Nesbitt says Stormont House talks a ‘unique opportunity’

Party conference told Sinn Féin must ‘get real’ on issue of continued IRA existence

UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The Ulster Unionist Party wants to work with nationalism but it cannot tolerate Sinn Féin continuing to insist that the IRA no longer exists, the UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has told his party’s annual conference.

Mr Nesbitt said the current Stormont House talks represented a unique opportunity for a collective political will to be expressed that wants Northern Ireland, and the island of Ireland rid of paramilitarism and associated criminality once and for all.

“But we will not be standing shoulder to shoulder against paramilitarism with a political party that insists the IRA no longer exists. It looks like the DUP will. What a pity they won’t stand strong with us. But we will not be deflected. It’s not the first time we have had to do the difficult thing on our own,” said Mr Nesbitt.

Mr Nesbitt said in any Executive elected after next May’s scheduled election the UUP would seek to take responsibility for the Department of Education, currently run by Sinn Féin.

He added that this shouldn’t be taken as meaning the UUP, which has withdrawn its Minister from the Executive, would necessarily go back into government.

“We will use the next Assembly elections to seek a mandate, not to go back into government, but to enter the talks on the new programme for government that will be the first order of business next May,” he told delegates.

“If we believe that programme is progressive and positive, and we believe there is a collective will to deliver it, we will consider taking our entitlement at the Executive table. If not, we will remain in opposition.”

Mr Nesbitt said he was disappointed when he heard people saying they think unionists do not really want to share power. “That may be true of some unionists, but not me and not the Ulster Unionist Party,” he said at the conference in the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast on Saturday.

Referring to recent comments about Sinn Féin by DUP politicians Edwin Poots and Arlene Foster he added, “I do not have to ‘hold my nose’ to work with nationalists. I do not endorse the idea of ‘rogue’ and ‘renegade’ nationalist Ministers. We cannot build a better future on those sorts of sentiments. Our children and our grandchildren do not want that as their inheritance.”

Mr Nesbitt said that republicans spent decades trying to “bomb and bully us into a united Ireland”.

“Now, they sit in Stormont, passing legislation that doesn’t become law until it’s signed off by Her Majesty the Queen. You know, there is a lot to be said for that old adage that Unionists are too thran to admit they won, and republicans too cute to admit they lost. But we need to move on,” he continued.

“Republicans, nationalists want a united Ireland? Then try to persuade me. I’ll have that debate. Just don’t try to bomb or shoot me into it. But republicans and nationalists know, the argument is lost. The United Kingdom is our home, so I encourage unionists to get on the front foot,” he said.

“Sinn Féin will defend the indefensible by saying the IRA are butterflies who have flown away. I make this offer to them. Get real. We want to respect your political mandate. Make it possible for us. Get on the same page as the rest of the world - or accept the consequences of the stance you have chosen to adopt.”

Mr Nesbitt described the current Northern Executive as utterly dysfunctional

He cited two particular instances where the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) had £12 million to spend on childcare and £80 million to tackle poverty but only a third was spent on childcare and only £27,610 spent on poverty.

“You wouldn’t get away with it anywhere else. London, Edinburgh, Cardiff. Dublin. Especially Dublin. The media would crucify you in the Republic for that sort of utter incompetence,” he said.

He added that when OFMDFM lost a court case for failing to produce an anti-poverty tackle that the Sinn Féin junior minister in the department welcomed the decision.

“You could not make it up. It’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a Franz Kafka novel. A Salvador Dali painting. Surreal, grotesque, monstrous,” he said.

Mr Nesbitt said that unionism needed to be accommodating in areas such as promoting the Irish language and supporting the LGBT community. “We need to identify the cold spots in society and warm them up.”

Added Mr Nesbitt, who supported civil partnership but opposed same sex marriage, “Some of us support same sex marriage, some do not, and it’s part of the beauty of the Ulster Unionist Party that we can respect each other’s positions. I shall not labour the point today, but to those of us who cannot bring ourselves to support same sex marriage, I say this - we are on the wrong side of history. There is a new generation coming and they simply do not understand why there is a problem.”

The UUP leader warned that the North’s economy would suffer if there were no political stability. “Time is running out…There is a long pipeline of potential foreign direct investors ready to start doing business here if they see two things: political stability; and a commitment to the rate and date of lower corporation tax. The potential is 40,000 new, highly paid jobs.”