The Ulster Unionist Party held a reception on the terrace of Westminster last night to celebrate its return to House of Commons.
The event marked last year’s electoral success for the party, when Tom Elliott won Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Danny Kinahan won South Antrim.
Both men were among the many politicians at the reception, which brought together representatives of numerous parties, business people and people from the voluntary sector.
The UUP has been waiting a year to get a date for the House of Commons terrace, which is a coveted location for receptions, between the Houses of Parliament buildings and the River Thames.
Around 200 people attended the event, which was addressed by speakers including the Tory MP Hugo Swire, a former NIO minister, and the secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
In her comments to the audience, Ms Villiers said of the UUP: “They had to makes some very difficult choices and compromises [at the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement] but Northern Ireland is a far better place for the work that they did.”
She said that we “should all be deeply grateful” for that achievement and she wished the party “well in your continued years in office”.
Mr Swire said it was good to see the Ulster Unionists back at Westminster, which was absent from 2010 after its sole MP Sylvia Hermon left the party to 2015.
Vernon Coaker, Labour’s Northern Ireland spokesman, got laughs from the crowd when he told the UUP: “If you want advice on opposition, I can help you.”
He said that Mike Nesbitt had been “a refreshing leader” and that “Danny and Tom have worked extremely hard”.
Mr Kinahan said: “Tom and I would not be here if it hadn’t been for Mike.”
He said that Mr Nesbitt had “pulled the party together, and gave us the basis to be here”.
Mr Nesbitt in his comments said that it was a reception for Mr Kinahan and Mr Elliott.
He had been confident that both would win their election contests last year.
“I knew Tom could take the most westerly seat of the UK from an abstentionist MP.”
He said that in the recent Assembly election the party had achieved its first objective, holding its 16 seats, but was disappointed not to move to the second, grow its number of MLAs.
They had to accept that more unionist voters said what we care about more is who is First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
It was the first Stormont opposition since 1972, “and the first to be led by unionism”, he said.
“I am proud of my team, we will do well.”
Addressing an audience that included the MPs Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan, he also said that he looked forward to good relationship with that party.
Mr Nesbitt said the wanted Northern Ireland to aspire to be net contributors to the UK economy.
He had come to Great Britain in 1976 to go to university, when it was a difficult time to be from NI. Now it was a much more optimistic time.
Later in the reception, Mr Elliott told the News Latter: “It is a huge and varied group of people. People from academia, business, the community, legal, education and so on.”
He said that it had taken him “a while to get established and find my way round Westminster”.
“Now that I have done that I am enjoying it and the processes and seeing decisions taken quickly.
Asked about the UUP going into opposition, Mr Elliott said: “In the longer term it will be good for Northern Ireland. It gives a whole new perspective to politics.”
Lord Empey said that he became leader after the UUP lost all but one of its MPs in 2005, before Sylvia Hermon later defected.
“We didn’t count as a party in Westminster after that. One MP doesn’t count. Having a second MP opens up all range of possibilities. It is your recognition as part of the system.”
Asked about opposition at Stormont, he told the News Letter: “We are under no illusions that it is a big challenge. Having been part of an executive for quite a number of years myself, I know that the DUP and SF do not understand or empathise with the partnership model that was at the core of the BA.
“They see it as a shared-out government rather than a shared government.”
Guests last night included Lord Bew, David Trimble, Colonel Bob Stewart MP (Cons), Stephen Hepburn MP (Labour) and many business people ranging from
Howard Hastings to Marco Pagni of Boots.
Chris Howe, head of buildings procurement at Heathrow airport (which spends £1.7 billion annually on construction and operations) said: “We are hear to reach out and to share some of the opportunity that Heathrow has to offer.”