Leaders Speech

Thank you for the warmth of your introduction Mr President. In return, can I welcome you all to Dunadry, near the geographical heart of my constituency of South Antrim. Still my constituency, after the November election.

‘Former hunger striker hails historic breakthrough’ says the paper and the mugshot of me is captioned ‘David Ford: expected to lose seat’. I can assure you, as Mark Twain would have said, that reports of my political demise were greatly exaggerated.

Reports of the demise of the Alliance party were greatly exaggerated too. Look at what we achieved last November. We went into an election in which the pundits — almost unanimously — predicted that we would lose seats. Some even said we would be wiped out.

Some sections of the media, with their simplistic pre-occupation with the tired old politics of unionism and nationalism, ignored us.

So after all the coverage of whether the DUP would beat the UUP, and by how much Sinn Fein would beat the SDLP, what was the result?

Big gains for the extremes, with the DUP up ten and Sinn Fein up six. Every other party ended up losing seats. Ulster Unionists down a seat (well now it’s four), SDLP down six, Women’s Coalition wiped out along with UUAP and NIUP. PUP and UKUP down to one seat each.

Yet while the steamrollers of the DUP and Sinn Fein were rolling over the political landscape, crushing nearly everything in sight, Alliance went into the election with six seats and emerged with six.

You achieved that, you defied the extremists, you dumbfounded the pundits, you kept hope alive. Congratulate yourselves, because you deserve congratulations.

Nevertheless, we need to be clear and we need to be honest, with ourselves as with the public. We did not have a particularly good election. Although we held our seats, we lost votes. There was no great breakthrough.

But when everyone else but the DUP and Sinn Fein had an extremely bad election, in the most difficult of circumstances our result was — at the least — good by comparison. Some commentators have told me it was actually excellent.

Our discussion and debate in this hall today is not about internal management issues. We do not have huge organisational and financial failures to confront. Nor will the discussion in the corridors be about plots and changes of leadership, of who is and isn’t loyal to whom.

Instead, our concerns are as they have always been. How can we move this society forward to create a better society for all of us, and our children? How can we bring an end to violence and paramilitarism? How can we build a united community? A Shared Future?

In particular, at this time, how can we build on the foundations of the Agreement to create stable institutions of Government, capable of putting an end to the continual round of crises?

But before I deal with local concerns, we must look at the wider world. Three and a half years ago, I made my first Conference speech in the aftermath of what Americans call 9/11. Today, the people of Madrid and of Spain are very much in our thoughts.

Whether the bombs were planted by ETA or Al Qaeda is almost irrelevant. We saw yesterday the effects of terrorism on a scale that we did not experience ourselves in the darkest days of the 1970s and 80s. In the face of such sheer naked terror, inflicted on a civilian population, there is clearly a huge responsibility on Governments throughout the world to take action to defend their citizens.

But let it be action which will enhance security and promote an international partnership against terror. I do not believe that the world will be safer unless we realise a common interest. It is time for the countries of the EU and of G8 to take a lead in dealing with the problems of poverty and misery that feed distrust and provide succour to terrorists.

If Mr Bush and Mr Blair were to resume an active role in building a peace process between Israel and Palestine it would be more effective than sending another battle fleet to the Gulf.

Here, in Northern Ireland, I believe that all parties have a duty to renew their efforts to show that we can establish a truly peaceful society and be a beacon of hope to a divided world.

For Alliance, matters didn’t end with the declaration of the last result in November. We knew that there would be a huge responsibility to put forward constructive ideas in the Review which was due immediately after the election.

That’s why we had a team working on the details of our submission from early last summer. It’s not just Sinn Fein who do their homework on time: Philip McGarry and his team put in a huge effort when most local politicians were either donning their bowler hats and sashes or sunning themselves as far as possible from Drumcree.

We had the draft of our paper ‘Agenda for Democracy’ agreed by Party Council in early September and it was finalised as soon as the elections were over. It may not be full colour and glossy like the DUP document, but only Alliance has put forward a detailed set of proposals to reform the institutions of Government.

Most of the other parties have either produced bland generalisations or nothing at all. Maybe the detail of ‘Agenda for Democracy’ has embarrassed them.

Make no mistake: there must be reforms, or there will be no Agreement. Reform is the only realistic pro-Agreement position. Two elements are key.

First, we have to get away from the system that requires MLAs to designate themselves as unionist, nationalist or another title, and rewards those who remain stuck in a tribal camp.

Let’s repeat the facts for the benefit of the slow learners in the other parties:

  • designations are divisive
  • designations are illegal under European law
  • designations reinforce sectarianism
  • designations don’t work

At long last the Governments seem to have accepted the last point, although the issues of division, legality and morality hardly seem to matter to them.

The only realistic way of ensuring that sensitive issues attain cross-community support without sticking tribal labels on MLAs is to require a weighted majority to pass important measures. 60 to 65% would be adequate, while ensuring that it does not become near-impossible to win a vote.

That system is tried and tested in divided societies and special circumstances: why should we be unique in demanding that tribal politicians are rewarded for their obduracy?

The second main reform is about getting a cohesive Government, with a coherent programme and collective responsibility. Giving parties automatic places in Government without regard to trust or willingness to co-operate with each other has caused huge problems so far.

Far from being inclusive, as some would claim, the old Executive excluded 18 of the 108 MLAs and saw the third party taking power in two Departments without responsibility at the Executive table.

Not just the third party: the actions of the UUP, the failure of David Trimble to commit whole-heartedly to partnership, contributed hugely to instability.

The solution is based on the same principle. Any group of parties that can attain a sufficient weighted majority for an agreed programme should be entitled to form an Executive. It would be de facto cross-community, but would only include those who were willing participants.

As in Edinburgh or Dublin, parties would negotiate a joint platform and be expected to stick to it. There would be a meaningful opposition, with a significant role in governance.

Consider one very important function of government, justice and policing. Only an Executive formed on the basis of collective responsibility could possibly take on responsibility for justice.

Does anyone think that unionists would accept a Sinn Fein Minster of Justice, exercising powers on his own, in his own fiefdom, if that party was given first pick under the d’Hondt system? Would nationalists allow the DUP to wield those powers without them having a say?

Don’t be misled into thinking that a double-headed Department would be any better. The lessons of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are of total deadlock over vital issues like community relations. Collective responsibility, as advocated by Alliance, would ensure that there was agreement within the Executive on the powers and duties of individual Departments, including justice.

While the main problems have arisen in the local structures of Government, there are other issues too. In many ways the North-South aspects of the Agreement have been the unsung success story.

The North-South bodies have quietly gone about their business. The problem is that we hear very little about their work, and the discussions of the North-South Ministerial Council.

This is why we have proposed that the First and Deputy First Minister, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste would make a joint appearance every year, in both the Dail and the Assembly to report and answer questions from TDs and MLAs.

Alliance believes that Northern Ireland has nothing to fear from increased North-South co-operation. In fact, it has everything to gain. Look at how well we dealt with Foot and Mouth Disease three years ago through informal co-operation across the border.

It is a disgrace that six years on from the Agreement, we have not yet established the North-South Parliamentary Body. MLAs and TDs would gain a great deal from regular meetings. I am not sure who would benefit most.

One other area of the Agreement where progress has been painfully slow is the creation of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. Let me be clear. This is no reflection on the work and deliberations of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

The Commission has suffered from the opposition of Unionists who think it is too green and the opposition of Nationalists who think that it is too orange. Most of all from the actions of the two Governments: at best neglect, at worst pandering to the ill-founded attempts of others to undermine the Commission.

Alliance wants to see the best set of rights protections available to the people of Northern Ireland as possible. The Human Rights Commission are independent and professional people, they are taking expert advise, they are consulting widely.

It is time for all sides to stop undermining the Commission, and let it get on with its job, which should be proceeding alongside the Review.

Unfortunately, the Review of the Agreement was in grave difficulty, even before the Tohill incident.

It’s a bit like owning a car, which is due its MoT test. When my car gets to that stage, I get my neighbours John and Billy to check it out and make any necessary repairs, then I take it to the Test Centre to get approval for another year.

But nationalists are insisting that the car is in perfect running order, even though it clearly needs repairs. Meanwhile, unionists are insisting that the car should be scrapped, without even seeing if it would be possible to make repairs.

The true friends of the Agreement have recognised that there are problems with it, both in its design and its implementation.

These problems have to be addressed. Not should be, not might be, but must be addressed. Unless we do so, there will be no prospect of seeing the institutions back in operation.

On Tuesday, there was supposed to be a stock-taking exercise for the Review. The Governments intended to convene a round table discussion on progress so far. They didn’t even hold that meeting.

The Review is in serious trouble. It may well be terminal. Since May 1998, it has been known that this Review would be held, yet there is little evidence that the Governments were prepared for it to happen.

There has also been a marked lack of serious engagement on the part of the other parties. Although the DUP have started — just started — to treat the Agreement seriously, and live up to their new electoral mandate, they have failed to publish any proposals beyond Strand One, the internal issues. They may be ready to move forward, but there is not yet convincing evidence.

Sinn Fein continue to insist that all is well with the Agreement and nothing significant needs to be done — apart from an ever-increasing list of sins on the part of the two Governments and the unionists and an ever-increasing wish list of demands.

The UUP, following the seven year old lead of the DUP, now say that there is nothing to discuss but paramilitarism, and they have left the Review. But post-election, nobosy seems ot care about David Trimble’s temper tantrums.

The SDLP seems to be in denial. Denial of their new reduced role, denial of the flaws in their handiwork. They now seem to be riding two horses at once. They claim that paramilitarism is a huge problem, but resist meaningful actions to defend the integrity of the political process.

Altogether, it is actually a disgraceful betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland. They have a right to expect that the representatives elected last November would now be seriously engaged in getting back to work.

In November 2001, we warned the Governments what would happen if they did not take action to deal with the problems that would arise after the election. We told them then that it would not be possible to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister under the current rules and we urged them to deal with the matter in the eighteen months available, rather than causing an immediate crisis as soon as the votes were counted in May.

I admit it: we were wrong. The Prime Minister took action, action to delay the elections. We had the crisis in November, not May. Tragically, action to delay crises is becoming habit forming for Government: they have almost made it an art form.

I am fed up with their clever ways of delaying crises: I think it’s about time they learned to deal with problems. It’s time they realised that postponing crises is not good government and certainly not good for Northern Ireland.

First, we had the weakness of the Government in failing to avert the crisis before it arose. Now, the failure of the two Governments to take action to ensure that the Review can proceed with integrity and devolved Government be restored.

Day after day, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, as well as their cabinet colleagues, tell the people of Northern Ireland that there must be an end to all paramilitary activity. They tell us that the IRA is inextricably linked to Sinn Fein. The Minister of Justice in Dublin tells us that Sinn Fein is funded by criminal activity and compares Republicans to Nazis and the Taoiseach does not disagree.

And what action do the Governments take? What sanctions have they applied against a party they clearly regard as in default of its obligations? Well, none actually.

When we met the Irish Government last week, I was told that the Taoiseach had made speech after speech telling Republicans that they must end all violence. I replied that every time Mr Ahern said this and his Government did absolutely nothing it actually made matters worse.

To lecture Republicans in the media, and then negotiate with Sinn Fein as if it was an ordinary democratic party, is to emphasise the weakness of the two Governments.

In early 1998, Alliance took action to ensure that both Sinn Fein and the UDP were temporarily excluded from the Talks. The result was positive. Violence was reduced outside and integrity was introduced inside the process.

But this time, with no clear rulebook, only the Governments can take action. If they aren’t prepared to do so, they ought to be honest and announce that they are shutting down the Review.

The problems may have started with local parties. But the problems are now being gravely mismanaged by the two Governments. They are not ‘honest brokers’, managing talks between the parties. They are full participants. It’s time they started to put tier cards on the table, too.

The current crisis in the Review does provide an illustration of how the Assembly and the institutions of Government are vulnerable to the lack of trust between parties.

Only one system of Government can provide both stability and broad-based consensus. A Government which depends on a weighted majority with collective responsibility in the Executive. Exactly what Alliance is proposing.

It is little wonder that violence is growing on the streets at a time when politics seems to be going nowhere. Is going nowhere.

In particular, the growth in hate crimes, especially those directed against our fellow citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds, demonstrates the capacity for hatred in this society.

Alliance has long proposed, and the Government has now accepted, that crimes motivated by hate should attract a stiffer sentence. That is one way of demonstrating that crimes driven by racism, sectarianism and homophobia will be treated very seriously. It is, however, worrying that there has been so little success by the police in catching the perpetrators so far.

There is no point in having hate crime legislation unless the perpetrators can be brought before the courts. That is an issue of policing, of resources and priorities. It is not an easy task for the Chief Constable and for District Commanders.

However, it certainly seems to me that the peaceful society that was envisaged in the Patten report is still not here. As a result, we have an even greater need for a police presence than was envisaged by Patten, and we have a serious shortage of specialist officers, especially of detectives.

In our discussions with the Police Service, the Policing Board and the Police Federation, we have made it clear that we believe that the case for the abolition of the full-time police reserve has not been made. Even the party which is most vociferous in its calls for the Reserve to be abolished also has MLAs and Councillors who want to see more officers in front-line policing.

They cannot have it both ways. You cannot sack 1500 experienced officers, who provide at least 30% of front-line policing, and also have more bobbies on the beat, dealing with the needs of the community.

At present, we are losing roughly 250 experienced police reservists every year. There are enough problems recruiting replacements and training them, without having to replace all 1600 at one go.

Police recruitment remains a huge issue for this society. I notice that a number of Ulster Unionists have now woken up to the problems of the 50:50 quotas, which we have been highlighting for some time. There is a difference between their approach and ours. Lord Laird and his colleagues seem concerned that quotas discriminate against Protestants.

Alliance remains opposed to quotas, because they are damaging to the morale of the police service, they are divisive and they are illegal under European law. Instead, we need policies that cut through discrimination, with a tough affirmative action programme to attract recruits from every section of society.

Listen to they way some politicians use the term ‘equality’. How shallow it is. For me, and for Alliance, equality is not about juggling structures and fiddling with procedures. It’s not about getting an artificial balance between Protestants and Catholics.

For me, equality is about treating all citizens fairly and equally. It means treating every person, in every situation, as a unique individual. It isn’t simply about political or religious belief — or lack of them. We must all have the same rights, without regard to race, colour, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

Thirty years ago, Fair Employment was a principle for which Alliance had to fight hard. It is a principle which is now largely accepted. But now, I believe it is time to review whether the criteria used for monitoring employment patterns are adding to community division. The principle stands, but the mechanisms may need to change.

In one respect, there has been a significant development in the area of justice. You will be aware that for a considerable time Alliance has sought to have action taken to deal with paramilitary symbols. Kieran McCarthy even got the Assembly to agree a call for action — a call which was ignored by the Executive.

Last summer, there were disgraceful scenes in Holywood, as in many other places, when a small group determined to mark out a housing estate as territory for a particular paramilitary organisation.

As a result of serous public concern, and detailed lobbying by Alliance representatives, the police helped removed flags from lamp posts and repeated this when more were put up. Eventually they arrested a group of youths in possession of paramilitary flags.

Those men have now been convicted under the Terrorism Act and await sentence. I believe that this verdict is of huge significance. For the first time, those who deface Northern Ireland with messages of hate have been convicted of an offence. I hope the lesson will not be lost elsewhere.

In no way can a flag or a mural celebrating an illegal organisation be regarded as cultural. It is an incentive to illegal action and should not be permitted. That is what the verdict of the Court said: convictions under the Terrorism Act are of slightly more significance than the litter laws.

Isn’t it time that other public agencies saw that all flags and emblems were removed too?

How is it that one group can be arrested for putting up flags late at night, while others — over a period of days — can paint murals with a similar message of hate with impunity? Now that the Courts have decided this test case, Alliance will continue to press for action in other areas with renewed vigour.

There can be no no-go areas for the security forces in Northern Ireland and no no-go areas either for Catholics or for Protestants, for immigrants or for citizens of different races. That’s what we mean when we talk about building a united community.

The future isn’t about managing some form of polite apartheid. That would be a disaster. The future has to be about bringing people together, supporting initiatives which unite, not divide.

In the Agreement, there is supposed to be a commitment to mixed housing and integrated education. Of course we cannot force mixing in areas where there is a history of segregation and division over the generations. But we do have a right to expect that Government would support those areas where people want to improve community relations.

We need to see some action from Government.

At one level they have now accepted the Alliance vision. In their document — A Shared Future — the Government recognise that institutionalising and trying to manage divisions is not the route to peace and stability, but rather the road to disaster.

Instead, they are beginning to talk of a shared and integrated future. Our vision for the last thirty four years.

But the real test for Government is what policies they are prepared to put in place to turn this vision into a reality.

What are they going to do to promote integrated education, what are they going to do to encourage and sustain mixed housing?

When are they going to stop wasting billions of taxpayers money providing separate facilities, and actually make investments in improving the level of public services shared by us all?

I have to say that judging by the attitude of Jane Kennedy to integrated education, I have my concerns.

One of the big successes in recent years has been the growth of integrated education. Last September three new integrated primary schools were opened, all in South Antrim. Two existing schools transformed, with one completely new school.

This year the Minister of Education has refused to agree to the opening of a new integrated school in Ballycastle. She has acknowledged that the steering group made considerable efforts to have an existing school transformed, but failed. She is not prepared to allow a new school in Ballycastle, because there are spare places in existing schools.

I have asked whether the Government would refuse to allow a new Catholic school because of spare places in a controlled school, or vice versa. I did not get a reply. In fact, the Minister stated that one of her reasons for refusing the new school was that it threatened the viability of one of the existing schools.

What kind of education policy do we have which is actively propping up polite apartheid and discriminating against those seeing to break down the barriers?

The Minister told me that she was to start to think strategically about the future pattern of schools across Northern Ireland. That’s fine, that makes sense. But will she confront the vested interests or is that an excuse for continuing to support the existing polite apartheid?

In April 1970, this party was founded to unite the people of Northern Ireland and bring an end to the politics of division, mistrust and hatred. That remains our goal and our focus. Often we have stood alone. We have proven that what matters in politics is to have principles and stick to them.

Alliance is not the largest party locally in terms of votes. But I believe that we stand head and shoulders above all others in our commitment to our cause and our willingness to work for it. We have a hard-working Executive, and a team of public representatives who are second to none.

We have a staff, in headquarters and the Assembly, who are both dedicated and supremely competent. We have volunteers on the ground who can beat far bigger groups in campaigning.

Today, we are at another turning point in our community’s history. The last Assembly showed clearly that there is no future in assuming that the so-called moderate parties on either side of the community divide can manage Northern Ireland on their own. The UUP and SDLP had their chance and they failed.

The elections last November proved that. If the Executive had been a success, the parties that led it would not have lost the election.

There is now an opportunity for us that was denied us to most of the last decade. Unionism and nationalism are now led from the extremes: the only alternative is a strong centre ground, which must be led by Alliance.

As we look towards the coming elections, to Europe, Councils and Westminster, we have a real opportunity to put the case for a different politics.

A politics of unity, not division. Of diversity, not two competing monoliths. Of reconciliation, not an uneasy stand-off.

So let’s take that opportunity. In the face of the failures of unionism and nationalism to come together, let’s start to build a shared future.

We have always said that the Agreement was not the ceiling to our ambition, but the foundation on which we would build. The foundation is there, Alliance have the plans.

Others have failed: it is now up to us to take up the challenge to build a united community with a new vigour.

I pledge myself to that task. I will work with anyone who shares that aim. Let’s go for it.

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