Leading Change – David Ford’s Leader’s Speech to Alliance Conference

What a difference a year makes. When I was thinking about this Conference, my tenth as Party Leader, I decided to look back at last year’s speech, so see what had changed – and to see whether I had made any dangerous promises or predictions that might come back to haunt me.

First of all, the speech was entitled “delivering responsible government”. Not a bad start, a week before the Hillsborough Castle Talks that led to the devolution of Justice in April.

I began by looking back to the foundation of Alliance in 1970, and the general predictions that such a bunch of do-gooders could never survive. I went on:

“They were wrong. Alliance stands here today as a mature party, confident and capable, determined to play a part in transforming Northern Ireland. Our vision and our values have stood the test of time. We are more relevant to the future than ever before.”

Leaders always make such claims for their parties. But I think I got that one right.

And coming into elections, Leaders always predict success for their parties. So I stuck my neck out as I looked forward to the Westminster general election. I made an outrageous claim, which was generally derided by even quite serious journalists. Here’s what I said:

“There is one person whose contribution to Alliance at this time demonstrates all the qualities that I have referred to.

“As Deputy Leader of Alliance, as Vice Chair of the OFMDFM Committee at Stormont, as a hard-working community campaigner, as a public speaker and as the current Lord Mayor of Belfast, Naomi Long is the epitome of what a public representative should be.”

I said: “I believe that Naomi’s political career is not going to end on the opposition benches at Stormont and that there are significant opportunities ahead. I know that both DUP and UUP members are frightened of her in the context of the coming elections and they have every reason to be.”

Party Leaders always talk up their chances in elections. But I know I got that right.

You have already heard this morning from Naomi, from Naomi Long M P. I like that title; I could say it all day. Naomi Long MP. MP for her home seat, elected by her neighbours as MP for East Belfast, with the largest swing in any constituency in the country. But the commentators didn’t believe it. The bookies didn’t see it coming.

But if you walked the streets and the avenues of the constituency, you could see it coming. You could see a tide running – expressed in positive words, and handshakes and smiles. A positive tide for Naomi and for Alliance, not – as some suggested – a negative tide away from the incumbent. And why? Because Naomi was leading change. Showing leadership in her judgement, showing leadership in her hard work as Lord Mayor and MLA, showing leadership in her concern for all her constituents.

But it wasn’t just Naomi. I remember the lady off Dee Street who told me that she had always voted Alliance since Oliver Napier had helped her. I met young families who spoke about support and assistance given by one of our current Councillors. I canvassed people who were grateful that Alliance was prepared to tackle difficult issues in the Assembly, who saw that our approach to politics was different, who wanted to see change.

And I went out campaigning with Alliance members who were determined to give their all to the campaign because they wanted to be part of that change. To lead in changing this society. Some had worked for Oliver Napier in that oh-so-close election in 1979 – and some weren’t even born then. But there was a unity and a sense of purpose that was absent from the campaigns of other parties.

I was surprised that Peter Robinson, in his Conference speech last November, emphasised East Belfast and talked up the DUP’s chances next time. But his claim “that whenever the next Westminster election comes our number one target will be returning East Belfast to DUP hands” was bluster without substance. Naomi is leading change in East Belfast and far beyond.

Just look what happens when we present people with a commitment to lead change, a record of hard work, a willingness to tackle difficult issues and a positive emphasis on building a shared future.

I wasn’t the only member of my family making predictions, though. Just half an hour after the polls closed, I got a text message from my sister who lives in Hampshire. It read “Let me know how N is getting on. Though if it’s big enough, we’ll probably hear about it anyway.” She did. Naomi’s victory was national news. The people of East Belfast could see positive leadership and they responded to it, even though the professional commentators couldn’t see it coming.

It wasn’t just East Belfast, either. The Alliance vote was up across Northern Ireland. People in every constituency voted Alliance: increased numbers overall, the vote up in nearly every constituency.

Important though it was, there was more to the last 52 weeks than the general election. It was something of a surprise that a few days after Conference we were invited to a midnight meeting with the Prime Minister at Hillsborough Castle, leading to a fortnight of on-and-off talks and eventually to the Agreement on the devolution of justice to the Assembly.

Let’s look back at last year’s speech again. In discussing justice, I said:

“Of course, I am ambitious for Alliance. Of course, I believe an Alliance Minister could be relied on to do a good job, a fair job, an impartial job as Minister in the Department of Justice, or any other Department. “But, in the present set-up, that Minister would have to have policy agreement among a critical mass of MLAs and Executive Ministers if they were to have a chance of delivering what the people expect. … An Alliance Justice Minister would be good for Northern Ireland, but only if the circumstances are right.”

So before Hillsborough, at Hillsborough and after Hillsborough the Alliance team worked hard, negotiating with the other parties who were prepared to make the effort, making the case for our policy proposals, so that when justice was devolved there wasn’t a policy vacuum. Eventually, after weeks of pressure, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness wrote to me accepting the broad outlines of our proposals, which went on to form the basis of the Executive’s Justice Programme for Government. While some parties refused to discuss the issues, even tried to insist that the Assembly couldn’t cope with justice, Alliance got stuck in; innovating, driving the agenda; leading change.

But as I also said, Alliance participation in the Executive had to be about more than a narrow focus on justice. We had voted against several programmes for government because they did not do enough about building a Shared Future for all our people. For years we have been leading the argument that creating a shared society is fundamental to healing our divisions, building a strong economy, funding our public services, and tackling deprivation. So we insisted, persistently and stubbornly, that there must be progress on what is now officially called ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’. As a result, we saw publication of the first ever locally-produced document on building a shared future, the consultation on CSI.

Let’s be absolutely clear. The consultation document is bereft of vision, and weak on delivery. It does not recognise the role to be played by every Department, every agency of government. It will have to be significantly strengthened and then it must be put into action.

But let’s be equally clear. If it had not been for Alliance demands, there would be no CSI document, there would be no action at all on a shared future. We wouldn’t be having the debate. The UUP’s David Trimble and the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon never managed it, David Trimble and Mark Durkan never managed it, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness never managed it. Only when Alliance demanded it of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness was there any action by locally elected Ministers. Alliance was leading change.

The devolution of justice has given me the opportunity to ensure that our shared values are put into place in at least one Department. Let me give you a few examples. Just on Thursday, as part of the ongoing work of the Department of Justice, I launched a consultation on a new Community Safety strategy for Northern Ireland. The document is called “Building Safer, Shared and Confident Communities”. Does anyone believe that there would have been such an emphasis on building a shared future if there had not been an Alliance Minister to guide the process? I believe that shows our commitment to leading change.

An area of particular concern to many is the continued physical division of our communities. I inherited many so-called ‘peace walls’ from the NIO. Early last summer, I was asked to extend a barrier. Rather than extending the peace wall, I insisted that the Department invested in diversionary activities for young people and I have supported an initiative by the Community Relations Council to promote good relations in the area. We don’t make people safe by building walls. We make people safe by taking actions to promote good relations and bring people together. Alliance at work; leading change.

Leading change means being prepared to take the tough decisions, to tackle the big issues. There are aspects of our justice system that, prior to devolution, no-one had been prepared to tackle.

Our prison system, that had been allowed to fall far behind the expectations and needs of our changing society, because reform seemed too difficult to deliver. I haven’t accepted that, and won’t accept that. Reform is already underway.

The legal aid budget, allowed to run out of control by direct rule Ministers, but now being faced up to, no matter how uncomfortable that makes some people feel. If decisions are needed, if leadership is required, if change is necessary, Alliance delivers.

As Alliance is increasingly seen to be leading change, we are attracting a growing number of new recruits to the party. I have signed more letters welcoming new members in the last year than any other. They come from all parts of Northern Ireland and are fully representative of the whole community. Some have previously been associated with other parties; most have not been involved in politics at all. But the Alliance message is reaching people, our track record convincing people, our vision appealing to people, as never before.

Today, I welcome them all. Indeed, we will welcome anyone who supports our principles and our policies, who wants to work to build a shared future, who wants to join in leading change.

That applies to Harry and Paula Bradshaw, who have come to us from unionist backgrounds, just as it applies to Oran Keenan and others who have come to us from nationalist backgrounds, and those who have never been part of any other political group. This party has always been big enough to embrace diversity, whether of age, gender, class, race, religion or orientation and every member has a part to play.

I anticipate that there will be other new members in the coming weeks and months. In some cases because they feel that the parties they have previously supported are outdated, and stifling change. In all cases, because they want to be part of a dynamic movement, building a different future, leading change.

We can look forward with confidence, not because of the failings of others, but because people are responding to our positive, radical vision of a different society. I will leave it to other parties to engage in negative campaigns and personal venom, because we are far too busy with a positive vision. One which gives us great hopes for the future of Northern Ireland.

The development of policies, the track record of delivery, communicating the message all takes a lot of hard work. So let me thank some of those who have played and continue to play significant roles in leading change. We have a strong staff team, whose dedication and hard work is, frankly, inspiring. In Stormont, Ian Williamson continues to lead on media and publicity, while our newest recruit, Christine Robinson, has already put together the core of our next election manifesto. Meanwhile, David Young continues to exploit his encyclopaedic knowledge of which official can help out on what issue for the benefit of our team.

At headquarters, Debbie Spence continues to be the fixed point in a moving world, keeping the essential but largely unseen back office well organised and professionally run. Stephen Douglas, as acting General Secretary, is the outward face of the headquarters team, ably assisted until the election by Campaigns Assistant Nick Shanks.

I also want to say a very warm word of thanks to Gerry Lynch, activist since he was at school and Executive Director for the last three years. He has played a major part in promoting professional campaigning in Alliance and we wish him well: he is currently in England preparing for a missionary posting to Botswana.

While talking about the party’s staff, I should not forget the contribution of those who work for our MLAs in their constituencies. They are also valuable members of the overall team, helping us in our work.

I am also well aware of the burdens carried by the elected members of our Assembly team, as each of our MLAs has to work twice as hard as those in other parties, ensuring that Alliance’s arguments are carried in the Chamber, in the committee rooms and with the public and the media. I am, as ever, very grateful to Anna, Kieran, Stephen and Trevor, but I must single out two Members of the team.

Chris Lyttle is the new boy, selected by East Belfast to replace Naomi. It is a difficult task to join a body which is three years old and immediately play the same role as everyone else, but Chris has done just that and has admirably stepped up to the challenge. He even asked questions of three Ministers on his first day, which must be a record.

The other MLA who deserves a very special thank you, and to whom we all owe a very large debt, is Sean Neeson. Sean led the party in the very difficult days immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, establishing a role for us in the Assembly, despite being the fifth party in a four party system, and laying the foundations for the success we now enjoy. Sean retires from the Assembly this year, but I am happy to say that he will still be playing a major role in Carrickfergus and we wish him well in all that lies ahead.

As Sean steps back – a little – I want to welcome and thank those who will carry the Alliance banner forward into the double election on 5 May. We have a very strong team in both elections – diverse in every respect, yet united in leading change for this society.

Remember, the elections are not about just the quality of our candidates, however good we know they are. The elections have to be about putting people into the Assembly and Councils who will put forward positive, constructive policies for their community: who will deliver on the solid policy platform that we will put before the people on 5 May.

Because delivery is not a word that many people associate with the political system here. Take the economy, for example. The Executive is supposed to have made the economy its first priority, but the evidence for this claim is weak.

In the Assembly Alliance has led the call for a Green New Deal, a call that is only now being heeded by others. Yet even the most basic scheme for home insulation has the capacity to reduce fuel poverty, to provide jobs, especially for those small firms in the building trade that are suffering at present, and to help protect the environment. It would be a triple win, and we will continue to work in the Assembly and the Executive to ensure this becomes a reality.

In a world of growing competition from the far east, as well as central Europe, we need to develop and promote Northern Ireland’s key assets – our natural and cultural resources, our people, and our business skills. We need to provide top quality goods and services for the modern economy, just as Belfast did when the demand was for ships, rope and textiles. Northern Ireland should be leading change, not reacting to it.

As part of our budget proposals Alliance called for effective investment in skills training during the recession, to enable everyone to benefit from future economic growth. But we don’t just call for things – when we have the opportunities to deliver, we do so. I hope to shortly set the terms for a contract for the building of the new police, fire and prisons college at Desertcreat, Cookstown. I will ensure that we use whatever powers we have to insist on the provision of apprenticeships by the successful bidder. Fifty or so apprenticeships would be a huge boost for Mid Ulster. An Alliance Minister, making a difference. Not reacting passively, but leading change for a stronger economy.

And the need for a stronger economy has never been greater. The cuts in public expenditure mean that the Executive must stop talking about the economy, and start delivering. The two month delay in the production of a draft budget reflects the inability of some parties to accept reality and to take tough decisions. No longer can our approach to improving public sector finance be to run cap in hand to Westminster.

The agreement of a draft budget in December was a welcome, if somewhat overdue, development.

While most departments failed to meet the commitment to publish their budgets before Christmas, the Department of Justice, led by an Alliance Minister, delivered on time. Our businesses and service users in the public, private and voluntary sectors needed confidence and certainty. Alliance delivered.

But many more difficult decisions lie ahead; decisions on how best to rebalance our economy, how to create strong and vibrant public and private sectors to provide the jobs and services we need; decisions on revenue raising, structures of government and tackling division.

Because we cannot grow a stronger economy without a shared society. A fundamental building block in a shared society is shared education. Not only will shared education benefit young people, and society as a whole, through better integration, understanding and acceptance but it will also bring financial benefits and educational improvements. We led on this for many years, and it is increasingly accepted as the way forward.

Tackling division, racism and sectarianism is vital to our economic well-being, as well as our social well-being. This week, a seminar at Parliament Buildings heard representatives of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors make just that point. I have already highlighted my work as Minister on peace walls and community safety. Alliance, leading change for a shared future.

At a time of economic difficulty, many people start to talk about protecting the vulnerable. Often, they are thinking only of older people and people with disabilities. Certainly, such groups need protection. We need to do more to remove or reduce the unfair subsidies that benefit the better-off, rather than those who are in greatest need.

We also need to do much more work to provide essential services for those experiencing mental illness or with a learning disability. Our team is doing a lot of work on areas covered by the Bamford report some years ago, to ensure progress is made

Within the Department of Justice, I have set up a wide-ranging review of access to justice. I want to see that those who need advice or assistance can get it easily and cheaply and to promote mediation and alternative dispute resolution, rather than always assuming that civil disagreements should end up in court. The purpose of legal aid should be to assist those in need, not enrich lawyers. Alliance, leading change for a fairer society.

We can help the vulnerable by modernising and improving public services, because people on lower incomes, and the marginalised in our society depend on such services much more than others. Public transport is a classic example. Why is Belfast the only city of its size in these islands – probably in Europe – where it is assumed that you can deal with a problem of congestion at rush hour by building yet more roads for commuters in their cars? Everywhere else, the emphasis is on quality public transport, which benefits everyone.

I am here to promote the positive Alliance vision, not to denigrate others. But it must be said that one of the glaring problems of the Executive in operation for the last four years is that it has failed to tackle the difficult issues of modernising public services, and we are all paying for that failure. The bold concept of a world-class shared stadium for our three main sports, and for other events, has disappeared. The reform of education management, through the Education and Skills Authority, is going nowhere. The local government aspects of the review of public administration are taking us backwards.

You begin to think that the four old, tired conservative parties don’t actually have the stomach for the hard, day-to-day grind of government. It’s easier to protest.

Alliance has not, and will not, give up the fight. We are not only prepared to lead change, we are actively doing so.

Take the vexed issue of meeting the costs of a decent water service. For too long, the other four parties in the Executive played cheap populism. They put off hard decisions until tomorrow. The problem is that tomorrow arrived on the day of the water crisis. We are all paying the price for the under-investment of the last twelve years, years when local politicians were in charge. They can’t get away with blaming direct rule Ministers any longer.

Alliance, in contrast, has been prepared to tell the truth. And the simple truth is that our water system needs investment; we need to find a fair way of paying for improvements that is based on the amount of water we use and the amount we can afford to pay. The amounts levied should be linked directly to capital investment and the regional rate should be reduced correspondingly. That would be a fair system, it would be progressive in its effect, it would improve vital public infrastructure. Alliance, leading change for improved public services.

The worst thing about these difficult decisions is when politicians use them to boost their popularity. But the fact is that cheap populism catches up with you. Promising that you will never ask for money for the water system only works until the water system breaks down. Claiming the lowest household taxes in the UK might get you applause in your party meetings, but it doesn’t help your negotiating position when the Treasury finds out. And the Treasury always finds out.

But we are not here to indulge in despair, to look backwards or downwards. No; that’s not what this party is about. Instead, we are here to set out our vision, to give people hope, to lead in advocating and delivering the change that this society needs and deserves.

At times it seems like change isn’t possible. But if the last year has proven anything, it is that change is possible. The people of East Belfast, and all those who moved their vote to Alliance in other constituencies last May, showed that change is possible.

The people who are joining Alliance, from all kinds of backgrounds, are showing that change is possible.

The fact that we are bringing forward real reforms to our justice system, tackling and delivering on the big issues, shows that change is possible.

Our manifesto for the elections in May will set out how it is possible – how we will lead change for a stronger economy; lead change for a shared future; lead change for improved public services; and lead changes for a fairer Northern Ireland.

And all of us, elected representatives, candidates, members and staff, will continue to build a party that is setting the agenda, leading change, and delivering for all.

Last year, we looked forward with confidence, and we achieved our highest expectations and we put down markers for the future.

This year, we look forward with determination – determination to work for change, and to deliver change. We look forward with determination to win more votes, and win more seats. We look forward, with determination, to growing the movement and building the momentum for change.

We are looking forward with confidence because we are leading change.

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