Owen Paterson MP: The preparations are well under way for an historic Conservative election campaign in Northern Ireland
We have made a great deal of progress over the past year in Northern Ireland in achieving our main objectives. These are to develop our relationship with the Ulster Unionists, offer national politics to people in Northern Ireland, support the political process, help to make devolution work and establish ourselves as an alternative to Labour that can deliver the change Northern Ireland needs.
Last December, in a hugely successful speech to the Ulster Unionist conference, David Cameron set out our vision for bringing Northern Ireland back into the mainstream of United Kingdom politics. He voiced his determination to end the situation whereby people could only vote for local parties, who could never form the government let alone have ministers in it. He declared his intention to offer voters a dynamic new political and electoral force of Conservatives and Unionists.
Since then, things have moved forward. In February, both the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland and the Ulster Unionists agreed to establish a Joint Committee to oversee our campaigns for the European and Westminster elections. This has continued to meet regularly ever since. At the European elections in June, Jim Nicholson was elected as the Conservatives and Unionists candidate with the highest vote of any pro-union candidate. He is now a full member of the Conservative group in the European Parliament. We are now the only party with MEPs in every part of the United Kingdom.
Our next big task is the general election. A procedure for selecting candidates is in place and this is underway. Each party will short-list candidates who will be put before the Joint Committee consisting of representatives of the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists. Every candidate will ultimately have to have the endorsement of the Committee and be ratified by David Cameron and [UUP leader} Sir Reg Empey.
In addition, we have a new campaign headquarters established in the centre of Belfast. This is staffed by senior officials from the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists. Our aim is to run the most modern, sophisticated and innovative campaign that Northern Ireland politics has ever seen. Our parties are working increasingly closely together and this year we are welcoming many Ulster Unionists from across their membership to our Conference and we are delighted that Sir Reg is winding up the Union Session in Manchester tomorrow morning.
There should be no doubt: every candidate at the next election will be standing on an agreed manifesto and if elected, Conservatives and Unionists from Northern Ireland will take the Conservative Whip and will be full members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party at Westminster. They will have the same rights and responsibilities as Conservatives elected in England, Scotland and Wales. Like them, they will be eligible to serve as ministers in a Conservative Government.
We are attracting new talent. Last month the Alliance Party candidate for the European elections, Ian Parsley, joined the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland. Ian is now running the Northern Ireland arm of the Centre for Social Justice and in the coming months he is writing a major report on “Breakdown Belfast” identifying ways of improving the lives of many of the most deprived and sadly neglected, parts of the community.
It is important, too, that we bring into politics people who might have been put off by the sectarian squabbling of the past. Make no mistake – the Conservatives and Unionists are a modern, compassionate and inclusive centre-right force that wants to build a shared future for everybody in Northern Ireland. We aim to attract into our ranks people from all parts the community, whatever their ethnic background, religion or gender. Only last week, local Conservatives short-listed Catholic businesswoman, Sheila Davidson, in Lagan Valley, in South Belfast, Peter McCann, a Catholic former BBC producer of Top Gear from West Belfast and in East Belfast, Cllr Deirdre Nelson, who defected from the DUP on Ballymena Council.
The time has come for politics in Northern Ireland to move on and focus on the issues that matter to people in their everyday lives. Of course we support devolution and power sharing at Stormont. David and I have no intention of interfering in devolved matters where Ulster Unionists will continue to take decisions that best suit local needs. Devolution means exactly that, even where Northern Ireland decides to take a separate course from the rest of the country.
We want to see the institutions in Northern Ireland bed-down and develop. David Cameron has made it abundantly clear that he is not in the business of unpicking the agreements of the past number of years. Rather, we want them to work. Any government he leads will always uphold its international obligations. We will continue to work closely with our partners in the Irish and American administrations. However, unlike the current government, we will never be neutral when it comes to expressing our support for the Union.
Northern Ireland has made many great strides forward in recent years but its politics remain stuck in the past. Conservatives and Unionists offer a new choice. At the next election every Conservative and Unionist elected will be one MP closer to getting rid of Gordon Brown, to putting David Cameron into Downing Street and to ending Northern Ireland’s semi-detached status. Then, if we win, we can start delivering the change that Northern Ireland and the whole of our United Kingdom, needs.