very hard to maintain that when you continually poke us in the eye. Work with us, not against us.
“So I have a message for Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and their colleagues in the Irish Government. Tread carefully. For every day that you trample over the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent, you do further damage to relationships across these islands. Breaking the Belfast Agreement to facilitate the backstop risks destroying what has taken decades to build.
“Stop trying to exploit Brexit to weaken the integrity of the United Kingdom. It would also be economic vandalism to impose a border on our most important trading route which is between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“And then we need to ask, where are the DUP in all this? Or does it depend on what wing of the DUP is speaking at that time. [audience chuckled] For all their shouting of ‘more votes, more seats, more influence’, where were they in December when this backstop made its way into the text?
“But I tell you what, Arlene Foster had better make an exception and make sure she’s across every jot and tittle of this one. [applause] Because she will be held both accountable and responsible.
“Because if the deal that appears in the coming weeks is a bad one for Northern Ireland and its place in the union – people will rightly ask what exactly were they doing? What good is making threats about voting against the budget? Or frustrating the national agenda on health or welfare? Where does that end up? That is little to do with the national interest and everything to do with self-interest. And therein lies the difference, we are a Party who’s DNA is to serve others, while theirs seems to be to simply serve themselves.”
The UUP leader paid tribute to the party’s long-serving MEP.
“Jim has served Northern Ireland in Europe during a period of great change for both places, and many of you will have heard the story than when he went to Brussels at first his mobile phone was the size of a brick. Don’t know if he still has it!
“But throughout it all he has been a steady voice working away for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland. Like when he went to the EU Commission President after the 1994 ceasefires along with John Hume and Ian Paisley to make the case for money to help get Northern Ireland on its feet. Northern Ireland worked best in Europe when its MEPs worked for the betterment of Northern Ireland. [applause]
“And I hope he takes great pride any time he sees a plaque that indicates a project has been the recipient of PEACE funding. I know that he is someone who has consistently made the unionist case in the corridors of power and he has become a deeply respected voice in Brussels – something I have seen for myself – and a voice that Michel Barnier now pays attention to. So Jim, thank you – for your service to this Party and to Northern Ireland. [applause] And conference, like you I know it won’t be the end.
On legacy proposals:
“I want to thank the Rev Alan Irwin for coming along today to give us his very personal account of the hurt and pain inflicted on his family by IRA terrorism. Ladies and Gentlemen, the public consultation on dealing with the past was perhaps one of the most important consultations that has ever taken place. This party successfully lobbied to have it extended for a number of weeks after listening to victims concerns that there was not enough time to have their voice heard.
“The Ulster Unionist Party has been deeply concerned by the legacy proposals since they first emerged during the Haass process in 2013 – and it is important that I thank Lord Empey, Mike Nesbitt, Tom Elliott, Jeff Dudgeon and Danny Kennedy who saw and warned of the inherent dangers from the outset.
“It quickly became clear that we could not give our support to the Historical Investigations Unit – another mess that has the DUP’s fingerprints all over it. We agree that the current situation is intolerable for victims. But we cannot stand over these proposals. We cannot support the establishment of a parallel police force. We cannot allow the rewriting of history.
“We cannot leave behind those who have had an HET review. We cannot abandon the families of those who were murdered outside of Northern Ireland. And we cannot forget the 47,000 citizens of this country who were injured.
“When a former Justice Minister has said that this process may only lead to one or two prosecutions – why are we setting up an entirely new police force? Why are we not adequately funding our existing police force, which has the support of all political parties and across the community? Why are we just moving the workload from one desk to another at great expense?
“This party knows full well the human cost of IRA terror. And we will not allow history to be rewritten so that the murders of our party members, our elected representatives … our friends … are portrayed as anything other than the barbaric, bloodthirsty, sectarian murders that they were.
“To allow narratives to be shaped by those who brought mayhem to our streets will not reconcile our society for future generations. Far from it. Those who made a decision to go out and take a life, or multiple lives, did not do so to further any political ideal, they did so to cause hurt and heartache, and they must not be allowed to continue that hurt.”
On World War One and marking his own family connection:
“There is another period of our past that it is right we reflect on today. We will soon mark the passing of 100 years since the Armistice took effect and the guns fell silent across Europe, bringing the First World War to an end.
“It was a bloody period, and we know of the enormous loss of life of those who had left Ireland. And it strikes me, that even during an enormously difficult and violent time at home, those young men stood together. And the bullets and the shells did not differentiate between Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist. This is our shared history, shared sacrifice, shared mourning.
“And the centenary shouldn’t be the end to the tributes. Mid and East Antrim Council recently updated the names on their Ballymena War Memorial, of particular personal note was the addition of, Private Samuel Finlay Swann, machine gunner, killed on the 13th May 1917 and buried in Germany, who along with the additional names which were added were remembered by family and loved ones, but had never received that public acknowledgement of the sacrifice they made, and who like so many others went and fought so we could enjoy the freedoms that we enjoy today. We must and we will remember them.
“And we cannot forget the women who led the war effort at home. Not least the role of our own Lady Edith Londonderry, who wasn’t content to accept that a woman’s place was solely in the home. As she took up her role as Colonel in Chief of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve she oversaw women taking their place in what had traditionally been men’s roles in the workplace for the first time – ensuring women wore the trousers for generations to come. [delegates laughed]”
On recent and forthcoming elections:
“Conference, our Party, the Ulster Unionist Party has a deep and rich history, something each of us must explore further as there are many things that we should be rightly proud of. But we must not just look to the past – we are also planning for the future. We want to offer hope to the public in the shape of representatives who truly believe in partnership and making this place better for us all.
“We heard from some of our Local Government councillors and potential candidates this morning. On what they have done and what they hope to do. We’ve heard from Julie Flaherty who knew from her own painful experience the financial burden grieving parents face when they lose a child. So, she took a stand and won over her council to waive burial fees so that those facing a traumatic time would not have an extra cost imposed on them. It was so inspiring that her party colleagues took up the mantle and councils across the country have followed suit. And she’s not done, not until the Children’s Funeral Fund is extended to Northern Ireland.
“And that is an example of Ulster Unionism – improving the lives of others in whatever way we can. I’m so proud of our five mayors who have shown generosity and inclusivity in all corners of the areas they represent – we have a new generation of unionists coming through who embody the values needed to preserve our union supported by those who have upheld the union in difficult times.
“It is vital that we are ready to fight the Local Government elections in May and offer a strong unionist alternative. These elections will be the first country wide test of whether a discontented public are ready to vote for change.
“But can I take a minute just to highlight two campaigns we have already fought this year and witnessed growth. The West Tyrone by-election saw our share of the vote increase by over 3%. The Carrick Castle Council by-election, on a very low turnout, saw our share of the vote increase by over 7%.
“I like those not insignificant trajectories! So can I personally thank Chris Smyth & John McDermott and their teams for fighting those two campaigns and increasing our share of the vote in both cases.
“But we face a big test, there is no doubt about that. This election – perhaps frustratingly – will be about a lot more than just voting for the person you think is most likely to keep the bin collections on schedule.
“It is about what type of unionism you want. And do you know what? I’m fed up with unionism being represented nationally by those – to paraphrase Terence O’Neill – who only seem to see the nation as a kind of paymaster, only worthy of support for what they can get out of it.
“And I’m fed up of the politics of bullying and ransom. That’s not my unionism, that’s not our unionism. Nigel Dodds says there’s a battle for the union. I’m inclined to think it’s a battle to save the union from the DUP.
“We must make sure there is no one left in any doubt that it is this party that offers a vision of new unionism that will secure our place in the union through our second century and beyond. Because we know you can be strong in your convictions without being nasty or belittling your neighbours, it’s about winning converts and champions.
“Because we know that the only way this part of the world will succeed is in partnership with those who may not share our ultimate political aspiration – but share our desire to make Northern Ireland work. Because we know that unionism is a movement of people who can come from any class, or belief, or race or sexual orientation and find common cause in preserving the union.
“And I’m not going to be a unionist leader who just pays lip service to inclusiveness in unionism and then spend the rest of my time offending everyone within a square mile around me.
“So let me be very clear, if you somehow have become confused and think that sectarianism, racism or homophobia are tenets of unionism, then I am not at all sorry to say that the Ulster Unionist Party is not the party for you. [applause]
“Our place in the union will be secured by winning hearts and minds. So let’s get on with it. And if the DUP want to spend their time acting the eejit and dishing out hollow threats – let them work away. Because we have work to be getting on with. We are selling an outlook built on what works.
“Our unionism is not merely a rejection of a different constitutional arrangement. It is about partnership. It is about drawing on the diversity that Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales bring to our cultural and economic success. Our wages and welfare depend on us being a strong and enduring nation.
“Trade links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain help us prosper. Those who invest here do so because we are part of the world’s fifth largest economy. And that’s all before it comes to the National Health Service – a system, built on fairness and equality, that is the envy of the world. Any threat to our union is a threat to that magnificent institution.
“So let’s get out there. There are doors to knock, people to convince. So be seen and be heard. This is not the time to be downhearted about the state of politics here. This is the time to be fired up and show that we have what it takes to do better. This is the time to show that we are the alternative. This is the time to show that we aren’t afraid of hard work. This is the time to let everyone know that we the Ulster Unionist Party are the party for the Union.”
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.