Mike Nesbitt final speech to UUP executive in full
What attracted me to the Ulster Unionist Party was our credo: Country First, Party Second, Individual Third.
If you are to be respected as a true servant of the public, there is no other order of service.
As you know, I came late to political activism – but politics was always there. Not just in my adult life, but even before that.
I remember my father brought home a copy of the Hunt Report into policing in 1969.
I also believe – but the imagination does play tricks – that I sat with my parents in 1968 and watched and listened to Captain Terence O’Neill’s “Ulster at the Crossroads” speech. I was still at primary school. I did not hate anyone. I just wanted to get along with people. I didn’t see why anyone would not support the man on the tv.
I will never forget the night my father drove me up the Craigantlet Hills in east Belfast – around the same time – to watch Belfast burning as minorities on both sides were torched out of their homes in what I believe at the time was the biggest mass migration since the Second World War.
In the coming years, I remember over-hearing late night conversations at home, as my father told my mother of the threats he received at work, from loyalists who did not want him to employ Catholics, and from republicans who did not like him employing Protestants.
By early 1973, those concerns passed. The business was destroyed in a bomb attack. In the instant of that explosion, every certainty in his life disappeared, but every responsibility remained: a wife to look after; three young children to educate; a home to maintain and a car to run. Just like listening to O’Neill, I didn’t understand. Why would anyone do that to my father?
It was the last day my father woke up with a proper sense of purpose in his life and is probably responsible for my long-term interest in the mental health and wellbeing of our people.
It’s probably also the reason that every career move I have made has taken me closer to the politics of this country – from broadcast journalist, through Victims Commissioner to elected representative.
My first major event as a news presenter was the Enniskillen Bomb in 1987 and I covered the wholesale carnage on our streets right through to Omagh in 1998. I hope at all times my primary concern was the human tragedy of our Troubles. There were dead people on our streets, sometimes on a daily basis, and they were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. None needed to die to get where we are today.
Beyond the human cost, I reported and questioned the politics – the mud-slinging, the “what-aboutery”, and the all too rare reaching out to those on the other side.
What I witnessed was Ulster Unionism taking the lead in stretching for an honourable resolution. From the first voluntary act of Responsibility Sharing on the old Dungannon Council to the Agreement of 1998.
As a citizen of this country, I felt great pride in Reg Empey in Washington in the 1990s at the Bill Clinton Investment Conference. Reg was there as a Belfast Councillor, working on a cross-community basis alongside Alasdair McDonnell, promoting our capital city as a place to invest. They held a hugely successful Reception for business people in a DC hotel, under the enormous pressure of being door stepped by Gerry Adams, along with Congressman Pete King and the leaders of Irish American Republicanism, looking for the publicity stunt of a handshake with a unionist leader. For Reg, it was clearly a deeply uncomfortable position, but for Reg, it was Country First, Individual Last.
I remember choking up as I told David Trimble how proud I was of him, as First Minister, attending a funeral mass in Donegal for one of the young victims of the Omagh Bomb, despite the obvious personal problems it was going to cause him.
And I was equally proud – as a citizen of this country – that Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy did the same thing, to stand strong against the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr. If an elected representative cannot attend the funeral of a public servant, our country has little hope to offer.
And of course, when it comes to putting the Country First, there is the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement. I remember going home around 4am on the Friday morning of the agreement, to freshen up for the day ahead. Lynda was in bed, with our two sons: PJ was three; Chris nine months - and I remember thinking how different and great the future was going to be for those boys …. Because the Ulster Unionist Party put Country First.
I am not uncritical of the Party. In 1994, Bill Clinton gave Gerry Adams a 48 hour visa to visit the USA to attend a Conference on Northern Ireland. Jim Molyneaux and Ian Paisley had already agreed to attend, but cancelled the moment they heard the Sinn Féin President was going. I have no difficulty with the unionist leaders saying no to sharing a platform with a man who refused to publicly condemn the IRA – and who knows what more he did privately. But they also cancelled their flights. That was a mistake.
They should have travelled! I reported that opinion at the time and I say again, for the future of unionism – engage!
If Jim Molyneaux and Ian Paisley had gone to New York, they could have held their own event ahead of the main conference – the media would have turned up – and they could have set the agenda: ask him about Jean McConville; enquire about La Mon; express surprise he says he never joined the IRA, given his family circumstances and the environment in which he grew up. Why didn’t he join up?
Unionism needs to engage more. There is no point complaining the White House and the USA are biased, if the only voices they hear are Irish nationalist and republican. Senator Gary Hart was the latest US Envoy and I insisted one of our first meetings should be at Boneybefore outside Larne, at the Jackson Homestead – Jackson being the first generation American President who formed the Democratic Party, which Gary has been a member of for most of his 80 years. Of the 40 million Americans claiming ancestry back to this island, the majority are not Irish American, they are Ulster Scots. We should energise them.
When Gary Hart came to my house for dinner, I introduced him - a lifelong fan of Jameson Irish Whiskey - to Black Bush, and presented him with a book of John Hewitt’s poetry. When he heard I was stepping down as Leader, he sent me a very personal message, and quoted from a Hewitt poem. It may not add up to a hill of beans, in the short term, introducing the Jamesons and Seamus Heaney man to the merits of Bushmills and John Hewitt - but unionism has nothing to lose in putting our side of the argument. We have a proud message to promote and I believe we need to work harder to promote it.
That includes engaging with Irish Republicanism.
I attended a conference this time last year in Bundoran, organised by an American University. The audience was Irish Republican and Irish American to the core. My debate was with Martin McGuinness. My message was simple; in sporting terms, I am playing an away match but sometimes away goals count double. I believe unionism scored a tiny victory that night.
I hope the Party builds on small victories.
My vision remains of a partnership, a partnership of the willing.
That is not what I hear from the DUP, which is unionism whose language is intent on domination.
They talk of “rogue” and “renegade” ministers. They can talk of the “crocodile” that needs starved. All that language achieves is further division, polarisation and the energising of voters who were previously content to put their constitutional aspirations to one side as they enjoyed the benefits of being within the UK – making money, educating their children, having access to a health service without having to pay - and all the rest. What is missing from the DUP is any sense of the values and principles of 1998: reconciliation, tolerance, trust building and the demonstration of mutual respect. It is the unionism of domination, not partnership. It is – to my mind – the politics that endangers our future.
Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom will be best secured by maximising the number of people who are content and happy with their lot, including Catholics and aspiring nationalists. When people are too busy enjoying life, the more secure the Union will be.
Partnership. Not domination.
I think it is a vision that goes back a long way. In 1920, Edward Carson said this in the House of Commons, addressing those who were about to govern Northern Ireland:
They must forget faction and section …… If Ulster does what I ask her to do, and what I hope and believe she will do, in setting up an example and a precedent of good government, fair government, honest government, and a government not for sections or factions, but for all, her example may be followed …”
In his resignation speech in 1969, Terence O’Neill said this:
Here we are, in this small country of ours, Protestant and Catholic, committed by history to live side by side. No solution based on the ascendency of any section of our community can hope to endure.
He went on to question whether what he wanted would be achieved in his lifetime. It was not. Last Friday, as I announced my resignation, I had the same thought.
On the three occasions I have been honoured to be elected by the people of Strangford, I have made the same pledge: to work for those who voted for me, for those who voted for other candidates and for those who did not vote at all.
At its best, that is exactly what the Ulster Unionist Party does.
I could go on, but I need to stop, because my day has gone.
I thank you for the honour of allowing me to lead. Believe it or not, as either a candidate, campaign manager of Party Leader, I fought no fewer than nine elections in the last seven years.
If I could pick three highlights, they would be:
No 1. Campaign managing Tom Elliott’s leadership bid;
No 2. The 2014 Local Government and European Elections, when we did so much better than predicted – and as an aside, may I thank Trevor Wilson the long term Chair of the Ulster Unionist Councillors Association. I have really enjoyed supporting the UUCA, and I think I may have only missed one meeting in five years.
No 3 would be the 2015 General Election. Getting us back on the green benches was so important, and getting two has unlocked some major funding streams for the coming years. I have always said Danny Kinahan won South Antrim for us and Tom Elliott won Fermanagh South Tyrone for all unionism – taking a Westminster seat off a sitting Sinn Féin MP was unprecedented in the modern era .... and the two successes prove you can compete and co-operate with the DUP at the same time.
My big regret is the Assembly. I led us into two Assembly Elections, hoping Northern Ireland was ready for its first post-sectarian Assembly Election.
Last May, I fought on issues and we published no fewer than nine policy documents – but collectively they did not win us a single additional seat.
This time, my message was even more basic.
I argued the election should be about how well people thought the Executive had delivered. The DUP and Sinn Féin had ten years and three mandates – the last collapsing within months.
I argued they did not deserve another chance to lead.
I pointed out that this was the first opportunity in the 96 year history of Northern Ireland when people could realistically replace the parties of government with parties of opposition.
Now, I could tell you our first preference vote went up 18% overall. I could talk about Alan Chambers upping our vote in North Down by well over 20%, or Robin Swann increasing his by 37% in North Antrim, or John Stewart taking a seat off Sinn Féin, just like Tom Elliott did in 2015. Or how close Michael Henderson came to reclaiming our seat in South Belfast seat – or how in a 108 seat Assembly we could have grown our MLA group - and so-on and so-forth.
But that’s all meaningless. 16 seats in a 108 seat Assembly is the equivalent of 13.3 seats in a 90 seater. We got ten. We could not afford a single loss. Three was three too many.
That’s not good enough.
The buck stops here.
Thank you Lord Empey, for the way you have supported me as Chair over the last five years. I thank our Party Officers; I thank all of you here, our Party Executive; I am deeply grateful for the support of our membership and our elected representatives from our MEP, through our Lords, MPs, MLAs to local government.
I also want to thank our 24 Assembly candidates. It is a lonely and often exposed place we put ourselves in when we stand for election.
I have experienced the pain of rejection. I know the gut-wrenching feeling of listening to someone else’s acceptance speech. But without candidates, there is no democracy, so they have all earned our thanks, but especially those who did not make it back this time: in alphabetical order, Jo-Anne Dobson, Danny Kennedy, Harold McKee, Sandra Overend, Jenny Palmer, Philip Smith, and Ross Hussey who retired.
Finally, I want to make clear I love this country, I love this party and I will offer 100% support to our next Leader.
Any true Unionist must strive to create a post-sectarian society – I believe it will happen - some day - and in doing so, we will secure the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
That is all I ever wanted.