Good afternoon. Two weeks ago, as we launched our campaign for the Assembly and Local Government elections on 5th of May, I promised that in the course of the campaign we would present our most comprehensive policy manifesto ever. Today we deliver on that promise.
And I believe that when people read the document they will see that not only is it Alliance’s most comprehensive manifesto ever, but it is the most comprehensive and ambitious manifesto ever presented by any political party in Northern Ireland.
I know that’s a big claim, but unlike many of the claims that have been made in the course of this campaign, this one is grounded in reality.
Indeed, this document could be described as much more than a manifesto. It’s a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of our system of government, our public services, and the policies and operation of our Executive Departments.
And it sets out, in considerable detail, the steps that we believe are necessary to deliver change – changes that will build us a Shared Future, and provide better Government and modern public services; change in the form of an economic revolution, and in the development of education and skills that will be needed to make it happen; changes to make society fairer, and our communities safer; changes to improve our health and well-being, and to develop a greener future.
This party has, of course, published manifestos before. Those manifestos guided our Assembly Members as they challenged Ministers and sought to amend legislation. But it’s fair to say that, while we were always ambitious as a party, we were also realistic about the immediate likelihood of Alliance MLAs becoming Ministers, and being in a position to drive an agenda within the Executive.
This manifesto signals a change in our approach, and reflects a change in our ambitions. It reflects our growing ambition to serve our community from within the Executive, and our belief that on the 5th of May we will see enough Alliance MLAs elected to guarantee a seat on the Executive under the current system for appointing Ministers. If I am then elected as Justice Minister there would be two Alliance Ministers at the Executive table. This is not a manifesto of changes that we want others to deliver. It’s a manifesto of changes that we want to deliver.
Over the last year we have shown that Alliance is able for the toughest jobs in government, and that we can match our ambitions with real delivery. We have shown what Alliance Ministers can achieve.
We haven’t run away from tough decisions and difficult problems – I’ve stuck to my plans to bring legal aid under control and to reform our prison system. This hasn’t been easy, and won’t get any easier, but when an Alliance Minister determines that change is necessary, change will happen.
And we have been straight with people. Where we have made promises and commitments, we’ve kept them – whether that’s been around Assembly and Westminster double-jobbing, where Naomi resigned her Assembly seat, or transparency around political party funding.
It’s about making tough decisions, standing by them, and explaining them to the public. That’s been our Party’s approach to the difficult issue of water charges. And on this I want to say directly to the people of Northern Ireland: the question you should ask your politicians is not whether they will introduce water charges, but how and when. Because the fact is that unless we want to keep subsidising our water system by reducing our funding on health or education, water charges will be needed.
That’s the honest position, and it’s why we haven’t hidden it, or made some vague reference to it in our manifesto. Rather, we’ve set out the detail of how we believe water charges should be introduced – a fair system based on your ability to pay, the amount you use, and a corresponding reduction in rates.
Identifying the changes that are needed to make Northern Ireland better for everyone; taking tough decisions and sticking to them; delivering on commitments and keeping promises; being straight with people.
That’s what Alliance represents for people, and the response that I have received as Minister, and the response that our candidates are getting on the doorsteps across Northern Ireland, is showing that people like what they’ve seen.
Journalists too, are speculating about Alliance’s prospects for gaining two seats at the Executive table. On a number of occasions during the campaign I have been asked which Executive Department Alliance would choose, or which I think that Alliance could make a real difference in. My answer has been clear – Alliance has the policies and the ability to deliver real change in any and every Executive Department – and the manifesto we are presenting today shows what I mean.
But our manifesto is more than a department-by-department breakdown of what we would do in each. We’ve seen enough of Ministers thinking and working in their own departmental silos. Rather, we are presenting a comprehensive, Executive-wide agenda of reform and delivery, based around themes.
Let’s take the economy, for example. The manifesto sets out the steps that we would take to achieve an “Economic Revolution” for Northern Ireland. Many of the economic drivers that we need to secure our recovery and transform our economic future – enterprise, skills innovation and infrastructure – are controlled by the Assembly, but are spread across departments. In our manifesto we call for the development of a Department for the Economy, as part of a comprehensive restructuring of Government. A single department would better promote the needs of business, address barriers to economic growth and ensure joined-up working. Pending that restructuring, we will develop a robust inter-departmental economic strategy by the end of this year, focused on protecting and creating jobs in the short-term, and setting out a clear long-term strategy for increasing productivity and competitiveness.
There are other levers that are currently outside the Assembly’s control. Alliance will continue to press for the Assembly to be granted tax-varying powers. With the Block Grant being set independently of the relative performance of the local economy, there is no incentive for the Executive to prioritise economic growth. The power to vary tax is central to the introduction of a lower rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland, and our manifesto commits us to lowering that tax to level with, or below, that of the Republic of Ireland. We would establish a better balance between inward investment and the growth of our local business base, with improved access to finance and venture capital, and a realignment of the Invest NI strategy to support investment in businesses and projects with a high degree of innovation and R&D content. And to complement all of that we would address the skills gaps that exists – targeting essential skills provision at the unacceptable numbers of people who are without essential numeracy and literacy skills, and working in partnership with business to improve employability skills and management and leadership skills.
These policies don’t sit within departments, they stretch across them – DETI, DEL, DoE, Education, and others – and as we have worked to achieve for the last twelve months, Alliance will continue to press for a step-change in joined up working across the Executive.
The Alliance Party’s long-standing policy proposal for a “Green New Deal” provides another example. What may sound like an environmental policy is much more than an opportunity to tackle the threats to a sustainable future. It also offers a valuable job and wealth creation opportunity in the high-tech, maintenance and agriculture sectors, and impacts on the work of DETI, DARD, DoE, and DEL, and others.
This is the way we need to be working. With a Justice Programme for Government agreed and a Justice Bill through the Assembly in less than a year we have show that it is possible to build consensus on some of the most contentious issues. Alliance will take that approach to any other department we are given responsibility for.
If it’s Education we will build on Trevor Lunn’s initiative to bring parties together to resolve the stand-off over the future of post-primary transfer, and break the deadlock that has prevented the establishment of a single Education and Skills Authority.
If it’s Health we will establish an All-Party Working Group to build a new and much-needed consensus on the major reforms that are needed within the Health Service here.
In every direction there are obvious cases for more joined-up working. Public money spent on separate transport fleets for health, education and rural communities; capital investment strategies for libraries, health centres and schools that could be joined-up to create modern, shared public facilities at lower capital and running costs, and with greater convenience for the public. Instead of closing libraries, why don’t we integrate them with our schools estate, large parts of which are lying empty? And, of course, there’s the potential to save the enormous amounts of money that we waste through the maintenance of a divided society – a social and economic imperative for us all.
The challenges facing this community are many. But so too are the opportunities to tackle them. Opportunities for more effective and efficient delivery of public services lie all around us, and the manifesto that we are publishing today sets out how the Alliance Party believes those opportunities can be taken.
It’s a manifesto for real change – for radical change – change that will begin to create a society where everyone can live, work and socialise together in safety; change to make Northern Ireland a better place to live – more peaceful, prosperous, open, welcoming and vibrant. It’s an ambitious manifesto for a party that’s ambitious for Northern Ireland.