Before we consign the Ulster Unionist conference to the archives for another year, there are a couple of points worth addressing, which have been rather sidelined by the thorny issue of agreed candidates and the small, ancient cadre of UCUNF dissenters.
The leader’s speech touched on more substantive policy considerations than commentators have generally acknowledged. Long sections were, after all, devoted to the economy, health and education.
Indeed a significant, and strangely ignored, portion of his address was concerned with policing and justice, which has dominated political opinion pages for a number of months. It is surprising that more attention has not been paid to Sir Reg Empey’s remarks on this topic.
The Ulster Unionist party, its leader insisted, is not opposed, in principle, to the devolution of justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is, however, intensely anxious about a process dictated by a deal, “concocted privately between the DUP and Sinn Fein”. A deal which is subject to a ‘sunset clause’ and dependent on “the appointment of a puppet minister”.
Despite the party’s anxiety, however, Empey did not go so far as to dismiss the possibility of UUP assent for an early conclusion to the devolution process. There would, he intimated, simply be a price to pay for Ulster Unionist support.
Genuine four party discussions should precede its implementation, Empey insisted, and “there must be an open and transparent process to reconstruct the Executive and make it work as a full four party coalition”.
The implication is clear. The Ulster Unionist party will no longer provide political cover for the DUP and Sinn Féin, unless its input is sought and listened to.
It is a message which chimes harmoniously with the themes which Empey and SDLP executive colleague, Margaret Ritchie, elucidated in Friday’s Belfast Telegraph. Her party, which is also sidelined under the current carve-up, would be wise to coordinate its efforts with Ulster Unionists. There is common mutual interest to be advanced.
There should be eventual cooperation from the SDLP and UUP, as regards policing and justice, but it is perfectly reasonable to insist that the process which delivers it must involve the two groups.
And, as a price for their agreement with a deal, exclusively thrashed out between the DUP, Sinn Féin and government (thus far), it is entirely justifiable if the two other parties seek to ensure that a requirement for the executive to operate as a proper four party coalition, in the future, is an enduring legacy of their part in the final negotiations.
Linking the two matters is a clever strategy and one which the SDLP should explicitly support.
As I live blogged Empey’s remarks on Saturday morning it was noticeable there were a number of comments implying that his speech was rather too keen to emphasise the Conservative deal’s unionist credentials. Although I reject the assertion that the UUP leader concentrated only on matters related to the Union and its maintenance, I do accept that this criticism had some validity.
Chatting outside the conference hall, one party activist, describing his concerns about the address, expressed the opinion that it was attempting a task which should have been completed last year. Empey, he contended, was laying out the rationale behind UCUNF, rather than starting to articulate the substance behind its ‘new politics’.
He had a point, although Sir Reg’s remarks, it could be argued, were merely reflecting a debate which continues to rage within the party and in the comment pages of local newspapers.
There is a danger, however, that as the election approaches, the UUP will continue to preoccupy itself with selling the arrangements to its own members, rather than winning over the voting public. A degree of discipline needs to be asserted in order to emphasise that the time for argument has now passed.
Certainly William Hague’s speech got on with dealing with issues, national, international and occasionally local, in convincing fashion. His party leader had provided the rhetoric to cement a repaired relationship last year.
If Conservatives and Unionists had formed a pact in order to open up national discussions to a Northern Irish audience, then Hague was going to start talking about those pertinent issues, immediately.