Belfast Telegraph

My vision for a vibrant Northern Ireland future

The UUP offers the best hope of a positive future. But Westminster has to act to rebalance our economy and banks must start lending again, argues Tom Elliott

Addressing some 1,000 members of the Ulster Unionist Party who made their way to Belfast's Waterfront Hall last Wednesday, I heard their desire for change. Speaking with new members - not yet in the party long enough to vote - I saw their interest and faith in our potential.

Now, reflecting on the number of delegates, the standard of debate and the atmosphere of enthusiasm and passion, I am inspired.

Last Wednesday proved that the Ulster Unionist Party - defying its detractors - is a vibrant, democratic and determined political party and I am honoured to have been chosen as its leader.

The Ulster Unionist Party has a long and proud history; we founded and nurtured Northern Ireland, secured the Union, brought this country peace and have worked tirelessly in Government to deliver prosperity and a better future for everyone.

However, we cannot live in the past. Northern Ireland faces significant challenges, but I am convinced that a reinvigorated Ulster Unionist Party will be best-placed to deliver the positive future that we all want and deserve.

It is time to deliver good government, a vibrant economy and a truly shared future - not the Executive paralysis or the shared-out future envisaged by the DUP and Sinn Fein in their current proposals for Cohesion Sharing and Integration.

Those who know me can have no doubt about my commitment to a shared future. I have worked for community groups from all backgrounds during my time as an elected representative in Fermanagh - including GAA clubs, I hasten to add.

But the revival of the Ulster Unionist Party and the future of Northern Ireland will not be measured by the number of times the leader of the UUP attends a GAA match - any more than it would be by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness holding a season ticket for Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, is in the grip of serious economic and fiscal upheaval.

The forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review has serious implications and it is appalling that some Executive ministers are continuing to duck the issue.

I do not expect Northern Ireland to be exempt from cuts, nor should we be shy of arguing our unique level of need.

We must be prepared to take responsibility, but we need a manageable platform from which to deliver meaningful change to our public services and our economy. The coalition Government must bring forward its proposals for rebalancing Northern Ireland's economy as soon as possible. Devolving the power to reduce Corporation Tax is crucial; however, we cannot focus exclusively on this issue.

I am extremely pleased to see companies like the New York Stock Exchange invest here but they must form part of a package that sees us support and develop our indigenous businesses.

Research and development, skills and export markets must be given equal priority. Fundamental to all this is getting our local banks to lend to our local businesses.

A cohesive society relies on the work of volunteers and communities and, as a politician, I have always valued Northern Ireland's exemplary community and voluntary sector.

They do immense work delivering services and support to vulnerable people in a way that is often not possible for government departments. While no section of society or business that receives government money can be exempt from efficiencies or reviewing their working practices, we must empower and encourage the success of this vital sector.

The Ulster Unionist Party will also continue to fight for our health service - Northern Ireland's biggest service provider and employer. While departments led by the DUP and Sinn Fein have failed to deliver on their RPA responsibilities, Michael McGimpsey and the health service have delivered both reform and efficiencies.

Now our most cherished service is in danger of being cut while we pay the price of stalled local government reform, the mess within education, and the wastage of hundreds of millions of pounds worth of potential savings.

Do we, like our counterparts in England and Wales, not deserve protected investment in health?

As leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, I want to re-engage with the grassroots of Northern Ireland and deliver for local people. However, I recognise that this will take time. The Ulster Unionist Party must rebuild its base, win back voters, seats and positions of power. This is the challenge I accepted last Wednesday night.

One thing I know for certain is that the only positive policy the DUP has ever promoted has been ours - to share power for the good of every citizen of this country. However, they wear our clothes uncomfortably.

Unionism should be positive, at ease with itself and willing to work constructively with others, while defending its interests.

Therein lies the Ulster Unionist Party's strength - and the challenge that I am ready to face.

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