Young Unionists Conference 2010

Part of the reason why I didn’t stay overnight at the SDLP Conference in Newcastle, Co. Down, was because I wished to attend the Ulster Young Unionist Council Conference in Strandtown, Bemont, Belfast. Both had sessions held on the same day.

As UYUC Chair, Michael Shilliday, explained, this was the first UYUC conference they’ve held in about 10 years. For this conference, he organised an impressive list of speakers:

  • Michael McGimpsey MLA (Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety)
  • Eamonn Mallie (Journalist and Broadcaster)
  • Mike Nesbitt (Victims Commissioner)
  • Sir Reg Empey (Party Leader; Minister for Employment and Learning)
  • Mark Finlay (Director, Ireland-US Council)

There were thought-provoking motions on human rights, broadening electoral appeals and increasing youth candidacy.

I missed Shilliday’s opening remarks (reprinted below), and came in during McGimpsey’s discussion on heath and social services. He gave a good explanation of how the block grant to Northern Ireland works, and the difference between managed and unmanaged funds (e.g. money that the devolved Executive does and does not have discretion over).

I also thought McGimpsey gave a good defence of the virtue of the NHS, in contrast to more expensive and/or less universal systems such as in France and Ireland.

Motion 1 was on the topic of human rights:

Conference calls upon the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner to resign and for the Commission to produce advice to the Secretary of State which meets its Belfast Agreement mandate.

This motion was proposed by Alex Redpath (Lagan Valley) and seconded by Roberta Hoey (Lagan Valley):

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There was a direct all for Monica McWilliam’s resignation, and support for the minority report by Daphne Trimble, who resigned from the NIHRC. Philosophically, this audience was against the application of social and economic rights in any bill of rights for Northern Ireland, arguing they are more claims than rights.

After an unexpected tea break, we reconvened for the next guest speaker, journalist and broadcaster Eamonn Mallie. He gave a passionate, insightful and challenging presentation, with a mixture of the personal, ideological and professional.

Mallie’s primary plea was for young Unionists to think big: “Don’t be afraid to stretch the hand out; go the extra mile.” He also implored the need to fight the malady of bigtory, sectarianism and racism in our makeup. As he sees it, there is no other raison d’etre for the Ulster Unionists than to give hope to people, every day: “People don’t want very much, but they want hope.” Finally, Mallie expressed his fears of what “unionist unity” could mean.

Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner, Mike Nesbitt, had arrived and was waiting in the wings, so the agenda was amended. Nesbitt gave a firsthand and sobering account of his work. He categorised the appeals they receive into dealing with the future, the present, and the past. The future, he said, was easy, in that you can get agreement on a non-violent future. Also, dealing with present needs is relatively straightforward, such as providing physical or psychological services. But dealing with the past, he explained, was hardly possible.

Here, he described the challenge of different histories, perspectives, and definitions of victim and truth. How even the pursuit of information can lead to new traumas.

I was particularly intrigued by his remark that if there is no hierarchy of victims, then there cannot be any hierarchy of investigation. I subsequently asked him, during the audience discussion, to elaborate on this idea. For him, investigations are as good as the outcome they are expected to achieve; they are not ends in themselves. And formal inquiries are not the only ways to achieve outcomes. Furthermore, information/truth can only be achieved by the cooperation of all the actors; this may never happen in Northern Ireland:

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After another tea break, it was time for UUP Party Leader, Sir Reg Empey MLA, to speak. I was conscious of time, as I needed to get back to the SDLP conference, and was encouraged when Empey said he wasn’t going to speak long, but that proved to be a false promise! He gave a detailed account of the recent discussions at Hillsborough, and why he did not have his negotiation team present for the announcement of the agreement on the way forward for policing.

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As Empey explained it, the main reason for the no-show was that he felt no compunction to endorse a document that he and his party had no input into its creation. He said that during the discussions, he was ready to negotiate, but the others — British and Irish Governments, DUP, Sinn Fein — never called upon them for negotiations, as distinct from discussions.

This reminded me of remarks made by those in the Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, during the various post-Agreement crisis talks. As a former participant in those talks, I could sincerely sympathise with Empey’s frustration of being marginalised. But I question the method of his party’s protest. For example, what were the UUP’s demands during the Hillsborough talks? What specifically are they now?

At last we got to the motions that were a key reason why I came. It was suggested to not debate either of them, as we were running rather late, but I made a kind plea to have at least one of them proposed and seconded, even if there was no time for debate. Thankfully, this was agreed.

The motion put forward was on increasing the electoral appeal of the party:

Conference calls for the Party leadership to consider placing more emphasis on targeting Catholic voters, and thereby also the attractiveness of Party electoral candidacy to Catholic members, in order to improve our electoral chances in constituencies where Catholics make up a sizeable proportion of the population.

The motion was proposed by Colin Sloan (Belfast East), and seconded by Richard James (Belfast South):

I appreciated the sincerity of this motion, but thought it would be even more convincing if Catholic Unionists were visibly making the case. For example, I did meet such a young Unionist at the UUP Conference last autumn, and was impressed by him (name escapes me). He was no apologist, clearly pro-Union and centre-right in his world view, and I thought to myself, “This is someone the party should be promoting everywhere.”

To be fair, this motion was amended by Alex Radpath, with reference to (William) Brian Maginess [Note to self: get amendment wording], making the historical reference of the previous campaigns by UUP leaders:

Another Young Unionist delegate also spoke in favour of the motion, seeking to broaden its scope of inclusiveness beyond the traditional denominational divide, to reach out to immigrants, “garden-centre Prods”, secularists, athiests and the gay community:

I was pleased that Young Unionists have such targets on their recruitment agenda, and that the motion was easily passed. It will be interesting to see how Young Unionists put this into practice.

Motion passed, I hastily packed up my gear and speed my way to Newcastle to catch the last fringe meeting of the SDLP conference, on the role of young people and a new Ireland. My day was not over yet.

Message from UYUC Chairman, Michael Shilliday:

The last year has been a successful one for the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Young Unionists. A particular high point of the year was giving assistance to the re-election bid of Jim Nicholson MEP to the European Parliament. Jim’s election ahead of the DUP candidate was a tremendous result, and provides the basis for future elections. The Young Unionists repeatedly expressed our support for the electoral link with the Conservative Party, and our faith in it was proven to be well grounded.

Aside from our electoral work, we have been very active at a student level, campaigning on issues and engaging in student politics at the Coleraine and Jordanstown campuses of the University of Ulster and at Queen’s University. Two of our members, Alasdair O’Hara and Alex Redpath, contested and won posts at the recent NUS-USI elections; they will be taking up the offices in July. The Young Unionist team on the Student Representative Council at Queen’s has kept up their good work on that body, most importantly in building confidence among the university’s unionist population in their Union. Whilst Young Unionists have continued to work with their Student Unions at the University of Ulster on a variety of issues, not least the political protocol. The protocol was an issue at UU when I began there in 2004; I am pleased that Alasdair and others have taken up that issue, and hope that the UYUC can effect further change in the years ahead.

We have continued to see our membership increase across the province, and now have active local branches in East Antrim, Lagan Valley, Belfast, North Down, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Mid Ulster/West Tyrone, and Newry Armagh/South Down, alongside our university branches of Coleraine, Jordanstown and Queen’s. I also envisage the incoming Executive being in a position to ratify the new Upper Bann Branch very shortly. Our branches across the province and the central UYUC continue to host lively political discussions, engage in campaigning, and attempt to expand our membership.

This conference is the first the UYUC has held in the best part of a decade. I look forward to the debate.

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