Mr Chairman it is a tremendous privilege to be addressing this conference, Alasdair and I were delighted to be invited, and are delighted to be here. Your hospitality and generosity have been greatly appreciated, and we have been greatly impressed at the scale and organisation of this conference.
In years gone past, similar gatherings of Young Conservatives in Scotland would I am certain have counted amongst them unionists from Northern Ireland, either as members of the Conservative Party locally, or as guests from my party, here as friends in support of a party and a cause with which they would have had considerable sympathy.
I feel however Mr Chairman, a particular honour in addressing this particular conference at this particular time, because I feel that I am here not only as a friend, but also as a colleague and partner. I am the first Chairman of the Young Unionists in 40 years who has been able to say that, and I do so with a great sense of pride.
The historic agreement reached between our two great parties earlier this year, is hugely important for the future of Northern Ireland. By putting to the electorate a potential government for the first time in a generation, by giving them the opportunity to have their voice heard in national government for the first time since 1974, and by putting Northern Ireland back at the heart of United Kingdom politics, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservative Party have taken Northern Ireland society a step further away from conflict and a step closer to being at peace with itself.
However Mr Chairman it should not be said that our renewed partnership is in any way surprising.
Firstly Ulster Unionism and British Conservativism are traditionally and closely aligned movements. We are not engaging in a new departure but re-establishing an old friendship which stemmed from the foundations of Irish Unionism in the 19th century. The reasons for that friendship drifting apart are numerous and contributory to the failure of the Conservative Party to become electable in Northern Ireland over the years since. But the recognition of those facts and the magnanimous manner with which the Conservative Party has dealt with those legacy issues has played a massive role in setting them to one side and allowing us to progress. David Cameron has publically reiterated the regret of Mrs Thatcher for the Anglo Irish Agreement, and emphatically contradicted Peter Brooke’s statement that the UK Government had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. That was necessary, that took courage, and that speaks volumes about the commitment of the leadership of the Conservative Party to our shared initiative.
Secondly Mr Chairman, for the Ulster Unionist Party, re-establishing a link is another step on the road to a shared Northern Ireland, at peace with itself. That road began in earnest in the mid 1990’s and the UUP has achieved much in that time and since which we are rightly proud of. The IRA has surrendered its weaponry and core ideology to a partitionist settlement within the Union under the Crown. The principle of consent secures the future of Northern Ireland as an integral region of the United Kingdom to it’s people, and the ever increasing proportion of Catholic support for the Union leaves me with a certainty that I will not see a united Ireland in my lifetime. At it’s core, the dual legacy of the Belfast Agreement is peace, and an enduring Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Having made those achievements, it is entirely predictable that the Ulster Unionist Party would seek to reengage Northern Ireland with national politics – that is the logical progression of the Belfast Agreement. The Ulster Unionist Party having achieved it’s mission of securing Northern Ireland within the Union, has taken the logical step to seek new goals and pursue new avenues for politics in Northern Ireland, with an old friend and partner.
Of course Mr Chairman it will not be lost on anyone here that the battle to keep our Kingdom united is no longer dominated by Irish separatism. Today it is arguable that it is you and not I who face the greatest challenge to British unity. Whilst it is crucial to remember that the rise in electoral support for the SNP does not correspond to a rise in support for Scottish independence, the realities of Scottish politics as it exists makes it incumbent on all unionist parties in Scotland to make the case for the union clearly and unequivocally in the years ahead.
That challenge will be heightened for the Scottish Conservative Party in the event of there being a Conservative and Ulster Unionist Government next year. The ourselves alone alliance of the SNP and DUP have made clear that they intend to try to pin the blame for any and every pressure and failure on the finances of their administrations on an English Tory Government. It is up to us in the Scottish Conservatives and Ulster Unionists to make sure that they don’t get away with that lie. It is up to us before and after the election to be honest about the public finances, and to be up front with the public in the face of unashamed hypocrisy and dishonesty. It is up to us to make sure that the Scottish and Northern Irish electorates know that a Conservative Government is not an English Government, it is a British Government, fighting for Scotland and fighting for Northern Ireland.
And it has to be said that the National Conservative Party has done much better in the past three years than the previous three in recognising the realities of the United Kingdom beyond England. The “little Englander” mentality that was the prevailing image of the Conservative Party has largely been replaced. The phoney argument about “subsidies” for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has all but disappeared from the lexicon of English representatives. Sir Edward Carson, very much the father of Ulster Unionism, argued passionately for extra resources for schools in rural Mayo and elsewhere in pre-partition Ireland. The principle was equal services for equal taxation of equal citizens. That principle still holds today, and no longer is the Conservative Party backing away from that commitment to our nation. No longer is the Conservative Party suggesting that Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MP’s should be a lower class of MP. It is quite clear that David Cameron knows that he could be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and that he is doing what is necessary to avoid such a situation, out of conviction. It is clear that the Conservative Party is determined to maintain the entire Union.
Of course one of the key benefits to both parties of our partnership, is the opportunity to engage with each other and learn from each other’s experiences. Perhaps there is a heightened opportunity for Unionists and Conservatives in the devolved regions to co-operate. Where your party has a history of scepticism towards devolution, mine once had a thriving debate between devolutionists and integrationists. The Ulster Unionist Party has long put that debate behind us, and as a friend, I urge Scottish Conservatives to fully embrace devolution.
I strongly believe that devolution is not something to be feared by Unionists, but something to be embraced . Devolution, approached positively, can secure the union, rather than threaten it or undermine it. Devolution is fundamentally a form of bringing about decentralisation of power and greater local control, principles that should be welcomed and advanced by Conservatives.
In Northern Ireland through our two Ministers, Sir Reg Empey (Employment and Learning) and Michael McGimpsey (Health), we are making tangible, positive and innovative improvements to public services on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland that is responsive to the needs of our region. Michael McGimpsey has recently completed the most fundamental overhaul of the Northern Ireland Health Service since my party founded it in the 1950s. Opinion polls rank our Ministers as among the most popular, respected and appreciated ministers of the current Northern Ireland Executive.
The challenge then for what you might call the "Celtic Conservatives" is to both nurture our hunger for Executive authority in the devolved political arenas, and upon obtaining such authority, readily demonstrate the effective difference that can be made when conservative solutions are applied to social, economic and political problems.
Boris Johnston in London, has shown what can be done, when Unionists and Conservatives set our sights on resting control of a devolved body from the grasps of charismatic socialism. It is vital we do not surrender any of the devolved executives to the bankrupt intellectual houses of socialism and small-minded nationalism.
For Unionists and Conservatives, the coming days weeks and months are about change, change we all desperately need from a Labour Government that has long outlived it’s welcome. The United Kingdom desperately needs a modern and forward-looking Conservative Government at Westminster.
But we also need modern and forward-looking Conservatives in the Cardiff, Holyrood and Stormont Executives. The entire United Kingdom needs change at all levels and in all institutions. To create that change, the United Kingdom needs the Conservative Party at all levels to embrace devolution, win authority in all devolved regions, and to govern. Conservatives and Ulster Unionists hold the key to preserving the Union in the long term. It’s now up to us to go forward, persuade the electorate, and do it.
Saturday, 21 November 2009
Young Unionist Chairman addresses Conservative Future Scotland
Congratulations to Michael Shilliday, whom many of you will know. He had the distinction of addressing the Conservative Future Conference this afternoon. The final draft of his speech is reproduced below.