Speech by Alliance Leader to Annual Party Conference

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

35th Annual Conference

Party Leader’s Speech

David Ford MLA

This is now my fifth conference as party leader. I cannot remember how many party conferences I have attended, but I can remember the first. At that time, there was no party leader’s speech, as there was no party leader. The keynote speeches were made by two people, the joint chairs of the political committee, Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper.

Both speeches covered the fundamental stance taken by the party, a clear statement of where we stood on the issues of the 1970s. I confess that I cannot remember much of the content, but I can remember the atmosphere and the inspiration those speeches were.

Sadly, Bob Cooper is no longer with us. He died last November. We have already paid silent tribute to his memory. I just want to share some recollections of him.

In the beginning, Bob was a major part of the inspiration of this party. He recognised long before others that there was no prospect of changing Northern Ireland by propping up a tribal party, trying to make it less tribal. He recognised the UUP was unreformable, so he left it to help found Alliance, working with people from liberal, labour and nationalist backgrounds.

Bob was an articulate voice for Alliance. There are people in this hall who can remember his first exposure on national television, interviewed by Robin Day. His was the most competent performance that night, and he won over much support. He played a major part in the Alliance success of 1973, was himself elected as Assembly Member for West Belfast, and became Minister of Manpower Services.

When the party was barely a year old, one of the most telling duties he performed for Alliance was to take a public stance against Internment. It would have been natural for anyone from his background to go along with the actions of a Unionist government. Bob did not. He saw clearly that Internment was morally wrong and likely to be counter-productive. He didn’t duck the issue, but spoke out clearly for the rule of law – and he did it on the day that Internment was introduced. The last week in Westminster shows just how much we need men like Bob. Internment was wrong in 1971 and it is wrong now.

Bob’s service to this society did not end when he left party politics. In a moving address at the funeral service – one of the most moving that I have ever heard from a Presbyterian pulpit – Oliver Napier recalled how Bob Cooper changed the entire climate of employment practice in Northern Ireland, and he did it almost single handed. Thirty years ago, discrimination in employment, both private and public was endemic. Today, bar a few mutterings from unionist and nationalist cranks, fair employment is the norm and accepted as such. That is the legacy of Bob’s lifetime of service, and one for which he richly deserved his honour as Sir Robert.

Discrimination in employment was just one aspect of life in Northern Ireland which showed how far we lagged behind. As a party, Alliance has always opposed the insular attitude which is so much a part of politics here. While many of our people have links overseas, either directly or through support for various charities, too many of our politicians are totally bound up in this society – or one section of it – with no wider vision.

That’s why it is right for us to lend our support to the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign today. You cannot campaign for fairness and justice in this region and ignore the poverty and oppression that harms our fellow humans in other parts of the world. I hope that you have all bought a ‘Make Poverty History’ wristband, and will wear it and talk about it to those you meet. The campaign calls for more and better aid, fair trade and debt relief. In the wake of the tsunami, the people of Northern Ireland again showed their enormous generosity as individuals, as families and as members of churches and voluntary groups. Now it is time to put pressure on Government to follow the lead of the people.

In just the same way, I was delighted, on behalf of Alliance, to propose my predecessor, John Alderdice, as President of Liberal International. He will take up the post in May. It reflects considerable credit on us, as one of the smaller member parties, that we play such a significant part in Liberal International. It also sets us apart from the other parties here, with their petty, sectarian parochialism.

The eyes of the world were on us in 1998, when the Agreement was reached, and they were on us again in recent weeks. Some people used to hold us up as a role model for other societies suffering from conflict. Not now. Nearly seven years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was supposed to change things for better. Sadly, while it may have changed the structures from time to time, it does not appear to have changed the mindsets.

Initially, power was given to the Ulster Unionists and SDLP. They were the perceived winners in 1998, and took the top two offices. They had the opportunity to set the pattern for a fundamental change in the way that power was exercised here. But they failed.

What we got from the Trimble/Mallon regime and the Trimble/Durkan regime was more of the same. A sectarian power carve-up. Those of us genuinely in the centre ground were ignored. No real attempt was made to overcome divisions.

Now we all know that in a divided society, we cannot ignore divisions. That’s why Alliance has always been the party of power-sharing.

But instead of just recognising those divisions, the UUP and SDLP set about actively reinforcing the divisions. There was no attempt to move forward towards a Shared Future, no attempt to engage a wider society on working together for the common good. All we got was an assumption that as long as there was always one unionist to balance one nationalist all was well. Community relations was seen as a problem just for the ‘interfaces’. Presumably, if someone is too far away to lob a half brick at him, you don’t have any need to understand him or work with him to better society.

In November 2003, the Assembly election changed the picture. I believe that the so-called moderate parties could have fared better if they had genuinely worked together and achieved more together. But they did not. So focus shifted to the DUP and Sinn Féin. That ought to have concentrated minds, in Government and all parties, but it did not.

The Governments didn’t seek a comprehensive package. Instead, last autumn they only worked on what seemed to be necessary to create the conditions for the DUP and Sinn Féin to carve up power. All they were interested in was a quick fix between the extremes.

By December, those two-party negotiations had clearly failed. Ostensibly, it was because of a photo. In fact, it was because of a complete lack of confidence, compounded by the failure of the DUP to see the big picture of the need for an end to all paramilitary actions. At Leeds Castle, Alliance highlighted the need for an end to all criminality, but nobody was interested, including the two Governments. How they have changed now.

Problems were exacerbated by the inability of the Blair government to stick to its word on acts of completion. Events since then have demonstrated that Sinn Féin has failed to grasp the meaning of concepts like ‘crime’, ‘justice’, ‘human rights’ and ‘the rule of law’.

Let me make it clear where Alliance stands on dealings with Sinn Féin. Our position has at all times been consistent. When Sinn Féin has been prepared to move forward to normal democratic standards, we have been prepared to assist this and to encourage them. When they have failed to do so, we have stood up to them. That’s why we ensured that they were suspended from the talks in February 1998. Throughout last autumn, we constantly pushed for Sinn Féin to give all the necessary commitments, not just on decommissioning.

I have no apology to make for helping to bring Sinn Féin into the talks process. That was the right thing to do, following after the IRA ceasefire. In the Agreement, it was realistic to accept that there could not be a transformation to a totally normal society overnight. But the function of a peace process is to bring peace, not to continue forever as an indefinite process.

It is past time to tackle the moral ambiguities and it is long past time that the Government in particular stood by its call for acts of completion.

We’ve always said that the Agreement was a foundation on which to build a United Community, not a ceiling to our ambitions. That’s why we had prepared detailed proposals for the Review. We are completely committed to the principles of the Agreement, but the details must be re-assessed. It is clear that there were problems with the Agreement Mark I, and these were compounded by the way it was operated.

In the hands of sectarian politicians, the Agreement became a sectarian tool for managing divisions, not overcoming them. This led to the instability of the institutions, with no common understanding of democracy and a failure to actively promote community relations.

The unwillingness of the Government to tackle the problems in the working of the Agreement has compounded the problems we now face. An inclusive process would have enabled all parties to contribute to discussions, highlighting different points of view and opening up negotiations.

Overcoming Divisions Works. Just Managing Them Doesn’t.

Instead, we had limited talks focussed on the two problem parties, in which any possibility of progress was hampered by the unwillingness of Downing Street either to devote enough time to make progress or to allow the Northern Ireland Office to do so. It seems that the Government can only pay attention to two parties at any time. Whatever they say, the Governments had no inclusivity in the talks.

When Alliance was founded, the party set out some key essentials for the future of Northern Ireland. Those ideals are as relevant as ever. Indeed they present the only way forward out of the current impasse.

Alliance has always stood by the principle of consent: that the people of Northern Ireland should have the right to choose their own constitutional arrangements. That is now supposed to be enshrined in the Agreement, but Sinn Féin and others are continuing to work to undermine that principle.

The Principle Of Consent Works. Undermining It Doesn’t.

Alliance has always been a party of devolution. Nobody looking at the current policies being forced on Northern Ireland by the Blair government could disagree with that. Water charges which discriminate against those in need and single pensioners in particular. Reform of the rating system that maintains the worst features of a perverse and regressive tax. Labour MPs voting for tuition fees in Northern Ireland and against them in England. A so-called ‘Review of Public Administration’, started under devolution, which still ignores the multiple bureaucracy of eleven Departments at Stormont.

We need devolution back, to tackle the range of problems which affect our fellow citizens. But we need it on sensible terms. Not with the crude mathematics of the d’Hondt formula to guarantee Ministries to parties that refuse to co-operate, not with excessive powers held by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as they perform some macabre dance of mutual recrimination and self-destruction.

Most of all, not with the abysmal system of Designations for MLAs which has been shown to reinforce divisions, enhance the ‘them and us’ mentality, discriminate against this party, its MLAs and its voters and block the opportunities for progress.

We need an Executive in which there is collective responsibility, implementing an agreed Programme for Government, working as a voluntary coalition.

Voluntary Coalition Works. Enforced Coalition Doesn’t.

This party stands firm for the rule of law. A crime is a crime, whatever the motivation claimed by the perpetrator and those who give him his orders. A crime is a crime, whoever the victim. We oppose nationalist criminals and terrorists, just as we oppose unionist criminals and terrorists.

Alliance has always supported the highest standards of human rights. We have been badly let down by the Government. Ministers haven’t even appointed new members to the Human Rights Commission. The Government has betrayed the good work done by Brice Dickson and his colleagues.

The Commission did a difficult job in difficult circumstances, working hard to implement the highest standards of rights for every individual citizen, based on European and international standards. They were opposed by unionists who were unhappy about rights for all, and by nationalists who wanted group rights rather than individual rights.

The Commission was cynically betrayed by both Governments, with Irish Ministers refusing to meet the Commission, while supporting its internal dissidents, and British Ministers failing to give the backing – or even the continuity – that the Commission deserved.

Human Rights For All Works. Protestant and Catholic Rights Don’t.

But we should not be surprised by the way that the Governments behave. It was the Prime Minister who agreed with me that we needed to move away from Designations for MLAs, and then produced a paper last December that actually entrenched them. Subsequently, neither he nor the Secretary of State would even discuss the issue.

Our key principles are clear. They show the way forward. But what about the other parties?

It was plain last December, in the Agreement that never was, that Republicans were still equivocal in their attitude towards an end to all criminal activity, violence and threat of violence. That was shown by the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney.

This week’s IRA statement, that the IRA offered to shoot the murderers, shows just how far they have to move before they can be said to assent to the same standards as the rest of us. They must have their heads buried in the sand: they really don’t get it. The murder of Robert McCartney was a crime. So was the cover-up, directed by the IRA. So was the offer to shoot the murderers. So was the murder of Jean McConville, and countless others. It is time that Sinn Féin members recognised this.

Justice Works. Revenge Doesn’t.

I was asked a week ago, by a school student on a visit to Stormont, whether progress would come through the IRA disbanding or by Sinn Féin disowning the IRA. I do not know which is the way forward for the Republican movement, but the choice must be made. What is not acceptable, and cannot be acceptable, is for the two arms of the movement continuing as they are, as they appeared to think they could get away with. It’s time for them to go away.

In reality, there was every reason for Republicans to think that they could get away with continuing criminality. Neither Government was prepared to take sanctions against them, until a single brave family in the Short Strand stood up to be counted. They challenged the IRA directly, where Governments had failed. Two years ago, Tony Blair called for ‘acts of completion’. It’s time he showed that he meant that, and told Sinn Féin that they have no place in government until they show they have understood.

A voluntary coalition, a Stormont coalition of the willing, is not about keeping people out, but about keeping things going.

Over the last year or so, the DUP has started to make some very different noises from those we expected. We hear the language of partnership, even of voluntary coalition, of reaching an historic understanding if only Republicans would get rid of the guns. The experience on the ground is rather different. In Councils like Castlereagh, the DUP is unwilling to share power with Alliance members: they still have work to do to show that they would genuinely share power in Stormont with nationalists.

More fundamentally, the DUP totally failed to see the wood for the trees last December. DUP members were so totally fixated on a specific act of Decommissioning, accompanied by anything from a photo to Spielberg blockbuster, that they failed to ensure that Republicans were committed to an end to all acts of violence.

Power Sharing Works. Power Division Doesn’t.

In recent weeks, the SDLP has been upping in its rhetoric against the IRA. But look what happened when two of their leading members just contemplated whether they should go into Government without Sinn Féin. The Assembly group was convened to endorse the Leader’s line and the Leader left a meeting in Downing Street to tell the media that he was having nothing to do with a voluntary coalition. Is it any wonder that people call the SDLP ‘Sinn Féin lite’?

The SDLP was always a party of great rhetoric. Sadly, the rhetoric of recent weeks is proving empty as the party is shown to have no backbone for standing up to Sinn Féin. As they say in Texas, ‘all hat and no cattle’.

There is a legitimate role for a nationalist party which is prepared to stake out a case for constitutional change but oppose the men of violence. That used to be the position of the SDLP. But if the SDLP continues to be seen as Sinn Féin lite, I suspect that voters will continue to turn to Sinn Féin full strength.

Constitutional Politics Works. Appeasing Violence Doesn’t.

There has been change too at the other end of the political spectrum. The growth in support for the DUP has been followed by change on the part of the Ulster Unionists. Look at their recent series of glossy leaflets, lacking in substance, but full of venom. Without any justification, they managed to attack all Catholics, many people who work in the public sector and even Protestant children who do not attend Grammar Schools.

What a sectarian whinge-fest: thirteen references to Republican crime, not one to Loyalist crime. Clearly, the UUP is intent on moving to the right, seeking to outflank the DUP, playing every sectarian and sectional card it can find. If Ulster Unionists intend to turn a blind eye to unionist paramilitaries, Alliance will not.

As MLA for South Antrim, I can no longer see any significant difference between the two unionist parties in this constituency – or most others – except that the UUP is ever more incoherent. Just as the SDLP has let down those who voted for them in order to build a new partnership across the divide, the UUP has betrayed those who put trust in that party.

Politics For All Works. Sectarian Appeals Don’t.

Ultimately, the two Governments bear final responsibility. Their position is now totally untenable. On the one hand, they complain about the behaviour of Republicans, on the other they refuse to take any meaningful sanctions. I think it is time that Tony Blair re-read the Agreement. Nowhere does it use the word ‘inclusivity’, but it does lay out clear sanctions to be applied against parties and individuals defaulting on their obligations to end violence. By refusing to act, the Government is defying the Agreement.

When will the Government stop punishing every party for the defaults of one? Why is it that Tony Blair seems to demand inclusivity at the expense of integrity? Why is principle sacrificed to expediency time after time, when it just results in repeated failure?

Sadly, the December failure clearly showed that the two Governments are still concentrating on a quick fix between the two largest parties. It is apparently all wrong to move without Sinn Féin, even though Republicans are clearly in default. Yet, it was apparently all right for Governments to ignore everyone but the DUP and Sinn Féin as they tried – and failed – to deliver a quick fix.

The Government continues to pander to sectarianism, despite all its claims to the contrary. It adopts the tone of an honest broker, when it is an active participant in the process, and most certainly not neutral. Look at how the negotiated with the UDA over funding for Protestant areas. Alliance will work with democratic politicians, but we will continue to oppose these unionist paramilitary groups.

Integrity Works. Pandering To Sectarianism Doesn’t.

We will have to return to these issues after 5 May, with whoever holds Government office. Eight weeks today, we will be in the limbo between counting the Westminster votes and counting the local votes. The next two months present a major opportunity to put our vision before the people.

Remember how we confounded the pundits at the Assembly election. We were going to be wiped out, they said, but we held all our seats. Then came the European election, when the broadcasters wouldn’t even give our candidate, John Gilliland, an election broadcast, because he was not an official Alliance candidate. He pushed up the centre vote by 5%, with strong Alliance support, and showed that we are not a society of two forever divided blocks, but one where there is a strong centre ground.

This year, we will continue that process of rebuilding. We can succeed for a number of reasons. First, The UUP and SDLP can’t even claim to be part of the centre – not that they ever were. As they have moved to the extremes, they have left behind supporters for us to win over.

Second, we can succeed because of the reputation of our elected members. I never cease to admire the hard work – and the courage – shown by many of our Councillors. People like Frank McQuaid, a farmer ploughing a lonely single furrow in Banbridge. Or Gerardine Mulvenna, Deputy Mayor of Larne. Both of them made surprise gains four years ago.

We should applaud our group in Castlereagh, standing up for their principles, for the principles of fairness and common decency, in the face of torrents of abuse at virtually every meeting.

However, there is one Council group which I must single out. Our members in Belfast hold the balance of power in the City Hall. They have used the balance to provide real leadership to the City. However irresponsible some other Councillors, our team has ensured genuine progress in the city.

I want to thank Naomi Long and David Alderdice for all that they have done for Alliance over this four year term. They have had a tough fight on many occasions, and they have suffered for it. Most particularly, for their enormous courage in opposing Sinn Féin when that was the right thing to do and working with Sinn Féin when that was correct. Remember that when Unionists walked out over the election of Alex Maskey, they weren’t screaming abuse at him, but at our colleagues.

Naomi and David were not alone, of course. It is a huge pleasure that the other member of our group was elected Lord Mayor this year. Tom Ekin is, I think, the first Party President to also hold civic office at the same time, and he has used that office to great effect. Much of his work will never be made public, but the benefits will be seen over the coming months and years. His work as Lord Mayor has built on his work as Chair of Good Relations.

Thank you Tom, for all you have done, by showing again what a difference an Alliance Lord Mayor can make to a city with as many problems as Belfast. Thanks also to Anne, who as Lady Mayoress has carried her share of the duties with great style and confidence. Tom, you provide clear proof that when you vote Alliance, you get Alliance representatives, carrying out sensible Alliance policies. Promoting the common good and building a Shared Future.

I don’t only want to dwell on current representatives. Here today are a number of new faces who will stand for Alliance in May. When you find that a recently retired senior police officer is putting his name forward for election in one district, and a Spanish-born local campaigner is putting her name forward in another, you can see that Alliance is starting to make an impact on wider society.

The third reason for success is our staff. Our team may be small, but it is probably the most dedicated and certainly the most professional of any party. It has an extremely talented leader in Cllr Stephen Farry, as General Secretary. On behalf of all of us, I want to wish Stephen and Wendy Watt all the best for their future. It has always been a pleasure to work with Debbie, Marjorie, Allan and Steven: let me thank them for their coming efforts as well as their past work.

Throughout the party it’s true: Alliance Works. Headquarters probably works hardest of all.

The real reason why we will do well is not just our reputation or our work. It is the way that we can show we are in tune with the mood of the times. A growing number of our people are seeking ways in which we can build a future together. We only have to look at the growing demand for integrated education, spread right across Northern Ireland.

Incidentally, isn’t it a disgrace that the Government, despite its legal obligation to support integrated education, has refused to fund Lir Integrated Primary School, Ballycastle, for the second year in a row. How charming that the Minister chose the start of Community Relations Week for his announcement.

The excuse now is that there is spare capacity in existing schools. Last year, the Minister said that the new school was going to threaten the viability of existing schools.

Ministers would not dare refuse a new controlled school, because there was spare capacity in a Catholic school, or a maintained school because the local controlled school was under-used. It makes a mockery of claims that the Government wishes for a shared future, if the Department of Education can continue to prop up a divided system of education when parents want integration. A Shared Future means giving incentives to integration not incentives to segregation. Alliance will continue to work to promote Integration.

Integration Works. Segregation Doesn’t.

There are hard decisions for other public bodies too, and we will ensure that those decisions are faced. The Housing Executive, to its credit, is now looking at supporting integrated housing estates. This must not be a token: the first task should be to defend those estates that are already shared. Northern Irish apartheid is not an option: there will be a Shared Future and it must come sooner, rather than later.

For too long, bigots have been allowed to mark out territory with flags, painted kerbstones and graffiti. It is too easy for bodies like the Roads Service to tolerate such actions, backing away from problems and as a result increasing the influence of the local godfathers. The PSNI has taken a lead in removing paramilitary flags in some areas: we will insist to all Government agencies that all symbols of dominance and hatred are removed from all areas. That’s another aspect of a Shared Future.

Tackling problems means a better future. Ignoring them doesn’t.

Our political class has become fixated on the costs of public services, whether it be water or education. Nobody but Alliance is asking the big question: how much is wasted on segregation? Our initial estimate is that it might be a billion pounds a year – possibly more. That is over ten per cent of all public expenditure. A Shared Future would make sound economic sense for us all.

Part of that cost is attributed to direct costs of dealing with division, such as policing. But there is far more than that. What about the costs of lost inward investment and lost tourism? The Orange Order recently claimed that 12th July tourists brought in a few million pounds to the local economy. It would be interesting to see how much is lost every year, as potential visitors go anywhere but here during July – and vast numbers of us get away from home as well.

The main cost is the cost of providing segregated services. We spend 30% more on health and personal social services in Belfast than in comparable cities in England – because we have far more buildings providing limited services to only one section of society. We spend 30% more on running schools – because we divide pupils by age, alleged ability, gender and perceived religious background. We even manage to have Catholic and Protestant bus stops in Belfast. A Shared Future is the only way forward. Separation wastes resources which are desperately needed for quality services.

Sharing Saves Money. Separation Doesn’t.

Alliance representatives will work at local Council level to build partnerships with those who are willing to put the ordinary citizen first and co-operate for mutual benefit. We will continue to put forward our policies and to lobby Ministers until power is restored to the Assembly.

We will stand on our demand for free personal care. We will stand on our opposition to water charges. We will stand on our commitment to high quality public services. We will stand on our record on protecting the environment. All will play a part in our success.

But the key issue is our unique vision, which transcends day-to-day politics. We will work to ensure the rule of law throughout this region, and an end to paramilitarism and crime. We will work for the restoration of devolution, based on equality for all MLAs, and a coherent, voluntary coalition Government. We will work to ensure that the Government stops talking and starts acting in a way which promotes sharing, not separation.

There is only one viable future for Northern Ireland. While all the other parties put the division between unionist and nationalist first, Alliance is working for a shared future, where people can live and learn, work and play, together in safety. Sharing works. Separation doesn’t.

In eight weeks time, the coming double election presents us with an opportunity to put our vision before the people. To campaign across the region for actions which will help to build a United Community.

There are seats to be won. Seats which will give us influence and power on local Councils. Influence and power to bring about our goals.

As so often before, we are on our own. Yet I know that we are up to the challenge.

Northern Irish apartheid is not an option: now is the time to build the Shared Future.

Sharing Saves Money. Separation Doesn’t.

The Principle Of Consent Works. Undermining It Doesn’t.

Justice Works. Revenge Doesn’t.

Tackling Problems Works. Ignoring Them Doesn’t.

Integrity Works. Pandering To Sectarianism Doesn’t.

Power Sharing Works. Power Division Doesn’t.

Alliance Works. Tribal Politics Doesn’t.

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