PUP Conference encouraged to be self-critical; recognises another marginalised community & adopts pro-Equal Marriage policy

The PUP conference left Belfast this year and headed to Brownlow House in Lurgan.

More motions, more members speaking up to propose or support those motions, more women, more men in suits and ties, more delegates than recent years with lots of new faces from the new Mid-Ulster branch. If was a conference that valued protest but was told to concentrate more on politics. Co-operation and cross-party dialogue was necessary to deliver solutions.

PUP Belfast city councillor Dr John Kyle suggested:

It feels like ground hog day. Our parliamentary democracy has ground to a halt and those pressing issues of education and jobs and health have been parked. Nobody is making decisions. All action has almost dried up. We’re adrift and there’s no wind …

Parity of esteem has become a bit like Lord Lucan. Everybody knows what he looks like but nobody’s seen him. Everybody knows what parity of esteem should feel like but very few loyalists feel it.

His speech began with some familiar themes: loyalism being scapegoated and stereotyped; the Good Friday Agreement promise of “just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities” and because that hasn’t happened justifies why the PUP has “not just supported the protests but participated in them and if necessary has led them”. Cultural expression was absolutely integral to political identity and Sinn Fein were trying to deny this.

Protesting at injustices was not enough. To show leadership the PUP needed “to be the architects of the solution” to “the problems that we’re in”.

We need not just be the guardians of our legacy. We also need to point people to the future. We need to create a vision of what this place could be like … a future that is just, peaceful, prosperous and rewarding … achieving a confident loyalism.

John Kyle said he admired David Ervine’s ability to be self-critical: it would be easy for the PUP to know how they’d like Sinn Fein to change to create a fair and just future; but it was “much more challenging to look at ourselves and see where we need to change”.

The PUP are opposed to sectarianism and John Kyle also laid down challenges to delegates.

It’s unnecessary for our bands to play provocatively outside catholic chapels. We don’t need to do that. It’s unnecessary to abuse republican politicians … Poverty is poverty whether it’s on the Shankill Road or the Falls Road. We’re not opposed to Protestant poverty, we’re opposed to poverty. We’re not opposed to Protestant unemployment, we’re opposed to unemployment. Unemployment is a curse and wherever it is in our country or our city we are working to get rid of it.

Sectarianism is looking after yourself and if we act only in narrow self interest then morally we’re bankrupt. Sectarianism is corrosive and damaging to our communities and we don’t need it. We’re a party that’s dedicated to an anti-sectarian, equitable, pluralist society.

John Kyle suggested that “showing generosity to our opponents is how to disarm them”.

Despite what Newton Emerson, Chris Ryder and other media hacks say, we will not give cover, excuse or justification for criminality from whatever quarter it comes. Instead we are committed to working for the common good.

Previous PUP conferences have listened to guest speeches like from Denis Bradley and Matt Baggott. This year’s critical friend was Irish News editor Noel Doran who had been asked to speak about what the PUP needed to do to be taken seriously by readers of the Irish News.

While couched in a good deal of humour and wrapped up in a lot of sporting references, Noel Doran’s speech included a range of suggestions for the party.

Irish News editor Noel Doran speaking at PUP conferenceHe pointed to nationalism becoming pragmatic about the border (reducing the drive from Belfast to Dublin down to 90 minutes might be “nationalisms greatest achievement in living memory”) and asked whether unionism and the PUP needed to be a little more philosophical about flags and parades.

I know how important symbols and emblems are to many people in the protestant, unionist and loyalist tradition. The image of the union flag coming down from Belfast City Hall clearly caused major upheaval. I’m also aware it was the two larger unionist parties rather than the PUP which coordinated the leaflet campaign against the Alliance Party, which in retrospect I think has to be regarded as a pretty shabby episode which had serious consequences …

Taking to the streets to restore the status quo I feel may have missed a key point: the vote that caused all the fuss in Belfast City Hall was a democratic one and the switch in the balance of power on the council which made that possible came about because Alliance worked exceptionally hard on the ground and won a series of seats, not just through first preference votes but through lower preference transfers. And that enabled it to switch the balance of power at the City Hall.

The PUP could emulate this, and learn from the organisation of Alliance.

On parading, Noel Doran reminded delegates that unionists had the opportunity to replace the Parades Commission during the Hillsborough 2010 negotiations. Unionism could come up with agreed alternative proposals and then seek consensus from the other parties. The PUP’s involvement in this would be “taken seriously by Irish News readers”.

The PUP is a relatively small group. But it was able to influence the dramatic outcome of the East Belfast parliamentary election of 2010 and the victory of Naomi Long. Some people think that Peter Robinson has never managed to get over that setback and would put regaining that seat for the DUP almost ahead of every other consideration which is out there.

There’s also going to be a pretty tight contest in North Belfast the next time round and a small number of votes from the PUP or elsewhere could prove decisive in that constituency as well. There seems to be an assumption out there that your party is inevitably going to endorse the DUP on both fronts. But I’m sure as many of you have realised, you’re in a very decent bargaining position. You’re in a position that could go well beyond flags and parades if you were to use that opportunity to push for investment in social areas in both those constituencies in a way that would benefit residents in both sides of the divide many people would start to regard the PUP in a very different way.

PUP members could learn from and about the GAA, an organisation that Noel Doran said was less based on politics and more about pride in people’s own areas, towns and counties.

After his speech, Noel Doran told me that this was the first party conference he’d spoken at and summarised some of his main points.

After morning coffee, conference returned to debate a pro-Equal Marriage policy motion proposed by Julie-Ann Corr and seconded by Billy Drummond. Julie Ann’s impassioned and well-delivered speech channelled the spirit of ex-party leader Dawn Purvis and was one of the few moments when the party conference left the arena of  PUL  identity politics. She explained the difference between civil marriages and civil partnerships and called on delegates to be progressive and continue the party’s long history of supporting equality.

Julie-Ann Corr successfully proposing Equal Marriage policy to PUP conferenceShe explained that “religious and civil marriages both exclude the LBGT community” and outlined differences she saw between civil marriages and civil partnerships including that any subsequent name changes can only happen by deed poll. Pension payouts on death are limited: civil partners only entitled to pension from the data of the civil partnership, a limitation not in force for married couples. Adultery is only applicable in the dissolving of a marriage and not in a civil partnership.

As a single lesbian woman … I can adopt a child as long as I do not commit to my partner.

Julie-Ann Corr reminded delegates that “loyalism itself is an under-represented and marginalised section of society … this is no different for other minority groups”. The party should be “battling for equality for all issues for all citizens”. Like many other speakers, she quoted from the Principles of Loyalism, adding that the same rights should granted across the UK .

As a young child I grew up and watched our elected unionist parties fight for my British rights and long felt a sense of pride. Now I watch these same elected parties oppose my human rights and that pride is crushed. This has led me to the door of the PUP, the progressive party, the party that has been ahead of its time since its inception in the 1970s.

Julie-Ann’s speech received loud applause.

Delegates who spoke up from the floor were mostly in favour of the motion. One delegate said that the motion was an opportunity to decide if they were a “progressive unionist party” or “just a poor man’s DUP”.

Another delegate said he a difficulty with marriage not being between a man/woman, but on basic of equality he could not vote against the motion.

Former leader Brian Ervine expressed his fear that churches would be discriminated against by European Court if the LGB community challenged ministers who wouldn’t marry same sex couples. His belief was that “same sex marriage is a tautology” and would not support the motion.

A delegate says she had a difficulty with the motion beforehand but had been swayed by Julie-Ann Corr’s speech and would now vote to support it.

Votes were counted and the motion passed into PUP policy with 58 votes for and 36 votes against (from a largely silent minority). Talking to people afterwards, it doesn’t feel like the PUP will lose any members over the vote – democractic decisions are respected within the party.

Billy Hutchinson speechAfter lunch Billy Hutchinson took to the podium to deliver his third annual speech as party leader, this time entitled “a confident outward-facing unionism”. Half the length of previous years, it largely dealt with generalities rather than addressing specific recent events or situations.

Working class unionist communities are struggling to find any semblance of the much-vaunted peace dividend. High unemployment, social exclusion, poor housing and high levels of deprivation underpinned by an education system which has consistently failed working class unionist young people and serves only to condemn future generations to the same spiral of unmet need, draining hope from working class communities … They deserve better …

Billy Hutchinson used the speech to address criticisms from some that he’s moved away from the principles of the party.

This party’s challenge is to continue to find ways to change the political atmosphere to one of inclusivity and equal citizenship … As a unionist I want some of that equality because I haven’t found it yet.

He accused republicans of “constantly using the past to make gains and force concessions in present day politics”.

We must not point score on the past. We must protect its integrity as a warning to the present and future generations that violence is not the way to go. It is counterproductive and only marginalises working class unionists further.

He referred to the party’s paper Transforming The Legacy which “established important minimum conditions for engagement with any meaningful conversation about reconciliation and dealing with the legacy of the conflict”.

The Eames/Bradley report talks of ‘moral symmetry’ in dealing with the past. This is very important since any process of reconciliation cannot be seen as merely an extension of the power struggles which existed throughout the conflict. A genuine process of reconciliation should not be preoccupied with point-scoring but should be about coming to terms with what conflict did and is continuing to do to lives in Northern Ireland. It should be a social and not a political process. The major difficulty is designing any process that all sectors are comfortable with. We have already seen how difficult the task will be with the reaction to the Eames/Bradley report. In fairness Eames/Bradley consulted widely and [their] outcomes should perhaps have been given more consideration.

Billy Hutchinson said that the NI Assembly “was supposed to give expression to local concerns and opinions [but] our opinions are not being heard, they are masked by the language of a peace process that has not delivered for our people”.

Sinn Fein’s grassroots policy today is to divide and conquer, separate Ulster loyalism from wider British unionism. The vilification of the Orange Order this summer and the aftermath of the flag decision when unionists were asked for leadership and loyalists were given the blame offers a glimpse into their agenda.

He said that Sinn Fein’s “current strategy undermines the overarching spirit of the Belfast Agreement that they widely lament”.

Personally speaking I believe that Sinn Fein’s preoccupation with flags and emblems is more to do with wanting to remove any visible sign of their failure to break the link with Britain that it has to do with republican ideals. Having lost the constitutional battle they have resorted to agitating for the removal of symbols that remind them of the failure. British symbols are a stark reminder that after a sustained campaign to break the union, Northern Ireland remains British and that is hard for nationalists to stomach. The removal of those symbols from public buildings may help to alleviate the pain of failure. But it is nothing for nationalists to be jubilant about or for unionists to be despondent about.

The rest of his speech walked in turn through the four Principles of Loyalism: http://www.pupni.com/news/principles-of-loyalism/ Material well-being of Ulster; Civil & Religious Freedom; Equal citizenship within the UK; Use of unarmed resistance.

On the right to protest …

People are entitled to protest and parade. We have also supported that right to make a protest even when it was against us.

On Sinn Fein …

I’m telling you that [Sinn Fein] have moved away from the spirit of the letter of [the Belfast Agreement] and you have done so for your own selfish reasons. You have put yourselves and your party before your country. Your hunger for power has left the rest of us politically malnourished. But because there is no way of registering that, no opposition in the local Assembly, we feel ourselves with out a voice.

He referenced the party’s long time policy of “Sharing Responsibility”.

Billy Hutchinson called on party members to “be magnanimous to those with a different political aspiration which is currently unobtainable and dispel the perception that unionism is equated with negativity” and asked them “not to consider expressions of Irishness … a threat” and to differentiate them from republicanism.

Other motions addressed education, combating illegal drugs, the shortage of social housing (some of the new housing in The Village is affordable if you’re on the dole but not if you’re in low paid work without housing benefits) and the Military Covenant (including details of talks with ex-Minister of State Mike Penney). And the PUP Youth movement (18-30) presented their ongoing work to study historical political documents (from both republican and loyalist movements) as well as plans for literacy training.

PUP Youth

The final motion called for the PUP to work with other parties and unionist organisations to obtain a “unity of focus” (rather than actual unionist unity). The proposer suggested that fragmentation amongst pro and anti-agreement unionists led to antagonism that was at times as bad as between unionism and republicanism.

Party delegates also received an update on election preparations. The PUP didn’t launch their Euro candidate at conference: their selection convention hasn’t yet come to a decision. But plans were outlined to recruit and train candidates for council, and members were encouraged to be consistent in how they shaded party policies on the doorstep and to be careful with social media.

The UVF weren’t explicitly name-checked by any of the speakers during the six hour conference, not even Noel Doran. Issues of criminality and drugs were addressed, but not the paramilitary group most closely associated with the PUP. During the coffee breaks, delegates did however freely talk about their views and were consistently critical of potential UVF activity.

Amongst the articulation of the issues facing loyalism, there was a more inclusive tone from the top table, wanting issues to be seen without political or cultural demarcation – eg, dealing with poverty and unemployment across the board rather than in one community. However this inclusivity wasn’t often reflected in contributions from the delegates.

The PUP definitely seems to be better organised and less chaotic than a year or two ago. The fresh faces will be tested at the next elections. Bandsmen in the room will have to reflect on John Kyle’s call to omit provocative playing in sensitive areas.

I usually find PUP conferences to be full of upbeat messages that aren’t translated into public action in the weeks and months that follow. If the party and its leader are serious, then they need to be seen to work across traditional divides, highlight working class issues in all communities and leverage their influence to justify the votes they want at the council elections. They’ll be tested a lot sooner that next year’s conference (which I predict will be in Mid Ulster and seriously suggest should have Declan Kearney as the guest speaker).

And if loyalism is marginalised, then standing up for other marginalised groups should be part of PUP activity. Saturday’s conference took an important step and recognised the LGB community. There are other minority groups that the PUP could wholeheartedly be seen to support – good news as well as an opportunity to put the oft-quoted Principles of Loyalism into action.

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