Belfast Telegraph

Our party will be in business of power again

You have to be in government to be able to influence policy for the better, says the Ulster Unionist leadership candidate Mike Nesbitt

The vote on who will be the next leader of the Ulster Unionist Party must not be an internal referendum on what we do on April 2. It has to be about much more than that, looking to what we do, and where we will be, in April 2015 and 2020.

I have a clear vision for the party: we increase our representation in council chambers; we further enhance our vote in the next European election; we return to the House of Commons; and we re-take the Office of the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive. And we do it with hard work on the ground.

This is about the public trusting us with the power to effect positive change. Power is our profit and, like any business, we will be judged not only by how profitable we are, but by how we use profit.

We will use it to serve the people - all the people. It is all very well having the best policies, the most dedicated elected representatives and the biggest party machine. But if you are not in power, you cannot influence how government delivers and, in this Assembly mandate, delivery must be king.

I have already said I want the Ulster Unionist Party to be more like a business, concentrating on greater cohesion among our members and coherence in what we offer; better policies, better communicated, complemented by a better organisation, better resourced.

The same business-model approach should apply to running the devolved administration. At present, we have nothing short of an obsession with the inputs of government, its processes and paperwork. Aside from the many examples of how we could be better at it, we also need to focus on the other side of the equation: the outputs and outcomes.

My vision for the government of Northern Ireland is of a light-touch administration, which bends it back to get out of the way whenever possible.

If the economy is at the heart of all we do, then we must accept that government is as likely to be part of the problem as it is the solution.

Let business people get on with generating wealth, creating jobs and yielding the tax revenue that funds excellence in public service. Let nurses and doctors tend the sick. Let teachers teach.

No one imagines a teacher studies for a degree and returns for a PGCE qualification because they think that, after 10 years in the classroom, they'll be a millionaire. They do it because they care.

Why, then, do we make them operate in an atmosphere high on accountability and low on trust? We must be more trusting that teachers know their pupils and how best to create the right teaching and learning environment.

We can set the strategic direction for education at Stormont, but the delivery will be most effective if we liberate those who can identify local solutions.

The Ulster Unionist Party has a strategic direction for education. We want to see ever-increasing co-operation and sharing, as we move to a single education system.

More, that single regime will cherish every schoolchild, whatever their talents. As well as asking 'How intelligent are you?' measured in the narrow terms of academic ability in English and mathematics, we will ask 'In what way are you intelligent?' and celebrate all types of intelligences, be they academic, vocational, sporting, or artistic.

To achieve that, we must cut a path through the administrative jungle that is the environment of education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and the rest.

The proposed Education and Skills Authority (ESA) holds the potential to protect the classroom and let teachers get on with what they signed up to, while bringing a new focus to how the inputs of government can help achieve the right outputs and outcomes.

You cannot lay out a full suite of political policies in 850 words in the Belfast Telegraph, but the above is a hint of the broad strategic direction in one key portfolio.

More pressing for me is to ensure that the party's annual general meeting captures the potential in the mood-swing that has been expressed in the last 10 days across all sections of the party. That is a positive willingness to change.

At election after election, Ulster Unionists have scanned the polls for a sign that our fortunes are on the up, that we have paid whatever price the electorate has demanded we pay for what we did in 1998; and I am clear that what we did was consistent with our maxim of 'Country first, party second, individual third.'

What has emerged since Tom Elliott announced his decision to stand down is a realisation that we want to close the chapter, end the talk of how we did the 'heavy lifting' and look forward.

Our future is in our own hands. Many within that huge block of unionists who no longer vote are already indicating they are getting interested again. The party will work hard to win their trust.


From Belfast Telegraph