It is a great pleasure for me to be here this morning and thank you for inviting me to address your Party Conference. Having just recovered from my own Conference in Brighton I know how much goes into these events and how useful they can be for developing ideas and planning the future.
In fact when I told my family I was going to address the Alliance, there was some panic at the breakfast table- I think they thought my security remit had been extended to Afghanistan! So it is with some relief that they heard I was coming here to the more peaceful venue of Stormont Hotel.
But just as the terrible events of the 11th September set the context for my own party’s conference, I suspect that your conference will be touched both by that date and by the continuing political difficulties closer to home. Affected too by the link between those events- the terrible hatred that gives rise to terrorist violence
So I would like this morning to reflect on the changed world we now live in and to think aloud about the importance of the political centre-ground in such a world.
The horrific events of 11th September shook the world to its foundations. The images of almost unimaginable destruction will remain seared in the mind of all those who saw them.
And the sheer scale of the violence of that day- which we still all find difficult to comprehend- exposed more brutally than ever before the potentially awesome scale of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
The events of that day, and the subsequent construction of a global alliance against terrorism, has changed forever attitudes to political violence across the world. And there is no question that this has implications for us here in Northern Ireland.
It reminded us that terrorism is unacceptable whatever form it takes. It underlined the urgent need to find political solutions to our grievances.
And it stiffened our resolve. To isolate, to root out, to bring to justice anyone who clings to violence and refuses to make the transition to peaceful and democratic means.
We will play as active a role as we can in supporting the Home Secretary’s new counter-terrorist legislation. And this will make a difference in Northern Ireland, helping us to tackle terrorist finance and organised crime.
The Good Friday Agreement, negotiated by the politicians and endorsed by the people three years ago, is still the mechanism by which Northern Ireland is making the transition.
And today the Agreement is still the only means we have to resolve the conflicts of these islands and bridge the fault lines of history through dialogue and peaceful politics.
Of course the resignation of the unionist ministers from the Executive was a setback. But it is just that. A setback. Not a crisis. Not a breakdown. And certainly not the end of the road.
Together with the Irish Government, we believe that we will be able to restore the Executive and implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.
Of course we are disappointed. But there is life, and a very long life, in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Agreement has no stauncher ally than the Alliance Party. And the key elements of the Agreements have been the key elements of Alliance thinking for years: equality, rights and an inclusive government for all the people of North Ireland.
And, whatever the difficulties, the Good Friday Agreement has positively influenced every area of public life in Northern Ireland.
We have seen the impressive developments in human rights and equality and in the normalisation of society through lower security levels.
Most recently, we are about to witness the creation of a new Police Service, which enjoys support from all sections of the community for the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland. That is a truly significant step and a real sign for the future. A sign of hope because the courage of young men and women who have come forward in their hundreds to join the new service has been matched by the courage of politicians who are willing to join the Policing Board.
Above all we have seen a devolved administration which, for all its frustrations, embodied power sharing and parity of esteem. I know that working these institutions has not been easy and has been made even more difficult by the continuing uncertainty over their future. But I am constantly impressed by the efforts of so many MLAs to make the Assembly work for the people of Northern Ireland and I believe that those efforts will be rewarded.
But perhaps even more significant than any of these political achievements of the Good Friday Agreement has been the transformation of the quality of life for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. As politicians and elected representatives you will know better than I the impact on everyday lives of the economic boom which has followed the Good Friday Agreement. Peace has brought the highest growth rates in the United Kingdom, falling unemployment, and a boom in construction which no one who has passed through Belfast or glanced at the property pages could have failed to notice.
But despite the great successes of the past few years there have also been great disappointments.
Political agreements has not led to sudden integration. In some areas society is actually more polarised and political opinion more starkly divided. Insecurity, fear of change, uncertainty and instability have all driven people apart. Under such pressures the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics has not been a comfortable place.
It has not been easy to be pragmatic and reasonable as others become dogmatic and confrontational – at times of crisis it feels much safer to stay in the bunker. So to keep alive the ideals of consensus politics at a time when the centre ground is portrayed as irrelevant is a difficult, challenging task.
So I want to pay tribute, as the Secretary of Sate did, to Sean Neeson’s leadership. Sean never lost enthusiasm for the Good Friday Agreement. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.
Sean knew, as all of you know, that the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics has never been an easy place to be. It has always been easier to say no rather than yes, to be dogmatic rather than pragmatic.
In the polarised world of Northern Ireland Politics, the Alliance Party has been a voice of reason, a haven for those whose prime interest is good government, equality and rights, rather than constitutional conflict.
It takes real courage to hold the centre ground – not simply splitting the difference between two extremes but arguing for a richer, non-partisan agenda which has at its heart the interests of all people in Northern Ireland.
Your politics is not about Protestant against Catholic, nationalist against unionist. You have long been a voice of reason, long preached
Tolerance when both were in short supply. And those qualities have never been so relevant as they are today.
There are no magic solutions to our difficulties, no single person or party can unblock the process.
On Monday we must all get back to the unglamorous and often unseen business of building the trust that is at such a low ebb today
The issues are clear.
We have to address the very real fears that both sides of the community now feel. Unionist fears that republicans’ words about peace have not been matched by their actions. And nationalist fears that unionists do not share their commitment to inclusive institution.
And we have to address them urgently.
Most of all we have to guard against a dangerous vacuum developing at the heart of Northern Ireland politics. A vacuum that experience tells us is often filled with violence.
Some of my early experiences as a minister in Northern Ireland have been shocking. Until I came here I could not have imagined the horror of pipe-bombings, of punishment attacks.
And I could not have predicted that, on 12 September, the day after the most devastating single terrorist attack, there would be an attempt to murder police officers in Northern Ireland.
That is why the Secretary of State, John Reid, announced at the Labour Party Conference that we will legislate to criminalise manifestations of hatred, whether based on racism or based on sectarianism.
But if I have been shocked by the level of sectarian hatred, I have been equally surprised by the enormous goodwill of the people toward are efforts to secure peace. And the willingness of many politicians, Church and community leaders to strive for reconciliation and accommodation.
At times it has seemed that for each step forward we have taken two steps back. But today a level of dialogue and co-operation exists that even five years ago would have seemed impossible.
The Alliance has been the forefront of this long journey. And, looking to the future, your party holds out the prospect of a better way of living together.
Our efforts to find a way forward in the coming weeks and months will place a great burden of responsibility on your shoulders- don’t feel too daunted though, David!
I know that, under David Ford, you (the Alliance Party) will continue to be the same antidote to dogma and obstructionism as you were under Sean Neeson.
And on behalf of my colleagues in Government may I say we look forward to working with you. Our partnership will one day build a new Northern Ireland out of the fear and hatred of the past.