My fellow Unionists may I start my tenure as leader of this famous and great party by thanking each and every one of you for putting your faith in me.
I am under no illusion about the size of the task that lies ahead of us and neither should you be.
I quote from the last leader of the party that hailed from North. Antrim Capt. Terence O'Neill who said:
"Northern Ireland has been rent and torn in recent months. Its reputation has suffered. Its best and most faithful friends are troubled and concerned. Its prospects for a bright and prosperous future - which were so promising only a few months ago - have been put at risk."
A few lines from ‘Ulster is at a crossroads’ and I am minded that as I stand here the problems that faced us in 1969 are stark in their similarity to many of those that we face today.
This party has never been found wanting in its desire to serve and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. We have been through crises, we have been through conflict, but we have never shirked the responsibility of leadership for all the people of Northern Ireland and I pledge to you that we never will.
And that’s what is in the DNA of this party.
We want to see a Northern Ireland that works, that’s why we need a devolved Assembly with an Executive delivering for Northern Ireland.
Not an Assembly that’s sole purpose is to promote or sustain selfish party interests.
In regard to the present talks I say this to everyone, there should be no back door deals.
To do so is to show disregard and disdain to the electorate, to the very people that have put their faith in a system of democratic government.
During the election I was described in the media as a ‘diminutive & soft-spoken candidate’.
I read that and initially I wondered if it was meant as an insult or a put down, but the more I thought about it, the more I took it as a compliment, as the contrary to diminutive and soft spoken is ‘big & loud’.
Because as an Ulster Unionist I don’t believe that describes our style of politics, nor is it my style of politics, our party politic is summed up in our credo of Country 1st, Party 2nd, Self 3rd, it is that style of politic that we all believe in,
· that puts service over self-promotion,
· that puts delivery over spin
· and that puts integrity over arrogance.
And when people ask what makes us different from other unionist parties, there’s your starter.
The 2nd of March was not a good day for unionism, nor for Northern Ireland as a whole, and that is something that must be addressed.
That is where I see the challenge and the opportunity.
Recently there had been signals that politics may have at last been moving away from the old model of two communities at odds with each other.
Nationalism was becoming content in a country at peace with itself.
Only last May Sinn Fein was rapidly losing ground in its old heartlands such as West Belfast. In fact, it had its worst election since the local government election of 1993.
It looked like real issues mattered.
Yet now, only 8 months later Republicanism is energised like we have rarely seen it before. Some would suggest BREXIT was the cause, but who really thinks the reckless talk of crocodiles or the tactless decision to remove a £50,000 means tested scheme for young people to learn Irish had any other impact but to drive people to the polls?
Unionism has felt the impact of the result. Unionism must learn from the result.
This Party, our party, is best placed to offer that positive, progressive, pragmatic type of unionism that will deliver for everyone.
The electorate are crying out for change, but they must be given real policies and a vision that will make real differences, they must be given hope and they must see it being delivered.
So to those who seek a single unionist party, I ask them to consider carefully the consequences of such an outcome.
A single unionist party would limit choice, stifle debate and quickly result in the depletion of Unionist votes at the ballot box.
I am in the Ulster Unionist Party - we are in the Ulster Unionist Party - because we believe in its vision, its policies and its priorities.
No other Party comes close to representing the brand of Unionism that we have and I believe in.
And if there is anyone out there still not convinced think on this.
It would also run the risk of driving those who consider themselves unionists, but only with a small U, into the arms of a Party which is at best agnostic to the union and it would leave many others with no one to vote for at all.
Members I say to you do not under estimate yourselves, your ability, or your value. Northern Ireland and unionism, needs a strong Ulster Unionist Party.
Remember this party has been the custodian of the Union from the first day of partition almost one hundred years ago, and will continue to be so for the next one hundred and beyond.
We cannot however dwell on the past and must always be ready to embrace change and evolve.
Champion of the Union.
For Northern Ireland to succeed and prosper we need a strong centre ground & a strong centre politic, and I want the Ulster Unionist Party not just to be part of that but to be integral to it.
And we can do that while being champions for the union.
That’s what I want to be and that’s what I want this party to be, to be a champion of the union and for the union.
We must resist the continual pressures that would see Assembly elections descend into a sectarian head count, because that does not serve the people of Northern Ireland, nor will it serve it our children or grandchildren.
This Party will do everything within its power to promote a single education system so that generations to come can be freed from the shackles of sectarianism. I want to see an end to the politics of fear.
That is not how we work nor will it ever be under my watch.
This party has a fantastic amount to offer and part of our role is making that union attractive to everybody in Northern Ireland.
It’s about promoting a positive unionism, a confident unionism and an embracing unionism.
Members, we are moderate people, we are willing to embrace different traditions, whilst remaining unapologetic about our own historic culture while retaining a firm belief in civil and religious liberty for all.
In recent times much is being made of the Irish language. Can I remind members of the work completed by Michael McGimpsey as Northern Ireland’s first Culture Minister and what he delivered in challenging times, against vocal opposition?
My brand of unionism, which may be traditional for those who find a need to pigeon hole me, is generous enough to accommodate others.
In this hall today, I don’t see traditional unionists or liberal unionists, I see Ulster Unionists united in a bond which is this Party, united in a single quest and that is to do what is right for Northern Ireland.
Talks & Executive.
I have already touched on my thoughts about the ongoing negotiations to get the Assembly up and running again and much is being speculated as to whether we will re-join the executive. And whilst I do not rule out any possibilities, if these talks end up being talks and agreements made by two parties for the benefit of two parties, then I say let it be an executive of two parties.
Standing at the great height of 5”3ish, I have had my experiences of people trying to bully me and push me around… trust me – I have never been pushed around, nor do I intend starting to let people push me around, nor will I allow this party to be pushed around.
This Party did not take the leap it did almost 20 years ago to see parties continue in a cycle of never ending negotiations.
These were supposed to be the years of peace and reconciliation, yet we are stuck in an ever continuing process.
It is damning that in 2017 the public debate is not centred around what policies our Executive will implement but whether or not we will actually have an Executive.
And of course colleagues while these talks are ongoing we mustn’t forget about the actual impact the stalemate is having on key public services.
Of course whilst there are serious problems in nearly every single public service ranging from our education system to the police and prison services – I will make no apology for saying the one that concerns me most is the plight of patients.
I have no desire to make political points on the crisis in our health service. It was there when my family needed it – no one will ever need to remind me about the dedication of our health staff.
But the tragic reality is things are so bad right now in terms of the numbers of people waiting, and the lengths of time they are being forced to wait, that sadly some patients are coming to harm. It’s just simply not good enough.
Our Health Service isn’t failing; our Health Service is being failed by the current political stagnation.
So whether or not an Executive can be formed, the simple reality is clear – resolving the chaos in our health service has to be the number one priority.
This will have to be a two pronged approach – firstly a short-term funding boost is needed to get people off lists.
And then secondly we need to look at redressing the balance between secondary and primary care. Allowing people to be diagnosed earlier will in most cases be accompanied with a shorter stay in hospital.
So I want to give our GPs the power to diagnose and make key diagnostic referrals. But we’ll first need to stabilise the immense pressures they are facing so that is why under my leadership the Ulster Unionist Party will be fully committed to implementing the recommendations within the GP led working group.
I didn't join the Ulster Unionist Party and put myself forward as a candidate because I wanted to spend my days engaged in talks processes. I did it because I wanted to play my part in providing stable politics that delivered for the people.
And as a unionist I know that the way to safeguard our future in the UK is making Northern Ireland such a success that it's too good for anyone to seriously consider any alternative arrangement.
But as a Unionist party we must be mindful of the current challenges to the union.
Those challenges just don’t come from republicans or nationalists, they come in the guise of those who are agnostic on the union, and they wear that as some sort of badge of honour, and if people are not careful, it is they who could hole the union beneath the surface and it is their ambivalence towards the Union while appearing indifferent on the surface, which could accelerate the potential of a United Ireland.
So if you cherish being part of the union and everything that goes with it then we provide the vehicle for those who will unashamedly stand up for those values – and there is no need to settle for those who are agnostic or those who are ambivalent?
My first act as leader is to launch a campaign where we will be enthusiastically and eagerly promoting the benefits of the Union.
On your chairs you will see what I consider to be some of the most important benefits.
So let’s get out there and start talking our country up. Don`t let others put it down. Let’s stand up for the freedoms, tolerance and respect which the United Kingdom is well known for throughout the world.
Ours is a nation for everyone. I call on everyone to embrace it. No-one has anything to fear from being part of the United Kingdom but a lot to lose from leaving it.
I wish now to touch briefly on our last election - an election that as I have already stated was not good for Unionism as a whole nor for this party in particular.
Whilst we can cite our vote increasing to 103,314, we did not turn those extra votes into seats. I want to pay tribute to my colleagues who didn't come back to represent the party in the Assembly and I wish to thank them for their service and their continued involvement and support of this party, their party, and I also wish to thank all those candidates who put themselves forward and stood.
Who knows in the next few weeks we may be dusting down the posters and walking shoes again, but we must be able to channel the hurt and frustration we feel today into a positive energy that drives us forward and transfers into the strength and determination that will turn results around.
However, I am a straight forward individual and I ask each and every one of you to look into yourself and ask the question could I have done more? Was I fully committed?
My challenge to you is to consider the part you will play in the next election!
With a huge effort other constituencies can emulate the feat that John Stewart performed in East Antrim, by taking a seat away from Sinn Fein, and it is this Party, that is most likely to and is best placed to take further seats off Sinn Fein, in places like West Tyrone and Newry and Armagh, and I have my eye on a few other seats as well…
We have a fantastic membership but what we need are activists, and activists just don't have to knock doors or deliver leaflets or put up posters. They can talk to friends and family. They can talk to strangers, something my daughter tells me off for doing.
They can ensure that others are registered to vote or that they can get to the polling station or vote by post or proxy.
This is Northern Ireland and very soon there will be another election whether it be Westminster, Assembly or Local Government.
So let’s get ready for it.
While speaking of Local Government, can I thank our councillors for the work they do. I see our Councillors as the foundation of this Party, and I do not underestimate their value and wealth of ability & experience they bring.
But I see you, our members as the solid ground on which this Party is built and from where we can grow, I want to provide a Leadership that listens and I want to see our Party officers actively engaging with Constituency Associations.
I can tell you here and now that I understand the importance of hearing what those at the coal face have to say and ensuring that communication travels both ways so that your voice is heard at the very centre of the party.
Brexit & Northern Ireland.
With article 50 triggered and Brexit negotiations started, our influence in Westminster & Europe, through Jim, Tom & Danny must be intensified, so I intend to establish a number of groups within the Party to monitor the effect negotiations will have on Northern Ireland, made up of representatives from across the Party.
But let us never underestimate our voice at the heart of Europe. For those of you, who heard Jim Nicholson admonish Michel Barnier the EU’s Chief Negotiator earlier this week, will know whenever Jim speaks from now on he will be listening.
In closing, I give my thanks and those of the party to Mike for his stewardship during his tenure as leader. Especially for his personal and dogged determination in getting the issue of mental health firmly on the political agenda.
I know he will continue to champion the cause of those most in need of help, as he continues to fight to ensure the delivery of a world class facility that will be a fitting legacy to our troubled past.
And I wish him well in his new role as editor of the Newsletter.
I want also to pass our thanks on to Lynda who has been at Mike’s side every step of the way and to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude.
During his term as leader Mike engendered a sense of discipline and teamwork, and for those who have known me as Chief Whip you will know the importance and value I place on teamwork, discipline and loyalty. Without these values we will not or we cannot succeed.
For myself, I expect loyalty to be given to this Party, but your respect I must earn.
But I would not be here today, without the support of my own Association in North Antrim, and I thank that dedicated team of true Ulster Unionists who have supported me through many a scrape. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge & recognise my predecessor Rev Coulter for his guidance and his service to his Party.
But most of all to my wife Jennifer, thank you for eventually, actually signing my nomination papers.
We have a daughter of 6 and a son of 4, I want their experience of growing up in Northern Ireland to be very different from mine.
I want them to grow up in a Northern Ireland at peace with itself, a Northern Ireland for all its people, a Northern Ireland which has a particular emphasis on the development of our children, which respects its elders and looks after the vulnerable.
I want this Party to be the voice & conscience, in local government, in the Assembly, in Westminster, in Brussels for the many charity workers, community volunteers, church activists, and people like you & me who are the backbone of our villages, towns, cities and rural communities.
“The Party will work to heal those divisions in our community which have so far prevented Northern Ireland from fulfilling its best hopes. This is a small country with a small population and few natural resources, of which the finest is our people. A united Ulster could make an even greater contribution to the life of the United Kingdom and the world." - again a few words from Capt Terence O’Neill.
And it’s that sentiment, that I firmly believe encapsulates, both Northern Ireland’s & this Party’s potential, our finest asset is our people, while others only plan for and think about the next election, we will plan for and think about the next generation.