Address by David Ford, Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to Liberal Democrat Federal Conference, 22 September 2003, Brighton

Chair, and Conference, thank you for your welcome. It proves to me that there is only one major party in GB which gives genuine, whole hearted support to a ‘sister party’ in Northern Ireland. And I thought that the only man from the province to get star billing this week would be Lord Hutton.

Chair, you mentioned the Assembly election due in May, but postponed by the Government. Alliance urgently wants to see that election held, because we have a unique vision to put to the people. We are striving to build a united community, while others are content to see divisions continue.

In recent months, we have witnessed the continuing saga of the imploding Unionist party, endless rounds of debate and dispute without any clear winner – but plenty of losers.

But we should not get fixated with them. 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 has been on the part of the Government. 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.

Conference, I thought that in a liberal democracy, only the lawful institutions of the state had the right to impose punishment. I trust that you agree with me.

Last October, following the collapse of the Assembly, 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 demand that they alone have the right to define what that means.

The declaration of support which introduces the Good Friday 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.’

Think about it: the parties accepted not just peaceful means themselves, 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. The message is clear to both British and Irish Governments. 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.

At the same time, Sinn Fein must not be given a veto over the political process. Devolution must be restored in an inclusive way, but not – absolutely not – inclusion at the expense of integrity. The time for blurring the issues is over.

Last year I was introduced to Conference by a young councillor from North London. She also referred to the Assembly election. I think that I am quite good at election predictions, but I confess that I didn’t think that a year later I would still be a suspended MLA for South Antrim, but she would be a 100% genuine MP for Brent East.

There is a much more important question than whether the Prime Minister will meet our demands for elections to a new Assembly at Stormont. That question is: ‘What will happen then?’

An election will achieve nothing if it leaves the same tired faces stitching up face saving deals which do not address the real problems of how we live, work and play together, in a shared future.

What is lacking, at present, is any commitment from the Government to seriously addressing the problems within the Agreement, through the mechanism provided – a comprehensive Review, due this autumn.

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 as an expression of nationalist feelings. 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 because 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 direct rule Minister, Des Browne, to take action after the devolved Executive had failed to do so. He published a discussion paper, now subject to widespread consultation. This was after the devolved first ministers, David Trimble and Mark Durkan, had stalled the process for a year.

The official paper ‘A Shared Future’ follows the outline we set in our paper ‘Building a United Community’, though it is a bit timid in places. It’s a bit New Labour, but it’s better than anything that unionists and nationalists managed.

In a related area, that of Hate Crimes, the Government is set to announce legislation which will ensure that sectarian or racist motivation is taken seriously.

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

The Monitoring Commission, established by Parliament last week, was our idea and has a great potential to shine the spotlight on, and stop illegal activity by, paramilitaries. 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. Conspicuously failed. 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. Hokey cokey Ministers, in one minute, out the next.

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 tragedy is that the party as a whole has failed to show leadership, and has been unwilling to come to terms with the new structures set up by the Agreement.

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

And what of the SDLP, who present a liberal front to the outside world? At home, they are solely concerned to represent the wishes 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. It seems that they have no willingness to try to understand.

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 really matters in Northern Ireland politics is whether you are ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them’. Last year Alliance held a fringe meeting comparing racism and sectarianism: the timing seems appropriate.

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 that sort of division in our region. It is totally illiberal, yet part of our de facto constitution.

That is why Alliance stands in a fundamentally different position to the so-called moderates on either side. We believe in the need to build a united community, to establish liberal values. We oppose any attempt to impose ethnic politics. We have no interest in merely managing differences, we are determined to overcome them.

We are not interested in another short-term fix this autumn – or ever – to patch over the problems. We are going all out to build a pluralist, inclusive society. 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 accept that responsibility. We will take the short-term risks for the real long-term goal of ending divisions, of bringing about a society in which everyone is treated equally.

Our goal is summed up in the title of our pre-manifesto. It has been proven over three decades, and reinforced over the five years since the Good Friday Agreement.

“Alliance Works. Tribal Politics Doesn’t.”

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