Optimistic mood evident at UUP annual conference

Westminster election performance a ‘breakthrough’ for party, says Reg Empey

Mr Reg Empey. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mr Reg Empey. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The outcome of the 2015 Westminster election was a “breakthrough” for the Ulster Unionist Party opening opportunities in the period ahead, former leader of the UUP Sir Reg Empey told his party’s annual conference.

Mr Empey’s comments reflected the optimistic mood of some 400 delegates who attended the conference in the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast on Saturday

Members were buoyed by the party finally returning MPs to the House of Commons after Danny Kinahan won a seat in South Antrim ousting the Rev William McCrea of the DUP and Tom Elliott won in Fermanagh South Tyrone from Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew.

“I think it is no exaggeration to describe the outcome of the general election as a breakthrough for the Ulster Unionist Party,” said Mr Empey, former leader and current chairman of the party.

“Coming as it did one year after a very successful election cycle in 2014, getting back onto the green benches at Westminster has been a transformational development and is opening up doors for our party which have hitherto been closed to us,” he added.

With Assembly elections scheduled to come in May he said it was a “long time since this party has had such a wonderful opportunity to regain a pivotal role in our province’s affairs”.

Referring to the British government commissioned report which found that the IRA still exists and that its army council is still operating Mr Empey queried why First Minister Peter Robinson decided to end his boycott of the Northern Executive.

“So Peter goes back to business as usual sending the clear signal to Sinn Fein that they can get away with it again. How awful. It almost appears that the First Minister is under some sort of hidden pressure. Nothing else explains many of his recent irrational decisions,” he said.

“I think most people were disturbed by the content of the report; some of us were even surprised by its frankness. But most of us were also angry that Sinn Fein has deliberately falsified its links with the IRA when credible reports on both sides of the Border confirm it is still around,” he added.

Said Mr Empey: “This denial is sapping credibility out of politics and must be reversed if we are to create effective and acceptable devolution at Stormont. The Executive cannot continue to be built on a lie.

“We are not naïve enough to believe that the current generation of Sinn Fein leaders is free from their past activities and connections, but treat our intelligence with some respect; stop trying to continue with a series of lies; let’s get the truth out on the table and deal with paramilitary organisations, all of them, to create a firmer foundation for the future.

“Gerry and Marty - own up. You may have pulled the wool over Peter’s eyes but you won’t succeed with us.”

Danny Kennedy, who stood down as Minister of Regional Development in the wake of the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan, criticised politicians who said this was done purely for selfish electoral motives.

We have had pathetic jibes from our opponents about our motivations. Let me be clear. This was about taking decisive action. We will not turn a blind eye to the darkness that still lurks in society, regardless of what others may want us to do in the interests of political expediency,” he said.

“The toxins within local politics, and the return to PIRA murder on the streets of our capital city, left us with no choice but to exit the Executive,” he added.

“And it was no easy decision. We are and remain a party committed to devolution and power sharing, but it must always be based on solid democratic foundations, and not subject to the whims of paramilitaries and the orders of an army council,” said Mr Kennedy.