Belfast Telegraph

UUP leader Robin Swann 2017 conference speech [full text]

Robin Swann has given his first conference speech as UUP party leader. It comes after a devastating years for the party which lost two MPs and six MLAs in successive snap elections. Below is his conference speech.

Thank you Conference,

When I joined this party 20 years ago, I never imagined that one day I would be addressing it as your Leader, it's still a title I am getting used to – although I have been called worse.

And that is because I don’t exactly fit the mould or the perception, or fit into that box, which our opponents or some commentators want to put me and this Party into.

That’s why I want to take a little time today – to say who I am and who we are.

Because it is time for us, to reassert ourselves, it is time for us to stand on our own two feet and it is time for us to stand up and say we are proud to be Ulster Unionists.

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Ulster Unionist Party conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Party leader, Robin Swann Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

People like to label us. But I want to set a few things straight.

I have never found it easy to talk about myself – which I know is strange for a politician.

My father was a plumber, and a good one at that, my mother was a hospital cleaner and a hard worker, both now full time grandparents, well that’s when my da isn’t in the pigeon shed.

And two people I’m proud of, because they brought me up to be the person who is able to stand here today.

And both did what was necessary to raise a family and to provide for my brother & me, in the best way possible, as we grew up, in a Housing Executive House in Kells.

From an early age we were taught the difference between right and wrong.

I didn't go to University after leaving school, in fact I started working in a meat factory, but I know the value of education so I returned to complete a degree with the Open University– right enough it did take me 8 years.

Ulster Unionist Party conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

So when I chaired the Employment & Learning Committee and extoled the virtues of Northern Irelands 3rd University & the importance of Life Long Learning, I did it because I know the value it adds.

I may not reflect who the Party used to be, but I believe that I do reflect who we are now and who we represent.

And looking out today I can see in front of me teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, farmers, carers, veterans, Ladies & Gentlemen – you & me.

I say we no longer fit inside the old box, nor do we occupy the big house.

In our make-up: now more than ever: we reflect society: we reflect Northern Ireland & we reflect Unionism.

Conference, I am a proud Ulster Unionist, and I am proud to be a member of this party, through the good times & the bad, if my sole aim was to be a career politician, then I would hardly be an Ulster Unionist in North Antrim – but I am, because I truly believe in the principles and values of this party.

Ulster Unionist Party conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

This is a Party that truly believes in our place in the United Kingdom and knows that the best way to safeguard our future place there, is through making Northern Ireland a successful, welcoming and fair society. 

As Leader I want to ensure that this Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, recognises the talented hard working people that we have in the province, people like my mother & father, people like you & me.

People like our public sector workers, our nurses, our teachers, our firefighters, our police and all the others that do so much and deserve to earn a decent wage, and to that extent they deserve more than the basic 1% pay offer that they are insulted with; nor should they be forced to wait on a restored executive for this year’s rise, this cannot be allowed to continue, and needs to be resolved.

I stand before you today addressing you for the first time, at conference, as leader of this great party. A Party that has a proud history and has stood at the forefront of Northern Ireland politics for the past century and will continue to do so.

It has been six months since you placed your trust in me as leader, and what a six months it has been, not just for us but also for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Just ten days in to my leadership, the Prime Minister called a general election.

Ulster Unionist Party conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

And I know.  We all groaned.  Sitting down to enjoy what was left of the Easter holidays and suddenly faced with the prospect of thousands of doors to be knocked, many leaflets to be delivered and hundreds of dogs licking their lips on the far side of the letter box…

And it wasn’t even for the first time this year.  And yet we all did it again just as we had weeks previously.   Without a second thought you were all out there once again, taking the Ulster Unionist message to thousands of people across the country.

Both elections were polarising.  Both drove people out to the extremes.

And we lost good people along the way.

Our Assembly team feels the loss of Danny, Jo-Anne, Sandra, Harold, Jenny and Philip.

Theresa May apologised to the Conservative Party conference, ladies and gentlemen I think that we deserve an apology as well, as Westminster lost two excellent and professional MPs in Tom & Danny, in what was an unnecessary and polarising election, across the Country.

I want to thank Tom & Danny for their commitment and support of this Party.

They are the proof that you don’t have to be an army to make a difference. 

In just two years, as just two voices, they more than made their mark at the heart of UK politics. 

Whether it was forcing the government into a u-turn on cuts to tax credits, fighting against inequality in state pension age, being a voice for victims and standing strong against any attempts to rewrite history and the unfair treatment of our Armed Forces veterans.

Thank you Tom and thank you Danny.

Ulster Unionist Party conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Doug Beattie MLA. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

In the aftermath of the election it is clear that politics has changed, here in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, across Europe and around the globe.

Old certainties no longer exist.

The electorate the world over is sending a message that they want politicians who listen to what they want, not tell them what they need.

There is a challenge for us in how we respond.

It is my mind that we must see change too.

Those steps and changes will be challenging and at sometimes difficult, but they are necessary. If we continue to do what we've always done, we'll get what we've always got.

I said earlier I joined this Party 20 years ago, and having attended Fresher’s Fayres and a number of meetings with young unionists, we now have members who weren’t even born when I first joined the Party

 – and it pleases me to see a new generation getting involved in this Party, and see them taking up prominent roles and from this morning's contributions and presentations they have a lot to give.

Ulster Unionist Party conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

That blended with the wisdom and experience of our established representatives, we have a very strong team.

I am under no illusion of the work that we need to do, and I stress we need to do, we can and we have started to : -

Rebuild, re-energise & re-connect.

The next scheduled elections, and I emphasise, scheduled, will be council in 2019, for which we have started preparations.

To that extent can I take this opportunity to introduce you to our newest Councillor – Stephen McCarthy – and I wish him well in his new role.

It will be no surprise that a guiding influence for me remains the last Ulster Unionist from North Antrim to lead this Party, Captain Terence O’Neill.

However when I have been reflecting on the results of this year, and what path we need to take, his words when addressing the North Antrim Association on the 23rd January 1967: and no I wasn’t there – but he said;

“The times are changing, and will not wait for us. Unless we move with them we shall be left behind. We must make progress, economically, politically, socially, culturally – if we are not to fall behind and risk everything for which our forefathers fought and worked”

Conference, for those of you who know me, will know that I am not someone who gives up, but I am also a realist.

The road ahead is not easy. But who ever said it would be. We must be focused, we must be dedicated, and we must work together as a team – it`s time to get things done.

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Ulster Unionist Party conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

When we reflect on and analyse the results of the last two elections, we must do it with total honesty.

Conference it is clear to me that we have to win back the hearts and minds of unionism.

It isn’t something that will happen overnight.

It will mean days, weeks, months, years of consistent hard work, organising and patience.

It will mean that today, every single one of us - from elected representative, to grassroots activist - commits to rebuilding this party into one that can credibly challenge for a place in the Office of First Minister.   

And let’s face it, there’s only so many Spotlight specials people can take before they look for an alternative.

So we must be ready.

We need to break and shake off past preconceptions of this Party, and start the next chapter of our story.

So it is time for a new Unionism.

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UUP leader, Robin Swann with his wife Jenny after delivering his speech. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

I am more convinced than ever that it is this party that offers the vehicle for unionism that will secure our place in the United Kingdom for generations to come.

There are those who have tried to make unionism a dirty word.   Who try and split off society from “unionists” in a pathetic attempt to further their own political project.

I have said before that when I look into this crowd I don’t see Traditional Unionists, I don't see Liberal Unionists – I see Ulster Unionists – I see Unionists – I see people who have and share the same hopes and aspirations for this country and for our United Kingdom, that I do.

I see people who are confident in their unionism;

People who are more than capable of going head to head with Republicanism in any debating forum and coming away with a comfortable victory;

People who are ambitious for the future of Northern Ireland;

People who are respectful and tolerant;

Conference, we need to make sure that everyone outside of this hall sees this too.

I have said before that we are moderate people, but now is the time for us to be radical moderates.

Conference, look at what the extremes have done for our country.   Crisis and stalemate and talks process after talks process.

I am not content just to leave them to it.

It’s time to leave behind Parties that cannot govern. Parties that are incompetent at governing. Parties that cannot agree a way forward.

 It’s time to leave behind Parties that are bankrupting Northern Ireland.  Parties that want it all their own way. Parties that don’t keep their promises.

It’s time to leave behind Parties that put themselves first. Parties that are corrupt.

Politically Northern Ireland has made little progress in the last few years, and on occasions it has gone into reverse gear.

I was part of the generation which saw the opportunity of what was possible.

I don’t want to be part of the political generation that loses the vision of what we can become.

The Assembly

In a restored assembly and Executive - if there is one – what we need is “good government, fair government, honest government and a government not for sections or factions.”

That’s what Lord Edward Carson said he wanted 93 years ago, and that is what we seek today.

Government can’t or shouldn’t simply be, lining the pockets of those who support you, or lining your own pockets – it should be about a good education system, an education system where our children are educated together, a funded health service, housing & jobs that meets the needs of everyone.

 That may sound like a fantasy – but it’s what I believe we are about. And that`s what we should aim to achieve.

I want to ensure that our representatives, in Council, Stormont, Westminster & Brussels – are standing up for you.

With regards to the current impasse, deadlines have come and deadlines have gone, windows of opportunity have been opened and slammed shut, glide paths and landings have been commenced and then aborted.

And as the stalemate at Stormont rolls on the difficulties across every aspect of our public services continue to deepen. Whether it’s roads disintegrating with no budget set aside for even basic repairs or people with the most serious disabilities getting caught up in delays with the new benefits system, there is no Executive or Minister in place to take the decisions necessary to fix them.  

The pressures are particularly acute in the Education system. Not only as a politician, but as a father of two young children, I can see that our schools are struggling.

Northern Ireland should be proud of the high standard of education it delivers, but that’s increasingly being placed at risk.

Schools simply cannot continually see their budgets cut by tens of thousands of pounds and be expected to deliver the exact same level of outcomes.

Our health service is in the midst of its most unprecedented waiting times crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are waiting for either a diagnosis or treatment, and as every week goes by the delays get longer and people continue to suffer.

The brutal and tragic reality right now is that patients are coming to harm. To quote a warning from the Health and Social Care Board – ‘spiralling waiting times could lead to severely delayed diagnoses of life threatening illnesses’.

That was two years ago, yet the situation then was unrecognisable compared to just how precarious things are right now.

This period of prolonged neglect and mismanagement has witnessed politics being placed ahead of patients. That is an abhorrent situation.

And it is a result of that, along with the wider chaotic state in public finances and the absence of any budget or any certainty, that Health Trusts came up with ludicrous proposals to cut capacity… at the exact same time as demand has never been higher.

Conference, I welcome the last-minute reprieve most of the worst health cuts got last week but let me be clear – they should never have even been proposed in the first place.

At a time when the United Kingdom is negotiating its exit from the European Union, and there is no functioning Executive to speak for Northern Ireland, and if a good Brexit deal cannot be agreed, Northern Ireland may have more to lose than any other part of the country - yet the lack of a functioning Executive significantly weakens our position compared with that of Wales or Scotland.

Any deal that puts a de facto border up the middle of the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and pulls us out of the UK single market would be totally unacceptable.

The days of "leavers" and "remainers" are over – if we are serious about securing the best deal for all the people of Northern Ireland then all our energies should be focused on making sure our voice is heard in the negotiations – not on trying to re-run the referendum.

And I appeal to our nationalist friends and neighbours, don`t get sucked into fighting the battles of the past over Brexit. If this is turned into questioning Northern Ireland`s constitutional position, we will be winding the clock back by decades.

 The constitutional position was settled in 1998. We should be looking to the future together, building a better society together, not getting drawn into using Brexit as a proxy vehicle for a United Ireland. It won`t work, but it will further divide what we have already got.

Conference, one voice who has continued to speak up for Northern Ireland during these times is, our own Jim Nicholson. Jim is a strong voice for Northern Ireland in Europe, and he is one of the United Kingdom’s most well respected and influential MEPs in the corridors of Brussels, that experience and influence is now more important than ever.

But we also need an Executive in place, not only so we have a voice on Brexit, but also on those important decisions that must be made.

Conference, I am sick of progress in Northern Ireland being held up because one party is being swung by the tail by a TD who has no mandate in Northern Ireland.

It is time for the institutions to move on, it is time for politics to move on, it is time for that change that allows Northern Ireland politicians to form an Executive of the willing. A voluntary coalition.

So today I call on the Secretary of State to start that process, and for those who either can’t do it or aren’t willing to do it – get out of the way!

Respect, Rights & dignity

Conference, for too long there has been a feeling that we should nearly be forced to apologise for simply being a Unionist, but when we look now to the revitalisation of Unionism in England, Scotland and Wales, I want to be part of that and I want the Unionist Party to be part of that, a resurgence of the Union.

At our very core is a belief in the Union, the benefits of it and the value it brings to our everyday life.

We need champions, we need converts and we need to convince those who are complacent that they to have a role to play.

One of the most frustrating things about politics in Northern Ireland, is the constant lecturing from Sinn Fein about rights and respect, and claims about the need to implement previous agreements.

As we heard so eloquently earlier today, Republicans did more than anyone else to remove rights from others – not least the right to life. They are masters at demanding what they frame as ‘rights’.

 Just because they call their demands ‘rights’ does not make them a right -  but they are negligent when it comes to meeting their responsibilities.

If Sinn Fein want previous agreements implemented, let them start with the Belfast Agreement which states that the participants “recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

And that is where Michelle O’Neill fell down following her performance in Manchester.  Because while Michelle may not be British, I am, you are, and Northern Ireland is.

I’m not sure I would even need one finger to count the number of occasions Sinn Fein have shown respect to that part of the Belfast Agreement since 1998.

International law clearly states that there is no right for anyone to engage in any activity or perform any act contrary to the fundamental principles of international law and in particular of the sovereign equality, territorial integrity and political independence of States.’

In terms of Northern Ireland, no-one could seriously say that Sinn Fein has respected the national legislation and the rights of others.

It is perfectly clear to me that republicans have failed repeatedly to respect those principles for decades.

Sinn Fein demand respect when they themselves refuse to show it.  It is time to end the hypocrisy.  

Conference, I want to touch briefly on the Irish Language, because attempts to portray our stance as lurching to the right or becoming hard-line are unfair and untrue.  In fact, our stance on this issue has not changed since 1998.  Ask Lord Empey or ask Michael McGimpsey!

The Irish language and an Irish Language Act are two separate issues. 

I have said it before, and our track record stands. We have no issue with those who cherish the language being facilitated in doing so.

But the intention was to put in place measures that allowed the language to grow at its own pace, free from political interference.  An Irish Language Act contradicts this thinking.

It is not scaremongering to express concerns that legislation would lead to further division in society. We would no longer be reliant on flags or painted kerbstones – we would know whose territory we were in by the road signs.

For Northern Ireland to succeed we need to build trust and respect, not just between political parties but between the electorate and politicians; and no matter how hard people may try, it is impossible to legislate for trust and respect.

We cannot simply legislate our way out of every political disagreement.

The Ulster Unionist Party is very clear that trust and respect can only be established by what we do, not by the use of polished sound bites or expertly crafted communications. Actions really do speak louder than words.

I now turn to an issue which has gained prominence in recent days - the relationship between what’s termed “political Unionism” and paramilitaries.

Let me be clear on the issue of the continuing existence of paramilitary groups, whether Republican or Loyalist. You have no place or role to play in a democratic society, and almost twenty years after the Belfast Agreement, it is long since time that you left the stage.

What this Party will NOT do in any circumstances, will be to give political cover, or show any ambiguity which allows any individual or group to be community workers by day and extortionists or political bullies by night. Loyalist or Republican.

Let me be clear - whatever about others - we will not trade our principles for possible cheap electoral gain by buying votes, whilst turning a blind eye or ignoring unacceptable practices which continue to cause sheer misery in their communities.

For those who genuinely want to transform themselves and be part of our democratic structures, we will continue to work with you.

Let`s work together to tackle the real issues of deprivation, educational under-achievement, inequality in opportunities and the clear perception of communities that feel they have been left behind.

Conference :

In closing can I thank all the contributors to the earlier sessions.

But in particular it was a privilege to hear from Mark and the Hyde Park Justice Campaign. We were honoured to be able to provide a platform for them. I wish we could provide every victim of terrorism with a similar platform, but what Mark has shown today is a spirit that cannot and will not be broken no matter what the barriers are that are put in their way.

There were things I planned to do when I took over as leader which were over taken by the general election that were then overshadowed by the result.

But my commitment and resolve remains –

We must be able to deliver a new Unionism, we need to sell our message to everyone, so they understand what our Unionism is about and what our Unionism represents.

The union cannot be promoted and will not be protected, or secured, by those who show ambivalence to it or who are agnostic on it.

That is where I see the purpose and reason for the Ulster Unionist Party.  To be a vehicle of political consensus that allows peoples desires in their daily lives an opportunity to be represented through their politics as well. Where people can say openly, I am proud to be a unionist, but I am not afraid nor threatened by those who differ from me.

I believe that we are the Party that can deliver a New Unionism:

A Unionism that can be confident without being arrogant;

A Unionism that can be proud without being condescending

A Unionism that can be embracing

A Unionism that doesn’t rely on fear

A Unionism that can win for everyone

– A new Unionism!

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