Address of Colm Cavanagh,
Vice President, and Conference Chair,
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
36th Annual Conference: Saturday 3 March 2006
at the Dunadry Hotel, Templepatrick, Co Antrim.
GOOD MORNING FELLOW DELEGATES, this fine March day in sunny County Antrim.
Greetings and Welcome to everyone.
Greetings to our excellent and admirable Party Leader, David Ford MLA ; to our newly-elected Vice-Chair, the tireless Naomi Long MLA; and to our four other MLAs: the redoubtable, and for the first time ever, the retiring Eileen Bell, of North Down; the trenchant Seamus Close, of Lagan Valley; the energetic Kieran McCarthy of Strangford who will shortly be proposing the first motion of the day; and, of course, to the unwavering Sean Neeson, of East Antrim, our greatly-valued former Party Leader. And a special greeting to all our Alliance Councillors from City, Borough and District Councils.
You are all welcome to this 36th Annual Conference of this great Alliance Party, an Alliance of people who look only to the future and who think only of only solutions. That’s how to solve problems: talk only of the future, and talk only of solutions. Firstly, on your behalf I send our warmest good wishes to our Party President Cllr Geraldine Rice, who should be standing here addressing you at this very moment. You will be aware that she has undergone a successful operation and we look forward to her early and effective return to the streets and hustings of South Castlereagh and South Belfast. Geraldine has asked me to convey her greetings to this Party Conference.She wishes Delegates a productive and successful day, and has noted the social issues to be raised by our speakers, including those relating to women and to older people, important themes for the future of our society.
On your behalf I send to Geraldine our very best and warmest wishes and look forward to her taking the Westminster seat for South Belfast with her usual 20-20 clear vision. I had originally planned to focus these few opening words on The Economy. But I am enraged by the disgraceful actions this week of the Minister for Education, Angela Smith MP for Basildon & East Thurrock drive me back to highlight the Government’s investment in division and segregation.
You are all familiar with Alliance’s constant threnody over the Stg 1 billion we squander every year for the despicable privilege of maintaining a segregated society. Can anyone in this hall this morning please, please explain to me how the Government can tell us on the one hand in its regrettably timid policy document “A SHARED FUTURE” that we should all live, work, learn and play together; and then, this very week, grant £380 million, yes, 380,000,000, to build, rebuild, extend and repair denominational schools, and at the same time refuse a single penny of funding for four integrated schools wanted and worked for by parents in Ballycastle, Clogher Valley, Moira-Hillsborough and Saintfield-Carryduff?
Shame on you, Angela Smith! Shame on you, Peter Hain! Shame on you, Department of Education! Do you still not understand what integrated education is all about? Do you say to Protestant children: “There are empty desks in Catholic schools, go there”? Do you say to Catholic children: “There are empty desks in Protestant schools, go there”? No, you do not. But you still think it is acceptable to tell children who want an integrated education to go to segregated schools? Shame on you, I say again.
You betray the government policy that goes back 170 years to the founding of our National School system in the 1830s, as you blithely continue to fund educational apartheid and force apart another generation of young school pupils who just want to go to school together.
Is it any wonder that Barbra Stephenson, a former American Consul General in Northern Ireland, described on the front page of the “News Letter” as “mind-boggling” the difficulties confronting ordinary parents here who want a de-segregated school system for their children. Is it too much to ask?
What do you say, Peter Hain, when you talk to Mitchell Reiss, US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland? On 30 Sept 2004 in New York, Mitchell Reiss commented on his appointment as US Special Envoy:
“After taking on this assignment, I was astonished to learn that roughly 95% of Northern Ireland schoolchildren are educated in segregated schools.
As Americans, we have first-hand experience with segregation, not so long ago. And we know it doesn’t work.
Segregation short-changes the students by denying them exposure to one half of their society. And it weakens the country by embedding mis-understanding and distrust”.
What do you say to that, Peter Hain, who fought so valiantly against segregation in South Africa? How do you preside over this weeks announcement? What do you say to that, Angela Smith, with 380 million to spend, but not a penny for integrated schools?
I think of the words of the late Billy Giles, a convicted UVF murderer. Billy Giles served a 15-year jail sentence for killing his Catholic workmate Michael Fay in 1982. In a very moving television interview to the BBC, Billy said that he never again felt a whole person after committing that murder. After his release from prison in 1998 he committed suicide. But in a suicide letter he wrote words that I have never forgotten: “Please let our next generation live normal lives. Tell them of our mistakes and admit to them our regrets”. I use those same words again now to the Department of Education: “Please let our next generation live normal lives”.
To me that means, please do not feed more children into the segregation mincing machine. To me this includes the duty placed upon the Department of Education by the 1989 Education Reform Order, “to encourage and facilitate” integrated education. It does NOT include forcing the next generation into segregated schools against their wills.
It is no secret that in 1989 the Department of Education did not want to have this duty to encourage facilitate facilitiate integrated schools forced upon it. It would not have happened had it not been for the insistence of the then Conservative Minister for Education Sir Brian Mawhinney MP. I see little evidence in the events of this week, that the Department even now in 2006 understands the Government’s own wish to de-segregate.
So I ask Conference to send a message of our encouragement, our gratitude, our pride in, and our support to, the parents of those pupils of Ballycastle, Clogher Valley, Saintfield-Carryduff and Moira-Hillsborough. Do not waver in your good intentions and your determination. History will show that The Minister for Education and her Department need you even more than you need them. And the next time The Prime Minister and Taoiseach want an integrated school campus for a photo-shoot, I hope they will be standing at a Government-funded integrated school in Ballycastle, Clogher Valley, Saintfield-Carryduff or Moira-Hillsborough.
And on behalf of the Alliance Party, I call on the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and The Integrated Fund not to waver in their crucially important work of supporting these and other parents. And continue to find overseas donors particularly among the Ulster and Irish Diaspora such as in the remarkable, 30-year, unremitting dedication of the Ireland Funds, in Britain, America, Australia and elsewhere, to help meet this crucial parental demand for de-segregation that our own Department of Education seems this month to have turned its face from – to help Catholic and Protestant parents to de-segregate our education apartheid. Go overseas and ask our exiles about segregated schools and see what answer you get.
Let us stop spending money on managing a divided society. Let us de-segregate society and spend our money on sharing our future.
It’s bad social policy and it’s bad economics – as we will discuss this afternoon in the resolution on the NI economy. Let me share with you a comment of the present American Consul General, Mr Dean Whitman. He grew up in Mississippi and says that when it de-segregated its schools 40 years ago, one of the consequences was that investment in Mississippi increased. Why? Well, before then, outside companies just said, “Why would I want to go there?”
52 years ago in “Brown -v- the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas”, the American Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” could neither be justifiable nor tolerable. That sounds like A SHARED FUTURE to me.
Let Northern Ireland stop squandering a £ 1 Billion pounds a year on managing and entrenching a divided society. Let us de-segregate society and spend our money on sharing our future.
I mean to say, it IS government policy. If segregation is morally and economically negative, then I am baffled and enraged by willfulness wilfulness of those who invest so heavily in segregation.
So on your behalf, Conference, I finish by sending our praise, greetings and encouragement to those pupils and parents so appallingly abandoned this week by the Department of Education. They are not abandoned by this party and they are a vital part of the new society that we will be discussing for the rest of our busy agenda this morning and this afternoon.
Thank you very much.