Nesbitt vows to tackle sectarianism
on 22/09/2012 16:21:38
In his first conference speech since being elected to lead the troubled UUP, the former broadcaster said he was committed to that end goal of healing religious division - something he insisted was harming the region's economy, health, education and housing sector.
In his address at the Titanic Centre in Belfast, Mr Nesbitt did not touch on the problems that have beset the once dominant party in the North's politics and instead focused on the future and his view on how the Ulster Unionists can shape it.
The Strangford Assembly member said while solving the issue of sectarianism and other major social problems would take time, he was determined to offer a road map on how to achieve it while delivering short term measures that would bring hope.
In a speech that also made pledges on economic recovery, job creation and educational reform, Mr Nesbitt invoked the words of party founder Edward Carson that government should not be about factions or sections but for everyone.
"It takes us right to the heart of one of the things I want to achieve in politics - the end of sectarianism," he said.
"Sectarianism has lasted longer than the Troubles. Think about that for a second.
"Sectarianism still responsible for deaths and injuries. Sectarianism dictating the pace at which we move to a truly post-Peace Process situation. Sectarianism holding back the economy, health, housing and education.
"I want the Ulster Unionist Party to tackle that enduring legacy of our Troubles.
"If you are wondering what I believe in, it's social justice.
"I would like to have a leadership role in building a future that is peaceful, law-abiding, and fair. Where everyone gets a chance, and we show a generosity of spirit when we meet people with a different identity, or set of aspirations."
But he added: "It is an inconvenient truth that it will take time to create a truly normal society, where everyone mixes, particularly in education, and housing."
Mr Nesbitt said the current Sinn Féin/Democratic Unionist administration at Stormont could be characterised as a government of "lost opportunities".
Six months after the long-standing TV news anchor was elected as its new high-profile figurehead, critics claim the party has yet to enjoy any early political boost.
The party has suffered a series of election failures as the both the DUP and cross community Alliance Party have gained at its expense.
Since Mr Nesbitt took charge, the UUP has continued to be distracted by internal wrangling and public spats.
A recent dispute with former Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Ken Maginnis over his comments on gay marriage eventually saw the veteran figure quit the Ulster Unionists, having been sanctioned for failing to adhere to party instructions on dealing with the media as opposed to the outrage over his remarks.
In his conference speech, Mr Nesbitt did not concentrate on the party's troubled recent past.
He chose to look further back - quoting its founders' professed desire for a pluralist society - in a bid to set the course for the next generation.
"It's what I want. For this party. For this country. And for everybody who lives here - everyone," he said.
"I am appealing today to Protestants, to Catholics, to Jews and Muslims, to members of all faiths and none - men, women, urban, rural, Chinese, Indian, eastern European. This appeal is to everyone.
"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 practice your religious beliefs. That's us.
"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."
Mr Nesbitt reiterated his view that a change was needed to the present mandatory coalition form of government and that there was a need for an official opposition.
He said he would also cut the number of MLAs and government departments as part of a drive to reduce inefficiency and red tape.
The UUP leader repeatedly stressed the importance of job creation - noting that the estimated 67,000 out of work is more than double the number of jobless five years ago.
He said while foreign investment was important, locally based small and medium sized businesses were the key to stimulating employment.
"The Ulster Unionist will always put local business first," he said.
"We will be unapologetically, aggressively, and openly pro-local business."
On the Stormont Executive's ongoing negotiations with the Treasury to win the right to set its own rate of corporation tax, Mr Nesbitt said the battle was not going well, but was not lost.
He suggested the Executive could be handed the responsibility to set the Small Profits Rate, formerly the Small Business Rate.
In regard to cutting deprivation levels, Mr Nesbitt promised to set income levels at which the state would allow no family to fall below.
The leader said he would work to tackle illiteracy among the region's children and again repeated his wish to eventually see a shared education system with no religious divisions.
He said tourist revenue could be boosted with the creation of a £5m(€6.25m)-a-year fund to develop new air routes into Northern Ireland.
Mr Nesbitt said in the context of the Scottish independence debate there was a need for Unionists to engage with Britain's generation of today, whose cultural make-up he said had much changed during recent decades.
In concluding, the ex-journalist stressed that ending sectarianism did not mean inhibiting diversity.
"If we're going to deal with sectarianism, we must build a shared future," he said.
"That doesn't mean everyone has to lose their identity. It does not mean you cannot wear your sports team's top to the pub.
"It means changing the signs that read 'No football jerseys' to 'Team shirts welcome'."
He ended by again quoting Carson's vision of government.
"And this time, let me pitch it, as an invitation to the tens of thousands of pro-Union citizens who currently see no one or no party to vote for," he said.
"Because if this vision is your vision, then together, we can change this government, change it for Carson's vision of a Stormont that provides a good government, a fair government, an honest government, a government not for sections or factions, but a government for all.
"That was his vision then. It is my vision today.
"It is the Ulster Unionist vision, always."