David Ford’s Party Leader’s Speech at Conference

Time for Leadership

Another year has passed since we met in Conference at Dunadry. A full year of devolution under the leadership of the DUP and Sinn Féin has passed. Actually sixteen months, one third of a four year term. But when I talk of leadership, I sense that I have used the wrong word for those two parties.

We know that all is not well in the Executive. It doesn’t take a genius to work that out. However, I am here today not to tell the world how bad this Executive is – the world already knows! I am here today to talk of a strong and growing Alliance Party ready to provide those who are disenchanted with that Executive and the other parties with a new and exciting political home.

For the only progress worth speaking of has been progress for this party. It is solid progress to build on. I believe that we are providing leadership for this community as we seek to move forward.

Last year, I was able to welcome electoral success, with the election of Barney Fitzpatrick who gained a seat on Coleraine Council and Anna Lo who gained the Assembly seat in South Belfast. This year was not quite the same. But there were real gains.

At the civic level, Gerardine Mulvenna is Deputy Mayor of Larne, as part of the four party office-sharing policy there and is making her presence – and the party’s policies – felt. Here in North Down, we have seen the unusual sight of an Alliance Deputy Mayor taking office the year after an Alliance Mayor. Let me thank Stephen Farry for what he achieved during his term, and encourage Ian Parsley to continue that good work this year.

In the by-election in Dromore, despite all the fuss and bother between Jim Allister’s TUV and his erstwhile colleagues in the DUP, we established a solid base in an area where we had a very limited track record. So much so that a Councillor from another party congratulated David Griffin on his vote and said he would make a good Councillor at the next election. That Councillor could see support fading away and David being the beneficiary. Sometimes you have to face the electorate two or three times before success comes along, but victory will be all the sweeter in two and a half years time. Thank you David.

Remember when I spoke last year, I made the claim that there would be no more defensive election campaigns, we were moving forward. I actually said there would be no more ‘no-go’ areas for Alliance. Well, just this week, in Enniskillen, a newer member, Dr Kumar Kamble took that to heart. In an area where we have not contested a local election for a decade, he established a solid base for future growth – and even beat the daughter of a local MLA.

Thank you, Kumar.

Over recent months, we have gained a number of new members, right across Northern Ireland. It is always a pleasure to write to new members to welcome them, but it is especially good to welcome those from outside our traditional areas of strength. When someone in Fermanagh or Magherafelt joins Alliance, it must show a real commitment to the ideals of the party. It certainly isn’t because an Alliance MLA lives next door.

Earlier this year, we gained an activist who does come from a strong area but who is particularly welcome. Andrew Muir was Chair of North Down SDLP, but has decided that progressive politics can only be advanced within Alliance. He didn’t come with tales of party rancour, just a straightforward commitment to building a shared future for all of our people and a belief that the Alliance record deserved his support. For that encouragement, and your enthusiasm, thank you Andrew.

But don’t think that we made no gains in public representation. For the first time in many years, Alliance now has an elected representative in North Belfast constituency, with Cllr Billy Webb joining us from the Newtownabbey Ratepayers Association. He even sent one of his colleagues, former Councillor John Blair, ahead of him to scout out the route.

Billy is a very well respected member of Newtownabbey Council. He has always been a voice for reason – quite an achievement in any local Council – and a hard-working Councillor for people in every part of his extremely diverse Council Electoral Area. He has greatly strengthened the Newtownabbey Alliance team and I am looking forward to working with him as Antrim and Newtownabbey Councils build links for the future pattern of local government. Thank you and welcome, Billy.

All of that shows leadership at a local level. We also have a vision that extends far beyond the local.

In May, we hosted the Liberal International Congress in Belfast, home city of the LI President and our former leader, John Alderdice. It was an opportunity to meet like-minded politicians from literally right round the world. Without a doubt, the highlight was the visit of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe.

Over those few hours, we saw a great political leader in action. He addressed Congress as a statesman, talking both about taking the power that the people of Zimbabwe had given him and about a process of national reconciliation. Then he went out into the street, to meet his people – Zimbabweans of different racial and tribal backgrounds – and was in his element as a real man of the people. Morgan won the election because he reached far beyond his traditional base and persuaded former supporters of Mugabe to see a better future. Real leadership.

Following that visit, Alliance has worked with local MDC members to highlight the plight of Zimbabwe to MLAs and the community. It has been a privilege and an eye-opener. Today, we can rejoice that the MDC has taken at least a share of power: our thoughts are with the people of Zimbabwe.

We can see Alliance growing across the board. These are exciting times for our party. We are setting the agenda on key issues like ending segregation and protecting the environment. We will continue to lead the charge for change.

So where can we expect to go as we build up the strength of Alliance from Enniskillen to Groomsport? There will be many challenges on the electoral front. A European election next year. A probable Westminster general election under new boundaries the year after. Of course, for Northern Ireland’s version of ‘Super Tuesday’ in the USA, we have to wait to the beginning of May 2011. Eleven new Councils, plus an Assembly elected in 18 new Constituencies. All on the one day.

Each of those elections will be a challenge, but we have faced challenges before and overcome them. For the first round of elections after I became leader of this party, I faced the same questions at every election. Every journalist in Belfast was interested in how badly we would do. Each time we confounded predictions.

In 2004, John Gilliland achieved the best result for the centre ground in a European election since Oliver Napier in 1979. The following year, we put up the Alliance vote in the Westminster election and had a net gain of three Council seats. In 2006, we won the Skerries by-election and last year we had a significant increase in our vote to gain a seventh MLA.

I believe that the coming elections are going to see us increase our votes, our seats and our influence across Northern Ireland. I’ll repeat a point. I said last year that there would be no ‘no-go’ areas for Alliance and those of you who worked in Dromore and Enniskillen have proved that.

However, much as I enjoy fighting elections, especially if we win, there is a greater purpose. That is to put our principles and our policies into practice. Political parties that don’t know how to campaign don’t achieve office. But political parties that don’t have worthwhile policies don’t deserve office. And political parties that don’t have principles don’t deserve anything.

Within the Assembly, we have concentrated on three key themes since the last election. The first is building a shared future and a united community by tackling segregation, racism and exclusion in all their forms. The second is building a modern economy, led by the private sector, capable of funding quality public services. The third is promoting sustainability and protecting the environment, ensuring that we have stable economics, and stable communities. These are interlinked – you cannot do one without the others.

Let’s look at some aspects of a shared future. An Alliance-influenced government would make the promotion of integrated education a priority. We would review the criteria for transformation and viability of integrated schools, to take account of the simple fact that – unlike 1970 – this community no longer consists almost totally of locally-born Catholics and Protestants.

We would ensure that the default position on the provision of schools is that the integrated option should be available to all parents, just as the Catholic Maintained and de-facto Protestant options are available to all.

We would also ensure, on the grounds of sustainability that sharing of resources and co-operation across different sectors was encouraged, not discouraged. It’s starting to happen at 16 plus. Why is it not the norm at all ages? Why cannot we see new ways of allowing the controlled school and the maintained school in a village to work together, so that young children don’t have to do the bus run.

Financially, that would cut out waste – it’s part of the billion pounds a year that our President highlighted. It would also encourage social cohesion and start to build a shared future.

Nobody expects it will be easy to save that billion pounds. But isn’t it time we made a start? That requires creative thinking and willingness to take actions which are harder in the short term, but start to solve problems in the longer term.

There have been some gains recently in the removal of paramilitary flags and emblems from public property, but the fact remains that the Roads Service is still better at removing posters from lamp posts if they advertise the PTA jumble sale than if they advertise illegal organisations. The Housing Executive is still more likely to move the victims of intimidation than the perpetrators.

And we have seen the continuing building of barriers to separate people on the ground, even though we know that once they are built, it requires enormous effort to remove them. Building community confidence is the real solution, not building barriers.

Such an approach requires leadership both at local level and at the political level. Leadership that is sadly lacking at this time, but leadership that is vital if we are to build a real shared future.

Those Shared Future objectives are also central to economic success. Wealth creators are simply not going to set up in locations where their access to potential employees, suppliers, and services is limited by communal division – whether visible or invisible. For business too, the costs of division are real.

During the US Investment Conference this year, we heard from Mayor Bloomberg of New York that you cannot build a successful economy in a city divided by so called ‘peace walls’. Maybe Northern Ireland needs to learn that lesson from him.

We are also not ambitious enough on the economy. We need to think of Belfast as a city of 720,000, not 270,000 – with a planning service, public transport plan and local government system built to match. The Executive had only one economic policy – to lower corporate taxes. After that failure, it had nothing new to offer.

There was no discussion of tackling division, no discussion of delivering a more sustainable transport system so that people can actually move around our capital city, no discussion of the potential for the green economy.

“Re-balancing the economy” means not just shifting from public to private, but promoting innovation and risk-taking across all sectors; promoting the more effective use of the voluntary sector as a provider of expertise; and a more enthusiastic approach to the potential of the European Union to deliver investment and even recruits for business.

It also means tackling some of the vested interests holding us back from creating real wealth right here in Northern Ireland – we in Alliance must commit ourselves to doing that: it is the only sustainable option.

We have specific advantages in our own indigenous resources. Some of the most useful winds in Europe blow over this island, which has the best conditions in Europe for growing biomass such as willows and is surrounded by some of the strongest tides in Europe. An Alliance-influenced government would ensure joined-up action between the Departments of Agriculture, Environment and Enterprise so that we would become a world leader in renewables. There are several hundred potential jobs there, as well as providing security of supply and stable prices for domestic and business consumers.

Possibly one reason why the Executive is not doing much work in this area is that the Minister of the Environment doesn’t believe that mankind has any responsibility for global warming. While he has some good ideas on environment at the very local level, he is in denial about his responsibility under the coming Climate Change Act. Sammy Wilson as the clown of DUP conferences and the Assembly back-benches can be mildly amusing: Sammy Wilson as Environment Minister is an embarrassment to politics.

If we are to build a sustainable society, capable of providing for the needs of our children and grandchildren, it is time that the Executive took serious action. We need to see our society move forward to build a shared future.

The economy and the environment are vital to our future. They are vital in the same way a shared future, is vital. We must build a Shared Future, including a prosperous economy and a sustainable society people can be proud to call home.

You know that, and I believe that many people across this community know that. But what are we seeing at the moment?

In recent days, people have been despairing over the dangerous games that Sinn Fein and the DUP are playing. I don’t want to be negative about Northern Ireland. I don’t want to be negative about devolution. I want to hear success stories – but there aren’t many at the moment.

The DUP and Sinn Fein deliver only the politics of confrontation, but Northern Ireland desperately needs stability. If the Executive does not meet in the coming days, Sinn Fein and the DUP will push Northern Ireland once again towards the abyss. It is time that Sinn Fein and the DUP stopped letting the people down.

We need cool heads to deal with the current problems, not the actions of hotheads. We need constructive leadership, living up to the promises they made when they took power last year. And we need long-term strategy instead of quick-fix politics. Instead, we have tribal knee-jerks.

Confrontation government doesn’t work. It’s not big and it’s definitely not clever. On Tuesday, Gordon Brown praised the leadership of the Executive parties. Getting praise on leadership skills from Gordon Brown is not exactly something to be proud of. Where is that leadership?

This type of tribal behaviour motivates Alliance and our activists even more. We are not going to settle for a government that does not and will not work. We want to lead Northern Ireland forward to a shared future, where politics works and prejudice is a thing of the past.

People are having sleepless nights over ever-increasing bills and the total chaos facing their children in relation to the 11-plus. The Executive is not tackling these vitally important issues: they must get back to work now or else they will lose the confidence of the public and the chance of a lifetime to make politics work here.

We have heard about the letters from Robinson and McGuinness on tackling poverty. What good are letters when the people need action now?

That is why talk of the devolution of Justice now is premature. Alliance always said that we needed to see a stable Executive working well for a period before Justice could be devolved. I remember suggesting that that time period could be expressed as ‘two marching seasons’.

Well, two marching seasons have come and gone since the current Executive took power last year. We have seen a much more peaceful atmosphere on the streets but instability in the Executive. The condition is now reserved: the people need to see stability in the Executive before there could be devolution of Justice to deal with issues on the streets.

I know there are many in this room who desperately want to see Alliance in power, in Stormont as in local Councils. Look at the example of Belfast City Council, where our group, led by Naomi Long, has held the balance of power for three terms. It is widely recognised that this has coincided with the best period for civic progress in Belfast for generations.

Except that it is not a coincidence: it is because Alliance Councillors have the right principles and put in place the right policies for everyone in the city, despite the best efforts of others to hold them back.

To those of you who are hungry to see Alliance taking power, I can assure you that we will be in power soon – when the conditions are right. Right for us to make a real difference and implement the policies that will bring us nearer to a United Community.

They’re not right at the moment. Fundamental changes need to be made across government. We are not interested in being thrown a few sweeties. Our demands are much higher, because we care about the future of this community.

The list of Executive failures is well known. I don’t need to rehash the details of education reforms, rural planning, the lack of an Independent Environment Agency, the non-existent multi-sports stadium, water charges, fuel and housing costs, the shabby treatment of victims.

There are also real issues to be addressed about policing and justice. The last issue is who the Minister might be in some future hypothetical circumstances. We will use any influence we have to deal with the real issues that matter. They include all the following points:

The current budget for justice is inadequate to meet the needs of a society in transition, with massive investment needed to improve buildings and IT equipment alone. Yet it is only guaranteed for a couple of years under the current spending round. Devolution of power just as the Treasury squeezes spending would be disastrous.

The current manpower of the Police Service, at 7,500 officers, would be cut to 6,028 in two years under Treasury projections. If we are going to make real progress on removing physical barriers and reducing psychological barriers, we need to be investing in community policing.

My vision of a police officer is not of a man in riot gear waving a truncheon beside an armoured Landrover. My vision is of a well-educated man or woman meeting the local community while out on the beat and working with other agencies to solve problems and meet local needs. It needs investment, but it pays dividends in the long-term.

When people complain about the Courts and the criminal justice system, it is generally to complain about delays and poor treatment of the victims of crime. That requires investment and leadership to build on some recent pioneering work in a few areas.

When I meet people on the streets of South Antrim, they don’t regard devolution of justice as the number one issue. The few who do mention it tend to suggest that they would trust Alliance to do the job fairly. That trust is something hard-earned and we are not going to throw it away.

We will play a constructive part in any way we can. But we will not be used to apply a sticking plaster over a serious fault line within the Executive. There must be fundamental reforms. I care too deeply about the future of this society to prop up a failing sectarian and sectional Executive.

I care about the future of my children and grandchildren – and your children and grandchildren. I want to bring our agenda into government and deliver in the long-term where the tribal parties have failed.

I promise you that whatever decisions this party takes in the coming weeks and months will be based on making a real difference, making fundamental change instead of the failures of the current directionless Executive. I am determined that we will provide the leadership that a growing proportion of the whole community demands.

Conference, we cannot fail. Thank you.


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