I had the privilege of attending a Mid-Ulster Association meeting in Magherafelt on Thursday 1st April. And so i shall report on what happened (within reason, before any of my friends have heart attacks!).
It struck me as I attended the meeting, I have attended many down through the years, most people would view these meetings almost as esoterical as the Masonic. What do they talk about in there when they are meeting? Is it so secret that nothing can be spoken about it? How do the party members interact? Is it all about politics?
Well, here is my (rather muted and probably boring) exposé of an Ulster Unionist Meeting.
I got a call from a friend who is in the Mid Ulster Ulster Unionist Association who asked me if I would like to come along. After checking with the boss (being a married man with kids, I know my place!) and got clearance. So around 7pm I was picked up and chauffeured to the glorious town of Magherafelt. The meeting hall was opposite the Police Station, so MI5 did not have too far to go to spy on our peculiar political shenanigans.
And now, the science (the boring bit that nearly every formal meeting up and down the land has to go through).
The meeting was opened by the Chair, welcoming everyone to the meeting, then apologies were taken. the Minutes of the last meeting were read and passed We then paid our respects to those how had been bereaved and then the Chair introduced the first speaker of the evening.
Billy Armstrong MLA, Mike Nesbitt and Sandra Overend
This was Sandra Overend, Conservative and Unionist Westminster Candidate for Mid Ulster. I have known Sandra for a number of years now and she is a very capable woman, indeed she is the UUP Woman's Development Officer.
In her talk with us she showed us examples of the literature that will be used, or the stuff we get through our letter box only to shove it neatly into the bin/fire/recycle bins. It was pretty impressive and professional, but whether or not it will make much of a difference going into people's homes, I am not so sure. I am really not sure when last I actually read any political party election literature. I am sure different parties down through the years have been constantly questioning the cost effectiveness of this material. But it is something that parties would probably get criticised for not doing. Its a funny old world.
Sandra got of to a running start that gave us all an idea of how she would run her campaign to be the next MP for Mid Ulster, indeed one that would actually represent the voice of Mid Ulster fully at Westminster (the seat is currently held by our deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness MP MLA. Sinn Fein refuse to participate in the House of Commons on the grounds of refusing to take the oath every MP must take before they can take their seat in the House. A bit like our MLAs having to sign in as either Nationalist, Unionist, or Other)
Sandra spoke about how she had a vision for a positive campaign and was confident in the vision for the future of Northern Ireland taking up its full role in National politics. She was particularly proud of the way the UUP Assembly team stuck to its principles during the vote on Policing and Justice by voting no(where the main argument for voting against it was that, while the UUP did want it devolved, this was not the right time with the Executive not able to function properly). She described herself as having a very keen interest in rural issues, coming from a farming background (her dad is Billy Armstrong, UUP MLA for Mid Ulster and seasoned farmer), education in Mid Ulster - she was concerned about a number of local schools under threat of closure in particular and the shambles education is now in at the hands of Sinn Fein Education Minister, Catriona Ruane.
I was impressed that she recognised that it was going to be a difficult task to get people enthused about politics, in light of the number of scandals relating to the DUP and Sinn Fein locally, and the whole of Parliament in more general terms. She wanted people to get involved and own the electoral and democratic process. She wanted to make it real to people outside of the party and to harness the passion of those within the party. Her main issues for the election are the economy, taxation, and safeguarding rural communities.
After Sandra finished, the next speaker was Mike Nesbitt, Conservative and Unionist Westminster candidate for Strangford (the seat held by the DUP's Iris Robinson, before her resignation earlier in the year due to the Irisgate scandal).
Mike was very polished, as one would expect. Though I was more impressed at how he carried himself politically. Many celebs are very polished after all the pre-broadcast preparation, but put them into another forum and they flounder about like fired jellied eels. Mike was potentially one of those. But I was pleasantly surprised as he seemed more of a natural born orator and politician than I had expected.
Mike really grabbed our attention from the start (yes I know I sound sad, or just a sycophant, but i am going to be biased anyway). He strode confidently into his talk with us by telling us it is a great time for the UUP, even though we have no MP now and an MLA has walked out with Sylvia. It is a great time for the UUP because we have a strong attainable vision and the prize is within grasping distance.
He identified quite well the big issue for the UUP, indeed an issue all parties have, that of dealing with difficult issues (and has the UUP had a few 'difficult' issues to deal with over the past few weeks or so.) He identified the one thing all parties prize as much as power, loyalty. It is always something easily talked about, and reputations can be built or destroyed on people's subjective views on what loyalty actually is. Mike did do the subject justice by identifying what many successful businesses engage in, two way loyalty. The employer owes a loyalty to the employee, and at the same time the employee owes loyalty to the employer. I know this rambling does not really do it justice, but i could begin to get a picture of it all in my head.
Mike wants to help the people of Strangford to wake up on 7 May with a renewed sense of purpose. He spoke of adding value to the constituency as its MP, promoting its assets and potential to those in Westminster and beyond. He emphasised that Strangford, as well as the rest of Northern Ireland, has not yet realised its greatest asset, its people, and he can help invigorate national attention towards Strangford in particular and Northern Ireland as a whole, in order to bring in an economic focus from Westminster and inward investment.
Mike said that there was no plan 'B' for him. he had resigned as a Victim's Commissioner and could not go back. He also highlighted that he was the lone dissenting voice when the Commissioners voted to support the payment to victims.
He further spoke on the issue that these elections are not events, but part of a process. The Conservative and UUP link up is not just for one or two elections. And already the Conservative and Unionists had won three out four elections contested. Not a bad record. This process is to open up doors for the next generation of councillors and MLAs, to draw in capable, skilled and experienced people, people who can make a real difference alongside the experienced UUP councillors and MLAs already there.
Mike said he was deeply disappointed with the complete mess in education and deeply regrets Catriona's obsession to break the bit of education that works, whilst ignoring the bit that does need fixed (The jist seems to be very reflective of my own posting on prep schools).
He also covered the issue of the policing and justice debate by saying that, in principle, the Party is very much behind devolution of such powers, but how is it a good idea to devolve it to an Executive that does not function, or put it into the hands of David Ford who has already prejudged the Saville inquiry before its publication? Is that a good start for the probable new Justice Minister? Mike said the actions of the Ulster Unionist Assembly team was the brave thing to do, it was the right thing to do, and did put the interests of the country before party.
He finished on a rousing note that we had to get the vote out, because the Ulster Unionist Party is back and will be bigger and better.
I have to say the people at the meeting were wonderful, welcoming and very friendly. It helped that I knew a couple of people there but everyone was very open to me.
I went home enthused about politics again (much to the absolute horror of my wife). It is something I enjoy in general, though I am no serious political geek with electoral and policy facts and figures always on the tip of my tongue. I think politics interests me because it is a human trait to be political (not necessarily in electoral terms). It is a natural human activity and helps us define our core values and beliefs by which we judge our own actions and those of others.
I hope this has given people who have much better things to do in their lives than go to little halls to hear the usual political rhetoric an insight into one evening that I gave up to fulfil my constant curiosity to hear others talk politics.