I attended the annual Ulster Unionist Party conference, held this year at the Europa Hotel, Belfast. As part of my job, I make it to as many of the Northern Ireland political party conferences as I can, to affirm relationships across all the parties.
I found the main stage via a side stairwell, which was just as well, as the main entrance was jammed up with throngs of attendees. Got a great front row seat, right in front of the podium. Immediately met Reverend Cheryl Meban (Presbyterian Chaplain at University of Ulster at Jordanstown and at Belfast), who was there to present the opening prayer. After our pleasant and interesting chat (to be continued with a meeting), she led the audience in prayer, calling upon all to work together to remove divisions in society.
There was then a formal welcome by Bill White (Chairman, South Belfast Ulster Unionist Constituency Association). White was followed by David Campbell (UUP Chairman), whose task was to introduce the keynote guest speaker, Rt Hon William Hague MP.
William Hague presented a well-crafted speech; there’s no denying he is an established orator. The speech was to make the case for the linkage between the UUP and the Conservatives, that he wanted elected representatives from Northern Ireland to be on the inside of a Conservative Government.
He said that he wants the UUP “to be part of the work of rescuing our country from the failures of recent years”.
I chose to visit the exhibition stalls during the panel discussion on “Dealing with the Past”, chaired by Lady Trimble (above). Several exhibitors told me that they weren’t thrilled about their remote location (no incentive for footfall) or the fact that this year’s UUP conference was for only half a day, but they were being charged the same as last year’s full-day rate!
Went back upstairs to listen to a speech by the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Michael McGimpsey MLA. He described the invidious position that he has been placed in, regarding budget cuts and slow agreement on how dealing with swine flu would be financed.
Jim Nicholson MEP praised the efforts of staff and volunteers in getting him re-elected to the European Parliament, as testimony of the virtues of the UUP-Conservative electoral pact.
The speech by Sir Reg Empey OBE MLA (UUP Leader) was a continuation of Hague’s defence of the union with the Conservatives. He said that this alliance “cements, saves and safeguards the Union”, and that the DUP has ceased to lead unionism. Empey also said that the UUP would not accept any proposal on the devolution of policing and justice that was a pact between Sinn Fein and the DUP, nor any “puppet” Minister (a sure reference to speculation that the initial Minister for Policing and Justice being from the Alliance Party, chosen by consent between Sinn Fein and the DUP).
I did not stay for the subsequent policy motions, nor the singing of the British national anthem at the close. Instead, I headed off for my second event of the day, the unveiling of a peace pole at Northumberland Street in West Belfast.
The UUP conference was well attended, and the calibre of speakers was high. But in my experience, if you’re going to compress so much activity into one day (or ambitiously, half day), your venue needs to have just one way in and out; a hotel can be far too porous. IMHO, hotels are good for multi-day events, when delegates will ultimately discover every utilised room. But a cardinal rule to appease exhibitors is to ensure delegates must walk through their room to get to the speaker’s hall.