I am delighted to be able to address conference following a three-year absence. It is good to be able to have our full programme of political activities within the Party recommenced.
As the Party’s Director of Elections, working with colleagues across the Party I am determined that we remain focused and ever ready for the election battles ahead.
Let it never be said that elections don’t matter or don’t have consequences. Of course they do and the choices made at the polls determine and shape Northern Ireland’s future.
When the DUP win elections, everyone wins.
We don’t simply pursue a narrow party political agenda; we work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Look what happened in 2017. After an election that resulted in a hung Parliament – we delivered positive change and secured an additional £1 billion through the Confidence and Supply Agreement.
It was the DUP that secured a £165 million broadband scheme that has literally changed lives for those living and working in rural communities.
Every time we see a Fibrus van anywhere across Northern Ireland – we are reminded that because of the DUP, 88,000 homes will have access to superfast broadband, placing Northern Ireland amongst the most connected countries anywhere in the world.
The DUP alone secured an additional £200 million to support health and social care transformation, with 100 million pounds provided to make a more immediate impact on health and education pressures.
We also secured £50m to deliver vital mental health services over a five-year period to people affected right across the Province.
The DUP successfully lobbied for the City and Growth Deals; securing some £1.2 billion capital funding for the next fifteen years to help drive economic growth and prosperity across the various projects in NI
During the course of the last Assembly mandate, it was this Party that led on protecting jobs and livelihoods during the Covid-19 pandemic;
Delivering £286m Economic Recovery Action Plan,
The hugely successful £145m High Street Scheme,
And plans that will move our economy and our country forward.
Working alongside the UK Government we have also ensured that energy support payments, vital during this cost of living crisis, are delivered in the same way, and at the same time, as elsewhere in the UK.
We know that when we make Northern Ireland work, when we make the Union work, everyone wins.
Compare and contrast that to Sinn Fein
Though they played it down, we warned that Sinn Fein in pole position would use the outcome to call for a divisive border poll. The results were barely in when the international champagne popping Mary Lou McDonald was telling the world’s media that it was time for a referendum, and not a day passes without one of their representatives smugly calling for it.
Look around at what Sinn Fein does when they have majority control of local councils. Banning the sale of poppies, refusing to acknowledge unionist culture and offering little recognition of those things that as unionists we cherish.
Even today, when virtually nobody wants to see the end of the grace periods and mitigations, and we want to see the Protocol replaced, Sinn Fein representatives still call for the rigorous implementation of a Protocol that is anathema to unionists.
Of course they are not alone with the choir of Protocol cheerleading Alliance Party.
Stephen Farry, who previously wanted to ban the Linfield strip, also seems intent on fully implementing a Protocol that has added to the cost of living crisis and which has negatively impacted many businesses and crippled consumer choice in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that the Sinn Fein Northern Ireland Leader, Michelle O’Neill, has self styled herself as a ‘First minister for all’.
Behind the spin lie many uncomfortable and ugly truths about Sinn Fein.
From Barry McIlduff mocking the victims of the Kingsmill massacre, countless stories about internal bullying and intimidation, to disgusting sectarian, misogynistic and derogatory social media outbursts, Sinn Fein continues to act only in the interests of themselves.
Michelle O’Neill continues to justify and glorify IRA terrorism; falsely stating that there was no alternative to the bloody and indiscriminate violence of the Provisional IRA.
Sinn Fein blocked a victims pension scheme, simply because a handful of convicted IRA terrorists would have been excluded.
Despite their outcries now, it was SF who blocked the formation of an Executive - not because of an issue that impacts everyone - but in their pursuit of their narrow agenda.
Two elected representatives pocketed COVID money when they knew they shouldn’t have received it.
At Stormont, Sinn Fein couldn’t bring themselves to demonstrate respect to unionists by allowing a commemorative stone to be placed in the grounds of Parliament Buildings.
And let us not forget that during the Covid pandemic, when DUP Ministers were delivering millions of pounds worth of vital financial support to struggling businesses, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy claimed that he had secured a joint PPE order with the Irish Republic - a claim dismissed by the Irish Government and a demonstration of incompetence and untruths.
But worst of all, at a time when many of us sacrificed so much to abide by the lockdown rules, missing out of precious family moments, Sinn Fein organised a mass public funeral for former IRA man Bobby Storey, and Michelle O’Neill walked front and centre of the procession.
So of course, elections matter. How we vote matters.
This year’s Assembly election was heralded as a huge success for nationalism. Calls for a border poll intensified.
But let’s look at the reality.
In 1998, the combined vote share for nationalism was 39.9%.
In 2022? It was 39.4%.
Sinn Fein didn’t gain any seats. Nationalism lost more seats than unionism.
What changed? A fragmented unionist vote.
We need to understand that division within unionism comes at a cost to unionism. It is not risk free and today we see the consequences of that.
So let us redouble our efforts to get that message out – to convince people of the merits of the union, to promote the positive case for the Union and to commit to working with fellow unionists to maximise co-operation and influence.
I want to thank each and everyone one of you for your help during the election campaign in May.
Despite the predictions of the end of the DUP we were returned as the largest unionist party and the undisputed voice of Unionism.
We were saddened by the loss of Mervyn and Peter from the Assembly team. I am pleased to say we are already at an advanced stage to make us “campaign ready” to target those areas and retake those seats.
We deeply appreciate the time that is given up to knock doors, put up posters, label envelopes and convince your friends and family to vote. It is vitally important as we seek to maximise our vote.
Our party members are the backbone of our party. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do, if you didn’t do what you do.
So thank you for all your work and effort. It isn’t forgotten and it isn’t taken for granted.
Preparations are advancing for the Local Government election in May 2023 when we will fight for seats in the eleven councils across Northern Ireland. Our Council representatives are critical to our party and they are often the first port of call for constituents.
The DUP has prided itself on its strong community based representation in councils across Northern Ireland and for speaking up for hard pressed ratepayers.
When others engage in squander and waste the DUP has been to the fore in standing strong and defending the rate –payer.
In our 2019 local government manifesto we committed to delivering more play parks across Northern Ireland with accessible equipment for children with disabilities. It is yet another example of delivering to make a real difference in the lives of those whom we serve.
Within the next few weeks we will be moving to the latter stages of our local council candidates selection processes. I can say with confidence that we will be able to field a strong team of candidates with that comprise a mixture of old and new, experience and youth and vitally a team that will have the necessary skill-set to work hard for the communities they will endeavour to represent.
We will work hard for every vote at that election as we build our presence across the Province. To those councillors stepping down I place on record my thanks for their labours and efforts, some over many years, and I look forward to them continuing to play an active role within the membership of the Party.
Today I can also announce that we are election ready if the Secretary of State decides to move forward with a further Assembly poll. We will take our message to the people and campaign for their support on this most vital of issues.
Conference, our message is clear; without decisive action on the Protocol, and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK fully restored there is no basis to re-enter the Executive.
We do not fear an election should the Government so decide. If the government believe that an election, or a threat of an election, will influence how we judge the issue of the Protocol they are badly advised and they underestimate our resolve.
Of course, there is an alternative: Get the Protocol sorted - not with short term fudges and mitigations - but with arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom internal market.
As each week passes, we see again and again the impact that it is having.
A 25% tariff on steel.
An inability to cut VAT on energy bills.
No vat relief on energy saving technologies.
Businesses drowned in paperwork.
Huge additional costs for haulage companies.
Unwarranted and unreasonable checks.
Uncertainty sourcing medicines and veterinary medicines.
Environmental health officers removing noodles from shops
Northern Ireland consumers excluded from the full benefits of new UK trade deals.
And remember this is during a time of limited implementation.
Imagine if the grace periods were gone and if we had full implementation. What would happen?
Last year, the Financial Times reported that one big UK supermarket chain had estimated that imposing full controls on mixed loads of products heading to Northern Ireland could mean seven million additional documents a year to maintain its current delivery levels. For little over 2% of the UK market?
The European Commission has even demanded that passengers from Great Britain be stopped when they enter Northern Ireland and have their personal luggage searched to check for some of the most basic foods. More madness.
Sometimes standing up to this insanity has been a lonely pursuit. Other parties don’t understand or simply don’t care about the damage that could be inflicted to our economy and way of life.
But it is not just unionist businesses and consumers that have been and will be impacted, everyone is.
And I am glad that slowly but surely others are moving towards our position.
Other parties here in Northern Ireland have now called for the existing mitigations and grace periods to not only continue, but to be made permanent.
The UK Government too has belatedly accepted the folly of the Protocol; but what we now need is action following the command paper and Protocol Bill.
Even Leo Varadkar, said this week that he thought the protocol was maybe a little too strict! In other news he also declared the sun is hot, the moon is far away and the pope is a catholic!
We will not allow Northern Ireland to be a pawn in the EU’s game. We will not allow the Irish Government to stoke fears of violence as a reason to ignore unionist concerns. And we will stand strong for those people who want to see a fair and lasting outcome.
We believe solutions can be found.
We believe the integrity of the UK internal market can be restored.
We believe that we can be good neighbours both to our friends in the Republic of Ireland and the European Union.
Let’s make sure that we act on our responsibility, not just to deal with the present challenges that we face but also to grasp the opportunities that will make for a better future.
Unlike Sinn Fein, who speak of unity but sow division, we want to see Northern Ireland work for everyone.
We know Northern Ireland is a great place –
A great place to live
A great place to work
A great place to visit
And a great place to invest
We are here today not just because we love Northern Ireland, and want to maintain it and its position within the UK, but because we are ambitious for this place too.
And we have a plan to make Northern Ireland even better.
A place where young people have boundless opportunity.
Where everyone is respected and valued.
Where everyone, regardless of their background, feels at home.
An ever peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.
That is the prize that is in front of us.
That is what we must do to secure the Union.
That is what we must do together.
And that is what we will do.