I am delighted to be here at our 42nd Alliance Party Conference and to see so many of you, both old friends and new, here with us today.
Annual conferences are milestones on our journey, providing us with the opportunity to both to reflect on the year which has past and to look forward to the year that lies ahead, measuring what we have delivered and looking at where the opportunities for further progress lie.
At our last conference, I was less than a year into my term as Member of Parliament for East Belfast. By then, I had already delivered on our pre-election commitment to end double jobbing between the Assembly and Westminster. We are now one year and another Assembly election on from that point and many who also indicated opposition to that practice pre-election have yet to follow through. Their voting record in Westminster tells its own story.
Over the last year, Westminster has been dealing with issues which will have a profound impact on our constituents, whether that’s how to reduce the deficit whilst stimulating economic growth or how to address fairly and equitably the pensions challenge emerging in light of increasing life expectancy.
The Government’s Welfare Reforms will have far-reaching consequences, and the Assembly will have only limited flexibility to change what has been decided at Westminster.
In that context, I think the people of Northern Ireland need full-time MPs who are focused solely on the job of holding the Government to account and representing their interests in Parliament. Rather than wait for the promised legislation to end dual mandates, we have led by example.
I also had the opportunity, in December, to lead a debate on the importance of East-West cooperation as we embark of a decade of centenaries of contentious events in our shared past.
The period between 1912 and 1922 was one of considerable change and turmoil, which shaped not only Northern Ireland but also the relationships within and between these islands and, sadly, the divisions which were evident during that period also remain largely the basis of the divisions in modern Northern Irish society today: therefore, the manner in which we publicly mark those historic events, which remain both sensitive and emotive, is hugely important to preserving current stability and, more importantly, building a peaceful, stable and shared future going forward.
Handled well, the coming decade has the potential to allow us to explore our past together, aiding understanding through education and discussion, helping us learn from our past and look to how we can create and shape stronger and better relationships and enhance community relations.
By contrast, if handled poorly, it has the potential to be a highly charged and fractious period, marked by deepening antagonism and division within society, playing to and reinforcing centuries old divisions rather than focusing on future progress.
By recognising respectfully our shared and often difficult history, and refusing to be held captive by it, but instead focusing on our interdependent and shared future, we can use this time as a watershed transition between our divided past and our shared future.
The East-West dimension is important to the history of the period and remains important to successfully exploring and commemorating it in the years ahead.
Following that debate and the discussions around it, the Taoiseach when visiting Westminster on St Patrick’s Day, took time with the Secretary of State to visit an exhibition on the Third Home Rule Bill. As those of us who were present at the dinner heard last night, that work between the Irish and British Governments is ongoing.
However, it is not just historic events but also our more recent troubled past which I have been addressing with Government, seeking the comprehensive process to address the past and its legacy in a manner which can deliver a more united and reconciled future for us all.
The round of bilateral talks in which the Secretary of State has been engaged over recent months are as a direct result of that pressure for action, in Westminster and also the Assembly; however, there would appear to be little enthusiasm on his part for further engagement. He is right that there is currently a lack of consensus amongst local parties as to the mechanism via which this can be addressed; however, this can be no excuse for lack of effort to achieve consensus.
Had lack of consensus been allowed to be a stumbling block to engaging before, we would never have achieved any progress at all. I would renew what is not just my call but, through an Alliance motion passed unanimously, is also the call of the Assembly to the SOS to convene all party talks to seek a comprehensive way forward.
Most recently, this week, I also had the opportunity to raise the issue of transparency in party political funding in Northern Ireland with the Prime Minister for a second time in Prime Ministers Questions.
Last year, I pressed him to remove an exemption which means that whilst local parties have to make the same financial returns to the Electoral Commission as parties in the rest of the UK, the names of donors who give over £7,500 remain unpublished in Northern Ireland.
I understand the reasons why this may have been necessary in the past; however, I believe that the security situation has changed significantly and whilst risk can never be entirely eliminated, it should not outweigh the right of the Northern Ireland public to be able to openly scrutinise the finances of local parties, to see who their major donors are, and to judge for themselves whether parties are influenced by them. It is not credible for local parties on one hand to argue that Northern Ireland is a safe and attractive destination for tourism and inward investment, whilst at the same time arguing that the security situation is too dangerous for normal democratic scrutiny.
When the Government failed to remove the exemption at the last opportunity, Alliance committed to publishing in line with the rest of the UK from this year on a voluntary basis and we have delivered on that promise. On Wednesday, at Prime Ministers Questions I had the opportunity to raise the issue again, not only challenging for change in the legislation, but also for the Prime Minister to commit on behalf of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland to follow our lead and voluntarily publish their donor list.
Whilst commending us on showing leadership on the issue, he didn’t actually commit either to changing the rules or to publishing the details for his own party in NI, but we’ll keep pressing for that change.
So, whether we’re working to see our society transformed or to make politics more open and accountable, we should never be willing to sit back and wait for others to deliver – we have always, right from our inception, taken the initiative and led change, delivering where it is in our power to do so and challenging others to follow.
Sadly, since our last conference, a number of significant people who did just that have passed away. I know that David will also want to reflect on their contribution, but given their links to my constituency, I want to take a few moments to pay tribute to Sir Oliver Napier and Addie Morrow this morning.
Sir Oliver was not only one of the party founders, he was also co-leader from 1970-1972 going on to be the sole leader from 1973 to 1984. In 1979, he came close to winning the East Belfast Westminster seat which I now hold and I know that he was delighted to have witnessed that victory in 2010 and see his ambition for the constituency of East Belfast and for the Party realised.
At a time when vision and optimism were in short supply he, and a small group of other people, some of whom are here with us in the room today, laid the foundations for this Party which, even amid the worst of the Troubles, strove to persuade our community to renounce tribal hatreds and work together to build a better future.
Despite the enormity of those dreams for Northern Ireland, he was nevertheless dedicated to spending time with people of every background in the constituency who needed his help, his advice, his advocacy.
He was someone I admired hugely and who encouraged me greatly – a person who spoke his mind, with both courage and compassion, who was committed to building a united community, and who to the end had huge affection and passion for East Belfast and its people.
Sadly only weeks ago, Addie Morrow also passed away after an illness. Addie was also an early member of Alliance and was elected to Castlereagh Borough Council in 1973, where he served for 16 years.
Those who serve in that Council now would describe it as, well, let’s say “a challenging environment”, for the sake of politeness; however, during the time when Addie served in Castlereagh – through the turbulent period surrounding the Anglo-Irish Agreement – I’m not sure there is a polite euphemism which could do justice to the treatment to which he and Alliance colleagues were subjected.
During that time, he was also elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly for East Belfast and served as Deputy Leader of the Party as well as later as Vice-Chair, Chair and President.
Despite the personal risks to him and to his family, he not only stood up to those who attempted to threaten and to bully both him and other people. He also delivered real change, playing a critical role in the foundation of Lagan College, the first integrated school in Northern Ireland. It is hard to comprehend the fierceness of the opposition which the prospect of educating children together elicited at that time. It is even harder to comprehend, when some of his fiercest critics in the endeavour, now talk about shared education as though it is a novel concept.
Addie did not set out just to build a shared future – for him it was about living out a shared present. Whether through his work in politics or his heavy involvement in Corrymeela, Addie was the embodiment of what it is to live without barriers. I remember as a relatively new member of the Party, the open welcome Michael and I received in his home for our Castlereagh Association meetings and I am grateful to him for the constant encouragement which he offered to those of us who were following where he had led.
I also want to remember Alderman Tony Hill who passed away recently. Tony was Mayor of North Down at the same time I was Lord Mayor of Belfast, and we got to know each other well during that year as are paths regularly crossed at the various events and functions we attended.
He was someone who worked diligently for his constituents, was committed to Alliance, and was blind to the divisions in our community in service to the people who elected him. When he passed away, I asked where his funeral was to be told “The church in Bangor”. Despite knowing Tony and working with him as a party colleague, I had to ask which church.
I simply had never felt the need to ask or to speculate about it. Sir Oliver was quoted as having once said: “In political terms I am an Ulsterman, and in that context, I do not think that my religion or that of anybody else is relevant.”
It is reassuring to know that spirit is still thriving in this Party today.
Of all the tributes we could pay to Oliver and Addie, perhaps the one that is most fitting and which would have mattered most to them is that as we canvassed East Belfast and Castlereagh in last May’s elections, long after they had stepped down from front line politics, many people still recalled the work which they had done on their behalf, the dedicated and selfless service they had given, and I know that Tony’s work was equally appreciated and valued by his constituents and his colleagues in North Down.
In the words of Neil Rafferty’s in “On life, death and the point of it” printed on the order of service for Addie’s Thanksgiving:
“The importance of life is what you give…
And the good that is given freely,
The last year has also seen a changing of the guard in the Assembly Team. Sean Neeson (who is here with us today?) stood down from the AssembIy after 14 years, a period during which he served as Party Leader and then as our spokesperson for enterprise, trade and investment.
Sean was one of the most experienced members of our Assembly team, having served in the ill-fated 1982 Assembly and as one of our key negotiators throughout the 1990s, including the talks which led to the Good Friday agreement.
He also gave me my first political post when he appointed me as an unelected member on his Strategic Review Group in 1999, but I’m sure we won’t hold that against him.
I want to thank Sean for his work in the Assembly and his commitment to Carrickfergus Borough Council where he has represented Alliance since 1977 and continues to do so today.
In reflecting on the contribution of those and others to Alliance, I was reminded of the words of Sir Isaac Newton who wrote of his own achievements in a letter to fellow scientist, Robert Hooke:
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Conference, I want to pay tribute to those giants on whose shoulders this Party has stood and continues to stand – people who when it was neither popular nor comfortable, laid the foundations of Alliance, lifting us up and enabling us to see beyond the bigotry, beyond the entrenched divisions in our society, beyond the age old enmity and bitterness, beyond the dark and violent days of the worst of the Troubles to the potential for a different, more inclusive, more tolerant, more peaceful and more shared future which could lie ahead if people were willing to embrace it.
They laid the foundations and delivery of that transformation is now our responsibility.
I want to share with you something which I said last year:
“If 2011 is to deliver all that it promises, we need to be ready to make bold decisions, to take risks, to make sacrifices, to seize opportunity and, most of all, to focus on the next achievement and not on the last.
2010 was a great year, and it has given us a strong foundation on which to build for the future – for a shared future.
More members, more Councillors, more Assembly Members will mean more opportunities to make progress on building the peaceful, prosperous and united community we all want to see realised. “
Conference, we have delivered on those targets that we set out last year.
We have delivered growth in our membership. Alliance has grown and continues to grow, with more people wanting to not just see change but to be change in Northern Ireland. That growth is why we are here in this new and much larger venue for our Annual Conference.
We have delivered more Councillors – 50% more Alliance Councillors are now serving in local government than when I addressed you last year, and with a wider geographical spread than before.
We have delivered a bigger Assembly Team. My desire, expressed last year, that Judith Cochrane’s employment as my office manager would be short-lived because we wanted her elected to the Assembly, was realised. But more than that, we also delivered a 50% increase in our share of the vote across Northern Ireland in last May’s election, as people recognised in increasing numbers that voting Alliance and joining Alliance are good ways to give substance to their aspirations for a different kind of future and a different kind of politics.
That, by any measure, is delivery.
However, we set those targets, not that they would become an end in themselves, but because of the new opportunities that delivering them would open up for us to deliver the shared future, which remains our prime motivation. Those achievements, important as they are, should be viewed as the foundation on which we can build for this party and, more importantly, for this community going forward.
Our new members are not just statistics to be measured against a target: they are the foundation upon which we can further develop Alliance in the months ahead; they are the feet on the street, supporting the activity of our current elected representatives; they are the activists in their neighbourhood, shaping change and working voluntarily with others to build community; they are the people whose subscriptions and fundraising pay for our party activity and they are the pool of talent from which we will draw innovative ideas, fresh thinking and future elected representatives.
Our additional Councillors spread over more Council areas that before, represent a real opportunity for us to demonstrate in even more parts of Northern Ireland, not only that voting Alliance can deliver change in who represents you, but also very practically what that change can deliver in a community, as we work out our Alliance principles and priorities in those local situations.
Our larger Assembly Team, coupled as it was with the significant growth in our vote right across Northern Ireland, delivered an additional Alliance Minister in the Executive. That, too, has brought with it significant opportunity.
You have already heard Stephen speak this morning about his work in the Department of Employment and Learning and what he has achieved in a relatively short space of time: delivering the skills that will grow our economy, delivering the training to get people work-ready, delivering the support to move people furthest from work closer to employment.
Crucially, in all that he does he has focused delivering a shared future because he recognises as I do that division inhibits growth, limits opportunity, restricts access and, ultimately, prevents both individuals and the community reaching their full potential. He has shown himself to be gifted, dedicated and effective member of the Executive.
There he has joined David, who has continued to make a genuine difference to how the Department of Justice approaches the challenges it faces. I commended David last year on how his response to interface problems was to invest in building relationships between people rather than barriers. We have seen over the last year how that investment has borne fruit.
Communities who want to move forward together – who see their future as shared and not segregated – now have the support of a Minister who is willing to work with them to help realise those aspirations.
Through close cooperation between local people, the police, other statutory partners, and with the encouragement and enabling work of David as Minister of Justice, peace lines have start to be dismantled and gates which kept people apart have been reopened. It is a gradual process and such developments remain fragile, which is why the on-going support and genuine commitment David is investing is crucial to sustaining this progress.
Together, David and Stephen are delivering real change for Northern Ireland and, both by what they do and the positive and constructive way they do it, are demonstrating the tangible out-workings of Alliance principals and policies for Northern Ireland.
However, if you still have any doubts what a significant opportunity Stephen and David’s presence and effectiveness in Government represents for Alliance, you need look no farther than the extraordinary and shameless lengths to which our opponents are willing to go, in order to remove Stephen from the Executive.
Be under no illusions – the culling of the Department of Employment and Learning and that fact that Stephen is the Minister for that department is not merely an unfortunate coincidence.
This process is not about rationalisation – rational simply doesn’t enter into it. On the supposed reasons behind these moves – reducing the number of Departments and ensuring proportionality – we have put sensible and workable proposals which address any substantive issues in a way that delivers both coherent reform and good governance. But they have been rejected because coherent reform and good governance is not the objective: the objective is about robbing not the Alliance Party, but our voters, of the seat which they gave us, as of right, after the last elections.
Let’s be clear – if properly thought-through reform removed our entitlement to an Executive position, but gained in return more efficient government for the people we represent, I would be happy to accept that – indeed more than just accept it – I and I know Stephen would actively advocate for it.
However, those who think that Alliance can be prevented from delivering for people simply by lifting the bar higher clearly don’t appreciate our determination and skill at overcoming all barriers.
Throughout this speech I have talked about foundations – but in these last few moments, I want to ask you to lift your eyes and remember that for us in Alliance, there are no ceilings.
There are no ceilings to our ambitions for this Party. We delivered what we set out to last May, and came within 50 votes in North Down and East Antrim of two more Assembly seats. We also increased our vote in a number of other places putting us in serious contention for further Assembly and Council seats next time around. If we are willing to continue putting in the effort, making the sacrifices, taking the courageous decisions, holding to that bold vision which is at the core of Alliance and if we remain focused always on our next achievement rather than our last, then greater success lies within our reach. The most important step in making a difference is first to believe that you can.
There are no ceilings to our ambitions for Northern Ireland. Alliance wants to build entrepreneurial, enterprising culture in which we equip our young people with the skills they need to be competitive and support growth of both local businesses and foreign investment.
I have had the privilege as the MP for East Belfast of being involved in many of the centenary events celebrating the engineering triumph that was the Titanic and commemorating the tragedy that was her maiden voyage.
For me, in celebrating the industrial heritage and prowess of East Belfast it was important not to merely reflect on past glories, but to use the opportunity to inspire a new generation of people that they too can compete successfully on the world stage and to restore the hope and the confidence that hard work, ingenuity and skill can still be the keys to unlock that success.
For some, Titanic is the embodiment of past greatness: she reminds us of what we once were. More importantly for me, she inspires us to be even more ambitious for what we could be in the future.
It may no longer be ships, but on that same site Titanic Quarter is transforming those vast spaces into new places of opportunity and potential. Within that site are the seeds of the new industries which will provide future opportunities not just for East Belfast, but for Northern Ireland – whether it’s the creative industries, such as the Paint Hall Studios; heavy engineering, in new fields such as renewable energy; scientific and technological innovation in the Northern Ireland Science Park; or the development of world class tourism offer through the Titanic Belfast project, the Derry City of Culture year in 2013, or the host of other cultural and sporting events which are putting Northern Ireland on the map for all the right reasons.
So, no ceilings to our ambition for Alliance and no ceilings for to our ambitions for Northern Ireland.
But most of all there are no ceilings to our ambitions for a shared future. The current politics of carve up, however cosy that carve up may appear to be, is still at its core, predicated on the continuing existence and maintenance of two communities – separate but equal. That is not, and can never be, a substitute for our vision of a truly shared and united community.
In Alliance, we exist to delivering a more peaceful, prosperous and united community. Whilst others are content to smile for the cameras and merely talk the talk, we will continue in this party to seek substantive change and walk the walk, leaving it to them to follow where we lead.
We have delivered much in the last year. The foundations are there on which to build future success.
Whilst others continue to debate whether success would be easier won in Government or in Opposition, we know the truth. Success depends not on the position in which you find yourself, but in what you do with it and it is never easily won.
We grew in opposition – we have continued to sustain that growth in Government.
Our ambitions for the future will be delivered by maintaining our consistency of vision, our unity of purpose and our strength of leadership as we go forward in the years