Leaders Speech

Isn’t it great to be in Carrickfergus!

Can I formally welcome you to my hometown – one of the strongest Alliance areas in Northern Ireland.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to all the guests that we have here today, and in particular to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, who will address us shortly.

Peter, it’s great to see you today!

This is an important Conference for Alliance – the first of the new millennium. We can look forward to fresh opportunities and challenges.

With our Six Point Plan, we begin this new period at the very heart of efforts to build peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

At the same time, we are celebrating our 30th anniversary. Alliance can now look back over many years of success.

I believe that we have the largest exhibition ever to be staged at a political conference in Northern Ireland to date.

The number of exhibitors here this weekend is surely one positive sign of how Alliance has changed politics in Northern Ireland for the better.

Last year, when Conference met in Bangor, it was just after the Hillsborough Declaration. We were in the midst of a crisis in the implementation of the Agreement.

One year on, the Good Friday Agreement is yet again in crisis. It would be easy to think that absolutely nothing has changed in the space of a year.

But that would be wrong! We have had ten weeks of devolution.

And from those ten weeks, it is clear to me that devolution has been good for Northern Ireland, and good for the Alliance Party.

For ten weeks, the people of Northern Ireland tasted what it was like to share in their own future. And it is has left us hungry for more.

We had local people making decisions on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.

Within those ten short weeks, some major decisions made – plans for free travel on public transport for our senior citizens.

I was particularly pleased to see the decision made to fund Ulidia Integrated School, here in Carrickfergus.

It is worth noting that all existing integrated schools in Northern Ireland have now been given public funds.

However, still only 4% of our children attend integrated schools. The campaign for integrated education must now enter a new phase. It is not the time to sit back and be complacent.

You may remember that last year, I set a target of having 5% of children at integrated schools by the year 2005, and 10% by 2010. I am confident that these targets can be met.

The Alliance Party really came into its own in the ten weeks of devolution.

With devolution, the political focus naturally returned to the centre, where Alliance is making constructive contributions to debates on important social, economic, and environmental issues.

At the outset, it was Alliance that proposed the motion that cleared the path to devolution. And can I assure you, despite rumours to the contrary, that Seamus Mallon DIDN’T resign!

In those ten weeks, our Assembly team asked proportionally more Ministerial questions than any other party.

Alliance is the party of ideas. We were always well ahead of the game in identifying the issues that needed to be addressed.

Seamus Close skilfully demonstrated the need for tax-varying powers for Northern Ireland.

David Ford achieved a pledge for action from the Minister for Health on Tobacco Advertising, and from the Minister for Regional Development on the maintenance of rail services.

Eileen Bell pushed for action on tuition fees, focusing on the recommendations of the Cubie Report on Student Finance in Scotland.

Kieran McCarthy got a promise for legislation similar to the Football Offences Act in Great Britain, in order to tackle sectarianism in sport.

Kieran also proposed a motion calling upon the Government to proclaim St. Patrick’s Day a Public Holiday in Northern Ireland. Significantly, this motion received support from every party in the Assembly, including the DUP!

Taxes, transport, tuition fees, tourism – issues like these are the real stuff of politics!

The DUP – hypocrites to the end – decided to take up their seats on the Executive anyway, although they didn’t attend its meetings.

These were the people who were going to smash Sinn Fein. Smash Sinn Fein? They had a smashing time-sharing devolution with Sinn Fein.

During the ten weeks of devolution, we should not overlook that there were problems in the way that the Executive operated.

Alliance was particularly concerned at how David Trimble and Seamus Mallon centralised power in their own hands. For example, they prevented the creation of a stand-alone Department that could deal with the important issues of Equality, Community Relations, Victims, and Children’s Rights.

Far too many of their appointments were of card-carrying members of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP. This ‘jobs for the boys’ cronyism runs against the spirit of the Agreement. But I’m sorry – this is not power sharing as I understand it.

There was clearly no sense of collective responsibility within the Executive. Parties often got their roles mixed up. Sometimes, they tired to act as the Government, other times as Opposition – frequently at different times on the same day!

Worryingly, there were some signs that votes on social and economic matters would often polarise along sectarian lines.

Look at the debate on Maternity Services in Belfast. Every Unionist who voted supported the Jubilee, and every Nationalist who voted for the Royal. If this pattern is frequently repeated, then our system of power sharing simply cannot work.

It was outrageous to see votes counted as ‘Unionist’ votes and ‘Nationalist’ votes, and ‘Others’ ignored. The votes of Assembly members are clearly equal but some are more equal than others.

This party remains totally committed to the abolition of designations, and their associated voting systems.

While Alliance supports the institutions of the Agreement, but we are concerned how the parties have worked them to date.

The ten weeks of devolution – yes, the ten weeks of devolution – were haunted by the spectre of decommissioning.

It seemed that the yearlong impasse in the implementation of the Agreement had finally been addressed through the understandings of the Mitchell Review.

When the UUP finally jumped into devolution, there was a clear expectation that tangible progress on decommissioning would soon follow.

I believe that it was a mistake for the Ulster Unionists to set an artificial deadline at the end of January rather than trying to enforce the real deadline of May 22nd, as set out clearly in the Agreement. These unilateral actions have robbed this deadline of much of its effect.

Nevertheless, with breathtaking arrogance, the Republican Movement failed to make any progress on decommissioning.

Republicans have done very well out of the peace process. Prisoners have been released, substantial progress has been made on the Equality Agenda, the Irish dimension has been recognised, and Sinn Fein achieved two seats in Government.

Yet, they showed no appreciation of the need to show any leadership on decommissioning in order to assist the process.

If actual decommissioning itself was not possible by the end of January, then at the very least modalities and timetables should have been agreed with the de Chastelain Commission.

Yet, Republicans continued to defy domestic and international public opinion, and the wishes of the 71% of the people of Northern Ireland who voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum.

One has to wonder whether the IRA ever intended to decommission at all. They may have hoped that their bluff would not have been called. And when it was, they were left grappling over what to do.

It was highly significant that editorials in American papers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, called for action by Republicans.

The belated engagement of the IRA with General de Chastelain was probably genuine. However, it was too little, too late, and too vague.

In early February, faced with the imminent resignation of David Trimble and his UUP ministers, the Secretary of State had little option but to suspend the institutions of the Agreement rather than to see their collapse.

Having been instrumental in getting around Seamus Mallon’s offer of resignation, I can appreciate more than most the difficulties in trying to recreate an Executive in the event of a collapse.

Most of the debate on decommissioning has focused on Republican weapons, but it is just as important to deal with weapons held by Loyalist paramilitaries as well.

You hear a lot from the Loyalists, such as David Ervine, passing comment on the actions of others. Mr Ervine is man with an opinion on everything, but a policy on nothing!

Yet, Loyalists themselves have failed to show any leadership or take any responsibility for helping to implement the Agreement. If anything, they have stalled, and stalled, and made excuses – they have even suggested that they would not start decommissioning until the Republicans have finished!

The PUP is often the first to talk about the Agreement being finished – the first to write off the Agreement at every downward twist and turn.

Loyalists could make an enormous contribution to the peace process if they took the lead on decommissioning.

Ten weeks were nowhere near enough. The people of Northern Ireland are now suffering from the absence of devolution.

Many important issues are not being addressed.

We await the launch of a full consultation exercise on how the 11 plus is to be reformed. Difficult decisions have to be taken on the future of acute hospital services, community care, and childcare in Northern Ireland. There is indecision over EU Structural Funds.

What about the crisis in the railways? Who is going to resolve that? Un-elected Civil Servants? Come on David and Gerry – Catch yourselves on! It is about time you follow the Alliance Agenda, and put People First!

Some of the controversial decisions that are being taken by NIO Ministers, such as the decision to grant planning approval for D5 – a massive out-of-town shopping centre at Tillysburn – would probably have been handled differently by locally elected politicians.

Alliance shares the overwhelming desire of the wider community to see progress on both devolution and decommissioning.

It is vital that we achieve the full implementation of the Agreement as quickly as possible. However, on the surface, the signs are not good.

Yet, Alliance is not and will not be giving up on the Good Friday Agreement.

We want to see the People’s Agreement implemented in full.

Peace and stability, with the presence of a working power-sharing devolved government is the best platform for the realisation of the Alliance vision of a shared, non-sectarian Northern Ireland.

We know that there are certain flaws, contradictions, and ambiguities in the Agreement, in particular the institutionalisation of sectarianism. But we should seek to overcome these within a Review of the Agreement, several years into its full implementation.

Although imperfect in parts, the Agreement remains inherently sound. It took an enormous effort to negotiate.

The notion that we can cast aside this Agreement, and negotiate a new deal is JUST NOT ON. The Jeffrey Donaldsons and Willie Rosses who would suggest otherwise are committing a great deceit.

The best option available is to find a way to make this Agreement work.

Alliance was concerned with the drift that emerged after the suspension of the political institutions. A dangerous vacuum was created.

This is why Alliance put forward its Six Point Plan to break the deadlock in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

A stalemate seems to have emerged. Unionists are not prepared to see the restoration of the political institutions before sufficient progress on decommissioning. Republicans are insisting that the institutions had to be restored before they could make any further progress on decommissioning.

To us, this deadlock is a symptom of a much wider problem. A problem, not just of a lack of mutual trust and confidence, but as the wider community sees it, the reluctance of the Unionist and Republican dinosaurs to give up the old ways.

But, thankfully dinosaurs eventually became extinct.

Alliance recognised that a series of sequenced steps that allows the necessary trust and confidence to be progressively restored is the logical way to break the deadlock, and to deliver the full implementation of the Agreement.

While others bickered, Alliance showed leadership and seized the initiative in putting forward our Six Point Plan.

Our Plan remains the only coherent set of proposals on the table, at present. It is not necessarily the final blueprint for a resolution of the present difficulties, but it could serve as a roadmap to that destination.

I am very pleased with the positive response that there has been to our Six Point Plan.

It was welcomed by both the British and Irish Governments, and the White House. Last week, I received a letter of personal support from Tony Blair. Bertie Ahern has spoken enthusiastically about it on several occasions. And significantly, none of other pro-Agreement parties has rejected our proposals.

Initially, our plan would see all the pro-Agreement parties collectively recommitting themselves to the full implementation of the Agreement.

In my opinion, this would be best achieved in a meeting convened by the British and Irish Prime Ministers. They could inject the necessary authority to kick-start attempts to break this deadlock.

Secretary of State, Monday is the second Anniversary of the signing of the Agreement. If you are going take a message from this Conference, ask Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern to come to Belfast – before Easter – to convene a round-table meeting of all the pro-Agreement parties, and to ensure that intensive talks continue under the leadership of Brian Cowen and yourself.

Already, there has been substantial debate on Step Two of our Plan. We ask both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries to provide a form of words, of their own choosing, which indicates that the violence has finished for good.

Decommissioning is essentially a confidence building measure – something to give the wider community the assurance that violence is a thing of the past.

Demands for decommissioning up-front clearly haven’t work. Therefore a form of words could be an alternative way of setting in train another sequence leading to both devolution and decommissioning.

This could provide the context for greater normalisation on the part of the British Government, subject to security advise, and the re-engagement of the paramilitaries with the International Commission, leading to the reinstatement of the political institutions, and the start to actual decommissioning.

These words would be important for yet another reason. Alliance has been very troubled by the ability of paramilitary groups on both sides to continue to engage in so-called ‘punishment attacks’ and murder – none of which have been regarded as breaches of ceasefires.

We now have a very troubling situation in which if the IRA shoot a Catholic or the UVF or UDA shoot a Protestant then it is not regarded as a breach of the ceasefire, but if they shot someone perceived as coming from the other side of the community then it would.

To Alliance, violence is violence, and murder is murder irrespective of the religion of the victim. All violence must come to an end if we are to really have a society based on peace and justice.

Ultimately, if a new sequence is to be successful, then Ulster Unionists and Republicans must both be prepared to move off their absolutist positions.

Since suspension, Sinn Fein has shown no signs of flexibility. They seem to be saying that until everyone agrees with their ‘analysis’, then they will not move. Republicans are becoming the new ‘not an inch’ politicians of Ireland. In fact, they have become the new ‘No Surrender’ party of Ulster politics.

When I was in Washington, David Trimble himself was showing signs of flexibility. However, upon his return home, the dinosaurs in his party moved quickly to tie his hands.

The attempt to link the Unionist agenda on policing reform with any return to an Executive is a dead end. When will they ever learn?

In their actions, the Ulster Unionists have disregarded the advice of the present Chief Constable and of Sir Jack Hermon. They have tried to politicise the police.

The RUC have enough burdens without the worry that they have now been turned into a political football.

I am pleased that our Conference has called upon the Government to proceed with the Patten Reforms, apart from the use of quotas that we feel are divisive, illegal, and unnecessary.

It is also right that the Government have corrected the error in the Patten Report in not acknowledging the real sacrifices made by officers and their families during ‘the Troubles’.

And I am particularly pleased that the Queen is coming to Northern Ireland next week, to present the George Cross to the RUC.

The central lesson that I take from the current predicament is that the creation of a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland cannot be left to Unionists and Nationalists alone to deliver.

When left alone, they simply pander to their extremes. Paralysis is the inevitable result.

Northern Ireland needs a strong and radical centre ground.

It is time that Unionists and Nationalists are pressurised into meeting the demands of the centre and the people who voted ‘Yes’ to the Agreement.

Alliance has put forward its Six Point Plan. It is now time that civil society joins with Alliance in demanding that Unionists and Republicans come down from the hooks on which they have hung themselves.

The radical centre plays another important function. It produces the vision, and the ideas for a better Northern Ireland.

This sadly remains a deeply divided, sectarian and segregated society.

Over the past few years, the political focus has been on institution building – power-sharing from the top-down.

This now needs to be complemented by power sharing from the bottom-up – that is true reconciliation.

No power-sharing structures can be sustainable in the long term unless the divisions in this society are addressed.

I want Alliance to set out an ambitious agenda of policies that are designed to combat these divisions, and to promote sharing.

One initiative, in particular, that I want this party to pursue is the creation of

anti-‘Hate Crimes’ legislation for Northern Ireland.

We must seek to protect the identity of the individual from the pervading Unionist/Nationalist group mentality.

People should be free to define themselves as they choose, not as others choose for them.

We must cherish the multicultural diversity that exists in Northern Ireland.

But at the same time, we should start to promote what we hold in common as people rather than what divides us.

Unity within diversity.

I want us to focus on protecting the rights and enhancing the opportunities of every Individual Citizen.

We must be conscious of the need to provide adequate health and education services to every person, to create economic prosperity, and to preserve a quality environment.

But we must also be aware how sectarianism, segregation and ‘ghettoisation’ create incredible barriers to opportunity.

Alliance has been recognised for our promotion of power sharing and our opposition to the use of the violence – the first stage in overcoming the divisions within society.

Despite the present difficulties with the Agreement, the principles of power sharing and opposition to violence are accepted at least rhetorically by most political parties.

In the future, the Alliance Party will become distinguished by our view and vision of society.

Too many parties are formed on the basis of representing only one section of this divided society. In doing so they perpetuate that divide.

Whatever their claims of moderation, every Unionist in the Assembly, and every Nationalist in the Assembly has signed up to a designation that says that the ancient divide – above all else – is what defines them politically.

But this is wrong. We stand in opposition to all such sectional interests. We seek a Northern Ireland based upon sharing – not separation. We insist that there is a place here for all our citizens, regardless of background or belief.

In the centre ground, we neither know nor care what religion people follow…that is their own business.

All over Europe and America, businesses wanting to invest in Northern Ireland are not interested in a person’s religion, only what they can do.

“Call us when the Assembly is back in session” is what they say.

And it’s not just the business community.

The ordinary people, going about their daily lives, want to know about the education system, their health service, and their job.

Their message to the politicians…get on with it and implement the Agreement.

Well, Conference…Alliance is doing something.

Our Six-Point Plan is firmly on the table as the way to break the deadlock.

We look to the future. A Northern Ireland at peace with itself. A future based on sharing.

For ten weeks, we saw a glimpse of how our shared future could look.

Conference, join with me in calling on the people of Northern Ireland to work with Us.

And share the future…Our Future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *