I joined Alliance because it is the only party that puts people before politics. Like the rest of you and like most people in Northern Ireland, I don’t lie awake at night thinking about the border or Northern Ireland’s constitutional future – nor is that what gets me out of bed in the morning. No. What I care about above anything else, what drives me and my politics, is the everyday needs of ordinary people. It’s the single mother, in need of a house; the Ethiopian asylum seeker, wanting to see his family; the pensioner, who needs access to welfare; and the many vulnerable people in our society. These are the people I work to help; these are the issues that I want to tackle. Employment, housing, welfare, our environment, and good relations.
So how do we tackle these issues? One way – a way that Northern Ireland hasn’t been half as successful at as we should have been – is through our membership of the European Union.
I have, of course, always been pro-Europe. It makes economic sense that we belong to a massive common market of 500 million people with an economy worth £730 billion. I will use our position in the EU to secure the best economic future for Northern Ireland and I will ensure that we take full advantage of the available funding to invest in skills and research.
Socially, we have also benefited from the billions of pounds of EU Peace & Reconciliation Funding since the Good Friday Agreement. Before becoming an MLA I was the head of a voluntary organisation which set up new projects from Peace money, so I am very aware of how much good we can achieve with such funding. I will ensure that European money is invested in projects that help us deal with our past, and promote a shared future.
I will support the EU’s push against organised, international crime, especially the disgusting crime of human trafficking. As the founding chair of the All Party Group on Human Trafficking, I have participated in meetings in London and The Hague with the EU Parliamentarian Anti-Trafficking network. I also sit on the All Party Groups dealing with International Development, and with Women, Peace and Security. This work has broadened my experience of international relations, and convinced me of the need for Northern Ireland to have a representative in Europe with a much wider perspective, who can work in Europe and closer to home.
When it comes to the environment, the EU has delivered tangible results in reducing pollution, cleaning up our environment and reducing chemicals in everyday use. Having been Chair of the Environment Committee since 2011, and a member of the All Party Group on European Legislation, I have seen first-hand the benefits that have been achieved through European directives on environmental protection, road safety and waste management. If elected to Europe I will continue to work for further protections for our environment. Just like crime, pollution is not limited by borders, so neither should our response be. Active and enthusiastic membership of the EU will allow us to build on successful measures to tackle climate change, promoting international investment in renewable energy and enforcing rules on environmental standards.
For all these reasons, Alliance is proudly pro-European. We are ambitious and positive about the role that the EU can play in Northern Ireland and the role that an Alliance MEP can play in the EU. As things stand, not one of Northern Ireland’s MEPs is unashamedly pro-European. That must change, and I want to be that change.
The election of an Alliance MEP would be a massive step forward for Northern Ireland, and would show Europe and the world a very different face. It would be a sign that the people of Northern Ireland want change, and are leaving the politics of the past behind us. That politics, the old politics of green versus orange, is holding us back – in Europe and at home.
It’s holding us back from delivering for the people that I mentioned earlier. What those people need isn’t more them and us politics, but politics for everyone. What they need, is a shared future.
Some politicians argue that we should worry less about a shared future and more about the economy. But the reality is we cannot grow our economy, we won’t attract tourism, won’t retain entrepreneurs or encourage people to come home, unless we deal with division.
That’s why last week in the Local Government Bill we sought to get the issue of flags sorted -once and for all – but we were blocked by parties on all sides. It’s why we also tried to introduce a duty on our new Councils to promote good relations – but we were blocked by Sinn Fein and the SDLP. We should be taking every opportunity to face down division and exclusion. These are the issues that I am committed to, and have devoted my political career to.
Of course, in recent days a lot has been said about my views on the constitutional issue, and many have tried to badge me as a nationalist. Let me make this very clear – I cannot and will not be reduced to one label, just as the Alliance Party cannot be reduced to the labels of either nationalist or unionist. Since the 1970’s this Party has supported the principle of consent, and we backed the Good Friday Agreement because it enshrined the principle that Northern Ireland’s future will be determined by its people. It also said this:
“We recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”
Alliance believes in this, and I believe in this.
Some of us in this room come from a unionist background or hold a unionist aspiration; some of us come from a nationalist background or hold a nationalist aspiration. Others don’t see themselves as either. When I decided to get involved in politics I didn’t join Sinn Fein or the SDLP, parties that define themselves as nationalist, and for whom the border question is their motivation. No – I joined the Alliance Party because my motivation isn’t a United Ireland, but a United Northern Ireland. I joined Alliance because my priority was a shared future; it still is, and it always will be.
I make no apologies for highlighting that Alliance is a party which champions and cherishes diversity. What saddens me is that the focus on my comments reflects that there are those, with their orange and green lenses, who are incapable of seeing beyond sectarianism. They either can’t grasp the concept of a cross-community party, or they won’t, because cross-community politics threatens their position. Tackling that narrow-mindedness is this party’s responsibility. But it is also our privilege – as a forward thinking and progressive party we will have the privilege of delivering Northern Ireland from the shadows of the past and showing the world all we have to be proud of.
Just as Alliance works to tackle divisions within Northern Ireland, we also celebrate and promote the bridging of divisions between states, regions, nations and communities across Europe. In a way that other parties often fail to see, we recognise and embrace the strength that is found by working together. That doesn’t mean the removal of physical borders, but it does mean addressing the borders in our minds. Alliance is a party which is serious about creating a shared future in which people of different backgrounds – whether they be racial, religious or even constitutional – can live and work together in peace. So it’s only fitting that our party mirror the society we are striving to achieve – a party for everyone that reflects a Northern Ireland for everyone. So don’t call me “nationalist”. Don’t call me “unionist”. Call me “For Everyone”. Call me “Alliance”.