Step Forward: Leader’s speech to Alliance Party Conference

In his address to the 2014 Alliance Party Conference, Alliance Leader David Ford has said now is the time for Alliance, and for all those who share our vision, to step forward and deliver a shared future for everyone. He highlighted the work being done to deliver this change by himself in the Department of Justice, Stephen Farry in the Department for Employment and Learning, Naomi Long in Westminster and Anna Lo in the Assembly.

He said Northern Ireland has had enough of the ‘small steps’, ‘no steps’ or ‘backward steps’ that have been the hallmark of politics since the Good Friday Agreement.

David Ford MLA said: “President, let me add my welcome to Conference, to the Conference of a growing, confident Alliance party. Let me give a special welcome to those who stepped forward this year and joined Alliance; to those who are stepping forward to serve this community by standing for election this year, and to those who have done so in the past.

This year we see a growing band of activists, despite intimidation and threats against some of our members. So let me also thank those family and friends who stand by our candidates – whether they are stepping forward as part of the campaign team or as support in the background.

I am proud of this party. Proud of the work done by Naomi at Westminster, and for individual constituents in East Belfast; of the work being done by Councillors, delivering for local people; the work being done by our MLAs, in their constituencies, in Assembly Committees, in debates in the Chamber and on a wide range of issues that affect the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. I marvel at the commitment of that team, whose output and impact easily rivals, in fact exceeds, that of larger Assembly groups. I am proud of the changes that two Alliance Ministers are making – big steps forward, in the fields of Justice and Employment and Learning.

Alliance people are stepping forward, but – sadly – Northern Ireland isn’t taking the big steps forward that we need. We have had far too many examples of failure on the part of the Executive. If it is not plain failure, we get claims of steps forward that prove to be nothing but an illusion.

So let me talk about our achievements, Alliance achievements. Achievements to move this community forward.

Stephen Farry has already outlined what he is doing to deliver real change through DEL. He is investing in higher education, freezing tuition fees and creating many more undergraduate and postgraduate places. He is delivering the skills necessary to transform our economy, in particular developing new systems of apprenticeships and youth training. And he is tackling unemployment and economic inactivity, including investing in and creating better opportunities for our young people

In the Department of Justice, we are well on the way to fundamental reform of the prison service, to meet the needs of 2020, not 1970; we are speeding up justice, concentrating on young offenders; we are dealing with the legacy of overspending on legal aid, while protecting access to justice; we continue to improve community safety and support the essential work of the police. And when commentators say there are more interface structures now than at the time of the Agreement, just remember that there are six fewer than when I became Justice Minister.

In the Assembly, Anna Lo – single-handedly – gained a major victory for the environment by amending the Marine Bill to prioritise sustainable development. This wasn’t the Environment Committee position, there wasn’t Executive agreement, but Anna persisted, argued the Alliance case, and won.

Let’s not forget that from the start of this year, the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland has been cleaned up. As the result of Naomi Long’s work in Westminster, all donations over the specified amount made since 1st January will have to be made public in the future. Eventually, her proposal was adopted by the Government, but – as one MP observed – what was officially the Government amendment was in fact the Member for Belfast East’s amendment.

Another single-handed victory, richly deserved, and long overdue. An end to the concerns about a culture of brown envelopes.

In contrast to our work, across the Executive there have been so many let-downs, so much smoke and mirrors, that we’ve either forgotten them or just grown used to them.

Remember the great statement from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in the summer of 2012, claiming agreement on a whole raft of issues? It promised a good relations strategy, the so-called CSI strategy, in September 2012, and that strategy never appeared. It promised legislation to establish the Education and Skills Authority, but that never happened.

A Welfare Reform Bill? Never happened, even though it is now costing us several million pounds a month in lost funding from the Treasury. Or what about the new strategy, so-called ‘Together: Building a United Community’? A hollow commitment to shared housing – which they didn’t deliver for Girdwood in North Belfast. Promises of ten shared education campuses, not integrated education to make a real difference. I believe that the only real progress has been in the united Youth programme, led by Stephen Farry’s department.

Yes, there have been some achievements. But not the big steps that we needed. Not, for example, the Shared sports stadium that would have been talked about around the world if it had been available for last summer’s World Police and Fire Games. Not the advances in education that would have seen us to tackle the fact that 2 out of every 5 teenagers leaving school do so without basic reading and writing skills, and half the children in disadvantaged areas start school without the basic skills they need.

Whatever became of the Single Equality Bill; the endless impasse over educational reform; a languages act? The list goes on, taking us up through last summer’s collapse of the Maze / Long Kesh Peace Centre, and to New Year’s Eve and the failure to resolve the issues around flags, parades and dealing with the Past.

I know that many people were bitterly disappointed that the Haass talks failed to reach agreement. I can assure you that no-one was more disappointed than the Alliance team who represented you at those long, and at times tortuous, discussions.

Don’t forget, the Haass talks were conceived of by this party – it was we who proposed such a process, and the DUP and Sinn Fein who initially dismissed the idea. Only when pressure came on in the run up to President Obama’s visit last spring did they relent, and then sought to present such a process as their own idea.

However, while our plan was for an independent chair to lead a process to deal with all the outstanding issues round a shared future, OFMDFM narrowed it to just the three issues. Real change will come when we see real constructive progress in all areas, in education, housing, youth work and round interfaces.

But whatever the origins of the process, it provided an opportunity that this community could not afford to miss. We desperately needed, and we still desperately need, a resolution to the issues of flags, parades and the past. But what we didn’t need, indeed what we needed to avoid, was an apparent agreement that made no difference to these issues. So as soon as it emerged that the other parties weren’t prepared to face up to the issues around flags – issues that go to the very heart of creating a shared community and dealing with violence on the streets – we made clear to Richard Haass that we wouldn’t be able to endorse an agreement that ducked that issue.

What Northern Ireland needed out of the Haass process, wasn’t an agreement for agreement’s sake, but an agreement that would make a real difference; that would allow our community to take a big step forward. An agreement in which politicians faced up to the task of leadership, and faced down the extremes to which they have so often pandered in the past.

So we were bitterly disappointed by the outcome – not just because it proved impossible to get an agreement at all, but also because the last few days between Christmas and the New Year clearly showed that if an agreement among the other parties had been possible, it would have ducked many of the biggest, most difficult issues.

Northern Ireland needs no more ducking of big issues. We’ve had enough of the “small steps”, “no steps” or “backward steps” that have been the hallmark of politics since the Good Friday Agreement.

Just think back to that time – those of us who are old enough. Good Friday 1998 was a big step. A big step, endorsed by the people, and big enough that we did not slip back from it. Real change has happened in Northern Ireland when big steps have been taken. Just think about the Patten reforms of policing a decade ago or the introduction of fair employment legislation forty years ago.

So let’s talk about some big steps that we should be taking now, in 2014.

First of all, we really need to stop talking about the past and start work on dealing with it. We have a moral duty to those who were victims, especially to those who were bereaved, to provide them with justice and, if justice is not possible, to seek ways of providing them with truth, if that helps to provide comfort. The proposals of Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan went a very long way to doing that. The Historical Investigations Unit, combining the legacy work of the Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman, together with the Independent Commission for Information Recovery were in line with the proposals of the Eames-Bradley report and work by the Victims Commission.

There is more than a moral obligation, there is also a legal obligation to report to the Council of Ministers about remedying the defects in the processing of some inquests. The Department of Justice has done preparatory work but needs the agreement of the Executive to take this forward in legislation. There is no excuse for further delay.

Rather than ducking the issue of flags, murals and other paramilitary symbols, let’s face up to this issue and call it what it is – sectarian, paramilitary-led marking out of territory. It’s not about culture; it’s not about historical commemoration. As far as I’m concerned, a UVF flag is a paramilitary flag even if it says 1913 in the corner, and anyone who believes otherwise is naïve.

If you want a perfect example of small steps versus big steps, think of the absurdity of the calls for political parties to remove election posters from the route of the Giro d’Italia, while enormous murals of masked men loom on gable walls, pointing their weapons at everyone who passes, reminding locals and tourists alike who is in charge, who’s welcome, and who should keep their heads down or stay away.

Listen, if we want to show the world a better image of Northern Ireland we would be taking down the paintings of gunmen and putting up posters of Anna Lo, not the other way around.

And what happened when Anna simply pointed out the irony? Vile racist abuse poured onto the internet, proving beyond any doubt the motivation of those who put the murals up; and more weasel words from unionist politicians about culture, about not rocking the boat, and the all too familiar “buts” that always appear after every condemnation of threats against our elected representatives.

It’s time to step forward and take Northern Ireland back from these people. It’s time to show them the kind of community we want for future generations, and not the paramilitaries on the murals. In fact, it’s long beyond time when these organisations simply told their members to go home, to look after their families and their own business, and let Northern Ireland get on with the future.

Let’s take the big steps. Let’s bring in a system that allows anyone to display legal flags and symbols for a defined period, but then to remove them afterwards. Let’s get agreement between the political parties that any mural with a paramilitary on it should be painted out. Let’s insist that only murals of a genuinely civic nature be allowed, and get rid of the symbols of hatred and division once and for all.

Let’s have a system for regulating parades that provides a fresh start, both in structures and behaviours. Let’s have a Code of Conduct that recognises and rewards good behaviour by both paraders and protesters, and punishes bad and unlawful behaviour.

Let’s have a reduction in the number of MLAs. Not in time for the 2021 elections, but for the 2016 elections. The necessary legislation has been passed at Westminster: let’s get on with it. We don’t need 108 MLAs to run Northern Ireland.

Let’s not settle for shared youth camps one week in the year, but strive for shared communities all year round.

These are some of the steps, the big steps, that Northern Ireland needs its politicians to take.

But I doubt if our current crop of politicians is willing to take many of those steps without external pressure, and the people have the opportunity to apply that pressure four times over the next three years, in a full round of elections. Because elections are often how change happens. If you are in any doubt, look at the lengths that other parties go to in order to maintain their electoral base.

Just take a look at what’s going on in North Belfast, where there appears to be no depths to which political parties will not go in order to maintain their traditional core vote.

What on earth are elected representatives of the DUP and UUP – supposedly parties of law and order – doing sitting on a Committee organising an unlawful protest camp, illegally occupying public land – a protest that has cost the taxpayer millions since last July, and diverted stretched police resources away from tackling crime and terrorism? A protest deliberately located at a sensitive interface.

I’ll tell you what they’re doing. They are there under the direction of the leadership of their parties, desperately trying to play to the electoral audience and ensure that their votes hold up. That camp has become a platform from which these parties, joined by the PUP, the TUV and even UKIP, try to outdo one another in an electorally-driven competition to make the most outrageous, most destructive and most dangerous claims about the threat to the unionist community. All of them baseless, and all of them designed to gain votes.

And whatever happened to the internal DUP investigation into the behaviour of Ruth Patterson, who has formally admitted to the Court that she posted a grossly offensive message on social media? It would appear that all that happened was that the inquiry established that the same councillor brings in extremist votes for the DUP, and as a result a whole range of DUP figures, including Councillors, MLAs and Executive Ministers jostled to be photographed beside her as she left court.

Even Gavin Robinson, the man who Peter Robinson has anointed as the challenger to Naomi Long next year, and who the DUP worked hard to portray as a moderate during his year as Lord Mayor, joined the cosy huddle. If ever there was any doubt that Naomi Long and Gavin Robinson represent two very different political futures for the people of East Belfast, let the image of him alongside a grinning Ruth Patterson outside Laganside Court nail it once and for all.

And look at Mike Nesbitt’s UUP, joining the race for extremist votes by demanding an end to ‘supergrass trials’ directed at the UVF, and by his desperate attempts to out-Robinson Robinson by pulling out of the post-Haass Party Leaders discussions – the very discussions whose purpose was to find a better way to deal with the past than by the grubby deals done between NIO Ministers and Gerry Adams?

There were times a few years ago when it was challenging to explain to some voters that a vote for the UUP wasn’t a vote for a shared future, but people on the doorstep don’t even ask anymore. The only shared future that Mike Nesbitt now appears determined to achieve is with Jim Allister.

Nationalist parties are at it too, acting out of electorally-driven fear of one another that blinds either party from doing the right thing. Why haven’t the SDLP signed up to supporting the National Crime Agency from operating in the devolved sphere? Electoral politics, where the fight against organised crime, human trafficking and child exploitation comes second to competing for votes with Sinn Féin.

Or the manufactured row over the criteria for selecting the Chief Constable, where the two self-styled parties of equality competed with each other to be the ones to stand in the way of changes designed to achieve the very equality that they claim to champion. Or does equality only matter when it comes to so-called community background, but not to issues such as disability, or gender?

Or this week in the Assembly, when SDLP members didn’t just vote against an Alliance amendment to place a duty on Councils to promote good relations, they actually signed a petition of concern to ensure it was blocked. When SDLP Councillors in Dungannon sided with Sinn Féin in support of a convicted terrorist it was blamed on local difficulties. When SDLP Councillors in Newry sided with Sinn Féin to name a playground after a hunger striker, it was blamed on local difficulties. What is the excuse when the party leadership sides with Sinn Féin at Stormont?

What is all this about? It’s about votes. Because votes either make change happen or they ensure that it doesn’t.

There is no doubt in my mind that Alliance is the campaign and electoral vehicle to make change happen. We have a growing electoral strength, and growing influence. That is evident in the increasing attacks on us by others, because they recognise we are growing and threatening the old certainties.

We have real prospects in the European and Council elections, with a body of new people stepping forward, as candidates and to help in the campaign. In the lead is Anna Lo, who has taken us from having no Assembly seat in South Belfast to topping the poll in two elections. But it’s not just South Belfast or East Belfast.

Something is happening. I’ve seen it in the bundles of letters that Headquarters give me to sign as we welcome new members to the party; I’ve heard it at selection meetings, where new candidates are explaining that they’ve got to the point where they’re not content just to sit at home, shouting at the television news, whether out of anger at the behaviour of other political parties, or in support of Alliance; we’ve seen it in the last three opinion polls, which show Alliance on the rise; and we’re hearing it on the doorsteps as we conduct community surveys and work for our constituents.

That something is a growing respect for Alliance as a party that offers a real alternative to the sterile argument that passes for politics in Northern Ireland; that is different to the mirror-image politics of the unionist and nationalist parties.

And we will use that growing strength and influence to lead change, to press for big steps forward. That’s what this party is about. There was a time when people thought this party was all about “agreeing with people”. For some, that was appealing – they wanted Alliance to be the oil in the machine, to have no bigger a vision than that of facilitating agreement between others; for others, that was a big turn-off – they saw us as having no agenda of our own, of being no more than “middle of the road”, or of sitting on the fence.

But this party is not “middle of the road” between unionism and nationalism. Our job in the Haass process, and all of the talks processes before that, wasn’t to simply agree when others agreed, regardless of the outcome. We never defined ourselves as that, and we never determined our policies on the basis of “splitting the difference” between two extremes. We never determined our position on the basis of where Nationalists and Unionists were sat – we set our own path.

And that path has always been about taking big steps forward. Our longstanding policies in support of power sharing, of real and beneficial North-South co-operation, of the principle of consent – policies that we were advocating decades before others came to recognise them as the only way forward – weren’t our policies because we thought they would keep everyone happy, but because they were the policies that offered the best opportunity of big steps forward. Likewise our approach to fair employment, to human rights, to integrated education, to the environment; not developed in order to somehow give unionism and nationalism a little of what they wanted, but to lead change for the equal benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Our Belfast Councillors didn’t advocate the flying of the Union Flag on Designated Days because it was some kind of half-way house between the demands of unionist and nationalist councillors – they advocated it because it was the right thing for the city of Belfast, based on clear and unequivocal equality advice.

Anna Lo and Stewart Dickson proposed the Designated Days arrangements for every Council in the Assembly this week, to remove toxic debate from Council chambers. Because it is right.

And when it came to determining the minimum criteria for appointing the next Chief Constable I didn’t go along with what the dodgy compromise DUP and Sinn Fein asked me to. I insisted that as an Alliance Minister I would do the right thing now, and they had to veto me as a result.

We saw enough of dodgy side deals when the Government tried to buy off whoever was most difficult at times in the past. I want no part in that.

I would rather stand for Alliance principles and lose than allow those principles to be diluted in some dodgy deal behind the walls of Stormont Castle aimed at giving everyone a quiet life. And by the way, don’t ever let any of these parties lecture you or anyone else about their commitment to equality. Shame on them all – DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP and the SDLP – for collaborating to reject equality in the pursuit of whatever party-political agendas were at play.

Lest anyone be confused, let me be very clear. Alliance is not a split-the-difference party, whose vision is limited to whatever might keep both unionists and nationalists happy at any given moment. Too often, that’s what the peace process has amounted to. No, we are a party with an entirely different vision for Northern Ireland, our own vision, and we are committed to tirelessly and determinedly pursue making that vision a reality.

Some in this society are motivated by hope of a united Ireland, some by the continuation of the United Kingdom. What unites us all in Alliance is an unequivocal commitment to building a united community.

So when people ask you on the doorsteps what Alliance is about, tell them this. Alliance is the only party whose primary objective, whose driving force, whose very reason for its existence is a determination to build a shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

We aren’t the moderates in Northern Ireland politics – we’re the radicals. We don’t fit the unionist versus nationalist mould of Northern Ireland politics – we were made to smash it and there’s only one way we will do it – by convincing more and more people to step forward and vote Alliance. And that’s what the next 26 months will be about, through the elections to Councils, to Europe, to Westminster and to the Assembly.

Between now and 22 May we need to put everything we can into taking our message and our vision to the people of Northern Ireland, right to their doorsteps.

In recent months I have heard so often that people in Northern Ireland are more fed up than ever at what passes for politics here. There’s a palpable sense of frustration that politicians haven’t taken the kind of big steps that I have described. Parents who were encouraging their children to build their future here, but who have now lost faith in the ability of politicians to make that attractive.

Business people who are tiring of their efforts to get the message through that division and economic growth don’t mix. Senior police who want to put their resources into tackling crimes against older people, or the exploitation of young people, but are having to redirect them into putting out the fires lit by incendiary political language. Taxpayers who struggle to square politicians’ cries about funding for healthcare with the fact that the same politicians are content to see money being wasted dealing with parades and protests.

These are the people we need to talk in the weeks and months ahead. Their frustrations are our frustrations. Their hopes for this community are our hopes. They want Northern Ireland and its future to be taken back from the extremists; they want politics to be driven by the needs of the many, not the few. They want politicians to take the big steps needed to deliver real change.

They want what we want. For us, wanting these things led us to step forward and join Alliance; for some of us, wanting these things led us to step forward for election. The step forward we now need is for those who agree with us to step forward and vote Alliance.

We need to convince them that Northern Ireland won’t get the future it needs unless they vote for it; because those who want us to stand still will come out to vote, and will vote for standing still.

We need to convince people that the only way to take Northern Ireland back from the extremes; the only way to say to the leaders of the other parties that they must take big steps forward; the only way to make the new start to local government a new start towards a shared future, is to step forward and vote Alliance. To vote for Anna Lo for Europe, and for Alliance candidates in the local elections.

It’s time for big steps. It’s time that we dealt with the Past, with truth, justice and services for victims and survivors. It’s time to settle the issue of official flag flying. It’s time to take this community back from the paramilitaries and extremists. It’s time to resolve education reform. It’s time to grab every opportunity to take big steps towards a shared future – whether in local government reform, integrated education, or shared housing.

It’s time now to move beyond the impasses and stand-offs, the small steps forward followed by two steps back. It’s time now to use politics to deliver change and end stagnation. It’s time now for a politics for everyone. It’s time now for a society for everyone. It’s time now for a shared future for everyone

It’s time now for Alliance, and for all those who share our vision, to step forward.”


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