Mike Nesbitt has paid tribute to Northern Ireland’s “long and proud” contribution to the armed forces at the Ulster Unionist Party’s spring conference/AGM.
Addressing the delegates on Saturday in the Hilton Hotel, Templepatrick, the UUP leader celebrated the decision of highly-decorated army officer, Captain Doug Beattie MC, to join the party, and also rounded on Edwin Poots for his handling of the health service.
“We have a long and proud tradition of service in the armed forces – from the greatest of great generals to the thousands upon thousands of foot soldiers who signed up for the service and sacrifice that united the peoples of this island 100 years ago this year on the outbreak of the Great War,” Mr Nesbitt said.
“I invite others, who like Doug Beattie have service in their DNA, to join us.”
In a scathing criticism of the health minister’s performance, Mr Nesbitt questioned why patients were again reported to be waiting for excessive periods on trolleys in A&E departments.
“I cannot tell you how I would react if my mother had to wait over 24 hours for a bed in one of our National Health Service hospitals.
“What is the point of government if we cannot get that fundamental right?” he said.
Describing the health minister as a “major disappointment”, the UUP leader added: “What is the point when families wonder if their loved ones died because of what did and did not happen after they entered what we all have the right to expect to be the sanctuary of an acute hospital’s Accident & Emergency unit?”
With less than two months until the European and local council elections, Mr Nesbitt said: “I question myself on a daily basis. I lie awake at night, doing the same thing: ‘Am I doing what’s right for the people of Northern Ireland?’.”
Membership of the European Union has “encroached on our sovereignty” and should be the subject of a UK-wide referendum, the UUP leader told his party’s spring conference.
Mr Nesbitt said the party’s sitting MEP Jim Nicholson remained the best person to represent Northern Ireland in Europe.
In his own address to the delegates, Mr Nicholson said he also supported a referendum on EU membership.
Mr Nicholson said the EU had some positive aspects as well as the negative – including “significant levels of funding for innovation, for infrastructure, for community groups and of course for our farm businesses and rural communities”.
But he added: “As the debate on the merits and drawbacks of our membership of the European Union continues one thing for sure is that Northern Ireland is better off as part of a union with England, Wales and of course Scotland.”