Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: It's time to vote for hope, not fear - with me we can all strive for better

The Ulster Unionists' vision for Northern Ireland's future is simple, says party leader Mike Nesbitt: more prosperous people, healthier people and happier people

This cannot be as good as it gets. The ceasefires promised an end to groups that still dominate and terrorise communities more than 20 years later. The Belfast Agreement promised mutual respect, economic prosperity and much better politics than direct rule - I have yet to meet a single citizen who thinks delivery has matched expectations. There must be better days ahead.

I want people to vote for hope on May 7, not fear.

Too often, candidates try to frighten people into voting for them, because they say bad things will happen if they do not. Those are voices from the past.

I entered politics relatively late in life, with a focus on our economy, education, health and housing. If Stormont can get those right, life will take on a new meaning, with an easier perspective on many of our troubles.

The journey begins with a shift in political mindset, away from dependency to serious wealth generation.

I have been amazed and disappointed at how much time we spend on dependency, particularly on the size of the block grant.

We only need an annual subvention of some £11bn from Westminster because we generate so little wealth. I want us to commit to change that, to aspire to being what we once were - a global economic powerhouse.

We have a prosperity gap in Northern Ireland. Put simply, if every citizen of Great Britain has £1 in their back pockets, our people have 77 pence.

I want us to close that gap and the key policy lever is the one we called for at the last general election, in 2010: the power to set our own rate of corporation tax.

We favour 12.5% to match our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland and we would switch as soon as possible, which is April 1, 2017. If the Executive agreed now, that would give Invest NI nearly two years to get new foreign direct investment on the ground and work with existing companies looking to expand because of the opportunity to reinvest profits.

There are two other policy levers we call for, both concessionary VAT rates. One is for the repair, maintenance and improvement of existing dwellings. A 5% rate has applied on the Isle of Man for many years and the experience provides solid evidence that it is good for the economy.

We would apply this UK-wide, because, as surveys including April's from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) prove, many local construction workers travel to Great Britain for employment, so our people would benefit from a 5% rate in GB.

The other is Northern Ireland-specific and, like corporation tax, closes a gap with the Republic of Ireland, which operates a 9% VAT rate on hotel accommodation. The tax differential hurts our tourism sector by as much as £100m per annum.

These are policy levers that will help generate wealth, close the prosperity gap and put more money in the wallets and purses of our people. The increased trade will increase the actual tax-take and that means more money to fund our public services.

Our focus on serious wealth-generation for all also means tackling the huge number of our people who woke today, as they do every day, with no real sense of purpose in their lives and will go to bed lacking the satisfaction of a sense of having achieved something meaningful. This number includes those enduring poor mental health and wellbeing.

Per head of population, Northern Ireland has one of the worst records in the world. It is now more than 20 years since my wife had her own episode of poor mental health and, in spite of the great work she has done to tackle the illogical stigma that attaches to mental health, we still have a long way to go to accept that poor mental health and wellbeing is a common ailment that can be treated, just like most illnesses.

Tackling this problem, often described as the "Cinderella" illness of the health service, would unlock a triple win for our people: addressing one of the most toxic legacies of our Troubles; lifting people off benefits; and rebalancing our economy by making more people economically active, many for the first time.

That will require more commitment to the health service. Our manifesto contains commitments to all aspects of the health service, recognising future pressures, as well as today's - not least the need to make plans for the explosion in numbers suffering dementia. It could soon hit a million UK-wide.

The Ulster Unionist vision for Northern Ireland in this election is simple: more prosperous people, healthier people, happier people.

Our vision for the United Kingdom is equally easily expressed.

The best outcome on May 8 will be a stable Union at a time when uncertainty over the UK's future has increased, in spite of the people of Scotland voting against independence in their referendum.

Scottish nationalists clearly see May 7 as a huge opportunity and, with separatists likely to join them at Westminster from Wales as well as Northern Ireland, there could be 50 or more non-Union MPs, a comparatively huge number, given the fact that the odds are on a hung parliament, with either the Conservatives or Labour requiring support to form a government.

That is why we have reached a limited understanding with other pro-Union parties to try to minimise the number of anti-Union and abstentionist MPs Northern Ireland returns to Westminster.

If the Ulster Unionist Party has a role to play in who occupies 10 Downing Street on May 8, we will approach any talks with a focus on doing what's right both for Northern Ireland and the Union.

Our values will not be an auction item, available to the highest bidder. But we will seek support to achieve our vision. That will include important aspects of what others variously call the "equality agenda" and a "Trojan Horse" - not least in pushing for the full implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland.

The covenant is a declaration of the moral commitment of the Government and nation to our armed forces personnel and their families and it is shameful that those who put themselves in harm's way to defend us all feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

We will also demand that Northern Ireland gets a fair share of the £25m the UK Government has set aside for Second World War veterans, unlike the First and deputy First Ministers, who have not even asked for a penny.

I cannot and will not tell those who defended the UK from international threats and Northern Ireland from internal terrorism that this is as good as it gets. Because it isn't. Better is available.

That is why I hope people take the chance to Vote for Change.

Belfast Telegraph


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