Ladies and Gentleman, Can I bid you a very warm welcome to the Dunadry Hotel for the 34th Annual Alliance Conference.
We are meeting at a seminal moment in the politics of Northern Ireland.
There is a real sense of the passing of the old guard — and uncertainty over what will be new.
Ian Paisley is moving on from Europe, and his time as Party Leader will probably be short-lived. For quite some time, Peter Robinson has been over-shadowing him.
Indeed, as Dr Paisley steps aside, there is a real sense that an effort is being made to revise history, and to paint his legacy in a more positive light, as the rest of the party moves to the centre — a major task no doubt.
I wonder if David Trimble will still be leader of the UUP by the end of the month. Over the years, we have had a series of stop-starts with Unionist Leaders.
In my lifetime, we have the part-timer, Brookeborough, then a quick succession of some leaders who seemed to be a little more awake — such as O’Neill and Faulkner, then almost two decades of sleep with Molyneaux, then the excitement of David Trimble.
So what’s coming next? Empey, Taylor, Burnside, Donaldson — no he’s left.
There is more plotting and treachery in the UUP than an episode of Dallas. And to think that these people want to run the country.
As for the SDLP, it is clear that St. John stayed on way too long. The old guard neither brought along the old guard, nor the electorate.
The SDLP brought Sinn Fein in from the cold, thought that they could control them, but instead created a monster.
Now it seems that they have been permanently overtaken by Sinn Fein.
‘Stop the DUP’ must have been one of the most inept campaigns in political history. And while I am on the subject can the SDLP please remove the rest of their posters.
It’s a bit like having to the dishes after the dinner-party. You have had your fun, you have your enthusiasm but you still have to clear up afterwards.
As for Sinn Fein, how much longer will the Kremlinesque duopoly of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness exist. Are we going to see some real debate with Sinn Fein, or is it destined to remain the most centralised and Stalinst party this side of Pyongyang, North Korea.
Will Sinn Fein finally embrace democracy and non-violence, no ifs, no buts, no hedges, or are they going to continue their Orwellian double-speak, and mafia-style politics.
All of the small Unionist parties, the UKUP, NIUP, UUAP, PUP, UDP — remember them all — they are either extinct or on the life-support machine.
The Women’s Coalition lost both of their seats, and are virtually extinct too. I am pleased to say that 2 out of our six MLAs are women — Eileen Bell and Naomi Long, but there are still so few women in the top ranks of our political institutions. There is not even one within the UUP Assembly Team.
Through all of this change, for 34 years, the Alliance Party remains a standing — a constant source for common sense and common decency, a voice for moderation, a vision for the future.
The others have imploded in terms of their main beliefs, Alliance has not.
But what do people say: ‘Fence Sitters’ — bum full of splinters
When people accuse of us of sitting on the fence, they do so because they demand us to be firm on the constitution.
That is probably more a comment upon their mindset than it is upon ours.
To Unionists, we are too green. Too Nationalist, we are too orange. But to us, we are simply Alliance, and working for something totally different, something better, a new type of Northern Ireland.
Our critics say we are middle of the road, we get run over by the traffic.
‘Middle of the road’ — get by run over by the traffic.
This party has shown more principle, been more creative, taken more risks, and generated more ideas than any other parties.
Alliance took the risks to place Sinn Fein into the top post in Belfast City Council, as their mandate warranted. The ceiling did not fall in on the City.
Alliance took the risks in November 2001 to get the Assembly up and running again.
Alliance has taken the risks in standing up to paramilitaries.
Look at some of the ideas from Alliance that are now being accepted by others.
For years, Alliance has been campaigning for Hate Crime legislation. The recent disgraceful spate of racist attacks is ample justification for changes in the law. At long last, Government seems set to
The Independent Monitoring Commission is now front and centre at efforts to deal with paramilitaries and to get the Review into the Agreement back on course.
The Children’s Commissioner is now up and running.
Look at our vision of a shared and integrated society, this is now accepted by Governments, and some of the other parties. We just have to get them to
The SDLP even stole our economic policy, literally word for word.
Northern Ireland is now at a seminal moment.
The political talks are at a standstill. Paramilitarism is on the rise. Sectarianism and racism are still the norm.
Policy wise we are way behind other parts of Europe. Everything seems to be introduced last in Northern Ireland.
Our laws are out of date, we are behind with implementing European directives. Our infrastructure is in a mess, suffering from years/decades of underinvestment.
Our public finances are in a mess. For example, so much money is wasted — almost a £1 billion, yes £1 billion, a year in providing separate facilities for divided communities — leisure centres, community centres, job centres, bus routes, and schools
How about a little less duplication, and a little more investment in improving the quality of our public services.
Even our streets are dirtier, litter and waste everywhere.
There are clear signs that opinion in Great Britain, opinion in the Republic of Ireland, and opinion internationally are all losing patience with Northern Ireland.
Our little squabble is not the most pressing problem in the world.
It pales into significance compared to what is happening in Iraq, what is happening in Haiti, and in particular what has just happened in Madrid.
The question facing Northern Ireland is whether we do at long last move forward, with confidence, to a better and brighter future, or whether Northern Ireland becomes a global backwater, with economic stagnation, bitterness, permanent divisions, and the flight of our young people.
The challenge to turn this around is ours.
Are we up to the challenge?
Of course, we are.