It was almost inevitable that this General Election would be dominated by the issue of Agreement and it implementation. Over 71 percent have already said ‘Yes’ to a new beginning. No one can reverse that. Nevertheless, voters will no doubt want to use the election to pass their verdict on what has happened since then.
Alliance believes that the electorate must do two things. First, they must act to defend the Agreement from the attacks of those who want to turn back the clock, tear down the Agreement, and undo all our progress.
The Agreement has already brought major change to Northern Ireland. The Assembly, in particular, has begun to make a real difference to people’s everyday lives. The Agreement still holds out the prize of peace, stability and prosperity.
Nevertheless, it is impossible not to see that there are contradictions and flaws within the Agreement; all has not been well with the implementation. However, renegotiation of the Agreement is not only unrealistic but is the dangerous delusion of demagogues. We must continue to move forward, not go backwards. Alliance is convinced that we build on the Agreement and make positive changes in the context of the Comprehensive Review, two years hence.
Yet, Alliance can understand that many people will be tempted to ask ‘Agreement – what agreement?’ It is right that people ask why all has not been right – the answer is simple: tribalism is destroying the Agreement.
Unionists and Nationalists have failed to collectively defend the Agreement and to act together in the interests of Northern Ireland.
Republicans and loyalists have stalled over decommissioning. The SDLP have refused to embrace a new beginning to policing. With rising crime and growing paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, their stone-walling is frustrating efforts to uphold the rule of law. The Ulster Unionists are fatally divided, and with their latest ultimatum, are placing the future of the Assembly in jeopardy. Unilateral threats have never worked in this process. Alliance is not merely one of many alternatives to vote ‘Yes’ once again, but is the only sure way to say ‘Yes’.
Yet, above all, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided, segregated and tribal society. Sectarianism remains rife. Peace walls are still being built in Belfast. People live apart. Our children go to different schools. It is almost like what Apartheid was in South Africa.
There is a huge paradox: on the one hand, the intensity of the conflict has been moderated, yet at the same time, the people of Northern Ireland are more polarised than ever. It is almost as if peace has come at the price of reconciliation.
So secondly, this election must be about more than just the Agreement. It is not enough to fight the battles of three years ago over again. We must look to the future, and ask what type of society we are going to create here?
For Alliance, the Agreement was never an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. It is a platform on which to build a shared, non-sectarian Northern Ireland. Unless we do so, the Agreement will surely collapse.
Alliance will be producing a manifesto that stresses the importance of sharing over separation. We will stress the importance of giving people a choice over integrated education and mixed housing, and we will give active support for pro-active community relations. We will stand up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Not everyone shares this vision. Too many people seem to be wedded to a limited vision of two separate communities living in an uneasy co-existence. ‘Separate but equal’ never worked in the American South, and will not work here. If we do not begin to address our differences, then those self-same differences will one day pull us apart, destroy the Agreement, and set back all our progress.
The Ulster Unionists and SDLP seem content to merely manage these divisions – they have done nothing to address them. Their Executive Programme for Government utterly failed to even begin to tackle the deep divisions in this society.
There is a tension between these two objectives – a clash between the short and long-term interests of this society.
Once again, this election is portrayed as the battle within Unionism and the battle within Nationalism, but this time with the added spice that moderate Nationalism and, even more crucially, moderate Unionism must be propped up at all costs.
But it would be a mistake for people to put their trust in Unionists and Nationalists, even the so-called moderates. You cannot be sure what approach they will adopt on the Agreement, or what type of society they will seek to build. Essentially, tribal politicians cannot rise above tribal politics.
This is a dilemma that Alliance has wrestled with. I believe that we have struck the correct balance.
Initially, we made representations to the Government calling for the Single Transferable Vote, which is used in all our other public elections, to be used for Westminster too. However, while the Government was sympathetic, there was not sufficient cross-party support to legislate within a short timeframe. This would have avoided the need for any party to stand down in any constituency to avoid dangerous splits in votes, and given voters the freedom to support candidates of their choice. There would have been no need for tactical voting.
The only alternative was for pro-Agreement parties to reach understandings about which candidate would be best placed in each constituency. Imagine the message that would be sent to the world if parties could rise above their ancient tribal differences to work for the common interest. Alliance did seek talks with both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, and a series of meetings were held with the UUP. However, neither party was prepared to show flexibility, and insisted in maximising their vote.
Nevertheless, Alliance has shown considerable leadership in deciding to stand down in a number of constituencies. Reflecting our cross-community identity, Alliance has regularly contested more seats than any other local party in past General Elections. Alliance is neither a Unionist nor a Nationalist party, and we offer the electorate the distinct alternative of non-sectarian politics.
It is neither fair nor realistic to expect Alliance to shoulder all the responsibility for protecting the Agreement. Others have to take on their share of the burden.
Ultimately, Alliance continues to have an important and unique contribution to make to local politics. Northern Ireland needs a strong and vibrant cross-community party. It would be a mistake to bolster the position of moderate Unionists and Nationalists at the expense of cross-community politics.
That would be dangerous short-termism that will only serve to perpetuate our corrosive divisions for longer. This election must be about more than just the Agreement.