Northern Ireland

DUP and Sinn Fein 'cancel each other out': Nesbitt

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has said people want more than a government dominated by two parties who cancel each other out.

Mr Nesbitt used his first annual conference speech to propose a reduction in the number of Stormont departments.

But he said that would not mean putting civil servants on the dole.

At the conference on Saturday he repeated the UU call for an official opposition at Stormont.

All the DUP and Sinn Fein do is cancel each other out without fear of being replaced, he said.

The leader proposed cutting the number of Stormont departments from 12 to 8, but said that would not mean a taking a knife to civil service jobs.

At the conference at Belfast's Titanic Centre on Saturday, Mr Nesbitt stressed the UUP was not a religious group nor a party for Protestants, but was pluralist and progressive.

"I'm appealing today to Protestants, to Catholics, to Jews and Muslims, to members of all faiths and none.

"Men, women, urban, rural - Chinese, Indian, eastern European - this appeal is to everyone."

He invited people who were in favour of the union but had no party to vote for to support the UUP. His party was, he said, "a credible alternative".

Mr Nesbitt said he wanted to target sectarianism, multiple deprivation and poverty.

The former broadcaster touched on his personal life when he revealed that his father was 49 years old when the family's linen business was blown up.

"It was the last day he got out of bed with a true sense of purpose in his life," he said.

"Every day I meet people, particularly young people, who are looking for a sense of purpose in their lives, but are denied it, through lack of employment, poor education and health and the lack of a decent home.

"That's the challenge of political leadership I have set myself."

He called for a single system of education in Northern Ireland as a step towards a more normal society.

He also said he wanted "normal government", with "common sense" at its heart.

He focussed on child poverty in Northern Ireland, which, he said was worse than when devolution was achieved.

And he said that for too many people, Northern Ireland's Troubles had given rise to nothing but lost opportunities.

"The legacy of the past is everywhere and emerges most poisonously in sectarianism. If we are going to deal with sectarianism, we must build a shared future," he said.

Mr Nesbitt also reached out to loyalist ex-prisoners, saying they had felt left behind whilst their republican counterparts are at the heart of government.

He said he would help them transform and move forward into community groups.

It is just six months since the former broadcaster won a landslide victory over John McCallister to secure the leadership.

Since then he has tried to improve party discipline with mixed results, falling out along the way with the veteran former MP Lord Ken Maginnis.

The new leader will face an early test when Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness steps down as an MP, which will trigger a by-election in the Mid Ulster constituency.

However, Mr Nesbitt will not guarantee that his party will contest the by-election, leaving open the option of a unionist unity candidate.

The party's only minister Danny Kennedy told the conference that he had listened to local concern about car parking charges and was ready to let councils subsidise and set their own charges in their own car parks.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites