Or perhaps not.
The great majority of our people – all but a few fanatics on the further reaches of unionism and nationalism – want this experiment to succeed. They may find it hard to believe, but they desperately want to end the nightmare of division and violence.
The British, Irish and American governments claim it is succeeding. Most of the media agree – well at least until the last few weeks they agreed.
Yet we knew that there were flaws – in the process, in the structures, in the relationships. Those flaws were bad enough when David Trimble and Seamus Mallon led the Executive on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement. The flaws have been exacerbated under the Governments’ multiple side deals with the DUP and Sinn Féin which they dignify with the name of ‘the St Andrews Agreement’.
As we look back over the changes which have happened since last year’s Conference, we can identify a great deal of work still to be done which was ignored, through either negligence or malice, by the Governments and the dominant parties.
I will come to that in a few minutes. First, let us celebrate our successes.
Some of you will have heard me recall that on the last morning at St Andrews, the Prime Minister – who was accompanied by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Secretary of State – promised the leaders of the UUP, SDLP and Alliance that there would be a referendum, not an election, to validate the so-called Agreement. I don’t know what Reg Empey and Mark Durkan made of that, but we had a party executive meeting five nights later, and I immediately asked the executive to prepare for elections.
Within a month, we had success. When Ulster Unionist Councillors in Coleraine blocked the co-option of Barney Fitzpatrick in place of a disgraced, convicted and disqualified DUP member, they weren’t intending to do us a favour. When Barney topped the poll in December, going up from sixth place to first, it showed that the UUP members had damaged themselves badly.
I want to say ‘well done’ to Barney, and a very sincere ‘thank you’ to everyone who helped in his campaign. At least one executive member travelled from Belfast to Portstewart to canvass, because he said he was scared to face me if he hadn’t. With a 19% increase in our vote share, it was a fantastic victory for Barney and for the Coleraine team, showing what this party can achieve far away from our areas of strength in greater Belfast.
But that was just the prelude. Not only did we get an Assembly election we didn’t need, we got it two months early, on 7 March. The campaign took place in the dark, wet and cold of February. In such circumstances, the pundits predicted that the two dominant parties, the relative extremes, would make gains at the expense of everyone else.
We were facing particular pressures. Not only had we just held on to our six seats in the election four years ago, but with the retirement of two of our long-established MLAs, there was concern about the loss of their personal votes.
I may have disagreed at times with Seamus Close, but let me state that nobody is more committed to the fight against sectarianism than he is. He has a formidable reputation as a local representative in Lisburn and Lagan Valley: a Councillor since 1973 and first elected to Stormont 25 years ago.
Eileen Bell served as my predecessor as General Secretary, and then as my Deputy Leader. While she was not part of the Assembly group during her last year, while she served as Speaker, she has contributed a huge amount to Alliance. As Speaker, she defended the integrity of the Assembly against all comers, both within and without the chamber.
Faced with a media that had written us off, two seats which were only held narrowly at the last election and the loss of two key players, we might have expected to be in some difficulties. We had no choice but to fight a defensive election, with the vast bulk of our resources targeted at the seven constituencies where we could hope to win.
We all know the results, but it does no harm to remind ourselves.
While it is right to congratulate and concentrate on the team at Stormont, there are two other ‘thank you’s to say.
First, to you, the party membership. We don’t win elections simply by nominating candidates. A huge effort is required and every door knocked, every label stuck, every pound raised, every leaflet dropped makes a difference. So congratulate yourselves.
Then there were more than seven candidates. With the exception of West Tyrone, where we gave full support to Dr Kieran Deeny, we gave every voter in Northern Ireland the opportunity to vote Alliance. That required other candidates who were prepared to fly the Alliance flag. For some it was a nominal candidacy, as their efforts were helping in a target seat. For others, there was an opportunity to build for the future. All made a real commitment by their willingness to stand.
So let me express the gratitude of the party to Yvonne Boyle, Stewart Dickson, Jayne Dunlop, Barney Fitzpatrick, David Griffin, Maire Hendron, Allan Leonard, Margaret Marshall, Tommy McCullough, Dan McGuinness and Sheila McQuaid.
Let me give a particular promise to them and their teams. The promise is simple.
There will be no more elections fought on a defensive footing. No more elections where we circle the wagons just to defend our ground.
In the next round of Council elections and the next Assembly elections, we will be actively campaigning to expand our base and elect more Alliance representatives.
There are no ‘No Go’ areas for Alliance. We can take the battle for an anti-sectarian Shared Future to every part of Northern Ireland and we will.
The time for defence is over because I am ambitious for Alliance. Ambitious to see this party make progress.
We have already smashed the notion of ‘the four main parties’. Either there are now five parties, or there are only two main parties. Political culture is changing across Northern Ireland.
The day that we took our seats, I faced the television cameras flanked by two other MLAs, Brian Wilson and Kieran Deeny. We announced that we had formed the United Community Group in the Assembly. All nine of us who are neither Unionist nor Nationalist were using that as our ‘designation’ and working together as a single group.
I threw out the challenge: We have formed a united and coherent opposition, it is up to others to form a united and coherent Government.
Eight months later, the gaps and inconsistencies in the Executive are becoming more and more obvious.
We have had significantly better media attention since March, though Assembly procedures still discriminate against us. I believe that we have had that attention for two reasons. Our increased vote share, our extra seat and the formation of the United Community Group means that there are now 9 active MLAs on the floor of the Assembly and in its committees, rather than five plus the Speaker. That is a considerable improvement and makes a real impact.
The other reason for our gaining attention is that out unique position is becoming increasingly recognised.
Remember what happened back in 1998. Following the Good Friday Agreement there was a huge momentum behind the idea that anyone who wanted to see peaceful transformation and progress should back John Hume and David Trimble – or as it soon became the Trimble and Mallon show. Yet we saw little real commitment to building a Shared Future and rather more of power carve-ups between the two leading parties, the UUP and SDLP.
That period saw an excessive concentration of powers and responsibilities in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, of hokey-cokey, in and out DUP Ministers, of extremely poor relationships within the Executive.
But, to be fair, it did see some faltering intentions towards ending sectarianism and building a Shared Future.
Since May 8, there has been virtually nothing positive to report. Sure, there have been plenty of stunts and photo opportunities. Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness will appear at nearly anything, state the obvious in a neatly crafted sound-bite, smile for the cameras, look serious or light hearted as appropriate.
But they haven’t done anything. And when we have tried to question them, they have simply failed to answer questions. In other legislatures, Governments may not answer questions from the Opposition, but they generally give the impression that they are bothering. Questions to the First Minister are more likely to be met with personal abuse than anything else.
OFMDFM is a department of two mutual vetoes, and those vetoes are clearly being exercised on a regular basis. Just look at the debacle over appointing a Victims Commissioner.
In June, we were told that a Commissioner would be appointed before the summer recess. Well it came and went, and it was well into September before a decision was announced to re-open the process and invite new applicants. If there really were flaws in the process run by Direct Rule Ministers, as they have claimed, that decision might just have been credible, had they announced it in early May. It was not in September.
However, to tell a number of people that they are good enough, but you are trying to find someone better when halfway through the process, is an insult not just to those who applied but also to victims of the violence. The suggestion that Northern Ireland is full of people who would have applied, but they didn’t want the post under Direct Rule is pathetic, though I suspect that a good effort is being made to attract new candidates to justify that stance.
The only reasonable inference from this decision is that Paisley and McGuinness cannot agree, so they are stalling for time. When I pointed this out at a meeting in early September, neither the Secretary of State nor the Irish Justice Minister was prepared to respond. It seems that they will continue to act as cheerleaders, not just for the process but for the under-performing Ministers.
In a spirit of balance and fair play, I feel I should list all the key achievements of Executive Ministers since May. Michael McGimpsey has ensured nurses get the same pay deal as Scotland and Wales and has protected the training scheme of junior doctors, enhancing their career prospects. Margaret Ritchie has decided to end the funding of the UDA-linked ‘Conflict Transformation Initiative’, disgracefully set up by Peter Hain.
And that’s it as far as I can see. The rest of the Executive has produced a plethora of consultations, postponements and fudges. Plus a few very poor decisions.
Let’s look again at the issue of funding for the UDA. As I understand it, the Executive didn’t want to discuss the issue back in June. That, of itself, speaks volumes about collective responsibility. But when Margaret Ritchie took a decision to cut funding, after a summer of violence between the factions of the UDA, she was criticised by Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Her position was made more difficult when the Secretary of State put out a statement, just before the 60 day deadline, saying that the UDA was ‘engaging constructively’ with General de Chastelain. I think that the people of Kilcooley and Castlemara, in particular, have seen quite enough UDA engagement in recent months.
We made it clear, privately and publicly, to Margaret Ritchie that we would back her if she continued to take a stand for integrity.
Bizarrely, when the Assembly heard the Minister’s statement, a succession of Sinn Féin speakers accused her of funding the UDA. It looked as if they had read the wrong script, and were incapable of adjusting to the reality of what was actually in the announcement. So much for collective responsibility.
The DUP Deputy Leader, supposedly speaking as a private member, launched a scathing attack on the basis of information that would only be available to another Minister. So much for collective responsibility.
In the Assembly, the UUP said practically nothing – led by their Deputy Leader – although the two UUP Ministers eventually backed their SDLP colleague when the row went to the Executive table. Yet in the last few days, their Chief Whip has attacked Margaret Ritchie. So much for collective responsibility.
That whole sorry episode of the handling of the so called Conflict Transformation Initiative is just the most public example of what is wrong with this Executive.
The key first responsibility of an Executive is to set out a Programme for Government and a Budget to ensure that priorities are met. Just after the St Andrews meetings, a year ago, Peter Hain gave the four parties that he assumed would be in the Executive extra money to employ Special Advisers to work on the Programme. Actually, it was to employ more Special Advisers, as they had been allowed to keep Special Advisers for four years after the Ministers they were supposed to advise had lost their jobs.
Yet the result is the thinnest possible document, with very little strategy and virtually no specific targets.
Northern Ireland society is still distinct from its neighbours because, despite great progress in recent years, we are too often defined and restricted by sectarianism and segregation. Yet the Programme for Government makes no mention whatsoever of this. The four Executive parties have signed off on a Programme which contains no commitment at all to tackling sectarianism.
Let us be quite clear: this is because all four parties wish to maintain the communal carve-up which holds this society back but which gives them their political base.
Let us be quite clear that this single issue illustrates perfectly the difference between the parties in Government at Stormont, and us in Opposition. Let us be quite clear that the Alliance Party will not allow silence on sectarianism and segregation. These continue to destroy more lives in this country than any other. Never has it been clearer that we, and dare I say ourselves alone, are going to have to tackle them.
Not only is there no intention to tackle sectarianism, the Executive is clearly confused about the make-up of the new Northern Ireland. What are, and I quote, ‘new minority ethnic groups’? Are our Chinese or Indian citizens who arrived here 30, 40 or 50 years ago, new? Are Polish, or Portuguese, or even Scottish immigrants ethnic minorities?
We are fed up with people in this society being cast off into boxes for the sake of an easy life. We are all citizens of this society, we are all individuals, we must all be treated fairly and equally.
As for integrated education, this receives not a single mention. The most obvious form of division in our society remains totally without support in the Executive. Let us be clear again: it may lack support in the Executive, but it has clear support in the Opposition
Perhaps most staggering of all, when we look at the Executive’s priorities, education as a whole is omitted. Completely omitted. For this Executive and the four parties in it, apparently, schools are not a priority. Nor are training and skills.
Supposedly we are going to create lots of high wage, high value jobs without giving people the skills to take them on. If ever an Executive party mentions schools, training or skills, be sure to remind them that they were in the Executive which indicated, beyond dispute, that it had no interest in any of these.
These were far from the only omissions. The Arts, for example, will merely be ‘promoted’ – but there will be no extra money, no new policy, no national theatre initiative. Perhaps we should not be surprised – this Executive has no interest in tackling sectarianism, so why would it promote something so effortlessly cross-community as music, theatre and drama?
Or take the issues around the environment. Northern Ireland desperately needs an independent Environment Agency, has serious planning and conservation problems, and faces 25 legal proceedings brought by the EU over environmental mismanagement. Yet the only measure brought to the Assembly by the DOE is the Taxis Bill.
I know taxis are important, but I believe that the future of the planet is more important.
Meanwhile, the Executive has put off tough decisions on water taxes, rates reform, the future of post-primary education and a host of other issues. There is no decision too serious to be ducked or pushed over to a panel of experts.
Why don’t Ministers have the courage or the will to take the decisions they were elected to take? Why won’t they accept the responsibility that comes with the salary? And what were those Special Advisers doing for the last year?
In the first Assembly, we criticised the UUP and SDLP for a failure of nerve when it came to tackling the difficult issues of building a Shared Future. But at least there was some lip service in their plans and Programmes. In the current Executive, there is clearly no desire to build a Shared Future. There is no ambition to overcome that division.
I believe that the politicians are way behind the people, and it’s time the people were given a positive lead. Last summer, I spoke to a group of Americans on a study trip, and the questions turned to personal relationships, as opposed to political structures.
I recalled the day nearly 40 years ago when violence broke out on the streets of Derry. I was on my summer holidays, staying in the house my mother was born in about thirty miles from Derry. It was a lovely August day and I had been working with my uncle as four families, two Catholic and two Presbyterian, helped each other to harvest the corn. The evening news had told us that others were unable to respect their neighbours, with common history and a common future.
More recently, I heard two of the neighbours discuss how to ensure a good education in the village as both of the primary schools face falling rolls. Two ordinary mothers, with more practical common sense than the Education Board and CCMS combined.
Our job is to ensure that the structures of society work to support those who are building a Shared Future and to ensure that this becomes the norm in every part of the region.
I’m ambitious for Northern Ireland; and I think we all should be. We have the human talent to take on the world, although we still export too much of it. We have a world-class physical and cultural location, on an Atlantic island which speaks English and is culturally close to the United States whilst being an integral part of the European Union. We are attracting tens of thousands of people from all over the world, many of them among the brightest and best of their own countries.
When you look around Northern Ireland now, it’s obvious just how much this place has improved over the past decade. People often comment how much it feels like a normal, progressive, European country rather than the place apart it once was. I agree with that view – it’s something that has been great to see, and great to be part of. It’s something to be proud of.
But I don’t actually think we’ve come far enough. When I say I’m ambitious for Northern Ireland, I mean that. I’m seriously ambitious for Northern Ireland. Why shouldn’t we be the most prosperous country in Europe? Somewhere has to be. We have the talent to do it. And while we’re at it, we should be looking to build the most vibrant, dynamic and just plain fun place to live in Europe.
There is no reason for us to settle for second best. South of the border, they stopped settling for that a long time ago, and now they’ve built a world-beating economy and cultural dynamo. There’s nothing that has been done down there that can’t be done up here, but for that to happen, we need to throw off the shackles of the past.
Sadly, the people running the country are the people who still depend on those shackles for their political power. Our public finances are, frankly, in a mess but Paisley and McGuinness still refuse to do anything about the fact that we waste more than a billion pounds every year in paying the price for a segregated society – a figure that comes not from us, but from a report commissioned by their own department. A report they are now trying to hide and forget, because they don’t like the conclusions.
That sort of attitude isn’t good enough – not for a society that is moving forward. Moving forward not because a few of its politicians have done something they should have done decades ago, but because its people are too busy building a future to waste their time on the past.
It isn’t good enough in a globalised world where, as we have so tragically seen this week, jobs and business can move halfway across the world in the blink of an eye. In today’s world you have to be bang up to the minute or you just don’t hack it. Hiding in the 17th Century isn’t an option any more; even if you do it with a special friend.
Northern Ireland can’t afford not to be ambitious. I said earlier that Alliance wouldn’t be circling the wagons any more. Northern Ireland doesn’t have the luxury of circling the wagons either. It’s high time for us to go out and sell ourselves in the global marketplace, while welcoming to our shores the best that the planet has to offer.
Alliance is the only party that has the wider vision that can lead Northern Ireland to success in a globalised world; the only party whose beliefs are rooted in the sort of society we want to create rather than the flag we like to wave.
After many difficult years, a corner has been turned, both for this party and for this society. Alliance has grown in strength. We have demonstrated the fallacy that tribal politicians can build a Shared Future.
Our vision is one of a society where people – wherever they’re from, whatever they want to do – can make their dreams a reality. That vision chimes with a place with one of the youngest and best educated populations in Europe. It chimes with people who are bored of the sterile arguments of the past who, as we saw in South Belfast this year, want to embrace a changing world, and grasp the unparalleled opportunities available to them.
Join me … make Northern Ireland a place to be proud of. The only way we’ll create the society we want to live in is to go out and work for it. Seize the future – because the future has never looked so good.