It is hard to believe that it has only been six months since our last Conference.
When we met last October, I warned that we faced major problems – on the one hand, continued and deepened polarisation within the community and, on the other hand, the rigid sectarian form of power sharing contained in the Agreement.
These problems are the two sides of the same coin – the continued sectarianism and communal segregation within this society. Together, they pose a real threat to future peace and stability, and indeed to the very survival of the Agreement.
But who could have thought that within just two weeks of our last Conference, the Assembly would be facing imminent collapse?
And that the only way to save the institutions, and the Agreement, was for three Alliance MLAs to temporarily change their designations?
The farce of the current sectarian voting system is that for it to work anti-sectarian politicians had to define themselves in sectarian terms, in order to preserve a framework for building a non-sectarian society.
It seems that in what are perversely called ‘cross-community’ votes, cross-community parties only really count if they pretend to be something they are not. How can this be right, in this supposed new era of fairness and equality?
In the first vote, last November, over 70% of MLAs voted for David Trimble and Mark Durkan. Where else in the world, with the possible exception of Zimbabwe, would a 70% vote not be enough?
But the vote failed under the arcane voting rules for the Assembly. By the following Tuesday, a very similar 70% voted the same way. The motion passed. The only real difference was that 3 Alliance MLAs had changed their designations.
What we had to do last November really stank – we had no choice but to pretend to be something that we are not, and become temporary, technical and tactical ‘unionists’.
We did not do it to help foster the political careers of David Trimble and Mark Durkan. I am not the least interested in that. We voted for the greater good of Northern Ireland.
I firmly believe that there was no other way to save the Agreement.
And if we had not acted, there would have been dire consequences for the whole community, including a dramatic upsurge in violence.
But let’s not forget that November was the third time that Alliance has had to save the Agreement.
First, when Seamus Mallon, in a fit of pique, offered his resignation in July 1999, it was Sean Neeson who proposed the motion not to accept this offer, avoiding an untimely election.
Second, in last year’s General Election, when other pro-Agreement parties failed to work together for the common good, it was Alliance that took the unprecedented and courageous step of tactically standing down from certain seats to help the chances of better-placed pro-Agreement candidates against threats from extremists.. In the end, Alliance made the crucial difference in a number of constituencies – including Upper Bann.
And finally, when the voting system broke down last November, it was Alliance that patched up the system. The challenge is now for the two Governments, and all the pro-Agreement parties, to fix the system properly before it breaks down again, perhaps with even more drastic consequences.
I don’t know about you, but when my car breaks down, I call the AA to get it going again. But the next day, I take the car to the garage to get it fixed properly and permanently. To continue to drive an unroadworthy car is to invite disaster.
Now, the problems with the voting system are many.
It institutionalises the sectarian divisions of our society. It fails to account for the possibility of political and demographic change. It refuses to accept that more and more people have open, multiple identities.
It says clearly that some MLAs are more equal than others.
It is totally inflexible, giving extremists on either side the possibility of frustrating the will of the greater number of people right across the community divide.
In other works, it does not work.
I honestly believe that many people, including many normally well-informed commentators, didn’t appreciate all that was wrong with the system of designations and the associated voting procedure until that weekend in November.
To be clear, this system was not one of Alliance’s making. It was foisted on the people of Northern Ireland by a sectional deal between the UUP and SDLP in the run-up to Good Friday.
The SDLP argues that the system of designations is a ‘fundamental principle’ of the Agreement. They are wrong. Cross-community partnership, something this party has campaigned for since it’s creation, is the fundamental principle of the Agreement.
But it seems that the party of ‘one man, one vote’ believes that the votes of some should be worth more than others. In fact, they want their votes to be worth more than others.
It was therefore no great surprise that the limited review held by the Government before Christmas was not a success. But the problem is still with us, a ticking time bomb in the run-up to the next Assembly Elections.
So what is the attitude of the Government? Where do NIO Ministers stand on this issue?
Oh yes, they were quick to encourage us to redesignate last November, and quick to praise us when we did. But I get the sense that they consider we have done our job and they have lost interest in actually curing the problem, preferring the quiet life instead.
But the Governments cannot afford to stick their heads in the sand. We have told the Prime Minister that. We have told the Taoiseach that. They have the responsibility for arranging the review of the Agreement, due at the end of May, and we expect Mr Blair and Mr Ahern to take our concerns seriously.
Make no mistake about it, we have now saved the Agreement three times. It really is time that those who have gained the benefits started to accept their responsibilities. The first lesson that they have to learn is that we will not prop up the discredited designations system again. Ever.
There are no circumstances in which we will make further compromises to prop up a discredited system that doesn’t work – especially when ample warning has been given.
Our actions last November have brought a modicum of stability to the Agreement.
We have seen the first acts of IRA decommissioning. I welcome the increased acceptance across the community of the reformed police service. The re-establishment of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement was essential to progress.
But make no mistake, the problems are still there. The second act of IRA decommissioning suggests that there is now a process under way, though we have urged General de Chastelain to press his contacts for more transparency about the process to increase public confidence.
More important, there is now a serious challenge to the Loyalist paramilitaries. The question has to be asked: are there any circumstances in which Loyalists will be prepared to even consider beginning to decommission their weapons?
I have to say that recent comments from the political leadership of the PUP raise considerable doubts. But they too signed up to the Good Friday Agreement – all of it. They have to be held to account for their failure to deliver.
Implementation of the Agreement has not been easy. It is a pity that we are only now getting around to setting up an implementation group – clearly a sign that all is not well.
I remember the good old days that the Agreement was seen as a win-win by all sections of the community. Today, it is seen as a zero-sum game, with each development as either a win or lose for one side of the community or another.
There have been too many sectarian trade-offs, with a lack of balance in making the Agreement work for everyone. A concession to the extremes of unionism, matched by a concession to republicans is not the way to inspire confidence.
Tragically, there now appears to be a moral vacuum at the heart of the way the Agreement is being implemented. Alliance first identified the potential for trouble with the Governments proposals for dealing with the so-called ‘On the Runs’ in the Weston Park package.
In it, they claimed that to grant an amnesty was ‘a logical extension’ of the Agreement. Did they really consider what they were saying?
The Agreement allowed politically motivated prisoners to be released early on licence, as long as their organisation was on ceasefire and they were seen as not posing any threat.
Contrast that with a proposal that wipes the slate clean with no admission or finding of guilt, which effectively says that some of the worst crimes of the last thirty years were not crimes at all.
I am glad that reality appears to be dawning on the Government, although that seems to be more concerned with needing a majority in the House of Lords than the morality of the original proposals. I welcome the fact that they now seem closer to ideas that we put to them, that would deal with the OTRs on the basis of some due process under the law, consistent with the Agreement.
But I remind the Government, today, not to overlook the issue of the exiles – those expelled from Northern Ireland by the paramilitaries on both sides often under sentence of death. This is not some historical holdover, these activities have not only continued, but have also intensified since the Agreement.
It is entirely reasonable to ensure that any action on dealing with those ‘on the run’ also addresses the human rights abuses against the exiles. It would be an act of breathtaking hypocrisy if the Government were to allow OTRs to return in Northern Ireland in safety without addressing the issue of the exiles.
We have had a call by the UUP leader to hold a ‘border poll’ next year. This would be dangerous and destructive to Northern Ireland. It would polarise the community. But the idea of holding it on the same day as the Assembly election beggars belief.
How do you encourage voters to consider the need for a partnership approach to running this region? By voting on the most divisive issue possible on the same day. There seems to be a logic deficit somewhere.
In any event, we all know the result. But it would be a real achievement: on the one hand to increase the paranoia among unionists, and on the other hand to increase the disillusionment among nationalists.
Alliance is not interested in the old politics of United Kingdom versus united Ireland but rather the new politics of building a united community.
Rather than lingering on 17th Century notions of sovereignty, we should be developing Northern Ireland as a region fit for the 21st Century, a region both of a devolving and evolving British Isles, and a federalising Europe.
Against all of the potential for instability, there is a real need for the Assembly – and most particularly the Executive – to prove its worth to the people of Northern Ireland.
To date, the Executive record has been pitiful.
The Ministers in the Executive have squandered the opportunity that we presented to them last November. We have recently witnessed the pathetic spectacle of a Junior Minister insisting that they have achieved 25% of the targets in the Programme for Government, as if this was something to be proud of.
There was also a wonderful claim that the Executive had introduced 23 Bills and the Scots had only managed 30, so we were doing quite well. Well, one of our Bills was to pay party allowances and another to just rename the Department of Employment and Learning -, while the Scots have abolished warrant sales of debtors and are tackling feudal land tenure. Which do you think will have the bigger impact?
Let’s examine the record of some of the Departments run by the four Executive parties.
What’s the biggest problem we face? Health and Social Services. What has the Minister done? Well she’s given rise to a new word: consultationitis. Consultations on everything you could name, but precious little action.
Under our peculiar form of Government, it is unclear in what circumstances a Minister should consider their position. As Leader of the Opposition, I could call for the resignation of the health minister, but she would probably issue a consultation paper on that, and then shelve the conclusions anyway!!
Just when is the Minister – not to mention her Executive colleagues – going to actually do something before the entire Health Service breaks down. Of course, she did claim this week that the tobacco advertising ban will apply to Northern Ireland. The problem is that she said that she was waiting for Westminster when I pressed her on this two years ago, and the Private Member’s Bill at Westminster included Northern Ireland anyway.
How about Environment, with its two Ulster Unionist Ministers? A serious backlog in implementing European directives to clean up our environment, major problems with waste management and planning. So what has the DoE done?
Well they introduced the Game Preservation Amendment Bill. But it only increased protection for the threatened Irish Hare because I forced through an amendment against the Minister’s wishes. Impressive stuff from the UUP.
There have been major concerns over student funding and tuition fees across the four nations of the UK. The SDLP runs the Department of Employment and Learning. Their Assembly manifesto called for the abolition of student loans and the introduction of a proper grant system. What have we got from a SDLP Minister? A limited bursary scheme, but most students still dependent on loans. Northern Ireland is actually the region with the highest student debt owed to the banks. Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament successfully passed legislation to abolish tuition fees.
Nobody who lives in Northern Ireland, especially in Greater Belfast, could have failed to notice the transport crisis. Gridlock on the roads, while public transport is among the worst and most expensive in these islands, after years of being starved of essential funding. We now have a Regional Development Strategy and a draft Regional Transportation Strategy. We also have a DUP Minister who is proposing to close a railway on one of his key transport routes, between two of his major growth towns, through a secondary growth town and past the international airport. Maybe the view is different from a Ministerial car.
Probably the greatest disappointment of all has been the failure of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister to tackle real community relations issues. Just one example. When Kieran McCarthy got the Assembly to pass a resolution calling for the establishment of an inter-Departmental working group on paramilitary flags and sectarian graffiti, his call – the Assembly’s call – was effectively ignored by Ministers. The excuse: there is a review of Community Relations policy.
The challenge is now on for all Ministers to prove themselves before the next Assembly Elections. They still have almost a year to do something. Surely fourteen Ministers want to have something to defend as their achievements?
When I look at the limited achievements of Ministers, with all the resources of the Civil Service – not to mention sixteen special advisers, and compare it with the hard work and achievements of the five Alliance MLAs in questioning Ministers and holding them to account, backed up by a staff team of four, I almost despair. But I would like to say a particular word of thanks to Allan, Marjorie, Pam and Steven for all their work for Alliance in Stormont and I must couple that with thanks to Debbie and Stephen for their work at Headquarters, backed up by a diverse team of volunteers when the pressure is on.
Last year was the year in which we achieved a little bit of stability, albeit temporary, for the Agreement.
Alliance has consistently fought the sectarianism and segregation in our society. These remain the major threats to peace and stability.
The challenge now, is to make this year, the year in which we finally begin to address these issues, rather than conveniently pretending that they don’t exist.
Why do people go to particular health centres? Different leisure centres? Separate schools? Why in Belfast are there even separate refuse collection squads, one blue, one green?
How much money is spent providing separate facilities, that otherwise could be invested in improving services for our citizens?
Why do the police have to commit so many officers towards policing sectarian confrontations around interfaces?
I think that it is sad when more and more of our young people report never having met with their counterparts from the other side.
The attitude of the state is either to accept and institutionalise segregation, or to pretend that it does not exist.
Look at BMAP, the planning document for the Belfast City Region for the next 25 years. It does not even acknowledge the reality of segregation on the ground, and the more and more so-called ‘peace walls’ dividing the people of Belfast from each other.
In the United States, de-segregation was one of the great progressive causes of the 20th Century. Isn’t it a little bit ironic that the SDLP continually idolise Dr Martin Luther King? Alliance must be the party of de-segregation.
If we look at both the United States and Great Britain, there is now a real desire to avoid the dangers of too much separation and to encourage racial integration. The lessons for Northern Ireland are there to be learnt.
Sectarian attitudes are prevalent throughout our society. It is not just a manifestation of working class communities, but they are present in the leafy suburbs and down at the golf course.
Among many of those with responsibilities for community relations, there is a marked reluctance to confront the real issues. It is almost as if society can only be held together through silence.
Of course, addressing sectarianism hits at the political power-bases. There will only be real change in community relations if it matters at this level.
Let’s look again at Assembly designations. The system of designations is about putting people into boxes. One box labelled unionist, one labelled nationalist and a third for everyone else, dismissed as ‘other’. Some people don’t allow us to even define what we stand for. That is the essence of sectarianism.
When people in our society exhibit sectarian attitudes or engage in sectarian acts, they are being reinforced by signals given out right from the top down.
How can we expect any move away from sectarianism at the grass roots, when sectarianism is seen by some parties as essential to running the Assembly?
And yet, even though political polarisation has intensified in recent years and attitudes on the extremes have hardened, more and more people are moving away from tribal labels.
In a recent survey, a quarter of Protestants refuse to define themselves as ‘unionists’, a third of Catholics refuse to define themselves as ‘nationalists’. This is not to mention those of other religions or of none, and indeed the growing ethnic minority population. This is Alliance’s natural constituency.
How are we to maintain and expand this space for ‘others’, especially when we are continually confronted with references to the ‘two communities’? Why must you be either British or Irish? Why can’t you be both British and Irish, or Northern Irish as well for that matter?
In his AGM speech last month, David Trimble made his now infamous reference to the Republic as a pathetic sectarian state, with a few other epithets thrown in. It is never right to refer to anywhere as pathetic, but even on the substance, he is wrong.
Of course, we may be concerned by matters such as the recent ‘X’ case referendum, and horrified at the failure of the Catholic Church to adequately address the problem of paedophile priests. But I think it is important to acknowledge the massive change that has occurred in the south over the past thirty years, and the changed nature of relationships within these islands, from both our shared membership of the European Union, and – more importantly – the Good Friday Agreement.
In fact, it is Northern Ireland that could be described as the laggard of modern Europe.
When you look at the institutionalised communal divisions in so many aspects of political, social and cultural life in this society, and the failure to properly recognise the real diversity in our midst, is it perhaps accurate to state that Northern Ireland is a bi-cultural, bi-ethnic, sectarian state?
It is also fair to say that, first of all, David Trimble has just a little work to do to put his own house in order, before he makes such sweeping statements. For example, how does David Trimble expect to move towards a unionism that is open to people from all identities and backgrounds, when his own party maintains an organic link to the Orange Order, and meetings of the UUP occur in Orange Halls?
This society continues to be defined by many on the basis of political and cultural notions that have been ossified from the early years of the 20th Century. It is now time to move on like the rest of Europe. It is now time to learn from others, to stop pretending that we are so special, so different, that we cannot change even though the rest of the world has changed.
The great challenge for Alliance is to overcome the group identity dynamic to Northern Ireland politics.
Alliance advocates the creation of a liberal, open society, where we are all equal citizens.
Not a society where we tolerate difference, but rather a society where we celebrate diversity and cherish individuality. At the same time, a more united community, where we learn to work towards common goals, not sectional interests.
But we are not going to overcome identity politics simply by attacking it. We have to offer both unionists and nationalists something different, something better – a genuinely shared, non-sectarian society, in which nobody’s interests are threatened.
It seems to me that our current problems date back to when we reached that historic Agreement on Good Friday, four years ago this week.
Some people seem to think that they reached the end of the road then. The Agreement was the ceiling to their ambitions. Once it was signed, they were free to give up on any shared process and concentrate on their own partisan concerns.
For Alliance, the Agreement is not the ceiling for our hopes. Instead, it is a staging post on the way to our long-term goal. It is not the summit of our ambition, but a foundation on which we build. Our goal remains the establishment of a truly integrated, liberal, pluralist society.
The kind of society that our neighbours throughout Western Europe take for granted. The kind of society that stops building peace walls and starts to demolish them, that doesn’t need police officers to escort small children to school, that doesn’t pigeon hole people against their will. The kind of society that can bring real peace.
As a party, we have made great progress since we met in Conference in Belfast last year. But we still have much work to do to present our vision to the people of Northern Ireland. There are many who share our values. Our task is to ensure that they share our vision.