Mr Chairman, Party Leader, Friends all.
Thank You for such a warm welcome.
It is a huge honour to address our conference this morning.
We gather at a time when all eyes are upon us; with battles behinds us, challenges before us and an unrivalled resolve between us.
Our party was founded on the core principle of doing what is right for Northern Ireland.
For over 50 years, we have stood strong and firm, knowing how and when to advance.
Knowing that the principles that unite us, underpin our philosophy and drive us forward don’t change with the seasons or blow with the wind.
Our solid foundations stand the test of time.
Today, as Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, I want to honour the foundation stones laid before me.
For 28 years, Peter Robinson, my mentor and friend served in this role.
Yes, he went on to lead our party and country; and is rightly credited with some of our greatest success;
But for almost three decades, he invested in building our party, developing our purpose and galvanising our people.
As leader, Peter drew upon the steadfast, loyal and dedicated support of Nigel Dodds.
Serving as deputy leader for over a decade, Nigel’s’ commitment to our country, our party and our cause has never diminished.
And more latterly, Paula Bradley took up the reins.
Despite trying times for Paula personally, through her leadership, she served to demonstrate a sense of humanity and genuine connection between our party and our people.
All three put party and cause before person.
All three were, and are, driven by our collective desire to build on our solid foundations; and all three laid the path upon which I now tread.
Conference, my commitment to you, to Jeffrey and to the wider party, is to build on that legacy.
Since my election, I have had the privilege of joining with many of our associations and branches, as well as supporting colleagues at events across the Province. And through those engagements, I recognise now, more than ever, that through leading, we serve.
Jeffrey and I, lead as servants of all of our members. Our MPs, Peers, MLAs, Cllrs and party members; we are your servants.
And the DUP leads as servants of the people.
We lead to protect our place in the UK.
In doing so, we lead to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and at challenging times, we lead to resolve the impediments that hold us back.
In each of those tasks, one thing we don’t lack is people trying to give us their advice.
We are surrounded by opponents and commentators that don’t share our concerns, who don’t wish to understand the consequence of their constant dismissal and who demean the process of getting back to the balance that makes Northern Ireland work.
We hear them all the time, don’t we? They decry the lack of progress whilst simultaneously scoffing at the obvious solution.
Reduce the friction on trade, resolve the democratic deficit, repair the constitutional harm. Three key concepts, articulated in detail to Government as essential to unlocking progress, yet we have to suffer through the missives of expert analysists, conspiracy theorists and perpetual naysayers.
Yes, we hear about the need for courtesy in our public discourse, but how often have you heard a colleague described as a big beast, like we inhabit some far-flung safari?
Or worst still, others sneeringly dismissing our colleagues as a liberal. For liberal, of course, they mean weak…. but conference, there is nothing weak about our Unionism.
Northern Ireland has flourished and will continue to flourish within the United Kingdom.
Our Union is strengthened by difference; its complimentary contrasts and our comfort toward them.
Our ability, to shape our place within the UK, amongst ourselves here, in Northern Ireland, is a strength.
And be in no doubt, those who jump on every passing bandwagon to self-defeatingly dismiss the concept of devolved government do our cause no favours.
In the face of deep opposition, we rightly highlighted the flaws of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
We voted against it in Parliament and warned of the pitfalls.
And we faced the pious platitudes from the rigorous implementers and were told that the Protocol was here to stay.
They decreed there would be no change. For them, majoritarianism never worked in Northern Ireland and could never work in Northern Ireland, until of course, they were in a majority.
Conference, it shouldn’t have taken a withdrawal from the Executive to shift the dial, but imagine our surprise that as soon as the Windsor Framework was published, the rigorous implementers were quick to spin the same disc.
Without a blush, they decreed it had all been resolved, there’s nothing to see here, and it won’t change anyway, so that’s your lot.
Well, not quite. We are earnestly engaged in squaring the circle and I have no doubt Sir Jeffrey will have more to say on that later but one thing is clear. Impetuous impatience won’t eradicate the issues.
Having smashed dynamic alignment and affirming our willingness to deliver, together, we will get this right.
You may have noticed that in April, the 25th Anniversary of the Belfast Agreement provided ample opportunity for the great and the good to attack our position, though I’m sure you also noticed there were at least two things missing from their revisionism.
Firstly, throughout those 25 years, the failure to deal with difficult issues meant the doors of Parliament Buildings were closed for 40% of the time.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, I didn’t hear them once acknowledge that the most successful and sustained period of devolution in Northern Ireland was when we lead the Government from 2007 to 2017.
We are of our community. We reflect their desire to get the job done and we will deliver.
The future is too important to squander the opportunity to get the fundamentals right.
In securing firm foundations for political stability, we must also champion the financial stability of Northern Ireland.
Without one, the other will falter.
There is no prospect of successful Government if the only future an incoming Executive can offer is one of service withdrawal and cuts.
There is an unquestioned case for reform, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the here and now.
When I started championing the case for a reappraisal for how Northern Ireland is funded, I was a voice in the wilderness.
Despite the clear and concise work of the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, too many sought to pillory the calls as a diversion or a distraction, but the facts are these.
Northern Ireland gets less than it needs. Not wants, desires or craves. Needs.
Materially, that means less money for schools, hospitals and roads.
No flexibility to tackle waiting lists, increase special needs provisions or provide effective and meaningful child-care support for working families.
Last year, our departments received £322 million less than they needed. This year, its £431 million and next year, its £458 million.
Year on year, the problem compounds. Year on year, the ability to deliver is crippled. Only this week, the Department of Finance indicated that inflationary rises have put the new level of pressure at £2.3 billion.
As financial scope recedes, there is no ability to pay public sector workers properly or in keeping with their GB counterparts.
And the response from the Secretary of State- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. Nothing.
Which in fairness, is much more constructive than the response from Steve Baker.
The erstwhile, self-confessed agitator and twelve-hour candidate for Prime Minister would be better back in the box he confessed to being released from in the summer.
The one-time Spartan who threatened to seize power is now the unparalleled Private Pike of Northern Ireland politics.
But whether he gets it or not, the need for fiscal reform remains.
If we want a government that is in the right position to deliver for people, it needs financial firepower.
As it stands, Treasury are now punishing Northern Ireland for their underfunding.
There should be no surprise that last years lack of funding lead to a corresponding overspend.
And yet, they expect us to do more this year, with even less whilst at the same time, pay back their own shortfall from the previous year.
They are actively hampering the positive impact Government should have and frustratingly, there now appears to be a naïve, superficial sense that the bung of a £billion would help.
It wouldn’t even cover last years shortfall, the obvious gap this year and honour those who serve us in the public sector with their pay award.
Structurally, a change is required and simplistically, without it, devolved government will be unable to function.
And having sorted the fundamentals, we must continue to strengthen the bonds.
The relationship in any union cannot be one way. Yes, it’s easy to talk of our historical contribution to the UK and indeed, the world, but it need not be historical.
Shipbuilding, ropeworks, linen and aircraft manufacturing all easily trip off the tongue as former glories, as do the inventions of Massey Ferguson, Dunlops pneumatic tyre, Professor Pantridges mobile defibrillator and even Hans Sloanes chocolate.
But today, financial services in Belfast see over $600 Billion of transactions clearing every day. One third of all aircraft seats are manufactured here, in Northern Ireland.
Spirit Aerospace now connects our innovative aircraft expertise into a burgeoning global market; and shipbuilding?
And I’m delighted that a renewed Harland and Wolff is rising once again.
Those success stories draw upon our skill and ability but importantly, our place within the United Kingdom.
Harland and Wolff is but one example of a local company now benefitting from significant MoD contracts, strengthening our place and purpose in the UK.
£1.6 billion pounds to reinforce and renew a key component for our maritime defence – being built here, in Belfast.
I’ll make a speech another time about how NI draws one fifth of the UK average of Defence spend, but our contribution is much more than industrial. Take Thales for example. Their ability to provide the practical means for Ukraine to defend themselves during the early part of Russians invasion was critical.
At a time when the international community was considering how best to support Ukraine, NLAWs provided the main defensive bulwark against the outrageous incursion into sovereign Ukraine territory.
Colleagues, I was in Odessa the day more rockets landed than any other. I saw first-hand the resilience of their people and left with an ingrained appreciation of their desire to regain the territorial integrity of their country.
From a national perspective, our party has proudly played our part in support of Ukraine.
We have not and will not be found wanting on defence of their sovereignty.
We didn’t bow to terrorism on this side of Europe and nor shall we bow to international terrorism on the other.
It should be no surprise that the only MPs from Northern Ireland to be sanctioned personally by Russia are DUP MPs.
Sammy, Gregory, Paul, Jim and I are proud of our stance and will continue undeterred.
And colleagues – We Stand with Israel. No nuance. No equivocation.
We believe Israel has the right to defend her boarders.
We believe in Israel’s right to exist;
Free from terrorism;
Free from genocide;
Free from the brutality witnessed during the last week.
We pray for the restoration of peace and will continue to call out those who preach human rights yet seemingly struggle to condemn slaughter, rape or torture just because the victim wears a Star of David.
Faith should have no bearing on the principles of peace and justice, democracy and the rule of law.
Those principles are worth defending and to that end, our Party proudly stands up for our Armed Forces at home and abroad.
As Northern Irelands only member of the Defence Select Committee, I am proud we secured a UK wide duty on the Armed Forces Covenant.
No longer can a Northern Ireland Minister respond, through pure sectarianism, to say the Armed Forces Covenant doesn’t apply here.
It should; and as a direct result of our party efforts, it does.
I’m delighted that our party now has a renewed team of Armed Forces Champions across councils and am assured of their willingness to highlight, support and promote our brave personnel and veterans across Northern Ireland.
Northern Irelands contribution to the Defence of our Realm remains significantly higher than our population and just as servicemen and women from across our Province honour us, we too must honour them.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Across a whole host of sectors, we both benefit from and contribute to the greater sum of our parts.
In sport, music, industry, academia, politics, film and the arts, you will see and hear Northern Irelands influence.
It doesn’t take long, moving around London, to know that our wee country is a significant part of our big country.
Families spread throughout the length and breadth of the UK;
Jobs deployed throughout the UK;
Holidays enjoyed throughout the UK;
Networks linked throughout the UK;
And memories made throughout the UK.
We are you.
You are us and together, we benefit from one another.
Conference, as we lead for Unionism, we should never lose sight of our ultimate aim.
In cherishing what we inherit, it is our responsibility to build a better, stronger Northern Ireland and in turn, a better, stronger United Kingdom.
As any Game of Thrones fan will know, Winter is coming but let’s never forget that Spring is never far behind.
With a renewed sense of determined optimism, I know that Together, we can succeed.