24 November 2018
The speech delivered by DUP Leader Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA at the 2018 DUP Annual Conference
Thank you for your welcome. I am both humbled and privileged to stand before you today as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
We live in momentous times but throughout it all I am mindful of the support and the work of those of you in the hall, and indeed those of you who are supporters watching at home.
Today I say a heartfelt thank you to the members, friends and supporters of the party for all that you have done over the last twelve months.
Ultimately politics is about serving the interests of the people and shaping the future for the benefit of everyone. That must be our guiding principle.
I want to add my personal welcome to Boris for joining with us and addressing our conference. I also want to put on record my appreciation to Chancellor Philip Hammond for speaking at our conference dinner last evening. The DUP has, and will continue, to work with a range of Parliamentarians on the national stage to further the national interest.
I am delighted that a delegation from Gibraltar have travelled to participate in our conference this weekend. It is fitting that we launched our Friends of Gibraltar grouping today.
I had the pleasure of paying a wonderful visit to Gibraltar in September and meeting with the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
Conference, I was enthused by the passion and pride the people of Gibraltar have for their home and their Britishness.
We understand that passion and pride and today Conference we stand with the people and the government of Gibraltar at this difficult time.
We’re fortunate to have Mr Johnson with us this afternoon. He has strong electoral appeal, possesses youth and energy and has a big political future - Not you, Boris but Councillor Peter Johnston, our newly elected representative in Carrickfergus.
Let me again congratulate Peter and the East Antrim team on the by-election victory. We were all delighted when Peter gained an extra seat for the party taking what had been an independent seat and pushing the DUP vote share in the area up by 11%, with a 40% first preference advantage over the nearest rival candidate.
Peter is not our only new addition at Council level.
I also want to offer a very warm DUP welcome to Alderman Sharon McKillop from Causeway Coast and Glens Council who this week has left the TUV and joined the Democratic Unionist Party.
Sharon recognises that it is this party that delivers for the people and it is this party that has the plan for the future.
Today we meet at a time of unprecedented interest in our party. The Brexit negotiation is the current dominant political issue and I want to thank all those colleagues who are involved in that on-going work.
I want to express my gratitude in particular to Nigel for his leadership at Westminster, and to all of our Parliamentary team.
At this point, I also want to take a moment to say a special thank you for the work that our Member of the European Parliament, Diane Dodds has undertaken.
By the time of the United Kingdom’s departure Diane will have been an advocate for Northern Ireland in the European Parliament for a decade. I know that like me you appreciate Diane’s hard work and dedication on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
Diane occasionally likes to remind us all that it was she who joined the party first, and later persuaded Nigel to join. - for that alone, I am eternally grateful.
After her election in 2009 Diane established a public facing European office, and her hard work and results for constituents were subsequently rewarded at the ballot box.
Diane has provided an unparalleled service to the people of Northern Ireland and I know that Diane will continue to play an important role in the years to come.
Conference, we stand at a crucial moment in the affairs of our nation.
Our party has been entrusted with great responsibility as a result of the votes of people across Northern Ireland.
With that responsibility comes a greater focus on our party than we have ever known before. People are interested to know our policy positions on a range of issues and more than ever the views of our party representatives are sought. So we must say what we mean and mean what we say.
Today at the outset I want to publicly address the issue of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and our handling of it during our time in government.
This has been a very difficult period for our party in particular and for Northern Ireland politics as a whole.
My motivation in government was always to do the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons.
But the best of intentions doesn’t make you immune from mistakes or misjudgements. Some of our past decisions and actions have left a lot to be desired, and I know that they have personally hurt and offended many of our members, voters and the public.
The public inquiry has been difficult for many individually and painful for the party collectively. No party would want to have all of its dealings exposed for all to see at a public inquiry, especially in the unique system of government we have, with the struggles and strains required to make it work. But I make no excuses.
Today as leader of the party I apologise. As a party we are deeply, deeply sorry for the mistakes we made, and for the things we got wrong during that period.
I am determined our Party will learn the lessons from RHI and how Government business was conducted at Stormont more generally.
There are many lessons to learn;
There are many lessons such as ensuring that we have the best people appointed to Ministerial office and that all our representatives are clear on what is required of them.
Lessons about Special Advisers;
How we appoint special advisers, the number required and how they operate and are regulated in government.
Lessons for the Civil Service;
There is a strong case for a fundamental appraisal of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and consideration of extending the Home Civil Service to Northern Ireland.
With technology, increasing complexity and the emergence of new approaches particularly those which intersect with the private sector, greater expertise is going to be required.
Lessons about openness and transparency;
Proper records must be kept and we must recognise that greater transparency will add value to public debate.
But simply changing processes and procedures will not be enough.
We must go further and ensure that we are engaged in an on-going process of renewal and self-examination.
We will work hard to make amends and regain the support and trust of those who were upset by what they saw unfolding over the last number of months.
I know I speak for many when I say that over the course of the last twelve months there have been a number of other areas where behaviour in our ranks has not matched the standards expected of people holding public office.
We must ensure there is no repeat of such behaviour and that those high standards we aspire to ourselves and that others rightly require of us are applicable at every level within this party.
While mistakes were made, there were many decisions taken by Ministers from this party and other parties that we can be proud of and which ensured Northern Ireland kept moving in the right direction.
Record levels of inward investment. Billions invested in new roads, new schools and new hospitals. But of course much more remains to be done.
Our country and our people deserve a stable government that will focus on taking decisions to make a real and meaningful difference to the lives of people up and down our country.
Conference, as we look to the future - the Union is the best political, social, economic and cultural foundation to lay for the next generation.
Why do I say that?
Because through our Union with Great Britain we can contribute to and benefit from being a constituent part of one of the oldest democracies.
We can contribute to and benefit from public services and safety nets many other countries cannot match. For example, our fantastic National Health Service.
We can contribute to and have the protection of one of the largest economies in the world.
We can contribute to and benefit from a cultural wealth, the envy of the rest of the globe.
All this was achieved not by one constituent part of the UK alone but by the efforts and talents of all of them.
All this was achieved through our common bond - the Union.
When we look back over our proud history and our common struggles, we see what we achieved was because we did it together as a United Kingdom.
This is what shapes our vision for leaving the European Union.
Our commitment to the principles of democracy means we must implement the referendum result of 2016 – a national referendum with a national outcome.
Our commitment to the common good for all parts of the United Kingdom means we must leave as one nation and that we must work collectively to make it a success.
Our common history teaches us that the United Kingdom has and will continue to be a global success.
We’ve done it before and can do so again.
Two years ago at Conference I outlined five simple principles that would guide us in Brexit discussions, and stated that talks would be tough. – that seems like a bit of an understatement now!
In particular, I said that the economic and social benefits for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom are far more important than our relationship with the EU and that we would work with whomever in order to get the best deal for Northern Ireland at home and abroad.
Consistently we have indicated our objectives and our bottom line.
They were simple, they were clear and they were focused.
We sought to do what was best for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in particular.
We sought to provide the government with the room it needed to negotiate but never to lose sight of what it needed to deliver.
Most importantly we publicly and privately indicated that we could not support proposals that would open the possibility of divergence in either customs or regulatory measures between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Our message was both clear and consistent.
Conference, I want to acknowledge the hard work and determined efforts of the Prime Minister to secure an agreement. I believe she is genuine when she says she wants to see an outcome that does no harm to the Union and the internal market of the United Kingdom.
However, this draft agreement fails her own key commitments.
The Prime Minister has not been able to guarantee an outcome that eliminates the risk of the introduction of the so-called backstop arrangements.
On the one hand, we are told the backstop would be the best of both worlds and on the other we are told it is unlikely to be needed.
Ladies and gentlemen therein lies one of the many contradictions at the heart of this draft Withdrawal Agreement.
In such circumstances, Northern Ireland alone would be aligned to numerous EU single market regulations while Great Britain would not. Such a scenario in the medium term would inevitability lead to barriers to trade within the UK internal market.
Let me be very clear, that is not in the national interest.
Now I know that there are many in the business community in Northern Ireland who are frustrated with the pace of negotiations and the politics around it and who simply seek certainty.
I understand their position.
They have been clear that they would prefer what is currently on the table rather than a no-deal outcome.
But for us we cannot wish away the fact that the draft withdrawal agreement contains arrangements that we believe are not in Northern Ireland’s long-term economic or strategic interests.
Northern Ireland would remain part of the European Union’s customs code and as things stand we would be sowing the seeds of inevitable economic divergence from our largest market.
In addition to the economic arguments we believe the constitutional implications of the deal cannot be ignored.
The Democratic Unionist Party has never been afraid to say yes when it is right to do so nor to say no when required.
We do not stand alone on these issues with a large number of Conservatives, both those who voted leave and remain, not persuaded.
Even Jeremy Corbyn isn’t buying the sea border.
This party wants to see a negotiated and orderly withdrawal from the European Union – that has always been our position. We are not campaigning for a no-deal exit nor do we want barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and our neighbours in the Republic.
The choice is not between this deal and no deal despite what the Government spin machine may say.
The reality is that if we are to secure a better outcome than is currently on offer then the only option is to look beyond this current draft withdrawal agreement and work in the time ahead for an improved outcome.
This party acted responsibly in the national interest to secure a government in 2017 and we will not be found wanting in our efforts to secure a better outcome;
An outcome that does not leave Northern Ireland open to the perils of increased divergence away from the rest of the United Kingdom;
And an outcome which truly works to the benefit of all parts of this nation.
The days and weeks ahead will be challenging. We will continue to work in Parliament to achieve the best possible deal for Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole, guided by our principles and objectives
Conference, we have come a long way as a party from the days when Dr Paisley and a small band of faithful men and women stepped out to form the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party.
We are at the centre of political life in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. We have the opportunity to shape the future. We must ensure we translate our vision into a reality and our Unionism must deliver to the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.
That is why when the Confidence and Supply Agreement gave us the opportunity to contribute so integrally to our nation’s affairs and deliver for Northern Ireland we did so and we insisted on delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland.
Let me give you a few examples not often talked about.
If you know a child or a parent who has benefited through Sure-Start or extended schools provisions those services are being funded through the money, we secured to tackle deprivation in the Confidence & Supply Agreement.
Indeed, this year, and I’m really proud of this - an additional £10m was able to be provided to improve mental health services.
Ladies and gentlemen, delivering for the people we represent is what shapes our vision for devolution. We want to use the flexibilities that devolution provides to make Northern Ireland even better for all.
Our vision does not end at the steps of Stormont.
Our Councils have larger budgets and staff teams than some government departments, and more powers than ever before. We see their untapped potential, and that working alongside a restored Assembly and taking forward City Deals can only help drive Northern Ireland forward.
At local government, our plan is not just for low rates and quality services but also to make a meaningful difference to our society.
Next May voters will have the opportunity to elect new Councils for the next four-year mandate.
The Democratic Unionist Party will field a strong team of local government candidates that will combine youth and experience. We will offer voters the chance to return candidates to councils who will deliver quality services without over burdening the ratepayers.
The eleven new councils have almost completed their first full –term in office. The creation of new councils has not been without its difficulties and none more so than in the west of Northern Ireland where minority unionist communities have not been respected and where the equality agenda has done little to support Unionist culture and identity.
As we move forward, we are determined – I am determined - to spotlight this issue and work to ensure that those who shout the loudest about respect and equality practice what they preach.
Beyond local government, we want to see the Executive and Assembly re-established on a sustainable basis.
The DUP is a pro-devolution party. Since we became the largest party of Unionism the DUP has prioritised the establishment and maintenance of a working Executive and Assembly as its core political priority. This remains unchanged.
I am as committed to devolution today, as I was the day the institutions stopped functioning.
Influence in London or power in Belfast was never a binary choice, - in fact - both working together is when we can achieve the most for Northern Ireland.
Devolution is good for Northern Ireland.
While securing a stable administration is challenging, local decision-making by those who live here is by far the best option.
Throughout 2007-2017 the DUP persisted through every challenge.
Every time there was a substantive roadblock we sought to work through each one and achieve a balanced agreement.
There were many times, it would have been easy to walk away – but we didn’t.
Throughout, the DUP understood that dealing with the problems from within an Executive and Assembly was always the better course.
History will clearly show what we achieved in that decade was so much more than what had preceded it.
The successes of the 10 years of an Executive were generally characterised by the power of a series of decisions that flowed from locally accountable ministers. However we cannot disguise the fact too many of the big decisions were avoided, or started but never finished.
It took a decade of negotiations to create a stable Executive. We now need ten years of genuine change, of transformative government.
The case for change is not limited to our politics and institutions but change is required in how we work together with other parties in coalition and how that coalition works with the Civil Service.
In any new Northern Ireland administration, and during talks that might bring one about, I want all parties to have their mandates respected.
I will encourage the full involvement of all parties capable of holding Ministerial Office, and want their contribution considered and acted upon, on its merits.
The DUP will step up its engagement with the Secretary of State and with all the other parties to chart a way forward.
When Stormont does return we need to demonstrate that it is with the intention of making the big decisions and that we will all operate with genuine collective responsibility.
Clearly there needs to be more certainty that the institutions will be robust and withstand political pressure.
A Northern Ireland Executive should be established on the basis of a concise agreed coalition plan for government.
Such an agreement needs to address the fundamentals of our NHS and education system.
In education we must ensure more funding is targeted at the classrooms and that where necessary we do not shy away from taking difficult decisions if that is in the best interest of pupils and staff.
On health - we prepared more plans for reform - than actual reforms we ever implemented.
Any new Executive must be on the basis of the implementation of the Bengoa report and we must ensure funding earmarked for health goes to health.
We must be conscious that there is a lack of cultural security for primarily for Unionists but also for others. We need a new Cultural Deal for everyone in Northern Ireland that respects difference and fosters understanding.
It is in Unionism’s interests for those from all backgrounds to feel comfortable in a Northern Ireland at peace with itself.
The result will be a Northern Ireland with effective functioning devolved government, making a tangible difference to people’s lives.
As the largest party of Unionism and the party of Northern Ireland, the mantle for change and delivery naturally falls at our feet.
We have never shirked the opportunity to lead before and we will not do so now.
The size, the breadth and depth of our team set us apart and give us confidence that we can rise to the challenges that lie ahead.
We have much work to do in the year ahead.
Any successful political party wants the fullest possible range of voters and potential voters, and our broader responsibility to Unionism must guide our behaviour.
Supporters of the union come in all shapes and sizes. We always need to be seeking to attract the maximum number of voters to the unionist cause.
Our overarching strategic task is to sell the benefits of the Union and persuade a new generation of our people that it is a Union that works for them as it has for us.
We have the vision, the plan and the team to deliver for Northern Ireland.
Now is the time to learn the lessons from the past, look forward to the future and shape it with confidence and determination.
I stand here believing that with our Westminster team, with our Assembly team, with our councillors and with each and every one of you that we can achieve it all; for the people; for the country; and for the Union.
Let us keep focused as we lead.
Let us never lose sight that we have a historic responsibility to lay solid foundations for the next generation.
Let us stand strong for Northern Ireland.