Conference, we meet today, in part, to celebrate. To celebrate the tremendous election victories of last year. A fifty per cent increase in our number of Councillors, including representation in four Councils where we had no representation after the last full Council elections – Ballymena, Coleraine, Craigavon and Down. A bigger group continuing to hold the balance of power in Belfast. Twice as many Councillors as the UUP here in Castlereagh.
Then there were the Assembly elections. All six outgoing MLAs who sought re-election were returned easily, joined by Judith Cochrane, who gained a seat, and Stewart Dickson, who succeeded our former, much-respected leader, Sean Neeson. Total vote up fifty per cent overall, an extra seat and two near misses. Those votes and that seat giving us an entitlement for the first time ever to one of the ten Ministries allocated proportionately. So a couple of weeks later, Stephen Farry joined me at the Executive table.
In half of Northern Ireland, the half centred on Belfast, we are not the fifth party: we are now the third party. That’s some progress. That’s some victory. That’s leading change.
Just at the beginning of the week, journalists reminded me of the accuracy of some of my recent election predictions. Two years ago, I told Conference that Naomi could win East Belfast, and she did. Last year, I predicted that we could have two Alliance Ministers, and we have. So this year, here is my election prediction: there isn’t going to be an election this May. But if there was, Alliance would do very well.
So with no election, it gives a bit more time for some detailed reflection on where we stand, on the 42nd birthday of Alliance, where we have come from and where we are going. In particular, on the third of this party’s life that has elapsed since the Good Friday Agreement.
Back in 1998, and in the immediate post-agreement period, there were high hopes of a political shift; that support would move away from the so-called extremes; but those high hopes were not fulfilled.
For a time it was difficult to convey our party’s role, when people could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that Alliance’s job was done – that what we had worked for had been secured, with power-sharing, North-South structures and acceptance of the principle of consent. Two Governments backed the UUP and SDLP as the way forward.
Of course, we knew that Alliance was about much more than these objectives; they were merely a framework within which we would continue to work for a genuinely shared future. Or, put differently, the Agreement was not a ceiling to our ambitions,
but a foundation on which we would build a different society.
However, the prevailing view was that leadership was granted to the UUP and SDLP, and subsequently to the DUP and Sinn Féin. It was assumed that all would be resolved by the political elites from either side of the old divide. We should acknowledge that there has been some progress.
Of course we welcome that progress. We are in a better place than we were a few years ago. We will recognise genuine movement towards our vision, moves from any quarter. But let us not be deluded, nor shy away from pointing out where those high expectations of 1998 – the hopes of an overwhelming proportion of our people in the referendum on the Agreement – haven’t been fulfilled. We will not be frightened away from pointing out where we need to go further, or where the rhetoric of unionist and nationalist leaders isn’t reflected by the reality of what we see in the communities we represent.
That is why Alliance is now so relevant, why our support is growing. Those who founded Alliance back in 1970 were impatient for change, impatient to see a transformation of Northern Ireland. They came together from a variety of political backgrounds, but they united, they formed an Alliance of progressives who put the past divisions behind them to change Northern Ireland. That small group, led by Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper, had a real vision, a vision which they determined to put into practice and which they sacrificed much to achieve.
Sadly, we said farewell last year to Oliver. He was the driving force behind the formation of the party, bringing his background in the Ulster Liberal Party and his commitment to non-sectarian politics. He was elected Leader on the formation of the 1973 Assembly, and was Minister in the Office of Law Reform. Oliver led Alliance right through to the Assembly of 1982-85, and was actively involved in the negotiating team that represented Alliance in 1996-98.
As many of us remember, Oliver came so close to winning the East Belfast seat for Alliance in 1979, but he lived to see Naomi achieve that, and to play his part in the campaign two years ago. And who could forget that powerful, determined speech that he made at the fortieth anniversary dinner. So today, we remember all that Oliver achieved with real thanks and gratitude. But for his Leadership, we would not be where we are today – and nor would Northern Ireland.
Oliver and his colleagues in 1970 were impatient, they weren’t prepared to accept the status quo then, and nor are we in 2012.
That’s why we panned the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy when it was published by the DUP and Sinn Féin in 2010. Should we have praised their achievement in agreeing any strategy at all? Certainly not. Our job, even now that we are in the Executive, is not to walk away from our principles, or water down our determination. Our task is to hold to our ideals, to demand the actions that we know are needed.
That is why, even though we have worked with the other parties to try to produce a CSI strategy worthy of the name, we will not sign up to anything that sells that name short. The test for our support will be high, because what is at stake is whether or not the Executive will deliver for our community on the biggest single challenge facing us – the creation of a genuinely shared future.
Let me be absolutely clear. I consider the CSI strategy as one of the most important pieces of work that the Assembly will undertake during this mandate. I have asked Chris Lyttle, as Vice Chair of the OFMDFM Committee to make it a priority, to engage with the other four parties and to work for the strongest possible strategy, to enable us to build a real shared future.
I will not sign off on any strategy that doesn’t result in more children being educated together; more people living in shared housing communities; more interface structures coming down; and a robust process for dealing with the scourge of flags and emblems that blight and label so many areas of Northern Ireland.
Of course, everyone’s talking the talk of a Shared Future these days. When he’s not threatening to collapse the power-sharing objective over the badge on a cap that some prison officers wear, Peter Robinson is talking about a Shared Future.
When they’re not insisting that the sectarian designations of the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved for ever and a day, the SDLP are talking about a Shared Future.
When he’s not wrapping himself in the Union Flag at the UUP AGM, Mike Nesbitt is talking about a Shared Future.
And when they’re not cutting all the funding of the Department of Education’s cross-community youth programmes, Sinn Féin are talking about a Shared Future.
But talk is cheap, just like a ticket for the odd sports event being played by the “other side”. Genuine leaders would turn up at Windsor Park before, and not after ‘God Save the Queen’, or arrive in Armagh in time for ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ before the Dr McKenna Cup match. Gestures may be a good start, but gestures are empty if they don’t lead to actions with more substance.
What costs is to lead, to go into communities and start to talk about lowering barriers instead of raising them; about building connections rather than fences. What Peter Robinson preaches in the press is what he and his DUP colleagues should actually put into practice on the streets of East Belfast.
And what costs is also to face down the Boards of schools and teacher training colleges and say “Sorry, we know you are proud of your past, but the time has come to think of the future. Segregation isn’t part of the future that any of us should be paying taxes to maintain.” What Martin McGuiness claims to aspire to, he and his Sinn Féin colleagues should deliver in relation to teacher training.
These two men have spent a lot of time in the last year looking back to the achievements of our industrial past. But in doing so, how much attention have they been paying to the fact that politicians’ actions in the decade of 1910 to 1920 entrenched the divisions that we are living with today – the politicians whose mantle they claim to inherit. So I say to them, “Let’s not just look back 100 years, let’s learn the lessons and look forward even ten years.” There is a real question to be asked: are we to spend the next ten years rewriting the past, or writing a new future? A Shared Future. A future for all of us, freed from the sectarian dogmas of the past.
If anyone wants to know what a shared future looks like, just look around this room. Just look at who we are and the diverse backgrounds we come from. Look at what we say, and what we do. Look at what we campaign for in Councils, in the Assembly and in the two Departments we run. Look at the Shared Future checklist that we produced and ask could any other party subscribe to all ten points?
You have already heard from Stephen about his work in the Department of Employment and Learning. You know what a difference it is making to DEL to have not just a competent Minister, but an Alliance Minister, in charge and how Stephen is using the opportunities he has to work for a Shard Future. Delivering change in a key economic Department.
We all know that the DUP and Sinn Féin have stated their intention to remove the Department of Employment and Learning. There are two possible explanations. Is it vandalism against an important economic Department at a time of economic difficulty, rather than the properly thought-out restructuring of Departments that we need? Or is it malice against Alliance because the growing strength of our party is a threat to the big two, especially in East Belfast?
Ministers lose their posts. That’s politics. But it looks to me as if Stephen is going to establish a record: the first Minister anywhere in these islands who is threatened with the sack because both he and his party are successful.
As you have heard, Stephen is working on a strategy for young people not in education, employment or training. He has dealt with the difficult issue of tuition fees. He has begun to tackle vested interests over the way in which we segregate teacher training, with all the associated costs.
So let me also say a little about the work of the Department of Justice and the agenda of radical reform in which we are engaged. As Stephen has done in DEL, I have tasked officials with assessing the costs of division that fall to the DOJ: while that work is not yet complete, it is clear that we waste significant sums because of the segregated nature of our society.
Last year, I was able to tell you that we were developing a new Community Safety Strategy, to build Safer, Shared and Confident Communities. As I said then, would we have included the word ‘Shared’ if there had not been an Alliance Minister? The Department has a key role in supporting the work of the Police Service, and the reforms to establish new Policing and Community Safety Partnerships are all about ensuring that we build better relationships between police officers and local communities in every part of Northern Ireland. Modern policing has a big part to play in delivering a Shared Future.
As Minister responsible for prisons, I devote a lot of time to reform of our prison system. Unlike the police service, there were no big changes to the organisation of prisons in the years after the Agreement. Indeed, I was recently told by a former direct rule Minister that prison reform was put in the ‘too difficult’ file and left for a devolved Minister.
‘Too difficult’ is not a term that an Alliance Minister understands. Like much else in the field of justice, rather than being too difficult to do, prison reform is too important not to do. I can assure you that we are now actively tackling the reform programme. As I told the Assembly before Easter, the process of reform is now unstoppable.
We are changing from the model dominated by concerns about custody to one where we are actively working to make society safer by reform and rehabilitation. I was delighted to open the new Learning and Skills Centre at Maghaberry Prison with the assistance of Stephen Farry, because his Department recognises the important role that it can play in the reform process. Not just an Alliance Minister delivering change, but two Alliance Ministers delivering change together.
One of the legacy issues faced by my Department is the responsibility for so-called ‘peace walls’. Interface barriers are a blight on many parts of Belfast, and some other towns. They are daily reminders of the world that we want to leave behind.
Early in my Ministerial post, I was asked to extend a wall in Belfast because of anti-social behaviour leading to minor acts of violence and fears that it would escalate. I don’t blame the civil servants concerned: they were reacting as they had been conditioned to do under direct rule. But I have spent a political lifetime seeking to end division. I opposed vociferously the last ugly barrier built at Hazelwood Integrated Primary School. There had to be a better way.
So, over a few tense meetings, we worked out how we could support those working with young people on either side of that divide and invest in people, not barriers. We didn’t extend the barrier there – and that set the tone for a different attitude. Last summer, when there was serious rioting in East Belfast, we didn’t extend barriers higher or longer, though we did address crime in other ways. In September, I had an enormous privilege, one of my most positive experiences as Minister. I didn’t just talk to officials, our partners and local community representatives about opening barriers. I went up to Alexandra Park off the Antrim Road and helped a dozen children to cut a ribbon and open a gate in the barrier that had divided that park.
The event was covered live on BBC News 24. How sad, and how ironic, that opening a gate in a public park made live national news. But how positive that local people from both sides, supported by Groundwork, the City Council, the Community Relations Council, the PSNI and the Department of Justice wanted to open a barrier that had artificially divided people in that part of Belfast. One of those present spoke of the ‘peace gate’ and he was right, for walls are a symbol of hate, while opening up walls is a symbol of progress towards a peaceful society.
As well as Alexandra Park, we have seen progress at Newington Street and Northumberland Street, with more expected in North Belfast. We are working with the International Fund to resource work with local communities who want to remove barriers. That is Alliance delivering, working in a partnership, leading change.
Of course, one of the key ways in which the Department of Justice works is that we agreed a programme before I took office two years ago. That has ensured that an Alliance Minister is able to implement Alliance policies in what would potentially be one of the most contentious Departments.
As Minister of Justice, I am pleased to have close, friendly working contacts with Alan Shatter TD, the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence and Kenny MacAskill MSP, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice. It is another example of the constructive, practical attitude we take to the tripartite nature of relationships in this region, on this island and within these islands. But it is not just common sense for my Department: it was also a pleasure for Alliance to strengthen friendships, with the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore TD, speaking at our dinner here last night and Vernon Coaker MP and Brian Hayes TD addressing Conference later.
So, take pride in what we have achieved in the last year, but never lose sight of our ultimate goal. What we have achieved marks out some early steps on the way.
I spoke earlier of our debt to Oliver Napier. We lost another stalwart of Alliance more recently, with the passing of Addie Morrow. Addie was Deputy Leader of the Party, as well as a Castlereagh Councillor for sixteen years and a member of the 1982 Assembly. He served Alliance in so many different roles, and was an inspiration to me, and many others.
Addie was utterly committed to peace and reconciliation in every aspect of his life. While he rejoiced in our recent electoral success, I know he also feared that as a community we hadn’t done enough to secure a peaceful and genuinely shared future. He was certain that among the political parties Alliance alone was really determined to transform this society and build a shared future.
I have mentioned recent elections, the elections that gave so much pleasure to those like Oliver and Addie who had laboured so long to see such success. The trend of results over recent years is clear.
There are two parties, the UUP and SDLP, which are mirror images of each other, casting about for relevance as their support drains away, no longer able to convey a sense of purpose to the electorate because they can’t agree on what that purpose is. They are casting about for relevance, but failing to connect.
Another two parties, Sinn Féin and DUP, are also mirror images of each other. But if the SDLP and UUP are to be pitied, the DUP and Sinn Féin are to be feared. There is plenty of fine rhetoric, but behind the rhetoric they have settled into a cosy carve-up. Look at their record.
The proposed destruction of the Department of Employment and Learning. Plans for the dual carriageway between Derry and Aughnacloy. Major spending decisions taken on a basis of ‘one for me, one for you’. The Social Investment Fund, with the appearance of a slush fund for their friends and supporters. An agreed policy where they share out the spoils of their victory over their unionist and nationalist rivals, entrenching their positions and the divisions that their politics represent.
So much for the two parties left behind in the past, and the two parties operating the carve up in the present. Let’s look at the fifth party – this party – a party on the rise, looking to the future. Our message is connecting with people, and we are showing we can deliver: at Westminster, in the Assembly, in Council chambers, on the streets and in the third and fourth biggest spending Departments.
Remember what I said at the beginning about our electoral progress. The third party in one half of the region, with representation in five Councils in the other half – and significant electoral campaigns last year in six more. Something we had not done for many years.
Alliance is building on strong support in many areas and breaking new ground in others. We are setting targets and meeting them; making promises to voters and keeping them. And we are certainly not resting on our laurels after last year. The Party Executive has made detailed and ambitions plans for the future.
So today, I appeal to people who vote for, who are members of, and even those who are elected as representatives of these other parties: do you want to go on forever, locked into the same old politics? Or do you want to see a step change; a radical shift in the politics of this place?
To those in the UUP and SDLP – are these parties really going to recover? Are they really going to deliver the kind of future that our community needs? If you think they are, carry on. But if your ambition is change, if you want to see a genuinely shared future, will you ever be able to achieve it in those parties? Do you want your politics to be defined by a never-ending battle for unionist votes or nationalist votes, or do you want your politics to be defined by the kind of society that we need to build?
So I challenge you, take a look at our Shared Future checklist. If you agree with it, can sign up to working to deliver it, then this is the party you should be in.
In this party, there are people who consider themselves nationalist, there are those who consider themselves unionist, and there are those who consider themselves as neither, or perhaps both – all fine.
In this party, while we may have different backgrounds or aspirations, and we may wish to hold on to them, we don’t let them imprison us.
So, if you want to transform this society and build a united community, it’s time to move out and move on. Don’t wait for the future to happen, to come along at some point down the line; join us and play your part to make it happen now, tomorrow, in the next weeks and months.
One of the things that depresses me is when I talk to people on doorsteps, and hear them say that they want things to change, that they hope they do, but they don’t think it will happen in their lifetime. That maybe their children’s children will be educated together. That maybe the barriers will be brought down by another generation, as yet unborn. We shouldn’t believe that, we shouldn’t accept it. I refuse to accept it.
I joined Alliance, volunteered with Alliance, worked with Alliance, represented Alliance and now lead Alliance because I believe that the politics of a country can change, that countries can be transformed; not simply be ending violence, welcome though that is, but by truly uniting our community.
Today, I must also mention another person who lit a candle for this society, rather than curse the darkness. Ray Davey founded the Corrymeela Community back in 1965, at a time of supposed peace, because he recognised the need to reconcile this community; that the end of the last period of violence didn’t mean a shared society. He died earlier this week, but he left us a powerful legacy, and remains a huge inspiration to many of us. To build a truly peaceful society, there is much more to be done than ending violence, much more than just encouraging better relations between two distinct groups. We need to move from a concept of community relations to a spirit of sharing and real cohesion.
In Alliance, we are dissenters – from the tradition of dissenters. We dissented in 1970 when we established this party and we dissent in 2012. We’re the people who aren’t prepared to accept the status quo. We dissent from the notion that we must remain stuck forever in the politics of unionism versus nationalism. We dissent from the notion that half of our people are born unionist and half are born nationalist. We dissent from the stultifying insistence that if change happens it will be when one side out-breeds the other. We dissent from the rigid insistence that our future ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
I was asked in a meeting with the SDLP recently: if you don’t believe that we must stick with the Good Friday Agreement, what do you believe in? I’ll tell you – we believe in a vision of society where politics are more accountable than they are now; where politicians aren’t labelled, and where if they refuse to wear the labels their electorate’s votes don’t count for less; where all minorities are protected and cherished, but where we share power on the basis of what we agree to deliver, rather than a carve up.
These are the things that drive me and my Alliance colleagues – a vision of a politics transformed, a radical change to the future of our community.
Conference, two years ago, I challenged you to win a seat at Westminster, and you delivered. Last year, I challenged you to achieve a second Ministerial post, and you delivered. I challenged you to win Council seats in areas where we weren’t represented, and you delivered. If any of you hadn’t noticed, in the last few years we have changed the electoral map! While five years ago there were four “main” parties, now there are five. Before the media often overlooked us, now they look for us.
So while we have achieved much, we won’t rest. We have ambitious targets, and we will work, relentlessly, to achieve them. We have proven we can achieve and we should settle for nothing less than continuing success.
So what’s next? What’s the next stage in this party’s growth? ….. It’s time to lift the ceiling off our electoral ambitions. So here’s a challenge: that in 2014, we will elect yet more Alliance Councillors -will you work to ensure it?
Another challenge: that in 2015, our seat in Parliament is successfully defended, whatever the boundaries. We owe it to Naomi – will you work to ensure it?
And a final challenge to you all: that by the time of the next Assembly elections, Alliance won’t just be in the top five, but we will have moved this party upwards out of fifth place. Will you work to ensure it?
Conference, we are leading change. We are delivering change. Our community needs that change. We must continue. Let’s all commit to that.