Ladies and Gentlemen, both members and guests, its give me great pleasure to declare this 30th Anniversary Conference of the Alliance Party officially open.
I am especially pleased to be standing here as the second female President in the Party’s history. The first was Muriel Pritchard – a wonderful woman, who inspired me and, I’m sure, other women in political life.
Having started off as an ordinary member, I became General Secretary, and was subsequently being elected as Honorary Treasurer, Vice-Chair, and then Chair, and was recently elected Party President, I feel that I have now done the full gamut.
But seriously, the Alliance Party has a strong record on female representation. As far as we are concerned, women should have the opportunity to make their mark in politics through a party that represents all sections of society.
We can take great pride in the fact that over one third of our elected representatives are women. Surely, this is a record that no other broad-based party within these islands can match!
Before going any further, I want to pay tribute to the contribution that Philip McGarry made to this party, during his term as Party President. Philip worked very hard on the reorganisation of this party in the aftermath of the Assembly Elections. He has staked out new territory for this party in tackling important issues on which others kept silent.
As President, I intend to work very closely with the grassroots organisation of this Party, and to improve general communication throughout.
Our local Associations are our great strength. Alliance is renowned for dedicated constituency workers, for our efforts to keep our voters better informed through our Focus Newsletters, and for introducing Residents’ Surveys to find out peoples’ concerns and needs.
I see my role as President as an important link between the membership as a whole, and Party Headquarters. I want to be there to listen to both the hopes and fears of associations, and to encourage and energise the membership into action at this significant time both for the party, and for Northern Ireland.
The Party President has important campaigning functions within the Party. I intend to concentrate upon some of the issues with which Alliance is most closely associated: Reconciliation, Community Relations, Human Rights and Equality.
Despite the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society.
The signs of division are everywhere – segregation in education, segregation in housing, and segregation in leisure.
Sectarianism, bigotry, and intolerance remain far too prevalent.
Hatred and lack of mutual understanding are not just confined to perceived religious differences. The racist attacks of last weekend remind us that the scourge of racism is very much alive in Northern Ireland.
Belfast remains the only walled city in Europe, with as many as thirteen built to keep people apart.
A Cold War may have ended in Europe, but a Cold War is very much alive in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland.
Peace is not just the absence of violence. In Northern Ireland, most of the violence may have disappeared, but divisions, and bitter clashes over subjects such as policing, parades, resources, and control of territory remain.
People are conditioned into thinking of Northern Ireland in terms of the existence of ‘two communities’.
The identity of those from mixed marriages, people from ethnic minorities, and those who make a positive choice not to associate with either Unionism or Nationalism is denied.
The space for the non-sectarian centre is squeezed, the prospects for greater pluralism eroded.
Within this atmosphere, people quickly become polarised over contentious issues.
Ideas are not judged in terms of their impact upon society as a whole, but rather whether they can be perceived as a ‘win’ or a ‘loss’ for different sides of the community.
Such ‘zero-sum’ politics have zero benefit to good community relations.
Human rights are seen as something of benefit to Nationalists, and a threat to the position of Unionists, rather than something that is the universal entitlement of every citizen.
The Equality Agenda is wrongly regarded as giving Nationalists a leg-up, while giving Unionists a put down, rather than being concerned with giving every citizen equal opportunities, and equal treatment under the law.
The Patten Report has the potential to provide a new beginning for policing in Northern Ireland – a reformed police service that can be representative of the entire community, and serving the needs of all. Yet, whenever Unionists and Nationalists got their hands on it, they predictably turned police reform into another sectarian dogfight of loss and gain.
Disputes over parades remain a running sore and major source of contention within our community. Preparations for Drumcree, Chapter VI are well underway. At this rate, Drumcree is set to have more sequels than Star Wars.
But the ordinary people continue to suffer, and the atmosphere in places such as Portadown is poisoned.
It is also time that we began to appreciate how sectarianism and segregation, and their physical manifestations in the form of the paramilitary murals, kerbstone painting, and illegal flags, create a climate of ‘ghettoisation’.
‘Ghettoisation’ equates to social exclusion, and the denial of opportunities for far too many of our citizens.
The scourge of paramilitary assaults – what are euphemistically called ‘punishment attacks’ – persists in far too many parts of Northern Ireland.
An ethos of communal separation permits this problem to grow and fester. This culture of separation suggests that the different communities of Northern Ireland carry some legitimacy, in addition to the official organs of the state. Propaganda is spread denying the ability of the police and the courts to provide justice. Direct intimidation is used against those who would dare co-operate with the RUC.
The recent upsurge in these so-called punishment attacks since the suspension of the Good Friday Agreement institutions shows that they are largely political in nature, rather than a response to social problems. The paramilitary godfathers can turn them on and off at their convenience.
There is a deafening silence from David Ervine and Gerry Adams, and their colleagues, over these activities of Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. No leadership, nor confidence, but plenty of rhetoric.
Paramilitary organisations act as judge, jury and executioner. Their victims have no opportunity to counter accusations made against them. There is no process of appeal – no checks and balances to prevent false conviction. Often people are singled out for crossing the local godfathers.
I remember during the mid-1980s, young men came into in Peace House saying that they had to be in a particular alleyway at a set time to collect their ‘punishment’, for alleged anti-social behaviour.
These practices show no respect for the due process of law or international human rights norms. They mark a major departure from universal standards of human rights and justice, and equal protection under the law. Human rights and justice mean something different for people on many Housing Estates across Northern Ireland than they do for the rest of the people.
But this problem runs even deeper. Several murders have been committed since the Agreement by organisations officially on ceasefire. Some statements from Loyalist and Republican politicians seek to rationalise these murders on the grounds that the victims were informers or drug dealers. But this cuts no ice with Alliance. Murder is murder, no ifs, no buts.
All of these activities constitute some of the worst examples of human rights abuses in the Northern Ireland of today.
I am concerned that far too many of our local human rights organisations focus almost exclusively upon the activities of the state, past and present.
Silence can too readily be taken for consent.
There are insufficient people and bodies speaking out, and condemning these heinous acts.
The concept of restorative justice has often been advocated as an alternative to the criminal justice system.
Alliance does see the potential for restorative justice to reintegrate and rehabilitate certain offenders, especially young people, and to avoid detention, which is expensive and can often be counterproductive.
However, it must be a complement to the criminal justice system not an alternative.
Too many restorative justice schemes have operated outside the rule of law and positively shun the police. We are concerned that some of them are fronts for so-called paramilitary justice.
Human rights considerations can be too easily cast aside. It is ironic that at a time when the organs of the state are rightly coming under much closer human rights scrutiny, more and more functions are being assumed by unaccountable non-state bodies.
One of the most welcome aspects of the Criminal Justice Review is that restorative justice schemes are to be brought firmly under the control of the courts
Alliance has been longstanding supporters and strong advocates of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK domestic law.
This has now been achieved with 1998 Human Rights Act, which is due to come into force later this year.
Conference, there is about to be a revolutionary change in the protection of rights in the UK. For the first time, abuses in human rights are going to be directly judicable in domestic courts.
We in Northern Ireland are to have our human rights protections broadened even further.
The Human Rights Commission has a statutory duty to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on the content of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. They have just launched their consultation process on this.
Within this, the Alliance Party sees opportunities, but also some threats.
We have the chance to widen the debate upon human rights. In Northern Ireland, the debate on human rights has had a very narrow focus on the abuses of the state against individuals.
The European Convention on Human Rights was drafted back in 1948. It focuses almost exclusively on political and civil rights.
Since then a wide range of European and international human rights instruments have been drawn up, and ratified by Governments. These focus on economic and social rights, and protecting the rights of persons who belong to minorities.
Alliance is keen to ensure that protections are broadened to deal with the rights of, for example, children, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities.
There are now opportunities to bring international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and European Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities into our own domestic law.
It is important that each individual citizen has not only equality of opportunity and equality under the law, but equality of treatment and equality of access to government services such as health, education, and employment.
We must also be conscious of the likely demands for human rights protections in the future. Human rights need to keep pace with the age of Information Technology. It is vitally important that rights to privacy are preserved.
The rights of persons from minorities to practice and preserve their cultures do need to be protected. However, this process must be sensitive to the dangers of further entrenching communal separation at the expense of shared space and good community relations.
Alliance is very concerned at the requirement that has been imposed upon the Human Rights Commission to ‘reflect the ethos and identity of both communities’.
We are pleased that the Commission have stated that this will be interpreted broadly to reflect the multicultural diversity that does exist within Northern Ireland.
However, we must seek to minimise the dangers, or sectarian divisions will become further entrenched. Human rights must remain something in the ownership of individual citizens, not Unionist or Nationalist groups.
A common feature of recent human rights conventions is that people have the right not be treated as part of a group against their will, and that furthermore no disadvantage should arise from this choice.
It is now time that the Government stopped insisting that every person must belong to either the Protestant Community or the Catholic Community for Fair Employment purposes, and amended legislation to reflect the right of people not to have these labels forced upon them.
There is a very real danger that we could be heading for a society based upon the concept of ‘separate but equal’ – separate communities living in peaceful co-existence but rigidly divided from each other and supposedly equal in status. The institutionalisation of sectarian divisions in the Agreement points in this direction.
This is the Alliance anti-vision.
We know that a peaceful but divided society will not remain peaceful for long.
The lesson from the American South is that the idea of ‘separate but equal’ in practice means ‘separate and unequal’.
It puzzles me how many prominent people in the SDLP like to evoke the spirit of Martin Luther King for their cause. Martin Luther King stood for the principles of sharing and integration not separation.
By contrast, the Alliance vision is very different. It is based upon sharing. It is based on overcoming our differences, and uniting people in this society.
We acknowledge that people should be free to define who they are for themselves.
This party is committed to multiculturalism and diversity.
We will speak up for the interests of those who do not choose to associate with either Unionism or Nationalism.
And so, friends and colleagues, I will conclude by expressing the hope that Northern Ireland is embracing a brave new world. It will not be perfect, but hopefully it will be free from intimidation, fear, violence or discrimination of any kind.
We, in Alliance, are more than ready to play our part.
Our responsibility and challenge is to push our own vision, and to attempt to make it reality, to counter the anti-vision of the separatists. This is our Millennium Project!