People say that a week is a long time in politics; however, at the minute barely an hour passes without some new revelation or twist in the tale. Few could have predicted the unfolding events of the last month and, had anyone done so in early December, even fewer would have believed their predictions.
Whilst many of the events which have shaped the news agenda in recent weeks have been unpredictable, bordering on the surreal, the core issue which has brought the political process to crisis point this week was entirely predictable and has been for some time.
In preparing for conference today, I took the opportunity to re-read my speech to conference 18 months ago, and much of the content then is still extremely pertinent today.
You may recall that at that point, the crisis over policing and justice had led to a 3 month hiatus in meetings of the Executive, an impasse which ultimately lasted for 5 months.
Whilst the situation may have started as a dispute over the devolution of policing and justice, the list of sticking points and blockages at that time had, predictably, expanded to include a whole raft of other issues.
Those which I listed back then (and it was by no means an exhaustive list) included the Maze stadium project, education reform, the Bill of Rights, the Irish language Act, PPS 14, the review of public administration and the proposed new strategy for cohesion, sharing and integration.
Is it just me, or does that list sound rather familiar?
In fact, of those issues, only two have been resolved. PPS14, the policy to regulate building in the countryside, was finally agreed, albeit in a much weakened form than originally anticipated.
And we have also had the decision not to proceed with building a multi-sports stadium at the Maze (or anywhere else for that matter), which of course leaves the issue of what will be built on the Maze Site and when it might actually happen unaddressed. So, one unanswered question has simply been replaced by others.
Some have argued that, given the lack progress by the Executive on a whole range of issues, including those I have mentioned, it simply isn’t up to the challenge of more responsibility and additional powers and functions and that policing and justice should remain in the hands of the NIO.
Many of us in this room, who are equally frustrated with that lack of substantive delivery from the Executive, would have a degree of sympathy with that view.
However, what that analysis fails to recognise is that lack of agreement and delivery on the devolution of policing and justice is at least partly to blame for that wider lack of delivery.
The policing and justice issue has been hanging over the Assembly like the sword of Damocles since St Andrews and, until it is resolved, it will continue to hamper progress by simultaneously destabilising the political institutions, creating a sense of impermanence and fragility around the structures at Stormont, and distracting parties from engaging on other important issues in a meaningful way.
We have heard repeatedly in the intervening period that, in order to devolve policing and justice, we need first to have community confidence. However if one single factor is undermining confidence in the wider community it is the continued inability of parties to resolve the impasse on this very issue.
I firmly believe that reaching an accommodation, setting a date for devolution and ending the uncertainty not just over the devolution of policing and justice but, as a consequence, over the continuation of the devolved institutions, would be the biggest confidence building measure of all.
Doing it in the context of having also resolved the stand-off on delivering a new good relations strategy for Northern Ireland, would demonstrate a political maturity and a level of commitment to the institutions and to building a better future together which have been sadly lacking in recent days.
Yes, there are those who will oppose the transfer of policing and justice powers and they will attack any move towards it regardless of the terms in which it happens.
For as long as it remains only a theoretical prospect, they have the opportunity to whip up fear and sow confusion about the potential impact that it might have.
However, whilst the prospect of devolution of policing and justice powers is open to this kind of manipulation, the reality of the powers actually devolved is much less open to such scaremongering and would dispel many of the myths currently being peddled.
Ultimately, community confidence will be built by strong, decisive leadership. If we learned anything in the years following the Good Friday Agreement, we know that procrastination and equivocation are not the friends of the process and if there is a crisis of confidence, it will not be down to the fine print of any deal, but to the lack of conviction of those who negotiate it and who are charged with its delivery.
We have gathered here at a time of uncertainty, yet it is also a time when there is massive potential in Northern Ireland for progress towards building the more united, fairer and more prosperous community which has been the vision of Alliance since its foundation.
No-one looking around Northern Ireland could fail to see that it is a transformed place when compared with 10 or 15 years ago. But that transformation is not complete and is a pale reflection of what could be achieved if we can sustain political progress, place it on a more stable footing and deliver on the promise of effective government.
Over recent weeks, I have spoken to a range of business leaders, investors and tourism experts all of whom are alive with the possibilities for the future, excited about the opportunities for growth and expansion and who can passionately articulate their belief that this is a great place to visit, to invest and to do business.
But all of that can only be fully realised in the context of stability and peace. Those same people have also spoken of how the current political uncertainly makes them, as both potential and current investors, nervous and of how it inhibits progress of the policies and practical support for business, innovation, growth and development which the Executive could and should be focussed on but are not because they are in crisis management mode.
The same is true in many of the communities I visit, day in, day out, where young people and community leaders want to seize the opportunity to work towards a more peaceful future, to deal with difficult and sensitive issues such as interface tensions, murals, and bonfires and to reach out to each other to start the work of breaking down the barriers which exist between people. They are committed to that process and have hope for the future, but they need functioning politics and stability to support the work that they do and the risks that they have taken and continue to take.
People outside of politics and indeed many of us inside are weary of the continued bickering, the stand off, the brinksmanship, the lack of progress and the lack of vision and leadership.
This is a time when narrow party interests need to be set aside and the focus needs to be on the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Today, it is not just the prospects for devolution of policing and justice which are at risk, but the Assembly itself and as a consequence the wider political accommodation of which it is part.
The political institutions were not designed primarily for effective, efficient governance but rather to sustain the peace process and, so, survival of the devolved institutions is intimately connected to the maintenance of peace and stability.
The collapse of the first attempt at power sharing in 1974 and the failure to build political accommodation condemned Northern Ireland to a generation in the political wilderness. Getting devolution back took almost 25 years, and the decades between were marked by chaos and destruction.
As a member of a generation born into the Troubles, who grew up in the 70s and 80’s knowing nothing but the Troubles, I want my generation to be the last to live through such an experience.
I can see and appreciate just how far we have come, and we cannot – we dare not – squander that progress towards a new and better future for us all.
Later this spring, Alliance will celebrate its 40th anniversary and we will as a Party have an opportunity to formally mark that milestone at another time, but this morning I simply want to put on record my gratitude and admiration for those people, some of whom are here in the room today, who had the vision, the courage and the dedication to form this party in 1970.
In the face of those turbulent and violent times in which they lived, it would have been the easy choice to simply opt out of politics and walk away in despair and frustration. Indeed, that’s a choice that still tempts many people today.
Instead, however, those founder members and those who followed them made a choice to come together, to get involved and, in the act of doing so, they offered people an alternative to sectarianism, mistrust, violence, and conflict.
They offered the hope of co-operation, respect, tolerance and a peaceful future and demonstrated, not just in words but in substance and action, that it was possible for people from a diverse range of backgrounds to create a shared vision for the future of the community and work together as equal partners to realise it.
In forming the Alliance Party, they forged out a new political path.
Many of us who tread that path today weren’t even born when Alliance was formed, myself included, but we are here today, proud of that heritage and passionate about that message because it is still as relevant for our community today as it was almost 40 years ago.
For us, as for them, cohesion, sharing and integration and the vision of a shared future aren’t just policy buzz words or meaningless platitudes – they’re our prime motivation for being here, our core principles and part of our political DNA.
Now, as then, we are offering people a positive and constructive alternative to the instability, the brinkmanship and the bickering.
We are offering a vision for the future which is not just about orange and green but which respects individuals, cherishes equity and social justice and celebrates diversity.
We are offering people the chance of a future which isn’t simply a re-run of the past.
It is an honour to be part of the leadership team of this Party and to have a hand in developing and progressing that vision of a united community.
Mr President, distinguished guests, fellow delegates, as we prepare ourselves for whatever challenges and opportunities that may lie ahead, please give a very warm welcome to the person who will lead us through them: the Leader of the Alliance Party, Mr David Ford.