“May I take this opportunity to thank you and all your colleagues for the warm welcome I have been given to this Assembly and to put on record the honour and privilege it is to be appointed to represent the people of East Belfast in this house.
I am immensely proud of the constituency that I have lived in all my life. East Belfast is not only the seat of our Assembly but is widely recognised for its rich industrial, cultural and sporting heritage. Names such as Harland & Wolff, C. S. Lewis, Van Morrison and George Best are world renowned and whilst some traditional industry has of course declined in the area I believe it is the enterprise, creativity and imagination of our people that remains the most important resource we have to tackle social disadvantage and promote economic development in this region.
I am aware Mr Speaker that I am following in a line of distinguished parliamentarians who have represented this great constituency with exceptional ability and at times the no small measure of feistiness and wit required to survive in this arena.
I am sure the house will agree that these qualities apply to no-one better than my predecessor Naomi Long and will join me in paying tribute to the tremendous record of leadership she has in this house.
Naomi has been an outstanding Member of this Assembly and will continue to be a formidable representative for this region in her new role as Member of Parliament for East Belfast .
As Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party and previously as Deputy Chair of committee of the Office of First and deputy First Minister, Naomi has been the strongest advocate of the need for a serious and overarching good relations policy to underpin the work of every government department and to drive forward the work of the executive.
It is leaders like Naomi and people in organisations like the Alliance Party who have prioritised tackling the deep division in our community and believed that there is more to unite us than divide us that have inspired me to make my own stand for a shared and better future on behalf of my community.
It is pertinent therefore Mr Speaker that my maiden intervention in is to rise to move the amendment to the Equality and Good Relations Motion before the house.
The Alliance Party has welcomed the historic opportunity presented by the publication of the draft Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration and welcomes the debate on this important matter today.
Mr Speaker whilst my party will support the motion as tabled; I would seek the support of the house for our sensible amendment.
I would like to make clear from the outset, that the challenge of delivering equality and good relations in Northern Ireland must be far more important than any one party political agenda.
As such the Alliance Party recognises the progress that has been made by local politicians taking ownership of this draft strategy and public consultation process, but we must also recognise that the current proposal is inadequate in a number of respects and could be significantly improved.
Our amendment sets out in broad terms the nature of these inadequacies, and encourages OFMdFM and the wider Executive to address them in detail when it comes to the finalisation of the new programme.
The Alliance Party believes that the healing of deep divisions in this society is the greatest challenge for this Assembly and has a vision of a cohesive, shared and integrated society, where people are safe and prosperous, have ample opportunities, and are treated fairly and with respect. We want to deliver a normal, civic society underpinned by our shared values of equality, respect for diversity and interdependence.
The critical measure for this programme must be what it will do for community relations in Northern Ireland . We have spent approximately £1.5b on peace building in Northern Ireland ; however, this model is coming to an end. We need to take responsibility for this problem as the ongoing human and economic cost of getting it wrong is staggering. At a time of immense financial pressure, the fundamental link between a shared society and economic development should be a major driver of change.
With approximately 70’000 spare places and a crumbling estate the inclusion of robust educational reform proposals in this policy is vital. The establishment of a single integrated system shared by all children must be a priority. For good reasons people in contested places are cautious about the education of their children. However the delivery mechanisms which reflect historic interests cannot be the driver for the education of our children in 21st century Northern Ireland .
We must also not make the mistake of regarding community relations work as the individual funding of projects but rather an ethos runs throughout our system of government.
I would, however take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent strategic work of the Community Relations Council and to the many men, women and children making their own significant contribution to improved community relations across our community often in the most difficult conditions.
As I have previously mentioned all past initiatives of this kind have occurred under Direct Rule. This includes most recently the Shared Future strategy in 2005.
Whilst there was little wrong with the Shared Future strategy, I am sure this house will agree that it is much more desirable for local political institutions to take ownership of the development and delivery of future strategies.
Alliance was therefore pleased to be able to play a part in the agreement of a draft policy this year.
It is worth, however, recognising that the current draft is very much an ongoing work and that significant concerns have been raised at the current content.
We therefore regard the consultation exercise as being critical and I was encouraged by the remarks from the First Minister yesterday during Question Time when he assured the house on OFMDFM’s record of responding to positively to consultation recommendations. It is incumbent upon OFMDFM and the Executive to take on board what is received, and to amend the final programme accordingly, indeed to amend it radically.
It is good, however, to have a government document tackling issues such as shared space shared education, shared housing, visible manifestations of racism/sectarianism; bonfires/flags; costs of duplication of services and zero tolerance to hate crime.
Many of the key themes for action are there. The vision, however, is weak and less developed. The document is entitled ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ but at no stage are any of those concepts well defined. Specifically, there is no affirmation of a shared society and the underlying assumption remains that of managing a divided society and managing separate communities. There is a danger of a ‘shared out future’ rather than the ‘shared future’ this region needs and deserves.
Alliance is also wary of a hierarchy between equality and good relations. This document must recognise that there can be no sustainable equality in this region without a sense of solidarity, interdependence and sharing. Equality arguments should not be used to undermine good relations and vice versa.
We would also regret that there is no sufficient recognition of the economic and financial costs of continued divisions or the opportunities that will come from a shared society. This is critical to understanding the full structural problems faced in our economy, and also in appreciating what should provide a real-motivating force to provide a strong CSI strategy.
We need a clear vision of CSI and a detailed action plan against which to resource, target, timetable, monitor, evaluate and deliver this programme.
The CSI Programme must not be considered just another document; but, rather an historic opportunity to make reconciliation, equality and good relations a reality for this and future generations of our community.
Tremendous progress has occurred in the peace process over the past 15 years, including during this Assembly mandate.
In order to realise our full potential, however, the political process must articulate a clear vision of shared society and devise a robust action plan to address the ongoing human and financial cost of prejudice and segregation to our community.