This is a time of serious crisis – and, for once, not just in Northern Ireland.
As I look forward to my first Alliance conference as Leader, I cannot think of a more turbulent time to take over the reins.
We are watching a world at war, potentially on a scale that has not been seen for half a century.
And we are living in a region that is on the brink of seeing its government shut down – again.
The threat of terrorism is as great as it has been for many years, both globally and locally.
These are the circumstances in which I took up the leadership of Alliance two weeks ago. No wonder so many people wished me good luck!
When the Agreement was reached in 1998, there were many who said that a cross-community party was no longer needed. Apparently, under the Agreement, the major parties are working together harmoniously for the benefit of Northern Ireland, putting aside their sectarian differences and looking only to the common good.
But no-one seriously believes that. No-one believes that the extremists in the DUP and Sinn Fein can cooperate, or even that the UUP and SDLP are getting on well.
So it isn’t true that we do not need Alliance any more. In fact, there is a greater need for Alliance than ever before, as the failings of other parties become clearer.
But the problem is actually wider than that. We must start to face up to the fact that there are also real problems within the Agreement itself. No true democrat can live easily with an Assembly voting system in which my vote sometimes counts for less than a nationalist or unionist’s. To misquote Orwell: all votes are equal, but some are more equal than others.
What utter, arrogant, bigoted nonsense, that those who led the fight against sectarian politics, should be discriminated against by the system.
This was the major sacrifice Alliance made to get the Agreement in place. But there is a review of the Agreement coming up, and we must start to look at changes. Three years ago it was worth putting up with sectarian aspects of the Agreement because of what it promised, but we have now experienced both its failures and the mistakes of those charged with implementing it.
It is clear that there is still a large measure of goodwill towards power sharing and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but there is a huge measure of discontent directed against all politicians. Those political leaders who say ‘sure it is better than it used to be’ are out of touch with how people feel.
The people feel let down by the Agreement and in particular its implementation.
I can remember saying in 1998 that nobody expected violence to end immediately. A low level of violence was to be expected, but it must represent a tailing off of our violent past into a peaceful society. But we are seeing the opposite happen. Violence is increasing, with the UDA and LVF sham ceasefires now exposed for all to see. Decommissioning by all paramilitaries must take place.
Let us never forget, whatever governments may say, that it is a breach of a ceasefire for republicans to beat Catholics, or loyalist terrorists to shoot Protestants, just as much as if the victim came from ‘the other side’. For Alliance the truth is the truth and a crime is a crime.
It is time for Alliance to lay down a new marker. Where we may have been accused of acquiescence, we will not duck difficult issues. We will confront sectarianism, bigotry and intolerance wherever they are found.
That is why I have talked over recent days about a radical repositioning of the party into a more aggressive, opposition role in the Assembly and in Northern Irish society. We will state our own vision much more firmly. If there is a battle within Unionism or Nationalism, let them fight it. It is not our battle. Our battle is for Alliance values.
Many unionists and nationalists are friends; most are decent people. But when they join together as members of political parties whose main aim is to promote either British or Irish nationalism, then we part company with them.
For the UUP have spent too much time looking over their shoulders at the DUP, and the SDLP have spent too much effort being inclusive – towards Sinn Fein.
In this post-Agreement world, Alliance will articulate a vision of a shared, non-sectarian society that goes far beyond the limited aspirations of the Agreement.
I am keen to co-operate with other non-sectarian groups in Northern Ireland, including political parties that will stand against the tribal divide.
And we must also recognise that Northern Ireland is not unique in the world.
Our stand is no different in substance from those who work for peace and reconciliation in Palestine or Bosnia. We should learn from friends abroad. To suggest that ‘our wee province’ is unique in its difficulties is to do it a disservice. There is little more objectionable than the sight of the political begging bowl being dragged around by sectional politicians.
London, Dublin, Washington and Brussels are becoming fed up. We should stand on our own feet, and take responsibility for ourselves.