Not many would have predicted that a year later I would be standing here as the MP for East Belfast and that David Ford would have taken up the reins at the Department of Justice. I say not many because, if you read David Ford’s speech from last year, you’ll see that he did. In fact, he was remarkably accurate in his predictions for the year ahead. Any of you who play the Lottery may well be regretting not asking him to give you some advice on the numbers, while he was on a roll.
However, unlike the lottery, those predictions were realised not by chance but by hard work – and specifically your hard work. To each of you who got involved in the campaign last year right across Northern Ireland and, specifically in East Belfast, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all your efforts.
Whilst I offer a general thank you to the Party as a whole, I also want to offer a very specific thank you to Jim Hendron, my election agent and founding member of Alliance. I owe Jim a huge debt of gratitude, not only for the work he did as my agent last year, but also for the commitment and dedication he has shown to this Party and to East Belfast every year for the last 40 years.
To have as your agent one of those who had the vision in the earliest and darkest days of the troubles to form the Alliance Party – to offer people the hope of a better future together – is a real privilege. It is to have, at the very core of your campaign team, both a reminder that Alliance has a heritage – a proud heritage – of leading change in our society and also a challenge to be just as committed in your pursuit of progress for the future.
The result in East Belfast was clearly a high point for us all, but it would be easy for our detractors and even our supporters to dismiss it as merely an aberration. Easy, that were, if it weren’t for the fact that the Alliance vote across Northern Ireland increased significantly, more than doubling in constituencies like South Belfast and East Londonderry, and quadrupling in North Belfast, since the last Westminster election.
Local factors can never be dismissed in any election, but Alliance growth was more than just local. This was about people across Northern Ireland who are weary of negativity, buck-passing and the blame game – people who don’t just want to see change, but want to be change – people who are recognising in increasing numbers that voting Alliance and joining Alliance are good ways to give substance to that desire for a different kind of future and a different kind of politics.
They know that voting Alliance works. In May it delivered a change in who represents them in Westminster, but I think it has also driven a change in those who don’t. Does anyone really think the DUP would be making positive noises about integrated education if they had held the seat in East Belfast? The people of East Belfast led the way in May, and now others are following them.
That is good news because I have confidence in this Party, in our principles, in our vision and in our commitment to keep driving change forward and to delivering on our promises and that’s what I want to talk about when I get the opportunity, because I want other people to share my confidence. I want other people to follow.
Delivering on promises for me, started with standing down from the Assembly to focus full-time on Westminster as I had said I would during the campaign.
Knowing that I was to be replaced by Chris Lyttle, who had served the people of East Belfast for the last 3 years as my constituency assistant and before that in a range of voluntary roles, meant that I could have confidence that East Belfast would continue to represented by someone with a genuine heart for the people in the area and a real commitment to a shared future.
My resignation from Belfast City Council allowed Laura McNamee to become the youngest Councillor in City Hall and I know from working with her that she has the ability and initiative to stand out for much more than just her youth.
The changes in my office also allowed Judith Cochrane, who has been not only an excellent Councillor and member of Executive, but was also an organisational wizard during the election campaign, to bring her considerable skills and enthusiasm to running my office full-time. I know Judith won’t be offended when I say that I hope her time as my employee is very brief, because I want to see her elected to the Assembly with Chris as part of a growing Alliance team from across Northern Ireland in May!
One of the last and most memorable things I did as a Member of the Assembly was to propose David Ford as the Minister for Justice and I’m glad that I was there to see him elected with cross-community support to his new role. For an Alliance Minister, there cannot be a more fitting way to take office.
Alliance played a critical role in the negotiations which led to the devolution of policing and justice powers. Our focus was to ensure that the Minister, whomever that would eventually be, would be able to fulfil the demands of what is a challenging and sensitive post in a way that would command the confidence of the whole community. I think we got the structures right.
But most of all I think that we got the Minister right.
Being a Minister, particularly in the current economic climate, is not easy. The path which the current UK Government has chosen to reduce the deficit is that of implementing cuts which, both in depth and in speed, will bring with them considerable pain and hardship and it is right that we should continue to press for change to that plan in Westminster. However, despite the arguments which have been made against this path, it is clear that the current Government remains determined and the block grant is fixed. That means that difficult choices will have to be made and some of those decisions will inevitably be unpopular.
But being a Minister is not a fair-weather job. Creating an impression at this stage that cuts can be avoided is not just delusional, but dangerous. Refusing to face reality or causing delay by avoiding hard choices is doing the public a disservice, denying them the chance to properly examine the proposals which have been made and challenge any weaknesses. Uncertainty is always the worst option.
I think that the vast majority of people already know that Stormont Ministers cannot avoid making cuts, but they also expect them to ensure that those cuts are considered, that they are fair, that they do all they can to protect the most vulnerable, and that they deliver the best possible outcomes for society on the resources available.
Yes, these are challenging times. They are times that require leadership, not brinkmanship or one-up-manship.
That’s why I am proud of an Alliance Minister who, despite being in his first year in office, was the first Executive Minister to deliver his draft budget, and one of only two who did so in line with the timetable set out by the Department of Finance and Personnel.
You know and I know that David does not want to make cuts any more than anyone else, but he recognises that it is his responsibility to balance his budget and, rather than engaging in empty rhetoric and political posturing, he has stepped up and he has done his job. And that is just one of example of the constructive approach which has characterised David’s dealings in the Executive.
Having an Alliance Minister has not just made a difference to the Party, but I believe that it has made a difference to how that Department approaches things. David’s immediate response to an interface problem, investing in building relationships between people rather than barriers, shows the difference that having an Alliance Minister can make.
Showing leadership also means taking responsibility and there have been difficult periods during David’s time in the Department of Justice, as there will be in every department from time to time.
But I’m proud of an Alliance Minister who is willing to lead from the front, not only when it is easy, but when it is difficult and is willing to be open and frank with public about what went wrong and, just as importantly, about how he intends to fix it. Anyone can identify problems – leaders identify solutions.
Liam Clarke wrote yesterday that, after the year we have had, with David’s election as Justice Minister and my election to Westminster, today might be “more party than conference”. Of course we have many reasons to celebrate, but today is definitely more conference than party, because our focus is on the future: the future of the Alliance Party and above all the future of Northern Ireland.
2010 was a remarkable year for Alliance – a year of real achievement – but 2011 is a new year, full of fresh opportunities not just for this Party but for the people we represent. However, between opportunity and reality lies a lot of hard work.
If 2011 is to deliver all that it promises, we need to be ready to make bold decisions, to take risks, to make sacrifices, to seize opportunity and, most of all, to focus on the next achievement and not on the last.
2010 was a great year, and it has given us a strong foundation on which to build for the future – for a shared future.
More members, more Councillors, more Assembly Members will mean more opportunities to make progress on building the peaceful, prosperous and united community we all want to see realised. We want to see our community transformed, and our society changed for the better and we are not willing to sit back and wait for others to deliver – we are actively working to make it happen.
Alliance is not just a party that has a Leader, it is a Party that was founded by leaders, and a party that continues and is eager to attract leaders – people who want to be at the forefront of transforming their neighbourhoods, their schools, their workplaces; people who want to be participants, not passengers, on the journey towards a united community; people who know that Northern Ireland needs change and who want to take responsibility for delivering it.
It is a privilege for me to have the chance to represent that spirit of optimism and determination; that sense of unity of aspiration and of purpose; that new positive, vibrant, open and inclusive Northern Ireland in Westminster.
It is a privilege to represent Alliance.
And it is a privilege to welcome to the stage the person who leads us as we lead change in Northern Ireland – the Alliance Party leader, David Ford.