26 October 2019
Speech delivered to the 2019 DUP Annual Conference by Party Leader Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA
It is almost impossible to believe it is eleven months since we last gathered at our conference.
In that time much has happened – we have fought, and won two elections, we have continued to strive to get a sensible Brexit deal; the United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister, and rather than have Boris with us today we have had to send him to the naughty step in Parliament twice in the last week.
Colleagues it was Harold Wilson who coined the phrase that “a week is a long time in politics”, but in the era through which we are living a day seems a long time.
But while that may be the case one thing remains certain - this party continues to stand strong for Northern Ireland.
This afternoon I want to especially welcome and acknowledge our visitors here from outside the Party and to thank them for their friendship and support.
I want to thank colleagues, members and supporters for their loyalty; support, hard work and dedication to our cause since we last met.
Our Democratic Unionist family is at its best when we work together in common cause and pursuit of the goals that bind us together.
- Our love of Northern Ireland,
- Our determination to serve the people,
- And our desire to shape a future within the United Kingdom for the benefit of everyone.
We meet at a time of momentous significance. I believe that future generations will look back and recognise these days as a defining time, where the choices we made shaped their future.
In that context the voters of Northern Ireland have placed great responsibility on the shoulders of this party.
They have trusted us to do what is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and to exercise that responsibility in a manner that is beneficial for all.
In this crucial moment in the affairs of our land we will be guided by that principle.
More than ever we are motivated, we are focused and we are determined to get Northern Ireland moving again.
In my leader’s address to conference last year, I indicated that this party would use the local government elections to offer voters a plan not just for low rates and quality services but also to make a meaningful difference to our society.
Today we celebrate the success we had in the local government election last May.
We increased our vote share, with an extra 19,000 votes and returned 122 councillors. I congratulate all those elected and pay tribute to longstanding councillors who stepped down, and to our candidates who ran excellent campaigns but who unfortunately were unsuccessful on this occasion, some by the narrowest of margins.
I am immensely proud that we are the only party with female representation in every single council chamber in Northern Ireland.
Securing the support of people at the ballot box is the lifeblood of any party but using the mandate entrusted to us to deliver positively for voters is even more important.
The Democratic Unionist Party has a track record of working for the people all of the time, not just at election time. Unlike some other candidates we don’t just rock up in your neighbourhood asking for votes a few days or weeks before the poll.
In our local government election campaign we pledged that, through councils, we would commit to delivering a real and lasting legacy for people with disabilities.
So following the election I am pleased that DUP Councillors, working with councillors from other parties, have already started work on delivering more for people with disabilities including work on greater provision of inclusive play parks.
We are determined to make a real difference on every day issues.
In the European election in June, Diane increased her first preference vote share by another percentage point and was the first candidate elected.
Through strong teamwork and a track record of delivery Diane Dodds was, and is, the voice of experience from Northern Ireland in the European Parliament.
Sadly she is now the only representative standing strong for Northern Ireland in Europe at a time when other representatives spend more time either attacking or ignoring the views and concerns of Unionism.
Whether in local Council chambers, London or Brussels it is the Democratic Unionist Party that is at the centre of the debate. Sinn Fein claim to be shaping the debate but in truth they have been reduced to glorified lobbyists posing for pictures to post on Twitter.
Never before has a small regional party carried so much responsibility in Parliament in particular.
I pay tribute to the fortitude and wisdom of our deputy leader Nigel as he leads our Westminster team. In the days and weeks ahead we can be confident that our Members of Parliament will continue to speak up for the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
When we believe the Government is pursuing policies that are in the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole, and Northern Ireland in particular we will work with them, and others in the pursuit of a more prosperous Northern Ireland.
The votes given to us by people across Northern Ireland in 2017 meant we were able to secure additional money for schools, roads and hospitals in Northern Ireland. This funding from our Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Conservatives has been delivered.
The money is here. It’s funding extra GPs, it’s improving mental health services, it’s funding breakfast clubs and after school clubs in your area. And for those of you have still can’t watch YouTube without that frustrating ‘buffering’ notice – I have good news. £150m from the Confidence and Supply Agreement is being used to transform rural broadband. The tender is out. Faster broadband is on its way.
Ladies and gentlemen, the one billion extra pounds for Northern Ireland shows the difference it makes when you turn up, take your seats and use your vote for the betterment of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Mary Lou and Michelle blame the Confidence and Supply Agreement for blocking the Northern Ireland Assembly yet the constituencies impacted most by the broadband money have Sinn Fein MPs. Indeed of over 450 schools receiving funding from the one billion pounds, over thirty of those schools received funding to help them teach the Irish language.
Whilst others talk and tweet, the DUP delivers. We have used our ten votes to help everyone.
This conference has a message for Connolly House. Stop making excuses. Stop boycotting. Get back to work.
With our ten votes being so critical in Parliament, there is a great responsibility to make sure we support the right decisions for Northern Ireland but have the boldness and strength to stand up and say no when we need to.
On Brexit, we will not give support to the Government when we believe they are fundamentally wrong and acting in a way that is detrimental to Northern Ireland and taking us in the wrong direction.
We will oppose them and we will use our votes to defeat them.
Let me say clearly from this platform today that we want to support a deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom and which does not leave Northern Ireland behind. But without change, we will not vote for the Prime Minister’s agreement. It would be bad for Northern Ireland economically and will weaken the foundations of this great United Kingdom.
The Brexit Secretary says there will not be Northern Ireland to Great Britain paperwork, then he says there will. The Prime Minister says there will not be checks, but then we are told there will be. Now we are told it can be sorted by a Joint Committee with the European Union.
We have been clear and honest with the Government throughout this process and we expect the same in return. The customs and consent arrangements must be revisited and a one-nation approach adopted.
We worked intensively with the Government over recent weeks to try to reach a fair and balanced deal. We were not seeking a perfect deal. No such deal exists. We were seeking a deal which delivered Brexit without erecting barriers to trade.
Dublin and Brussels belatedly reopened Mrs May’s deal having rigidly refused to do so. Having told us it could not be re-negotiated it was, and I encourage the Prime Minister to do the same again.
The one-sided approval mechanism for the Assembly takes no account of power-sharing. Indeed, it would lead to Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party ganging up to render unionist votes irrelevant. If you believe in the principles of power-sharing then those principles must be enshrined in any deal.
Furthermore, the East-West checks as proposed would lead to excessively bureaucratic burdens for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and consequentially higher prices and less choice for consumers.
We trade far more with Great Britain than we do with the Republic of Ireland, European Union and rest of the world combined. Yet the proposals put forward would see our east-west trade subject to the rules of the EU Customs Union, notwithstanding that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK customs territory.
We do not consider the proposals to be in Northern Ireland’s longer-term interests, and they are clearly without support within unionism.
Last Saturday and on Tuesday evening it was the votes of the DUP that altered the course of events. Our votes mattered and our votes will matter in the coming days.
We will continue to work to shape a solution in Northern Ireland’s interests, and we will judge each situation against what is best for Northern Ireland economically and constitutionally within the Union.
There is much talk about the holding of a General Election.
This party is ready for any General Election that may come.
We have a strong record to put to the people and now more than ever we will seek a mandate to ensure Northern Ireland has the strongest team fighting for it.
Make no mistake this will be the most unpredictable election outcome in the United Kingdom for a generation.
Many beyond Northern Ireland will be eagerly watching the results to determine how Northern Ireland should be treated. Northern Ireland will need a strong, experienced and united voice that can speak for Unionism and get Northern Ireland moving again.
Every vote cast in every constituency will matter and the number of seats secured by this party will help shape the direction of Northern Ireland for our grandchildren.
Last month, I set out the principles of what I termed ‘Next Generation Unionism’ and our vision for Northern Ireland entering its next century.
Modern day Northern Ireland has changed markedly and will continue to change. Today we are launching a detailed document on Next Generation Unionism and I look forward to engaging with everyone who values Northern Ireland’s position, about our paper and the issues it explores.
I have written to a number of other parties in an effort to engage individually with them around it too, and a first meeting is already in place for Monday. I will seek to stimulate interest amongst other groups and sectors too.
We want these engagements to extend far beyond political parties. It ought to be a much broader discussion across the community. It's time to commence a conversation; recognising politicians don’t have all the answers.
Unionism should be inclusive, welcoming and embracing to all. It should permit individuals to express the cultural life they choose.
Whilst many focus on Ulster-Scots and Unionism, let me be clear, it is not incompatible to be an Irish language speaker and a Unionist – indeed there might even be one or two here today.
And because the backgrounds of Unionists are many and varied, Unionism should have many portals, and multiple gateways in.
The inescapable fact remains that people value Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for a wide range of economic, social, historic and cultural reasons.
Culture can play a big part in our identity and who we are.
Too often though in Northern Ireland culture has been demeaned and demonised, or proven detrimental to progress here.
Northern Ireland is rich in different cultures, and we need to embrace and cherish them in a manner that threatens no one.
Those who seek to engage in a cultural war engage in a zero-sum battle. Northern Ireland is big enough to accommodate everyone’s culture. Indeed as unionists, it is in our long-term strategic interests to ensure that everyone, regardless of their culture, feels at home in Northern Ireland.
That is why in the talks with other Northern Ireland parties we have proposed principles around cultural expression and identity that can harness and develop all that is good about these pursuits.
And we must use them as a force for good to educate, and help give people confidence and develop as individuals.
We are so much more than two traditions in Northern Ireland now, and we need to give our new identities space to grow and prosper too.
As Northern Ireland approaches its Centenary this is an opportunity to promote all that is good about where we live.
There should be a broad range of events so there is something for everyone of every background. It should be an opportunity for Invest NI and indeed Westminster’s Department for International Trade to promote investment in Northern Ireland, and similarly for Tourism NI to reap rich rewards.
We want to see a Fund established for Centenary events, and have proposed a Centennial Expo to showcase all Northern Ireland can offer. A Homecoming event ought to be pursued as well as other initiatives involving the Northern Ireland diaspora around the world.
Materials and resources should be developed for schools and youth engagement, and the story of the establishment of the Northern Ireland state should be told.
However important our history though, the future is much more so. Looking back at previous generations may be interesting but our duty and our responsibility is to look forward to the next generations.
We must leave the next generation a better Northern Ireland than the one we inherited.
We all need to get Northern Ireland moving again.
We need to ensure that in the place we all call home we have decent jobs, real opportunities for our young people, an education system that leaves no child behind and a reformed health service that is able to deliver best in class services.
And we want to rekindle a generosity of spirit that has been missing for some time. We want to reach out and help our friends and neighbours, value the contribution of older citizens, help the more vulnerable in society and importantly value the sanctity of life.
Where there is diversity and difference of view we should not hide from it, nor fear it, but we must debate and seek to persuade in a spirit of respect and understanding for the other point of view.
Rightly there will be many policy areas where we will differ from others and sometimes fundamentally so, but we can do that in an honest and gracious manner.
People are proud of where they come from. Proud of Belfast, and of Northern Ireland. Of Game of Thrones and our tourism offer, and the cruise ships which come to visit. But they know that a Northern Ireland Government is required.
To have a better healthcare system, really get to grips with the organised gangs and criminality, and to offer the best job prospects for our young people.
Too many fear the peace process has stalled and that we are heading in the wrong direction.
Taking decisions locally undoubtedly helps with the bread and butter issues, but it also provides vital stability. It bolsters the peace and strengthens relations. And that's good for Northern Ireland.
I want to see the Assembly and Executive rejuvenated and re-energised. We are up for that. We know that Northern Ireland works best when we work together.
And to get a deal to bring Stormont back, there will need to be an agreement that we all can support.
I’ve already committed more than two years ago to seek accommodation and to legislate in a balanced way for language and culture, including for the Irish language.
Unfortunately we have had too many painful experiences of the manner in which Councils particularly in the West have sought to implement Irish language policies.
But we recognise there are many in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language and for whom it is an intrinsic part of who they are.
So, my offer stands. If we can find a way to craft language and culture laws that facilitates those who speak the language, but does not inappropriately infringe on or threaten others, the DUP will not be found wanting.
But overall agreement needs to be a two-way street.
In particular, the DUP wants to see mechanisms to cultivate and grow relationships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain through all walks of life, including educational and cultural connections.
And if Stormont is to be restored on a long-term basis that means sharing the responsibility of a fair deal. No winners or losers, everyone putting their best foot forward to provide a brighter future for all.
Others may seek to put obstacles in the way, but the DUP will continue to try to find a way to secure agreement.
When I became leader in December 2015, I said that I wanted this Party to be a party of ideas not ideology. I am therefore delighted that as a Party we are undertaking a much more comprehensive policy development programme than ever before, ranging from the environment to childcare, mental health, services for veterans, House of Lords reform, productivity and skills.
We have a comprehensive agenda for Government that we want to see delivered.
Making communities stronger, streets safer and rewarding hard work.
Providing better jobs and family incomes, a healthier environment and landscape, taking pride in Northern Ireland.
And doing our politics so much better.
Within health, the Bengoa reforms need to be fully implemented with some elements sitting ready to go, just waiting on the appointment of a Minister.
We are supportive of transformation being clinically-led and driven, with the benefits of technology and data maximised.
We stand by our commitment for an additional one billion pounds to be invested in health by the end of the Assembly term, and that resources should be prioritised in primary care.
In education we want a level playing field so all schools are treated equally. A Reform Fund should assist area-based changes, and more money must go directly to the classroom.
We support more shared education, leading ultimately to a single system. Sectors need to set aside their own interests and recognise the benefit for society in children being educated together.
We want to see a fundamental review of how schools are managed, much like the Bengoa approach in Health, which would incorporate the effectiveness and performance of the Education Authority and other bodies. Too many parents and teachers are at their wits end with the basics of our education system.
The Education and Training Inspectorate should be re-orientated into a Northern Ireland Educational Improvement Service, and a Commission established to make recommendations on improving the outcomes of boys from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly in the inner city.
We want to get Northern Ireland moving again. With a reformed Government restored, so decisions are taken by local people.
That’s what most people want.
Northern Ireland has great potential. Its people have great potential.
We will never resile from our belief that Northern Ireland is best served by being part of the UK, but unionism is about all of us and not anyone alone. It is about everyone working together as one, for the greater good, to build a Northern Ireland we can all be proud of.
We have much to do in the months ahead.
The challenge is great, but the determination is greater.
This party has always risen to the task, we have always led from the front and with the support of the people we will do so again.
Let us move forward with humility as we discharge our responsibilities, but confident and determined in what we can achieve together for the future, and for the generations that will follow us
Now more than ever let us stand strong for Northern Ireland.