Alliance Leader gives keynote speech at Liberal Democrat conference

Speaking to the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton on Monday, Alliance Leader David Ford said:

“Whatever the faults and stupidities of many Unionists, we are in a crisis because of the failure of Republicans to clearly demonstrate that they have given up violence and are fully committed to a totally peaceful and democratic society.

“One of the faults of Unionists has been an excessive concentration on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. While understandable, this has been wrong. Republicans signed up to the principle of getting rid of their weapons five years ago. The fixation on weapons has allowed them to extract further concessions for promising to do what they had already promised to do.

“But the biggest fault on the part of the Government is that they have allowed Republicans to define a ceasefire as solely a cessation of activities against military and police targets, economic activity and the British state.

“As a result, paramilitaries have continued to carry out acts of violence against people perceived as coming from the same background.

“We have the bizarre position that Government Ministers and official documents refer to ‘punishment beatings’ when they mean illegal assaults by paramilitary criminals. I thought that in a liberal democracy, only the lawful institutions of the state had the right to impose punishment.

“Last September, we even saw that a burglary in a police station is treated more seriously than the murder of an alleged drug dealer.

“While it was clear five years ago that we could not move from thirty years of violence to a totally normal society overnight, the time is long past in which Republicans should have made clear that they ahd made that transformation themselves. We cannot have a party in Government that at the same time has a private army and does not fully respect the rule of law.

“Following the collapse of the Assembly, last October, the Prime Minister told Republicans that they had to make a clear choice between democracy and violence. We fully supported him in that.

“In April, the US President joined the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and all of the pro-Agreement parties for a meeting at Hillsborough, County Down. It was absolutely clear that all parties – except Sinn Fein – and the three governments were calling for a total end to all paramilitarism.

“Yet Sinn Fein seem to be still trying to qualify their commitments. They use language like ‘an ending of all activities inconsistent with the Agreement’. They reserve the right to define that themselves.

“The declaration of support which introduces the Agreement states: ‘We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.’

“Think about it: not just peaceful means ourselves, but opposition to even the threat of force by others.

“Sinn Fein should not be allowed to wriggle away from facing up to this issue. I warn the British and Irish Governments that, having made their position clear in the Joint Declaration, they cannot allow Republicans to fudge the issue again or it will lead to a total collapse in confidence.

“”There is a much more important question than whether the Prime Minister will grant us elections to a new Assembly at Stormont. That question is: ‘What will happen then?’

“I was, and I remain, a firm supporter of the Good Friday Agreement. The principles underlying the Agreement remain the basis of any fair settlement of our problems.

“We need partnership government within Northern Ireland, the Principle of Consent to determine whether Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom and recognition of the north-south dimension, both in practical matters and in psychological terms. Allied to this must be the rule of law and the highest standards of human rights for all citizens.

“However, we have to acknowledge that the Agreement is not perfect and requires reform. This is particularly the case as too many of those charged with the responsibility of power within our institutions have failed to act in the interests of the whole community.

“Alliance has a record of achievements of which we can be proud. We have worked on behalf of the whole community and opposed sectarianism, wherever it comes from.

“In the field of Community Relations, we have been successful in shifting the debate onto the need to build a shared society. Remember, we persuaded the former Minister, Des Browne, to take action after the devolved Executive had failed to do so. In a related area, that of Hate Crimes, the Government is set to announce legislation.

“Every summer, Northern Ireland suffers an onslaught of flags, marking out territory and intimidating those who feel uncomfortable with the display. We have succeeded in getting police action against illegal flags in some limited areas and are continuing to discuss the problem with the Police Service.

“The Monitoring Commission, now established by Parliament, was our idea and has a great potential to shine the spotlight and stop illegal activity. What a pity that the Government did not move last autumn: it has taken over a year since we first suggested the idea.

“However, while we have sought to build a united community, others have failed in that duty. You all know that Sinn Fein remains in an extremely ambiguous position regarding the actions of the IRA.

“On the other side of the divide, DUP members have tried to both have their cake and eat it. They have been both inside and outside the structures of Government, neither principled enough to turn down posts of responsibility nor pragmatic enough to fully participate.

“However, the greatest disappointment has been the behaviour of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, the supposedly moderate parties that were given the main responsibility for working together to lead the Assembly and Executive.

“The antics of those UUP members who oppose the Agreement have been well documented. But the party as a whole has failed to show leadership, and has been unwilling to come to terms with the new structures.

“What can you say when a Unionist Minister defends the principle of Fair Employment, regardless of religious or political background, but every one of his colleagues votes against it? It wasn’t a backbench revolt, it was a frontbench shambles.

“And what of the SDLP, who present a liberal front to the outside world? They are solely concerned to represent the needs of Nationalists, spending a large amount of time looking over their shoulders at Sinn Fein. For all their rhetoric, they have no understanding of the feelings of unionists.

“Above all, the SDLP is dedicated to the current Designation system that gives greater voting power in the Assembly to those who sign up as either unionist or nationalist. Fundamentally, they believe that the only thing that matters in Northern Ireland politics is whether you are ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them’.

Imagine the reaction if some of the uglier politicians who have lately appeared in the mill towns of Lancashire insisted on granting different voting power to representatives on the basis of a crude ethnic assessment. Or if militant ethnic minority groups in inner London demanded the same. Yet we are expected to put up with it in our region.

“That is why Alliance stands in a fundamentally different position to the so-called moderates. We believe in the need to build a united community, to establish liberal values. We oppose any attempt to impose ethnic politics.

“We are not interested in another short-term fix, we are working to resolve our problems, not just manage them. If Tony Blair lets us have an Assembly election, we will present the electorate with a clear choice.

“The other parties may continue to fudge and muddle, to accept – even encourage – division in our society.

“Alliance will not. As that great South African Liberal, Alan Paton, said: ‘To give up the task of reforming society is to give up one’s responsibility as a free man.’ We will take the short-term risks for the real long-term goal of ending divisions and bringing about a society in which everyone is treated equally.

“It’s all summed up in the title of our pre-manifesto: Alliance Works. Sectarian Politics Doesn’t.”

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