Conference speech by Alliance Leader David Ford

“I would like to welcome you all to Conference. Welcome to those who have suffered intimidation, threats and attacks in recent weeks because you did what was right.

Welcome and thank you to Naomi and Michael, to Judith Cochrane, Chris Lyttle and the entire East Belfast team. To Linda Cleland and Gerardine Mulvenna. To Stewart and his team in Carrickfergus. To Stephen and the North Down team, especially Christine, Michael and Grace Bower.

Welcome to those who took the tough decisions, and withstood the pressure, and the bribery, to do otherwise. Our Councillors in Belfast, but not just in Belfast.

To those who stood by them – families, colleagues, and people in those local communities – and to those who have come to stand with them – our many new members, who are here today because they join us to stand for what is right.

These last three months have certainly been a tough time for Alliance. But I am sure we are the stronger for it. We have come through the fire – literally – and we have not been found wanting. That strength is recognised by the media, and by commentators who are not always sympathetic.

Our growing strength has certainly been recognised by other parties, who pay us attention like never before. When I first became party leader, what they used to call ‘the four main parties’ largely ignored us. They don’t ignore us now.

So why did the DUP and their UUP lapdogs deliver leaflets targeting Naomi Long over the flag issue?

After all, Naomi isn’t a Councillor any longer. Why is she not a Councillor any longer? Because at the Westminster general election she took East Belfast with the largest swing in any constituency in the UK. That’s why the DUP are targeting her.

But why did they deny they were responsible? We always put the imprint ‘published by Alliance’ on our leaflets. We are not ashamed of what we say, but clearly the DUP was ashamed of its actions. So ashamed that an elected DUP Councillor claimed he worked for a delivery company when challenged.

When Unionist politicians say that those who raised the flags issue need to accept their responsibility for what followed, they are right. They need to recognise what happens when you stir up tension in a divided society, when you encourage protest without knowing where it will lead and cannot even bring yourselves to call an end to illegality without any ambiguity.

I believe that the past few months have told us a lot, for those of us who are capable of learning the lessons, and want to learn them. We have learnt about this Party, its strength and its resilience. Its unity of purpose and its support for those under attack.

We have learnt about Northern Ireland, where we are as a community, and where we need to be. How fragile the concepts of democracy and the rule of law can be.

We have seen the differences between how our political parties view the future, and particularly how they view a shared future, and where their priorities lie.

In many respects, Northern Ireland is at something of an impasse, with the DUP and Sinn Fein avoiding the difficult issues. Avoiding the difficult issue of a Single Equality Bill, achingly slow progress on the RPA and ESA. No sign of progress on parades and a Languages Bill. They simply fail to follow through and deliver.

And, worst of all, they have made no progress whatever on reaching agreement on a shared future. Surely, this is the most pressing issue for Northern Ireland?

Contrast the collective failure of the Executive with progress made in the two Alliance Departments, Justice and Employment and Learning. Look what can be achieved with radical, progressive approaches, based on evidence of what works, rather than hidebound by dogma.

Would any other Minister for Employment and Learning prioritise reducing the barriers to labour mobility as a shared future issue in the way Stephen is doing?

Would anyone other than an Alliance Minister being working to develop integrated teacher training? On top of all his other work on university funding, on apprenticeships and skills – issues which needed to be addressed.

It is the same in the Department of Justice, where we are reforming prisons, improving access to justice, tackling legal aid and delivering the resources our police need. Our community safety strategy is distinctively Alliance, about building safer, shared and confident communities, because sharing is an important component of building safer communities. And we have a realistic target to remove interface structures, and we are working on it, engaging with local people. We have seen real progress in a number of areas in North Belfast.

This society is being held back socially, being denied the shared future that people deserve, due to deadlock between unionists and nationalists. The five party working group on a shared future – or ‘CSI’ – seemed destined to produce a report which was merely the lowest common denominator between unionism and nationalism. In the end it didn’t even achieve that.

After Chris Lyttle withdrew because the group was not serious about its purpose, it merely registered deadlock. Leaked papers show that the group had failed to make any progress on key issues, such as flags, parades and dealing with the past.

Let’s look at the flags issue as an example of how Alliance thinks differently. Here was a perfect opportunity to deliver change; to characterise and develop Belfast as a city of diversity, where different identities are respected and cherished; an opportunity that has existed for years, if only others had been prepared to back us when we first proposed designated days a decade ago.

But Sinn Fein and the SDLP approached the issue without any regard for those who cherish a unionist identity. The timing, and the framing of the debate as a zero-sum, we win and you lose argument was of their choosing.

And what of the unionist parties? What were they up to, what was their motivation? Compare Belfast with Lisburn, with Craigavon, with Ballymoney, where unionist-dominated Councils fly the Union Flag on Designated Days.

There is only one conclusion – in Belfast there was a deliberate, pre-meditated campaign to whip up tensions, to generate fears over loss of identity among those who perceive themselves as having little left to give; and to go after the Alliance Party and its elected representatives, especially Naomi Long who wasn’t even involved in the debate, in order to win votes. That’s the long and short of it.

All of this has been about votes.

I don’t agree with Billy Hutchison’s decision to reverse his position and oppose designated days, and I don’t agree with much of what he has said in recent months, but I do agree with his description of the unionist parties’ handling of the flags issue as “a project”. A project to damage Alliance.

Is it any wonder that the parties of unionism and nationalism have reached stalemate in the CSI working group? Two weeks ago I wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to propose a new approach that I believe could see an effective shared future strategy developed.

It is clear that the current parties-only process has stalled. If the First Minister and deputy First Minister manage to restart it, our fear is that it will either end in deadlock, or an agreed strategy that avoids the most difficult issues.

That’s why we have proposed a different approach – one that’s more open and inclusive, and which we believe will ensure that the big issues aren’t ducked. Instead of the old, “behind closed doors” approach, we have urged the First and deputy First Ministers to set up an open and comprehensive Shared Future Reference Group, with the political parties being joined by representatives of civic society who have expertise and experience in the work of bringing different sections of our community together.

The responses to OFMDFM’s last attempt at a shared future strategy showed the level of expertise that exists in our community. Rather than shutting those people out, we need to use their expertise to get this right. We cannot afford not to get this right.

So I asked the First and deputy First Ministers to publish their draft strategy for a new Shared Future Reference Group to consider, take evidence from the public on, and respond to. The Reference Group would make recommendations by June of this year, and the First Minister and deputy First Minister would bring a final strategy to the Executive after the summer.

After 18 months of private discussions the parties-only approach has failed. Given the importance of this issue to our community we believe the public have a right to voice their opinion, on the record, in an open forum.

The response to my suggestion? An inaccurate representation of this as abdicating the responsibility of elected politicians and “handing over” the process to outsiders. They couldn’t see that a partnership approach would help make progress – or maybe they could and feared it.

Nineteen years since the ceasefires, fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, and after ten years of devolved government, no effective strategy to move our community beyond the ending of violence has been produced. We simply have to get on with it.

Let’s remember, if we could forget, what has been happening on the streets recently. Is there any clearer demonstration of the need to build a genuine shared future for all our citizens? The lives – and the livelihoods – of so many are being disrupted by a minority hell-bent on causing disruption, without any thought of the effects of their actions on the people of every part of Belfast, of those who runs shops and provide services, of potential investors who could help provide the jobs we so urgently need.

Yet again, the problems of this society are being played out on the streets, putting enormous pressure on the Police Service. In my position, I am not going to second-guess the difficult decisions that operational commanders have to take in response to street disorder or to give any impression that I am trying to direct political policing. Yet I know that there will be support in this hall and across the community for resolute action against those who continue to disrupt society. Including the resolute action taken against those who have been organising illegal street protests.

I sincerely hope that those who have taken part in illegal protests will now recognise the damage they are doing and call off those protests. But if they don’t, I hope that there will be a united political voice in support of the PSNI as they seek to deal with protests.

A united voice supporting the rule of law, not the weasel words we heard from unionists about the protests at Seaview Football Ground earlier this month. A united voice, not the complaints we heard from nationalists seeming to put pressure on the Police.

There ought to be a united voice supporting the rule of law from every party. Ought to be, but I doubt it. Because too many politicians are unprepared to support the police if it means confronting their own supporters.

Alliance politicians don’t pick and choose which laws to uphold, which police actions to support, depending on whether they are perceived to be against “our side” or “their side”. Alliance has always stood for the rule of law, for everyone.

But differences between unionists and nationalists on policing are mirrored by their views on a shared future.

For unionists, it means a homogeneous society, where everyone is supposed to feel unionist, to accept what Peter Robinson calls “the settled status quo”. Where the union flag flies everywhere, 365 days a year. Where the Irish language receives no official recognition. Where the term the “Queen’s highway” is allowed to excuse the designation of entire communities as being the domain of one section of the community only, with the flying of flags and the painting of kerb-stones. Where the Parades Commission is only supported when it takes the “right” decisions for unionists.

For nationalists, a shared future means a version of “parity of esteem” that looks more like “separate but equal”. Where the public demand for integrated education goes unheeded and the logic of training teachers together is not recognised. Where elected representatives will forever have to be “designated” as us or them. Where playgrounds can be named after terrorists because sure its only “nationalist” children who will play in them.

For both sides, it means deals such as that over the Girdwood barracks site, supported by both unionist parties and by both nationalist parties, where opportunities to radically develop integration are sacrificed on the altar of “one for my side, one for your side” politics.

Why should we be surprised by this? The fact is that the very nature of the politics that these parties espouse depends on the continuation of this kind of politics – they rely on the old divisions to sustain their future.

It’s not a new trick, of course. The Unionist Party – the “party of Carson and Craig”, as they style their party – did this for decades, distracting working class communities from the disadvantage they lived with by focusing on perceived threats to their identity and culture. And unionism is still at it today.

Ten years after devolution, we have to accept that many communities haven’t seen the progress that they deserve. Too many kids not doing well enough in school; too few job opportunities as they grow up.

Is it any wonder that the DUP and Sinn Fein rely on sham fights over flags and border polls to draw attention away from their failure to deliver effectively on the big issues that would really make a difference to people’s everyday lives?

It seems to suit unionism better to have people worried about flags and identity, protesting at the City Hall, than have them focus on the fact that their children are leaving school without the essential skills they need to make it in today’s world, and lobbying about that at Stormont.

And for nationalists, it’s better to have people thinking about a border poll that won’t realistically happen for the foreseeable future, rather than focusing on the fact that some 43% of children growing up in West Belfast are living in poverty.

Mike Nesbitt will probably insist that I am misrepresenting his party and his politics. He likes to portray himself as a moderate, and committed to a shared future. Yet, he leads his party, day-by-day, ever-closer to the DUP.

In a recent interview in relation to Mid-Ulster, he described a suggestion that voters may wish to know what a candidate’s views were on issues that he might actually vote on at Westminster as – and I quote -“an extraordinary assertion”. He insisted that people always have, and assumed that people always will, vote – and I quote him again – “orange and green”.

This is the man who was elected leader because of his perceived ability to communicate a distinct identity and purpose for the UUP. Well from what I’ve seen, Mr Nesbitt has undoubtedly much experience of reading from a autocue, but it’s Peter Robinson who is writing his script.

No doubt there are those, on both sides, who will reject this description of them and their politics – who see themselves as moderate unionists or moderate nationalists, or even liberal versions of one or the other. But I say to them – as long as you are part of the problem, the problem will continue.

Two ex-UUP MLAs are now in the process of setting up a new party. Another unionist party. I acknowledge that it is attempt to move unionism forward, but simply realigning unionism will achieve nothing. Change will only happen when we build a strong, radical centre ground, in total contrast to both unionism and nationalism.

Otherwise, it seems that this society goes on, locked in this old politics, where either nothing happens – for fear that one side will get more than the other – or a little bit happens – but only on the basis of “one for me, one for you”.

The old politics, the politics of the past, is like a millstone around the neck of our political system, holding us back, preventing us from developing a politics for today, and from the future we want to create. Too many of our politicians allow the shadow of that past to prevent themselves moving on, and moving out; always holding to the perceived security that comes with the old labels.

Only this party has been brave enough, and bold enough, to make the leap, to free itself of that old politics – the politics of unionism and nationalism, of us and them – to focus purely on how to unite our community through a different politics, a politics for everyone.

For years, Northern Ireland’s politics were frozen as attempt after attempt was made to break the deadlock over political institutions that would bring an end to violence.

But fifteen years after that deadlock was broken, we find ourselves settled into a new kind of deadlock – a political stalemate within the institutions that is holding us back from the future that our community deserves.

With the constitutional question effectively settled for now by the Good Friday Agreement, this should have been the moment of maximum transformation – an opportunity to take dramatic steps forward towards a future that is very different to the past; to use the end of violence to allow fears to recede, communities to be integrated, Northern Ireland’s international image to be transformed and the investment and tourism that would come with that.

As Duncan Morrow has recently written: “The pages of the Agreement are filled with promises of ‘new beginnings’ and ‘dedicated to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust’, all signed ‘in a spirit of concord’. Binding commitments were given not only to purely democratic and political means but to oppose ‘any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose’. Every signatory pledged to ‘work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements’ and signed up to complex but ultimately clear constitutional arrangements.”

Yet despite this, the Executive so far has utterly failed to face the need to make real and far-reaching progress towards a shared society in which sectarianism, fear and threat belong only in the past.

Politicians have worked successfully to find a political settlement that allows Northern Ireland to be governed. But they have failed to use it to prioritise the building of a genuinely shared society. And the longer we fail to do so, the more our talk of building an economy becomes both unrealistic and delusional. The last few weeks’ events have shown that it can be put off no longer.

So this is the challenge for us, for Alliance, in 2013: to work to break this new form of deadlock – the deadlock in which we will be stuck as long as the old politics remains dominant.

For all of us in public life, who want a better, different, shared future for our community, the challenge is to break the dominance of that old politics and to move to a new politics. We in Alliance will not waste the opportunities that have been given to us.

So, we have put our ideas forward for the people to see. Clearly and unambiguously. Two years ago, for the Assembly election, we published the most comprehensive manifesto of any party. Probably the most comprehensive ever for a Northern Ireland election.

Just a few weeks ago we published “For Everyone”. If others are not willing to produce serious policies for a Shared Future, Alliance is determined to. We have set out policies for every Department which will help us build a Shared Future for all our people.

We want to see a shared and integrated society free from intimidation and discrimination and fear, where every member is safe, has opportunities to contribute and participate and is treated fairly and with respect; a truly civic society, underpinned by the shared values of equality, respect for diversity, and a celebration of our interdependence.

“For Everyone” sets out a series of practical policies to deliver that vision. Let’s just look at some of those points.

I am a firm supporter of Integrated Education. Of course we do not suggest it is the solution to all our problems, but it is part of the solution. Critics have accused us of social engineering, of pushing children together against the will of their parents.

And the truth? A Lucid Talk poll in the Belfast Telegraph this week shows that 79% of the population would like to see their children’s school becoming integrated. A school for everyone in the local community. So a target of 20% of children in Integrated Schools by 2020 is entirely reasonable, practical and in line with the wishes of a large majority.

The problems of flags and parades are being played out on the streets with serious effects on all of us. Yet they are just symptoms of division that goes far deeper. So we have set out how we can move to ensure that all public space is shared space, free from permanent symbols of division and domination. And let’s nail the lie before unionists repeat it any more. Alliance respects everyone’s right to fly flags on their own houses, whether owned or rented. But nobody has the right to use lamp posts and telegraph poles like a dog marking out territory.

We will work to ensure that public facilities are built in a way that makes them accessible to everyone, that planning policies take account of shared future considerations and that we set realistic targets to remove interface structures and engage with local communities to build the confidence that will see barriers come down.

The Executive must recognise that a Shared Housing strategy is now essential, so that we meet real need without continuing segregation. When this party was founded, the challenge was fair employment. The challenge for this generation is to build on that achievement, and build a shared future in every respect.

We will also press both Governments to accept their role, alongside local parties in finding an inclusive way of dealing with the issues of the past. Not one-off deals with a few people, but a comprehensive system for everyone.

Too often we have seen short-term decisions, merely satisfying one need at a time, rather than dealing with problems in a way that builds a long-term shared future.

Make no mistake: this is not just an Alliance “wish list” as some have claimed. This is vitally important if our society is to prosper economically and maximise our chances of investment as the UK emerges from the current recession. We will not attract the investment we need, whether local or external, unless we are seen to be creating the conditions of a shared future that will allow us to maximise our economic opportunities.

The challenge for this generation, for the lifetime of even the youngest person in this room today, is to break out of that cycle of tit-for-tat, short term actions. To find a way to break the strangle-hold that the old politics still has over our community’s future.

To fight a new political battle – not the ancient and outdated battle of unionist versus nationalist, or of orange versus green; but between old politics and new politics; between backward, inward looking politics and forward, outward facing politics; between zero-sum politics and win-win politics; between politics “for our side” and politics “for everyone”.

Let’s be absolutely clear. Alliance is the force by which we will do so. Only Alliance occupies the shared ground where we will have to build a shared future.

Remember what President John Kennedy said about the Apollo Space Programme: “we choose to do these things in this decade, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills; because the challenge is one that we are willing to accept; one we are unwilling to postpone; and which we intend to win.”

We are the party that is very, very clear about our community’s future, what it could and should be like, and how that could be achieved.

We are the party that is very, very clear about where our priority lies – that the biggest single challenge facing our community, and its Executive, is the challenge of creating a genuinely shared future.

The party that is utterly committed to overcoming that challenge, and to break the deadlock of old politics.

While other parties continue to pursue old political agendas, generating and sustaining stagnation and deadlock, and while, in the face of that deadlock, they retreat back to their familiar obsession with identity and the constitution – there will be no retreat by Alliance.

Let me remind you of another statement of hope by President Kennedy’s brother, Robert. Speaking in 1966, in apartheid-era South Africa, he said this:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Alliance has come through the fire of recent weeks, we have been tested and we have not failed. In northern Ireland, we are that change – we can break down the walls – every one of us is one of those ripples, new and old members – all our actions are those ripples building into waves that will sweep away the walls of prejudice and intolerance .

Our momentum will continue to build, our movement for change will continue to grow.

Whatever is thrown at us – metaphorically or literally – we will relentlessly: strive for change, lead change and deliver change.

We will create a new, better Northern Ireland, based on a new, better kind of politics – a politics for everyone.”

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