This election should be about bread and butter issues, and what an Assembly can do for you. But once again, it has become two campaigns of parallel politics, with unionists fighting amongst themselves and nationalists trying to out-green each other.
Alliance is different. We want to restore trust, confidence and integrity to the political process. We are not looking over our shoulder at competing hardliners or tied to an outdated philosophy that cannot cope with the possibility of change.
In the Assembly, Alliance had a small but effective team of MLAs and each has a record to be proud of. We continued the fight for free personal care for older people when the other parties voted it down; we asked the awkward questions that others tried to avoid; we provided the only effective opposition against the Executive; and we were prepared to take huge risks for peace and sacrificed much for the sake of stability.
True, the Assembly got off to a stuttering start, but there’s no doubt that locally elected representatives were much more responsive to the needs of the people than Direct Rule ministers.
Yet five years down the road and things are still not as the people have a right to expect. Unionism is hopelessly divided and unable to bring about stability. Republicans have yet to join the rest of us on the path of fully democratic and peaceful politics. Nationalists have yet to accept that they must take responsibility when others fail to live up to democratic standards.
So there’s still a long way to go. Certainly, those critics who said that when the Agreement was signed Alliance’s work was done have been proved wrong. We are still working to ensure community relations are top of the agenda, unlike the UUP and SDLP, who colluded to bury a groundbreaking report on community relations. They were simply not capable of forming an agreed strategy. The result was that community relations was brushed under the carpet? until things like Holy Cross blew up in our faces, and by then it was too late.
We are also still fighting for more integrated school places to meet the needs of over 1,000 children annually who cannot get a place. And we are still fighting sectarianism, whether in the form of paramilitary flags marking out territory or a tribal Assembly voting system that discriminates against cross community parties.
Building a united community and creating a shared future lie at the heart of the Alliance agenda. Tackling the divisions within our deeply-divided society must be the greatest priority for our political institutions. Unless we seriously address these problems, they will eventually destroy the Agreement and all that has been achieved so far.
The cost of sectarianism isn’t just political, as our ‘benign Apartheid’ is hitting all taxpayers hard in the pocket. Bigotry costs us billions in needless duplication of facilities that should really be shared, in the need for security and in terms of inward investment. When the problem parties squabble, it is the public that loses out. Globalisation of the economy means jobs are going where labour is cheapest. The parties that were supposed to govern us have totally failed to recognise that stability is the best possible international advertisement for Northern Ireland plc.
The economy is something that has been skirted around in election debates. Alliance will tackle the problems of unfair taxation and reform the local rating system. We want to abolish the regional rate, and replace it with a method based on ability to pay. We will lobby the UK Government for tax-varying powers, and we welcome Sinn Fein’s belated support for this Alliance initiative. This will give the Assembly a greater ability to reflect the democratic wishes of people here and to have the capability to offer tax incentives to stimulate local economic growth.
Alliance is also looking forward to the time when policing and criminal justice functions can be transferred to the Assembly. We have a substantial section in our manifesto on justice and the rule of law, and we will lobby the Government until responsibility for justice is devolved. It is a matter of great concern that Northern Ireland lags so far behind.
Devolution offers so much potential, but instead we have had five years of mostly wasted opportunities. However, this election is also about restoring trust and confidence to the political process, and the Agreement remains the only way forward to peace and stability in this society. The demands from others for ‘renegotiation’ are completely unrealistic. We cannot allow others to rip it up and start all over again.
Instead, Alliance will push for positive changes in the upcoming review to make the Agreement work better for all, more democratic, stable and accountable. Our priorities will be to:
· remove the sectarian aspects of the Agreement, such as designations
· ensure power is shared more fairly
· ensure that Loyalists and Republicans complete the final journey from violence to democracy
· make ministers more accountable for their actions.
Alliance is the political voice of those who work to create a united community, one characterised by sharing, not separation. Only Alliance rejects the notion that we must all be pigeon-holed into ‘two communities’. We believe people have a right to choose their own identity, rather than have one forced on them, as at present. Alliance offers everyone an invitation to join something different, something better than tribal politics – a genuinely shared and non-sectarian future.
The Alliance alternative is an open, free and fair society, where we are all equal citizens – not a society where we merely tolerate difference, but rather a society where we celebrate diversity. In the 1998 Assembly election, just 50 more votes would have given Alliance a place on the Executive. Your vote in 2003 could make a real difference.