UUP a pluralist, progressive party for all, says Nesbitt


THE ULSTER Unionist Party is not a party just for Protestants but a pluralist anti-sectarian pro-union party that wants to draw support from all sections of society, Mike Nesbitt asserted in his first annual conference address at the weekend.

Mr Nesbitt, who took over as leader at the end of March, told delegates that, 100 years after the signing of the anti-Irish Home Rule Ulster Covenant, it would be better to “relax” over any perceived threat to Northern Ireland’s union with Britain and focus instead on the economic crisis.

“Be in no doubt, we face a crisis in 2012. It’s not the same as 1912. No. The threat to the union from Irish nationalism has passed for now. Thanks to us, the Ulster Unionist Party, the true inheritors of the legacy of Carson and Craig,” he said at the Titanic Belfast conference room on Saturday.

He added: “So, do you think we could just relax a bit about that for a moment, and discuss contemporary issues? Because there is a crisis. Ask the unemployed if there is a jobs crisis. Ask the parents of the underachieving children if there is a crisis in education. Ask the homeless if there a housing crisis. And ask any nurse if there’s a crisis in the health service. And ask the tens of thousands who don’t bother voting anymore if there is a crisis in politics. The Ulster Unionist Party says yes.”

Mr Nesbitt said that, rather than look back 100 years, he wanted to look forward 100 years. “The Ulster Unionist Party is not a religious organisation. We are not just a party for Protestants. We recognise that more people than ever before in Northern Ireland actively embrace the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom, which of course includes the freedom to practise your religious beliefs. That’s us,” he said.

“I see us as a pluralist party. I see us as a progressive party, and I see us as a political party, and one everyone can look to for a positive alternative to what is on offer today. Because that is what is needed today – a credible alternative. The challenge I set this party is to persuade people it’s time to stop voting because of what you are afraid of . . . It’s time to vote for what you hope for,” he said.

“Republicans have tried to brand unionism as reactionary. It is not. Not Ulster Unionism. Ulster Unionism is open, liberal, progressive.”

Mr Nesbitt indicated support for a formal Opposition in Stormont but insisted it was not a ploy to bring back majority unionist rule. “I cannot see a time when Northern Ireland will not require a cross-community government.”