UUP manifesto - education "the priority"
This week the Ulster Unionists became the latest party to release a manifesto ahead of May’s Assembly elections.
It is an interesting document, probably the most progressive the UUP have produced, which might be a bid to draw clean lines between themselves and the DUP (and TUV) to capitalise on the significant apathy amongst Northern Irish voters, particularly the young.
Or, perhaps, it might just be a collection of policies they think are the best possible for NI.
Most interesting is education, described as “the” priority for the party, for which they have some bold suggestions.
Firstly they say they want to educate children together – de facto integration, although their choice of words for the development of shared education as far as possible, to a system that “is ‘integrated’ in all but name”. At the same time, they want to largely remove the religious control over school sectors.
The party also wants to evolve, rather than abolish or maintain, academic selection – with decisions made at aged 11 based on continuous assessment (without really detailing what that might entail), and also a tentative proposal to extend the Dickson Plan, currently in place in North Armagh, where selection takes place at age 14.
The manifesto itself actually comes after a number of issue papers the party has release over the past few weeks, on a far-from-exhaustive list of subjects that seems designed to push the right buttons with voters and the media.
Book Buddies (an expansion on reading programmes for early years children), animal welfare, appreciation for the arts and the benefits they bring, cancer care, the knowledge economy, support for the armed forces and veterans, much better provision for mental health and wellbeing, and also a civic call to arms for a better Northern Ireland.
The main manifesto itself identifies several themes and they and their contents are outlined below.
Change, or more of the same – at once a call for a different Stormont, with a traditional opposition and more effective oversight, such as perhaps a second chamber, and also a criticism of DUP/Sinn Fein hegemony over the previous two mandates; a desire to remain within the EU; more open government; a reform of “outdated” defamation law.
Health – a huge focus is placed on improvements in mental health provision (which has been a UUP mainstay for the past couple of years); a desire to “reignite” Transforming Your Care is stated explicitly, and also hinted in in many of their other aims, such as planning for an ageing population – but then perhaps contradicted when the document says:
“Decisions about the future of the health service must be made on the sole consideration of what is best for patient outcomes and wellbeing, rather than focus inflexibly on buildings and organisational charts. Besides, too much time has been given to the flawed assumption that if hospital sites close it would free up endless resources to use elsewhere. It won’t, the savings would be negligible given that the single biggest cost is staff salaries and everyone agrees we need more, not less of them. Rather we want to shift the focus to providing the best quality of care and we believe hospitals across the network are best placed to respond, such as through the regionalisation of services, whilst also being there to respond to the emergency needs of local people.”
There is also mention of prevention, such as addressing better general health, minimum pricing for alcohol, and a sugar tax.
Education – as well as the changes outlined above, greater provision for literacy and numeracy schemes, “targeted interventions” to improve results in areas of low performance in secondary schools (rather than a comprehensive system), and also investment in third level education with a view on how it will affect the economy.
The economy – the party talks about creating circumstances in which the economy can thrive, mentioning childcare provision, implementation of the dormant Economic Inactivity Strategy, provide extra support for manufacturing, greater use of our natural and renewable energy resources and, unsurprisingly, a lower rate of corporation tax.
Environment – mitigate against climate change by meeting EU targets on carbon emissions, protection of local habitats, species and woodlands, and maximise the economic benefits of our environment.
Infrastructure – a two-tiered plan towards a modern transport infrastructure – implementing plans for short- and medium-term benefits, while also taking a blank-page approach towards the Northern Ireland we would like to see by 2050 - including active travel and cycling support.
Housing – make housing demand led, with better regulations for building homes generally, and a commitment to build 10,000 more social houses by 2021, and tackle fuel poverty.
Supporting our agri-food industry – not only to invest in agri-food, with help from the Department for the Economy, but also try and boost this through tourism as well; reduce farming bureaucracy and also tackle price volatility.
The Arts – the party is keen to talk up the twin benefits of the arts – both as an end in and of themselves, and also as an economic investment, and wants to develop a ten-year strategy and also see arts as part of the next Programme for Government.
Justice – keen to see paramilitaries sidelined, are critical of senior DUP figures and their previous involvement with the Ulster Resistance; change the nature of prison to something that is rehabilitative while also talking about “tougher” sentencing; attempt to find a consensus on dealing with the past.
Supporting communities – a collegiate and liberal approach to ensuring inter-community harmony, including with immigrants (with the party talking up the benefits of immigration to Northern Ireland); they also want to work against other discrimination, such as that based on age or sexuality; furthermore, dealing with the past – and also present, in terms of cultural expression – is also stated as an aim herein.
Northern Ireland’s centenary – ahead of the centenary in five years, they want to see planning for a People Park at a venue to be chosen (while suggesting the Titanic Quarter), as well as six permanent, sustainable developments, one in each county, to be “shaped via consultation with our children”.
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