President’s Address

Chairperson, Distinguished Visitors, Assembly members, Councillors and fellow Party Members: Good morning and welcome to our Annual Conference for 2003.

Not for the first time, we meet in interesting political circumstances. It is now almost five years since the Belfast Agreement was signed on behalf of almost – but not all – of Northern Ireland’s political parties, by the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland; and then ratified overwhelmingly in simultaneous referenda by the electorates of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland. And yet we are not a happy community.

Senator George Mitchell, a man who brought honour to politics here, said reaching that Agreement was difficult but implementing it would be more difficult still. It is clear that he was right, but his expectation brings a modicum of comfort – our ongoing difficulties are not unexpected, they have been predicted and they can be overcome.

There is no doubt that the Agreement has saved many lives. But our Assembly has also been suspended several times. Our own Alliance Party has been crucial on several occasions to the Assembly’s very existence. London and Dublin are approaching exasperation with Northern Ireland. But we are emerging from centuries of conflict and distrust; so although it may be frustrating for some, it is important we keep pushing for peace.

We would be foolish to expect no further difficulties – and we would be foolish to expect no further change. We would certainly be foolish to try to avoid change. There is no going back for any of us to any comforts we may have found in the past. Either we change and continue to change, or we atrophy and die.

The two unfulfilled hopes of the Agreement are that Northern Ireland as a community might live in trust with each other and that we might face change without violence. That our views of each other are not riddled with the deepest suspicion and that when any future change might come in whatever aspect of society, that no one will feel either entitled or encouraged to reach for the gun or the bomb.

Two weeks ago tonight I attended a meal with members of the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association, a most convivial evening amongst people who had gone willingly into that void between the two grinding political and religious millstones of Northern Ireland life.

The last thing I would want to do is bring party politics into this sensitive arena. I specifically avoid this. But I am very happy to point to one of the most heartening statistics of Northern Ireland society; that through more than three decades of division, bloodshed and killings, the rate of cross-community, inter-church, mixed marriages seems slowly and steadily to have increased. Increased even in the face of growing segregation; increased even as the so-called ‘peace walls’ have gone up because people did not feel safe beside their neighbours; increased even as residential neighbourhoods saw minorities pack up and move away. Still, good old Mother Nature ensured that objects of affection would be met and that love would find a way, even in the most unpropitious of political and religious circumstances!

I regret that there must be a great many other people who, by conscious choice, or because of our system of voluntary apartheid, narrowed their chances of meeting that other person with whom they could have built a happy and fulfilled life. Our self-imposed system of segregation has deprived us all of a great deal of additional cross-community ties; social cement that would have been of much assistance in building a solid, shared future. The structures of our community are all the weaker because of it.

Voluntary apartheid does work – but only in the shortest of terms. So long as we continue to live segregated lives in Northern Ireland, we will lay up problems for the future.

In Northern Ireland the life of the cross-community relationship can be very difficult. We don’t need the Mixed Marriage Association to remind us that spouses, partners, boyfriends and girlfriends have been targeted for attack and murder for appearing to ‘betray’ their community; for ‘selling out’, for not holding the line against ‘the other side’.

One is stunned at the waste of lives of those very people who refused to accept apartheid, who refused to be separated, refused to base their futures on old hatreds, and who were not prevented from loving someone from outside the tribe. The murders even of children to young to fully understand our divisions, of the little brothers Jason (9), Mark (10) and Richard (11) Quinn in Ballymoney that took place after the ceasefires and after the Good Friday Agreement.

And it is not a whit worse, but one senses an extreme perverseness in the contemptible murders of those who were attacked in the mistaken belief that they were from ‘the other side’. For we are all from someone’s other side.

Two NIMMA members, Anne and William Odling-Smee, wrote a pamphlet entitles ‘Interchurch Marriage in Ireland’, published in 2001 by the Catalyst Group. They raise several difficulties that reflect not just the problems that Northern Ireland churches and society impose upon young mixed couples themselves, but they illuminate issues that Northern Ireland as a whole must tackle as we construct a better way to live:

· rejection by one’s own family;

· the 16th century Reformation divide that still separates our churches – for there is no doubt that if the churches could really find a way forward in Christian love then much of the overall problem would be solved;

· the denomination of one’s children and their church attachments;

· the difficulty of finding integrated neighbourhoods for one’s home – especially in public housing; and

· the fact that only 5 percent of our schools are actually integrated.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties. We had a problem of conflicting nationalities in this island for several centuries before the Reformation. As far back as 1325, for example, almost 700 years ago, John Clyn, the Kilkenny Franciscan annalist, recorded that there was trouble between English and Irish members throughout almost the whole Franciscan community in Ireland: “each one taking the side of his own nation and blood”.

Superimpose the Reformation’s religious differences on top of this existing divide, and things are certainly not going to get better! We are still suffering the consequences many centuries later.

I sought out some good friends to ask them about their experience of their own mixed marriages. Two issues came up:

it is crucial to have a good understanding and agreement before the marriage; and the success of the marriage can be greatly assisted or seriously undermined by pressures from outside, more than from inside, the marriage.

That good understanding seems to be the equivalent of the Good Friday Agreement. But in Northern Ireland’s case it is not simply two individuals coming to an understanding, but 1.7 million people, with all the complexity that that entails. And the outside family pressures seem to resemble the London and Dublin in-laws of the communities here.

So we are on the right road. The latest testing of the Good Friday Agreement will hopefully help to ensure greater acceptance of its working out, and the generational change of attitude in London and Dublin – from Thatcher-Haughey confrontation, through the Reynolds-Major thaw, to Blair-Ahern co-operation and encouragement – all help to place the issue firmly back where it will best be resolved, where it must be resolved, here in Northern Ireland.

After all this, the Mixed Marriages’ vision – and it is a vision I gladly share – is that far from avoiding inter-church marriages and cross-community relationships, we should embrace these as the very models that Northern Ireland society should follow and in doing so, help solve the broader unease and friction. Our Party’s visionary Policy Paper on Community Relations, ‘Building a United Community’, demonstrates numerous ways forward for Northern Ireland in these complicated fields of community relations. And we have some right to be heard on these issues because the Alliance Party is the largest political grouping in Northern Ireland of unionists and nationalists and people who find no relevance in those labels; of Protestants, Catholics, neither and people who find no relevance in religious labels.

Sometimes I am reminded of Alan Paton’s famous novel ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ set in apartheid South Africa. He had a hope that by the time one community had turned to loving, the other community would not have turned to hating. But I believe that in Northern Ireland we have now passed that milestone. We have a long way to go; but people do want to move forward.

One can analyse how to work for political change. Our divided society has borne witness to paramilitary extremism at one end of the spectrum and cross-community groups like Alliance at the other.

The paramilitary says: “Let’s use violence to resolve the constitutional issue and then we can all be friends.” Alliance says: “Let’s work together to create trust as we make the many necessary changes we need for a better society for us all.”

And on the centre parties rests the greater imperative to foresee the necessary changes, to be open to those changes and to work for those changes. It’s a challenge I don’t think we always meet. And inevitably we continue to be ground between the millstones of the two-tribes view of society – as if life was as simple as that; or as if that was a desirable vision. If you do not declare yourself as a Unionist or Nationalist, how long will your vote continue to be ignored in electing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister? If a child of an inter-church marriage is raised as a member of both Christian traditions, how long will the Department of Education be allowed to ignore it when counting balance in an integrated school? It really is perverse to ignore the centre ground; to ignore the very people who have already overcome the social divide that is causing some of the problem, and who have the vision and the actual experience.

So change will come. There is no good trying, Canute-like, to prevent the inevitable. That is impossible. There is every reason to expect that this 21st century is going to bring vast change for the rising generations across the world.

So we send our greetings and thanks to our current Assembly representatives:

· to our clear-thinking and determined Party Leader David Ford, here in his own South Antrim constituency;

· to his indefatigable Deputy Leader, Eileen Bell, an outstanding voice for North Down;

· to the tireless Party Whip in the Assembly, the redoubtable Kieran McCarthy in Strangford;

· to the unstoppable Seamus Close, trenchant representative of the electorate of Lagan Valley;

· to the ever-popular Sean Neeson in his East Antrim stronghold;

· and, of course, to Lord John Alderdice, who as Speaker has had to remain above party politics, but has rendered sterling service, not just for his constituents in East Belfast, but for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.

For the good of pragmatic co-operation in Northern Ireland and to increase cross-community trust, we look forward to the return of even more Alliance members in the forthcoming Assembly election.

We often fall into the trap here of overestimating the importance of our small quarrel and the demands which we place upon outsiders’ time and attention. But success here would certainly be a shining beacon of hope for others caught up in conflicts across the world, in overlapping political allegiances and differing theological traditions. So let us work to create a peaceful, prosperous and open-minded society here, firstly for our own good, but also to demonstrate that politics can work and that we do not have to resort to violence to solve differences of nationalist or political or religious outlooks. That would be some return to humanity for the grievous price paid by so many of our fellow citizens.

The forthcoming Assembly election will be very important. The expansion of the centre ground – in Northern Ireland terms, the radical centre – is a task that I commend warmly to all Alliance members to support with your energy, with your time and with your finances.

Political progress here offers hope to other people in even more intractable conflicts across the world. For ourselves and for them, it is a goal worth working for.

Thank you.

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