Delegates, I fully support this resolution as put forward by our Deputy leader Eileen Bell.
The failure to reach any form of agreement or understanding at Hillsborough was not so much the fault of the two Governments, as it was the reluctance of unionists and republicans to step away from hard-line positions.
At times they acted like youngsters and would appear NOT to have grasped the seriousness of the situation. Worse still, they refuse to grasp the enormous opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland AND pay lip service to the good will that still exists throughout the world for this place.
Like the Leader, Deputy leader and other Alliance members, I spent Monday and Tuesday at Hillsborough at the expense of other important constituency business. I was relieved to get away on Tuesday late afternoon after Secretary of State Paul Murphy updated us on what little progress had been made on the issue of sanctions. Patiently, my colleagues remained until after midnight, but there was very little to show the people at the end of the day. I would pay tribute to the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, their colleagues, staff and all others who worked through right to the end.
You all know, of course, that an agreement was not hammered out. Instead, the election was postponed and anti-agreement mouth-pieces were handed another opportunity to denounce the Good Friday Agreement. Surely enough time has been given to so-called pro-Agreement politicians to identify the problems, act like the statesmen and stateswomen they claim to be, and strike a deal which the greater majority could accept? I am convinced that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland still want to local Assembly with a power-sharing Executive. They want peace, prosperity, and a decent environment in which to bring up their children.
We cannot rewrite history, but questions have to be asked about why the Assembly was suspended last autumn. Why was the guilty party, Sinn Fein, not shown the door to let the rest of us get on with what we were paid to do – making Northern Ireland a better place to live in. I believe that the previous Secretary of State, Dr Reid, along with the SDLP, did not have the courage to implement what is clearly written into the Good Friday Agreement. Instead of being suspended we should have been debating a motion to throw out the Sinn Fein Ministers for a while because of the activities of some of their paramilitary associates. Quite simply, our Assembly should have been allowed to continue with its work.
Now, after over four months of suspension and a major push by the two Governments at this week’s talks, Sinn Fein say that it would be unfair if they were to be punished for the actions of groups outside Sinn Fein. This is why, of course, they resist the idea of sanctions, which are so important to guaranteeing the democratic behaviour of all parties in the future.
The issue of paramilitary fugitives – or ‘On The Runs’ – is now resurfacing almost two years after being raised at Weston Park. Thankfully the Government has accepted major changes largely thanks to proposals Alliance made in August 2001. But at the time, it seemed that the Government and Sinn Fein wanted to see people who were guilty of horrific crimes free to walk our streets.
These people must face the proper processes of the law before they are permitted to return to society here. Meanwhile, those innocent of any crime and have been forced from Northern Ireland under threat, must feel that they will be safe when they return from exile. They should receive a public declaration from those who chased them out of Northern Ireland that no harm will come to them when they return.
The early release of criminals was THE most difficult part of the Agreement to swallow. Similarly, freedom for ‘On The Runs’ is extremely difficult to accept. Like many others in this room, I can understand very well how victims of terrorism feel about the fact that those who committed atrocities have cheated justice while they have suffered tremendous loss.
Until recently, my next-door neighbours were a couple called Billy and Lily McDowell, two of the nicest people you could meet. Just over 25 years ago, they were enjoying a night out with their friends in the Irish Collie Association at La Mon House near Comber. As a result of the IRA bombing the hotel, both were seriously injured and Lily almost died as a result of her burns. You may have seen her on TV recently, as we remembered the horror of that fateful night.
The totally unnecessary suffering which these two totally innocent people have endured and continue to endure is beyond words. I could not support the notion that if the culprits of that inhuman crime were on the run from justice, they should be allowed to benefit from a complete amnesty. Not only would it be a complete travesty of justice, it would be a total insult, not just to Billy and Lily, but to the many other innocent victims, if this were to happen. There must be due process, and there must be an acknowledgement that victims have suffered incredible hurt.
But as each element of the ‘shared understanding’ is dependent upon acceptance of the package as a whole, at this stage – without having seen the final document – we can only hope that enough has been done to allow the Assembly to be resurrected. Only then can we all work for the better future that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.
In conclusion, I want to pay tribute to our Leader, Deputy Leader and others for their consistent effort to try to change the discriminatory Assembly voting system. At every opportunity, from Tony Blair downwards, we have campaigned to get rid of this sectarian system of decision-making.
There has been resistance from other political parties, but through our persistence I believe that both Governments will soon be ready to agree to the necessary changes. We have told them over and over again that there will be no more redesignations. We are proud to be Alliance representatives.
We are neither Republican/Nationalist nor Loyalist/Unionist. We saved the Assembly and the Agreement by redesignating in November 2001. Now it is up to the other Pro Agreement parties to take their share of pain and responsibility for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.
I ask Conference to support the motion.