President’s Address

Distinguished Guests and Fellow Alliance Delegates, good morning. Welcome to Belfast on this fine autumn morning.

I wish to start by thanking three people in particular who have worked so hard to move the Peace Process along the road: Sean Neeson, our outgoing Leader, who deserves a rest – but who won’t take it because he is still so totally committed to making this a better place for ourselves and for our children. Eileen Bell, our Deputy Leader, whose urgent passion for reconciliation is so manifest to Party members. And, of course, to David Ford who has now been given the strong mandate of members to lead Alliance forward. And in this work, he has the pro-active support of all the Party.

Things are definitely better than before 1994. There is no doubt about that. They really are. But we still have a very dysfunctional society. We still have killings and still have people being hospitalised. We still expect to hear about violence on the News.

Calls for new and higher Peace Walls are actually being made. Ardoyne is getting a new Peace Wall.

How do we dismantle bigotry and sectarianism? How do we build trust and understanding?

The problem in Northern Ireland is a political problem. But you don’t need great wisdom to see that religion plays a part. If religion is a red herring, then in the memorable phrase of Conor Cruise O’Brian, “It is a red herring as big as a whale!”

But there is no doubt whatever in my mind that if we could disentangle religion from politics it would help to clarify issues and help politicians to get on with their job. And I dare say that a shake-out of these issues might actually help the churches as well.

My view of this is simple – I live and work on the basis that Unionists and Nationalists (and Protestants and Roman Catholics) should never do separately what we can do together. It’s as simple as that – but this principle can have very far-reaching implications.

So how do we disentangle institutional religion from political life here? How do we take religious sectarianism out of our politics and our community life?

In addition to the personal, individual work of each of us for reconciliation and co-operation in the community, I see three main structural arenas for this work:

· With the Churches;

· On the Constitution at Westminster; and

· At Northern Ireland Assembly and civil service level.

First, the Churches: For many year the churches were mainly in the lead, encouraging politicians to come together and solve their problems. Now that this has begun, however intermittently, to happen, the churches’ own differences are more exposed – and their inability to work together, or even to value each other.

The mainstream Presbyterian Church feels unable to share membership of a Council of Churches with the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church forbids its people from calling the Protestant Churches “sister churches”. Many do not even accept each other as actual christians!

What kind of message do the theologians and church leaders think this sends out to the non-theologians among us? To the black-and-white thinkers who take their lead from the theological body language of their leaders?; who hear differences and see division, but who see little evidence of charity or mutual search for truth.

Inter-communion: Five hundred years after the Reformation, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England is publicly telling Prime Minister Blair to stop receiving Roman Catholic communion; and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland is publicly telling President Mary McAleese to stop receiving Protestant Communion.

What message does this send out?

Inter-church schools: From 1831 it was Government policy across this whole island to have all children educated together in the new National Schools. The Churches did not want this and evolved a segregated system. They did this for good, well-intentioned reason. They are not bad people. But the end result was profoundly hurtful to the body politic in this island. And it has been left to individual Catholic and Protestants parents to struggle to have the right to have integrated schools. More power to them. I am proud to count myself among them.

But the appalling thing is that the churches themselves in other jurisdictions are actually involved in running inter-church schools, for example, to my knowledge, in England, Australia and New York. In the former West Germany all the christian churches came to agreement with the eleven separate Lander governments of the Federal Republic.

By the end of the 1960s all denominational schools had been abandoned with the agreement of their churches and all children attended schools together.

So, manifestly, it is entirely theologically possible for churches to run inter-church schools together – or to attend common government schools. So why is it not happening in Northern Ireland? Why are foreigners astonished that the churches do not promote integrated schools here? What is the response of church leaders?

I call on our Alliance Party – either on its own initiative, or with other political Parties – to meet the churches and raise this issue. How do the churches intend to improve the situation? What can the Alliance Party do to assist?

Indeed integrated schools would at last allow Northern Ireland to end the expensive luxury of running a segregated school system, with State Catholic schools and state Protestant schools. It would let us put more money into teachers and resources for our children.

The redoubtable Eric Waugh, long-time commentator on religious affairs in Northern Ireland, recently on BBC Radio Ulster put his finger on one concern when he said that the reason the churches oppose integrated schools is the fear of inter-marriage. Well, I must say I draw the line at compulsory mixed marriages as a policy to solve Northern Ireland’s community problems! However there is no doubt that the churches – instead of welcoming this loving solution to Reformation divisions – have created problems for those of our young people who so wish “to betray” their church, or their tribe.

Why does Northern Ireland actually need a Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association? The ‘Ne Temere’ Decree issued on 2 August 1907 by Pope Pius X was certainly an appalling assault on the consciences of Protestants and, ultimately, of Catholics in this island. And it deepened the gulf between the churches; and the gulf in the community.

This issue is entirely a religious one. It is done with good intent. But once again the fine points of the theologians spills over into barbaric murders by shallower minds; and many spouses or partners during the last 30 years have been targeted and killed for being of the wrong church. Many clergy and gunmen share a dislike of mixed marriages.

Again I call on the Alliance Party to meet with the churches and ask them what help we can give to help solve this issue – that they see as a problem and I see as a perfect natural solution to community division? What ideas have the churches themselves? How do they see us supporting affection? There’s not so much spare love in Northern Ireland that we can afford to squander it without thought.

Secondly, the Constitution of the UK, and I turn to Westminster: The issues here are quite straightforward:

· It is absurd that the monarch may not marry a Roman Catholic.

· It is unacceptable that one church should be entitled to a place in Government, that the Church of England bishops should be entitled to sit and vote in The House of Lords.

And I echo the recent call of Mr Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Home Affairs, I call for the Alliance Party to support the Disestablishment of the Church of England.

And I simply cannot understand how that Church can accept its bishops being appointed by a party politician of whatever party or denomination. (For my spiritual leadership I do not turn to a Prime Minister).

In this same context, I turn to our friends in the Ulster Unionist Party. I will not preach at them how they should run their own party. But if they ever want to attract Roman Catholic members, then they might give serious consideration to ending their constitutional involvement with a Protestant religious organisation.

Finally, the government of Northern Ireland – our Assembly and our civil service: The Good Friday was a major step forward. But it can only be a stepping stone. So intent were we on sharing power and responsibility, that we have created a dualist state, not a pluralist state.

If you want to see how we have institutionalised division under the Good Friday Agreement, then just look at the votes of MLAs of the Centre in a cross-community vote.

The votes of these Alliance and Women’s Coalition Members just don’t count the same!

But do you want to see a strictly religious example of dualist Government thinking? Just look at what happens if child of an inter-church marriage (“a mixed marriage”) is presented for enrolment at an integrated school. How does the Department of Education regard this child in assessing the religious balance in the school? Well the Department of Education will not accept a category of children raised by their parents to share both traditions. Unless the parents and the integrated school declare the child to be either a Protestant or a Roman Catholic, the child is classified as “other”, along with atheists, muslims, hindus, jews, and buddhists, and is not counted in the minimum 30% Catholics and 30% Protestants that an integrated school requires under the 1989 Education Reform Order.

This is quite a way to build the centre ground!

And look at the new Police Service. A really, really major advance – but what are we doing? We are using theological labels, religious labels for what is a political issue.

Look at what happened: Patten spent a long period trying to describe and structure an acceptable police service and we all used the Catholic-Protestant labels. Then it turned out that the words did not express what people had in mind.

Republicans who did not want to accept the compromise complained: there may be Catholics applying to join the Police Service, but they’re not republican. The “Catholic” label was seen to be deficient.

In the argument about whether The Duchess of Abercorn should visit a Catholic maintained school in connection with the Puskin Prize, just look at the press reports at the time and see how the adjectives “Catholic” and “nationalist” were used interchangeably. Eventually the Duchess visited the school.

But there are unionists who are not protestant; and protestants who are not unionists. There are Catholics who are not nationalists and there are nationalists who are not Catholic. And there are people who reject all those religious labels, just as there are people who reject all those political labels. If we can clarify the identities and wishes of these people and of the churches, then the future life of Northern Ireland and these islands will also become clearer.

These “other” people have no name, no group identity. Perhaps their experience between the two grinding political millstones of Northern Ireland society drives them away from labels. But they represent a vital force in the future development of our society. I suspect that many of them are here this morning.

There are many manifestations of a divided society here. Northern Ireland is not a unified community.

My paper this morning has focused particularly on the a structural religious, sectarian issue which befouls our body politic.

Sectarianism jumps to conclusions that prevent reason and debate, that blocks even normal human kindness. We in Northern Ireland know that sectarianism is lethal.

It kills people and poisons minds. It leaves orphans behind. It causes resentment and can even cause retaliation which extends the whole poisoned process.

Politics is an alternative to violence. We were not so foolish as to think that the political life of our community was going to be unchanged when commitment to inclusion made space for harder-line political views in our community’s debate.

The political work becomes harder; but it cannot be avoided. And the short-term and long-term aim is the permanent end to violence as a political tool.

The very foundation of the Alliance Party in April 1970 demonstrated clearly that unionists and nationalists can and do work together. And it demonstrates that theology need not be a murderously divisive force in the body politic.

But Alliance must continue forcefully to build upon that foundation, our philosophy of a pluralist community – with a message of tolerance and hope, justice and equality, not just in our sundered society here, but as an example to the other countries divided by religious, ethnic, or nationalist tensions around this beautiful world.

I call upon Alliance to consider pursuing the steps I have outlined.

Thank you.

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