Belfast Telegraph

Unionists issue happiness pledge

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has pledged to make Northern Ireland a happier place as it outlined tax reductions and extra money for mental health as part of its price for joining a coalition.

The party will seek VAT rate cuts for property repairs and the hospitality industry, but insisted there would be no "begging bowl" approach to negotiations during a hung parliament.

Leader Mike Nesbitt said he would be prepared to work with the Conservatives or Labour, but ruled out supporting the SNP if it was intent on another independence referendum in Scotland.

Reducing economic dependence on the rest of the UK through a drop in corporation tax and generating greater wealth while balancing the budget at Stormont's devolved assembly were among other priorities outlined during the party's manifesto launch in Portadown, Co Armagh.

Portadown is the heartland of former UUP leader David Trimble's Upper Bann constituency. Lord Trimble's ousting by the DUP's David Simpson a decade ago was part of a decline which left the party with no MPs in the last parliament. The UUP claimed its revival had begun.

Mr Nesbitt said: "Big political change happens, however unlikely. Even here. It may come slowly in the politics of Northern Ireland but it does come."

The UUP has agreed a pact with the DUP which will see it standing aside in East Belfast and North Belfast in exchange for support for its own "unionist unity" candidates in Newry and Armagh and Fermanagh and South Tyrone - in a move nationalists have branded sectarian.

Mr Nesbitt said he wanted to concentrate on winning seats before deciding his position on a Westminster coalition.

He added: "We will do our best for the people of Northern Ireland, but our values are not an auction item.

"We will not take short-term advantage if it means long-term damage to the Union and to our children, and grandchildren and future generations.

"So, no begging bowl approach from us, come May 8."

He refused to speculate on whether Labour or the Conservatives would be preferable partners - and said the best solution for stability was a clear majority.

"There are so many smaller parties, a single member of parliament could make all the difference - holding the balance of power."

He added: " I cannot see circumstances in which we would want to be associated with the SNP because we have had a referendum on independence, the people of Scotland have voted to stay in the UK and it is clear the SNP don't accept that vote.

"I imagine that might be an insurmountable obstacle to doing business with the SNP."

Bolstering health and education in Northern Ireland and introducing legislation at Parliament to ensure the On The Run letters to republicans are no bar to prosecution are among pledges contained in the manifesto,

Mr Nesbitt said the Troubles legacy still lingered for victims and support was needed from Westminster to tackle that.

"Northern Ireland has possibly the worst mental health and well being on the whole of planet Earth."

He advocated transferring further economic levers from London to Belfast, including cutting the VAT rate on the hospitality industry to 9% in line with the Republic of Ireland. Mr Nesbitt is also seeking a 5% concessionary rate on property repairs, an idea taken from the Isle of Man.

He said the dip in tax take would be £500 million, but the extra economic activity would be worth £1.4 billion.

Other pledges included:

:: Educating Catholic and Protestant children together from age four as a "virtual inoculation" against sectarianism;

:: Creating tens of thousands of new jobs and transforming society as more people find their lives have proper meaning and purpose;

:: Opposing the reintroduction of prescription charges;

:: Ensuring senior doctors were present 24 hours a day;

:: Opposing fracking for shale gas;

:: Insulating more homes to cut fuel poverty;

:: Building a workforce with the appropriate skills;

:: Increase the minimum wage and tackle tax avoidance.

The manifesto said: "We believe the actions and commitments listed to date in our 2015 manifesto will go a long way to making our people happier - a vibrant economy putting more money in your pocket, a health service that prevents you becoming sick and cures you if you do, housing to be proud of, an environment to cherish and share equally with all."

Mr Nesbitt claimed change was inevitable.

"There is a real yearning for hope in this country. A hope for better.

"After all you have been through, after all we have been through, after all Northern Ireland has been through, I refuse to accept this is as good as it gets.

"I refuse to tell those who paid the highest price for peace that this is as good as it gets."


From Belfast Telegraph