This is the thirty-third Alliance conference. In a few months time, the party will be a third of a century old. And yet, the unique vision that we have, that distinguishes us from all other parties in Northern Ireland, is fresh and new, a beacon of hope for a society jaded by the politics of division.
There are some in this hall who were in at the beginning, some among the dozen or so who signed the document that hangs in party headquarters, to mark the party’s foundation. They are the people who recognised in 1970, before the troubles really started, that there was a desperate need for a party which could unite this community.
There are others here who weren’t even alive then. Indeed, there are at least three candidates who will carry the Alliance banner into the Assembly election who weren’t born for another year or two.
However, today we are not looking backwards to the party’s foundation, or even back five years to the Good Friday Agreement. Instead, we look forward a few weeks to the coming Assembly election. We do so in the context of a deteriorating international security situation, and at the end of the week in which the parties failed to establish the way forward.
In the election, we will be challenging for every vote possible in every constituency in Northern Ireland. It is appropriate to look at what separates us from the other parties with which we will be competing.
The events of recent years, indeed of recent weeks, have shown what a gulf separates us from the supposedly moderate parties on either side of the sectarian divide.
Remember the way that some people said that our mission was over on Good Friday 1998, that the Alliance party wasn’t needed any longer, because reasonable nationalists and unionists would run the show together. How wrong they were.
Before I look in detail at recent developments here, we should consider the international situation. In my first conference speech, I said that the world was closer to war than we had been for some time. Following the dreadful terrorist attacks of September 11, we were on the brink of war with an unseen enemy.
This year, we are again on the brink of war, this time with Iraq. It is a matter of grave concern that the UK Government seems ready to wage war at the behest of the US President, without the support of the United Nations. Alliance has always been a party that was concerned about the rule of law. We have always regarded it as a fundamental principle. But principles do not stop at national borders; they have international ramifications too.
It is clear that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator, guilty of heinous crimes against the people of Iraq. But the spectacle of Britain and the US deciding what is best for others smacks of an imperial era that should be over. Particularly when the two countries are failing to take any action to restore the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, a growing threat to regional stability.
I have many reservations about the policies of the British government, but it is right that we should pay tribute to the personal energy that the Prime Minister has devoted to the problem of Northern Ireland. In this he has had a tireless partner in the Taoiseach.
We saw them both in action earlier this week at Hillsborough. They devoted many hours over two days to working with the parties, dealing with the problems of the current impasse. But the fundamental problem is the breakdown of trust between the parties – and that cannot be cured with yet another quick fix.
The result, as announced in the early hours of Wednesday morning was a long way short of a deal, or even a ‘shared understanding’. Indeed, in the absence of real sharing, partly – but only partly – as a result of a frenetic round of activity into Tuesday evening, there isn’t even a shared text, still less a shared understanding.
The first thing that has to be said is that the discussions at Hillsborough were about the response of the two Governments to actions that have yet to be delivered by paramilitaries, the acts of completion that Mr Blair called for last October. So even if we had the final text in front of us this morning – and I expect to see it very soon – we would still not have the full picture.
We have welcomed some parts of the proposals, while reserving our judgement on others. For example, the Monitoring Commission is firmly based on proposals we put to the two governments as far back as last July. Eight months ago. Our idea of an Independent Observer of paramilitary activity has now evolved into a group with responsibility for assessing paramilitary activity, political behaviour and the normalisation of security.
If we had seen the Monitor in place months ago, when our suggestion was accepted by the former Secretary of State, we might not have had to endure the problems that have led to the current crisis. It’s a pity that while the Government accepted the Alliance initiative, it procrastinated over implementing it.
You will also recall that two summers ago at Weston Park, the Government responded to demands to do something about the status of Republicans ‘On the Run’ from justice. I am certain that Ministers were prepared to face down the opposition of Unionists, and implement an amnesty. But they were taken aback by the opposition from Alliance, which, with the support of our Liberal Democrat friends, forced a rethink of Government policy.
They should not have been surprised. Alliance is a party which believes firmly in the rule of law. That is why we opposed internment, why we insist that the legitimate forces of the state must obey the law themselves, and why we thought long and hard about the early releases in the Agreement.
‘On the Runs’ were not mentioned at all in the Agreement. They only became an issue subsequently. Throughout, we have insisted that fugitives from justice should be dealt with in line with the Agreement, in a judicial process which would allow release on licence, not an amnesty.
Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister promised us that there would be a resolution which met our concerns. We saw the detail this week. I believe that we are now near to a satisfactory solution, although we are still working to ensure that justice is seen to be done, and the concerns of victims are recognised and fully taken into account.
We cannot deal with ‘On the Runs’ in isolation. We also have to take account of those exiled by paramilitaries, forced to leave Northern Ireland by threats. We will continue to insist that before there is movement on OTRs, paramilitaries must remove the threats to the exiles.
But the most significant issue, the one that held us up until midnight on Tuesday, was the issue of sanctions.
In 1998, people voted for an end to violence, a new beginning. We knew that we would not move smoothly and immediately to a true and meaningful peace, but problems arose because the impression was given that we could settle for an imperfect peace. We have seen continuing violence, largely directed against ordinary citizens and alleged petty criminals. Standing here in the heart of South Antrim, I don’t have to remind you that there has been significant violence from Loyalists as well as Republicans.
What are we going to do to put in place a robust regime that will, as a last resort, ensure that all parties comply with the necessary democratic standards? Sinn Fein likes to portray itself as a victim of the behaviour of others, but there could just as easily be cases where other parties or individuals were in breach of their obligations.
At present, we only have one sanction – the exclusion of Executive Ministers – and it clearly does not work. I am pleased that the two Governments stuck to their position throughout two long days and insisted that there had to be a final sanction, whatever intermediate arrangements were proposed for negotiation or arbitration.
Last autumn, it seemed as if the SDLP were suffering from Stockholm syndrome, the condition which makes hijack victims sympathise with those who hold them hostage. Despite clear evidence of Sinn Fein wrongdoing, the SDLP would not act against them. If some Assembly parties cannot be trusted to ensure that the law is upheld, it is necessary for the Government to do so.
It is a considerable disappointment that the only way of resolving our difficulties is to give further responsibilities to outsiders. Another Commission to monitor the state of progress towards a peaceful society, a new judicial body to deal with On the Runs, and more powers for the Secretary of State. They do not indicate a mature political society, capable of taking responsibility for its own actions.
We did ask why it was that the Government could consider amending the 1998 Act to provide for a range of sanctions. Ministers maintain a position that they could not amend the Act to deal with the problems of the voting system and designations in the Assembly. We didn’t get an answer, but we will continue to ask the question.
There is something supremely bizarre that the Government is not prepared to be a persuader for change to a voting system that both reinforces sectarian division and patently doesn’t work, just like sanctions.
Ministers know the problem, they know the solution, they know there will be an inevitable crisis in the second week of June. So why are they refusing to take action now?
It will be hugely destabilising if we have ‘Acts of Completion’, hold an election to get the institutions re-established, and then fail to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. However, it appears that the Government can only concentrate on two problems at one time, and has left the voting system on the back burner. I am sure that we will return to it later this year, probably in an atmosphere of desperation.
Despite the political uncertainty, we face the prospect of the election on the twenty-ninth of May with a considerable degree of confidence. I remember telling you last year about some of the failures of Executive ministers from the four parties. I shan’t labour the point, except to say that in the remaining months they had, they didn’t get much better.
There are difficulties in being an Alliance representative. Life is not easy when you represent a minority viewpoint, building the centre ground, and are attacked from all sides. But of this I am sure: I could not, in any conscience, be a member of any other party in the Assembly.
So today I want to pay tribute to the team that has led for Alliance in the Assembly for the last five years.
Do you remember how David Trimble awarded the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to one of his own backbenchers, against every precedent in every Parliament throughout these islands? Yet who is it the media turn to when important issues are discussed in the PAC? Seamus Close, of course. Because they recognise that he has the experience and the integrity needed. He has also led the fight against the iniquitous use of the rating system to increase revenue for the Executive, when the Finance Minister should have used a decent alternative, a fair alternative.
Even before power was transferred to the Assembly, Sean Neeson convened an all-party delegation which put pressure on the Minister to build the gas pipeline to Derry. As Vice Chair of the Enterprise Committee, he kept up the fight on behalf of energy users in Northern Ireland, right up to the last day the Assembly sat, when he promoted an amendment to the Energy Bill to deal with the scandalous over-pricing of electricity. What a scandal that the Minister dropped the clause when he presented the Bill as an Order at Westminster.
As well as his significant duties as Chief Whip, Kieran McCarthy also scored a political victory in the Assembly debate on the Health and Social Services Bill. Working with Age Concern, he proposed amendments that would have ensured free Personal Care for elderly people as well as free Nursing Care – just the same as the Scottish Executive has done.
We lost the vote that day, with just the five Alliance members voting together, but we have laid the foundations for change that will inevitably come one day. But what a pity that patients in need will have to wait. MLAs from other parties were prepared to vote for the theory of free Personal Care one year, but didn’t have the courage to vote the same way on a Bill that would have actually made a difference.
No policy marks us out from other parties more than our commitment to Integrated Education. In a Committee dominated by right-wing Unionists, who have fought bitterly against her every move, Eileen Bell has made the case for Integrated Education, just as she has worked for better Community Relations in the Committee of the Centre. To serve on one Committee with Sammy Wilson as its Deputy Chair is a sign of dedication, to also serve on another with Edwin Poots in the Chair is above and beyond the call of duty. A particular thanks to our Deputy Leader, Eileen.
We have significant talent beyond the current Assembly team. In particular, at the Hillsborough talks, we were joined by four key figures in the election campaign: Naomi Long, Geraldine Rice, Stewart Dickson and Stephen Farry. They saw the highs and the lows of that particular process.
During the course of the two days, at times we had to talk to both British and Irish civil servants slowly and clearly and in words of one syllable. We even had to kick the furniture once or twice. As a result of those kicks, we scored a goal or two, and I am sure that, after their deserved electoral successes, the new members of a bigger Assembly team will continue to score for the values we believe in and the people we represent.
The team at the centre of Alliance is not just composed of elected and prospective MLAs. We owe an enormous debt to the small staff team that provides us with day-to-day back up. Please join me in thanking Debbie, Marjorie, Steven, Allan, Ian, Stephen, our current interns Bob and Jeremy, and that great team of volunteers who assist in headquarters or Stormont on a regular basis.
Others in the party have also borne their share of the work, and especially of the difficulties of standing up to be counted as an Alliance representative. Many of our local Councillors work in an atmosphere where bigotry and intolerance are permanently just below the surface, ready to boil over. But our team in Belfast City Hall has borne the brunt.
Last June, they took the courageous decision to support the election of Alex Maskey as Lord Mayor. The facts were clear. Sinn Fein is the largest party in City Hall, yet they had never had a Lord Mayor. Sinn Fein Ministers were serving alongside UUP, SDLP and DUP Ministers. In contrast, the post of Lord Mayor is symbolic and carries no personal power outside the Mayor’s Parlour.
When our team decided to vote for Alex Maskey, a correct and courageous decision, they were subjected to a torrent of abuse from Unionists. The same Unionists who had elected Hugh Smyth as Lord Mayor while the UVF was actively killing Catholics. The same Unionists who had elected Frank McCoubrey as Deputy Lord Mayor, just in time for him to sit on a platform in the lower Shankill in the presence of armed and masked men.
Apparently, Cllr Maskey has put an Irish Tricolour in the Parlour, alongside the Union Flag. It took him three months to find one. Somehow, I find it difficult to see that as a worse crime than the UVF bursting into a pub at Loughinisland, spraying bullets from a machine gun. What utter hypocrites some Unionists are.
While considerable progress has made over recent years, community relations remains a major problem.
In some respects, things have improved. More and more people are defining themselves as something other than ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ – they are moving on from the tribal labels of the past. Opinion polls continue to show substantial demands for mixed housing, education, workplaces and leisure facilities.
Yet, at the same time both racism and sectarianism remain major problems. Contrary to the beliefs of some, they are not restricted to those living in and around so-called ‘interfaces’, but are cancers endemic throughout every level of this society.
Sectarianism and racism are both about denying people’s free choice of identity, making judgements and placing labels on people. The pernicious notion of group rights, rather than the norm of individual human rights, must be resisted.
Residential segregation remains the norm, and if anything, is intensifying. It carries a huge human and financial cost to this society. How many lives have been wasted through lost opportunities? What proportion of our resources is eaten up in maintaining separate facilities? Money that could be better spent investing in better services for everyone.
The healing of our community divisions must be the biggest challenge facing Northern Ireland. But where is community relations on the political agenda?
At Hillsborough, substantial discussion continued over the Patten fundamentalism that substitutes for a proper debate on the policing requirements of this society. Hours were spent on the minutiae of criminal justice reform. Lengthy paragraphs on language rights were tossed around.
Last year, we criticised the Executive for its failure to deal seriously with improving community relations. They commissioned a report from Dr Jeremy Harbison, a retired senior civil servant, which he finalised well over a year ago. It lay on the shelf until after direct rule was re-imposed. Three times I was told in the Assembly that action was imminent. Three times nothing happened. Only after many months’ delay did we see publication of ‘A Shared Future’ – under direct rule.
But it isn’t just the Executive that is complicit in failing to take seriously community relations. Look at what happened to the Census results. The question on religious belief is not compulsory and 14% of the people of Northern Ireland did not answer it. Now anyone who knows me well is probably aware that I am a practising Presbyterian. My personal values are shaped, in part, by my beliefs and upbringing.
But I do not believe that it is any business of the state to enquire into my personal beliefs. So I left the question blank. Yet the Census results have two answers to the question on religion: one is the answer that people gave, the other is an allocation of all but 3% of us to either the ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’ category.
The release of the Census figures managed three things simultaneously. It fed Unionist paranoia, it boosted Nationalist triumphalism, and it emphasised and exaggerated the divide in this society. Quite a triple whammy.
When people leave blank a particular non-compulsory question, it is a sign that they don’t wish to answer it. They should be recorded as such. There is a right not to answer the religious question and that should be complemented by the right to have a non-answer recorded.
I have written to the Statistics Agency and the relevant minister, to ask why a public Agency is taking part in such activity. They haven’t yet replied.
Too many people in this society are prepared to accept what is termed ‘benign Apartheid’. They believe that the divisions in this society are permanent, and that all we can aspire to do is to manage our divisions, and keep our people separate. This is far too often reflected in Government policy.
Apartheid was never benign in South Africa, and it will never be benign here, either.
So, where is there any vision on community relations? Right here, at the heart of the Alliance agenda.
Earlier this year, we published our proposals for improving community relations, ‘Building a United Community’. In it we challenge how we will live, work and play together as a society.
We will place a duty on all Government and public agencies to promote integration in all of their policies.
We will set out a strategy that will see 10% of our children in integrated schools by the end of the decade.
We will work with the forces of law and order to give people the security they need to live in mixed housing areas.
Forty years ago, the late Robert Kennedy said:
“Each time a man stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. Crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Every person who refuses to go along with sectarian attitudes sends out a ripple of hope. Every child at an integrated school sends out a ripple of hope. Every citizen who refuses to identify with either unionism or nationalism sends out a ripple of hope.
When school students get together to talk about peace, it sends a ripple of hope. When good neighbours stand together at a time of tension, it sends out a ripple of hope. When public servants use their influence to support sharing, not separation, it sends out a ripple of hope.
Conference, there is a change in this society. The ripples of hope are spreading from a thousand sources, as people oppose the apartheid society in all its guises. They are building up in the schools and colleges, they are building up in workplaces and housing areas. But they do not yet have the political voice they need.
That is why the coming election is so important. We must build on our recent growth, and establish an increased Alliance group in the next Assembly. Only Alliance can provide the political voice for that growing movement.
Our task in the coming days is to seek out those who share our values, those who reject the outdated divisive policies of both orange and green, and within both orange and green. We have to be the political voice of all those who reject sectarian labels and are working for a shared society.
Alliance is not a party that seeks the easy route between the two traditional blocs. It is a party that takes the principled stand. We are the only party that can truly unite this diverse community.
We offer a better way to everyone in this society, a way that replaces the traditional divisions.
Today, I pledge myself to this task. I ask you all to do the same. Together, as a united team, we can succeed.