Before we look forward, let us look back. Just forty years ago this year, a group of people had a dream. They came up with the ludicrous idea that politics in Northern Ireland should not be dominated by division, but should be about co-operation, partnership and reconciliation. The sceptics had a field day.
How could such a naive bunch of do-gooders have any prospect of success? The notion of overcoming tribal politics was preposterous. Commentators generally predicted that a party founded on such principles could not survive a single election.
They were wrong. Alliance stands here today as a mature party, confident and capable, determined to play a part in transforming Northern Ireland. Our vision and our values have stood the test of time. We are more relevant today than we have been for many years.
Nobody could expect that a party founded on the principles that Alliance put forward would achieve easy or immediate success. In a divided society such as ours, life was never going to be simple for Alliance.
So let us start today by paying tribute to those who had that vision and founded Alliance, who lit this particular candle rather than simply curse the darkness. Some are in the hall today, but I want to mention Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper, the co-chairs of the political committee, as they were quaintly described. Without the energy, the enthusiasm and the commitment of Bob and Oliver, Alliance would not have been founded, never mind survived.
We will have the opportunity to celebrate our fortieth birthday later in the year and we have much to celebrate and we will have more. However, that celebration will not be on the actual anniversary in April, since I suspect that we will be rather busy with a General Election campaign.
Let’s look at some of the achievements of that forty years. In Councils across Northern Ireland, Alliance representatives have played significant roles in promoting partnership and power sharing, in building a culture of good relations, of providing quality public services for all sections of the community.
Right from the early days of 1973, Alliance Councillors promoted and participated in the rotation of civic offices between members of different parties. Our representatives helped to set the tone for a different atmosphere in local government where they had influence, although some Councils took longer than others to recognise the benefits of a changed culture.
In that context, let me congratulate Cllr Tony Hill, who is the current Mayor of North Down – one of a large group of Alliance Mayors and Deputy Mayors there over the years – and Cllr Alan Lawther, Deputy Mayor of Antrim. Alan is the first Alliance member to ever hold a civic post here and only the fourth non-Unionist in thirty seven years. While I am grateful that he was supported by UUP Councillors, I might ask what took them so long.
I am glad that my colleagues in other places were not so reticent. In particular, the actions of our group in Belfast City Council over the last twelve years, holding the balance of power in the largest Council in the region, taking difficult decisions month after month with precious little thanks for doing what is necessary, show what difference it makes when you elect an Alliance representative.
Let us not forget that being a Councillor is still not an easy task. At times it still requires top class judgement and integrity, and the strength to carry that through. Can I thank Geraldine Rice and her team in Castlereagh – Sara Duncan, Judith Cochrane and Michael Long – for their determination and leadership at this time.
Meanwhile, we have had Alliance teams working at Stormont in a variety of different bodies. Let’s not forget that the first attempt at partnership government was as long ago as 1973/74. For some of us, that Assembly, as agreed at the Sunningdale conference, was a more genuine example of power-sharing than the rigid system of power-division we have seen since 1998.
It was a tragedy that the Executive led by Brian Faukner and Gerry Fitt, in which Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper served as Ministers, was brought down by the illegal actions of both republican and unionist terrorists.
It took another twenty-five years to see the restoration of devolution. We have seen a reduction of violence and some willingness of politicians to make progress and work together, but the current crisis shows just how far we still have to go. There are serious threats to both peace and the stability of the institutions.
Just two weeks ago, I found myself at the scene of another atrocity, just a few miles from here. I have no doubt that Constable Peadar Heffron was targeted by dissident republicans for two reasons. First, because he is a police officer and second, because he is exactly the sort of police officer this community needs: a Catholic, an Irish speaker, a Gaelic player. Today, on behalf of this party, I wish Peadar and his colleagues well and salute the courage of every member of the Police Service.
Personally, this is a significant month. Twenty years ago at the start of January, I left a secure job as a Social Worker to become General Secretary of Alliance. I have participated in much of political life here since then. I was in Parliament Buildings for the talks of 1991 and 1992, I know Lancaster House and Dublin Castle, I have been to Weston Park and Leeds Castle, I have been to St Andrews and flown home from RAF Leuchars, I know every corridor in Block B of Castle Buildings.
I am fed up with such travel and meetings. It really is time our political leaders learnt to grow up and take responsibility, and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland here at home. It is time that we saw some real leadership from those who have been given the duty of leadership through the ballot box. The largest parties still expect to be mollycoddled by governments. If parties were really showing leadership, we would see action in Stormont, by politicians elected to Stormont, to solve the problems at Stormont.
Alliance has always been prepared to work constructively, to do what is right, not what is popular. While I recognise that other parties have done the same at different times, it has far too often been in a atmosphere of brinkmanship, provocation and confrontation. Such behaviour shows that we have only a kind of pseudo-stability in our politics, not genuine partnership. Yet some politicians don’t seem to realise that their antics don’t just threaten the political institutions, they threaten the entire peace process and give succour to the men of violence.
On Good Friday 1998, there was a great feeling of euphoria across this whole community that politicians had reached an agreement. There was an expectation that things had changed, that we were living in a new era. Sadly, that did not last. Although we were told that the Agreement was an historic accommodation between unionism and nationalism, the UUP and SDLP failed to deliver.
This pattern was repeated at the election of 2007. The government focus moved to seeking an accommodation with the new majority parties, further promises of a new beginning were made. The public relation machine told us that we were at another new beginning, we had a new historic accommodation.
And yet? And yet what? Despite the bonhomie between the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister, not much was delivered over the next year or so. Issues that had not been already agreed – replacement of the eleven plus or an independent environmental protection agency, for example – were still not agreed. Ministers practised the art of stand-off, not the art of compromise. The nadir of this dreadful record was the failure to take any strategic action on promoting good relations and building a shared future.
Then matters got worse when Peter Robinson replaced Ian Paisley as First Minister. We didn’t have the good personal relationship any longer and we still saw no progress by the Executive on tackling the difficult issues. Just more of the same, and that’s not very much. Politics remains in a crisis and that crisis is deepening.
We are not just in a crisis over the devolution of justice, or the regulation of parades. We are in a crisis because the parties in the Executive have no shared vision, no shared values, and no plans for a shared future.
Last March, in the wake of three murders, we saw the First Minister and Deputy First Minister stand together with the Chief Constable. The problem was that they stood together because of what they were against, not because of what they were for.
We have an Executive which is dysfunctional, operating to a weak and insubstantial Programme for Government. It is not very good at implementing that Programme and well nigh incapable of agreeing anything else. Where issues were not agreed in the Programme, we have total chaos.
However, just because the Executive is not delivering does not mean that our team is resting on its laurels. Every Alliance MLA has to work twice as hard as other MLAs in Committees, where each of us sits alone, but with the assistance of Kieran Deeny and Brian Wilson, our United Community Group colleagues, we cover every item of business.
Let’s look at a few examples of their failures and the constructive actions we are taking. Inevitably, I turn first to education and post-primary transfer.
The Minister continues to insist that the eleven plus has been abolished and that she is putting children first. From where I stand, it seems to me that we now have two eleven plus systems and seeing ten year olds dragged round strange schools for several Saturdays in a row is not progress if you want to see the children put first.
The media has acknowledged the role of Trevor Lunn, who was responsible for bringing together representatives of four parties and others with an interest in education, to seek a solution to the transfer procedure debacle. Sinn Féin refuses to participate, but others are engaging constructively. I want to thank Trevor for all the efforts he has put into resolving the problem because nothing would be happening if he had not taken the initiative.
In both the previous Assembly and this one, there has been no progress within the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister on developing a good relations policy, what is now called the ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ Strategy. As Vice Chair of that Committee, Naomi Long continues to put pressure on Ministers, to engage with a range of interests and to develop a coherent policy.
While DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers are engaging in a stand-off on the devolution of justice, Stephen Farry has taken charge of policy development on issues concerning justice. I suspect that few people who are not employed in the justice agencies have the breadth of knowledge of this area, or the level of engagement with those who work in it, that Stephen has.
The reform of local government is another area which is held up by both inadequate preparation and lack of agreement by Ministers. As Environment spokesman, I have challenged the Minister about his proposed gerrymander to keep nationalist voters out of Belfast and what has been called his ‘pennymander’ to keep the rates of Forestside shopping centre in his own local Council.
However, the key role has been played by John Mathews, our representative on the Local Government Association who is President of NILGA this year. John is supposed to have retired from business, but he is working tirelessly to see that we get the best possible system when Councils are reformed. He has just managed to get five party agreement on a call to Ministers for decisive action. Agreement under Alliance leadership, while the Executive flounders.
All of this comes in the context of a serious economic situation, which is causing major problems for many of our people. This is likely to be exacerbated with cuts in public spending, whichever party or parties form the next UK government. Faced with this financial challenge, the Executive claimed that it would prioritise the economy but has actually done little more than indulge in cheap populism. Alliance has put forward serious proposals to rebalance and modernise the economy.
I have mentioned colleagues by name, but of course we are all fully aware of the work of our staff. Each of us is supported by constituency staff, by Stormont staff and by the work of staff at headquarters. I had the opportunity at our recent Christmas lunch to tell them how much we as MLAs appreciate their work and there are too many to name individually, so let me thank them as a group.
There is one person whose contribution to Alliance at this time demonstrates all the qualities that I have referred to. As Deputy Leader of Alliance, as Vice Chair of the OFMDFM Committee at Stormont, as a hard-working community campaigner, as a public speaker and as the current Lord Mayor of Belfast, Naomi Long is the epitome of what a public representative should be.
Naomi’s contribution to public life far exceeds that of many who have been in politics since she was in primary school. I suspect that Peter Robinson wishes she was on his side of the table when we meet and I am very glad that she is on mine.
I believe that Naomi’s political career is not going to end on the opposition benches at Stormont and that there are significant opportunities ahead. I know that both DUP and UUP members are frightened of her in the context of the coming elections and they have every reason to be.
The Westminster election is now more open than for many years, and far more open than we believed just a couple of months ago. There are a number of particularly interesting constituencies for us.
With the resignation of the sitting MP, Strangford is certainly not easy to predict. With increased media attention, I am sure that Deborah Girvan is going to be seen as a very positive alternative to the various shades of unionism and will build on the achievements of the team led by Kieran McCarthy.
East Antrim is another constituency where we will field a new candidate. Gerry Lynch takes up the baton in a seat where unionism is split at least three ways and there is a solid bedrock of Alliance support based on the hard work of Sean Neeson in Council and Assembly since 1977.
In South Belfast, there is clearly an attempt to establish a pan-unionist pact, despite all that we hear of the so-called ‘New Force’ being non-sectarian and progressive. I have no doubt that Anna Lo will continue to build on her Assembly performance, pulling in votes from those who genuinely seek a shared future.
It seems to me that the situation in North Down is now wide open, with nobody even sure who will stand under what party label – apart from Stephen Farry – and many possible scenarios. It is a constituency that sharply points up the inconsistencies of the pact between the Conservatives and the UUP. We have recently seen our vote in that area start to grow again and can be cautiously optimistic about Stephen’s chances in a field with up to four unionists.
However, East Belfast is not wide open: it is now a classic two horse race between a faltering DUP and a resurgent Alliance. Look at the Assembly election. Naomi was just behind the DUP leader, with the UUP leader a distant third and nationalists trailing further behind. This could well be our best opportunity since Oliver Napier came within 1,000 votes of beating Peter Robinson in 1979 and I know we have an excellent team capable of pulling it off this time.
In the meantime, we will continue to concentrate on the problems at Stormont and specifically we will play a constructive part in working to resolve those issues.
We are, at present, in the role of opposition at Stormont. Unlike those who think you can be represented in the Executive yet engage in silly stunts on a weekly basis, we recognise that there is a role for constructive criticism, supporting what is right and opposing what is wrong.
We are ambitious for Alliance and ambitious for Northern Ireland. We want to develop stable and sustainable political institutions which underpin a normal society. On the other hand, the Executive has missed too many opportunities. It has failed to provide good governance, failed to improve the economy, failed to promote sustainability of either the economy or public services. Most of all, it has failed to even start on the task of building a shared future.
We continue to seek changes in the institutions which will provide better governance, including normal government and opposition politics, with parties changing places as the electorate decides. The current structures were set up to support a peace process, not to provide coherent government. We will work for a consensus that recognises there is a better way and, in the meantime, we will play our part in the current institutions in a fair and honest manner.
We judge business in the Assembly on the basis of our vision and our core values. We will do so whether we are in government or opposition, because if we go into government, our vision and our values will remain unaltered and we will continue to pursue them.
You will all be aware of the sensitivity of the current crisis, but I want to tell you what we are doing to assist in resolving it.
We have said for some time that the important issue about the devolution of justice was to ensure that there was an agreement between the parties on the necessary policies, capable of being delivered through an agreed Programme for the Department of Justice. We have said that this is far more important than the personality of the Minister.
Just look again at the mess around the eleven plus, or the failure to have an independent environmental protection agency. Both of these show the real problems that arise when agreement was not reached in advance and individual Ministers did not agree with the majority of their Executive colleagues. Such a position would be absolutely untenable for justice matters, given the serious issues that will be the responsibility of the new Department.
That is why, 18 months ago, we very specifically refused the suggestion that we should provide a Minister who would have no real role, no powers, no influence. There has been a continuing media storm about who the Minister might be and we have continued to say, on every occasion in every way possible, that the issue is about policy, not personality.
Of course, I am ambitious for Alliance. Of course, I believe an Alliance Minister could be relied on to do a good job, a fair job, an impartial job as Minister in the Department of Justice, or any other Department.
But, in the present set-up, that Minister would have to have policy agreement among a critical mass of MLAs and Executive Ministers if they were to have a chance of delivering what the people expect.
It is immensely flattering to have people suggest that an Alliance Minister would be the best option to ensure smooth devolution of justice. That suggestion has come from journalists and commentators, from individuals involved in the justice system and from ordinary citizens with no axe to grind. I agree with them. An Alliance Justice Minister would be good for Northern Ireland, but only if the circumstances are right.
Obviously, I cannot go into the detail of what policy proposals we have put to other parties at this time. But I can assure you that the work done by our team, on paper and in face to face talks with others, by Stephen, Naomi and Gerry, is robust and providing the basis for real negotiations.
Remember that this is not merely about the institutions of justice. For us, no Executive is worth supporting if it is not engaging seriously with building a shared future. We need to see a meaningful consultation on the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy and swift action to implement that strategy across every Department and public agency.
Let me read you something I read yesterday: “The people of Northern Ireland are fed up with the delays, the nonsense, and the complete inability of those who were given responsibility in the last election to take that responsibility and live up to it.” It sums up current circumstances perfectly, doesn’t it? Actually, I said it in the Hain Assembly on 24 November 2006, the first sitting after Tony Blair did his deal with Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams at St Andrews.
When Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sat at that ‘diamond shaped’ table nearly three years ago, they promised that they would deliver good government for the people of Northern Ireland. So far they have failed, but the current crisis gives some opportunity to address the outstanding issues.
That is why I believe that the position of the UUP is totally wrong. Faced with a dysfunctional Executive, we have sought to provide stability and assist in resolving problems. The UUP holds two seats in the Executive, but is playing no constructive role, and allowing its backbenchers to indulge in cheap attacks.
Faced with the upsurge in dissident terrorist activity that the IMC recently reported, such behaviour is not just cheap politics, it is potentially destabilising to the entire peace process. The UUP justification appears to be that ‘the DUP did it to us when we were in charge’. That may be true, but do responsible adults adopt the attitudes of the playground?
The news of the secret talks last weekend between the Conservatives, UUP and DUP has to be seen in that light. If the Conservative leadership is prepared to tell the UUP to start to be less negative and work with others to bring about stability, that is to be welcomed. However, as the story unfolds, it appears that was not the agenda, or at least not all the agenda.
Tories in Northern Ireland have claimed to be non-sectarian and progressive, saying that they are seeking to introduce what they describe as ‘national politics’ to our society. I am not sure that nationalists would agree the language, but that is a credible position, although undermined by the way they need to highlight the role of Catholics – like women – in their organisation. The ‘New Force’ tie-up with the UUP calls those claims of non-sectarianism into question, but perhaps they hoped to reform the party of Craigavon and Brookeborough.
However, if there is any truth whatsoever to the talk of unionist pacts and realignments with the DUP also included, the claims of non-sectarian progressive politics are sunk without trace. If there are members within the ranks of the local Conservatives who genuinely believe in a shared future as a priority, I fear they are now in an impossible position. It certainly seems that some Conservative parliamentary nominees are now in that position.
On the other side, the SDLP also seems unsure of its position. A couple of weeks ago, one candidate for its leadership was calling for a three party coalition. He wanted to see SDLP, UUP and Alliance joining together in opposition to the DUP/Sinn Féin duopoly. At the time, I said I was doubtful, because of the attitude and behaviour of the Ulster Unionists. There’s also a slight issue with the way that the two of them participate in the mandatory coalition.
Now, this week, the other SDLP leadership candidate is so unhappy about working with Alliance, that she says she would leave the Executive if an Alliance Justice Minister was elected. She bases this on a claim that there should be five nationalists to six unionists in the Executive, which sounds pretty tribal to me. So upset is she, that she would resign and give the DUP an extra Minister. Not only tribal, but stupid tactics from the position she claims.
Faced with the behaviour of the UUP and SDLP, it seems there are really only three coherent positions in local politics. The DUP holds the unionist territory, Sinn Féin holds the field of nationalism and Alliance stands firmly on the ground of the anti-sectarian centre, of a shared future for all our citizens, regardless of their background or beliefs.
Those who are unsure of their position between the centre and their tribal background, seem to revert to type when any pressure is on.
The dominant parties are suffering a failure of leadership, and it begins to seem that they will need the direct assistance of the two Governments to get out of the holes they have dug for themselves. Twelve years after Good Friday, three years after St Andrews, that position is pathetic.
Frankly, calling in the Governments is asking for a figleaf to cover the embarrassment of doing the deal that they have known for a long time must be done. It is not just on environmental grounds that I hate the sight of helicopters on the Stormont lawn, but it may be necessary again.
If the people are as disgusted by all this carry-on as I am, then I trust that they will take the opportunity of making their opinions known where they count, in the ballot box. This year, there is a real chance of change, at least in East Belfast, but maybe elsewhere too. Just imagine the effect that the election of an Alliance MP or two would have.
So where do we go from here, at this time of crisis and tension for our community?
We have a unique vision that defines us. A vision of a shared and integrated society, where people are free to live and learn, work and play, together. A vision of a society which is progressing economically and socially, because only integrated societies grow and prosper. A vision of a politics that unites, not divides.
We will continue to put forward positive, constructive proposals to break the deadlock.
We will use whatever influence we have to build a shared future.
We will press for the values of civil liberty and freedom for every individual, including the right to be free of labelling by others.
We will work to provide opportunity for all.
We will work for a sustainable society, a sustainable economy, a sustainable environment.
We will work to provide security for every family.
We will work to realise that vision wherever and whenever we have the opportunity, in the Assembly, in Councils and in any talks.
We will take that message to the people in the coming weeks and months, confident that only Alliance can deliver, only Alliance will deliver, only Alliance can win for everyone.