‘The Politics of Hope’: Party Leader’s Address 2006

The Politics of Hope

Leader’s Address

36th Alliance Party Conference

Saturday 4 March 2006

Last year, as I closed my speech at Conference, I looked eight weeks ahead to the pending Parliamentary and local elections. I was upbeat, and so it turned out. Not only are you in my Assembly constituency, but last May my colleague Alan Lawther gained a Council seat in this ward, while Alliance also won down the road in Antrim town and we recycled my friend Tom Campbell from Belfast city up the road in Glengormley. Overall, despite the claims of many pundits, Alliance made credible gains in the elections – and, but for a few near misses, it could have been even better,

In last year’s speech, I said there were seats to be won, which would give us influence and power on local Councils. I just didn’t realise how much.

As you know, Geraldine Rice is unable to be here because of illness. Not only is she Alliance President, she is also Deputy Mayor of Castlereagh. I am delighted to welcome Sara Duncan to the platform in her place. But Geraldine is not our only Deputy Mayor. We also have Trevor Lunn in Lisburn, Tony Hill in North Down and my constituency right hand woman Lynn Frazer in Newtownabbey. All are playing key roles for the party and deserve our thanks.

Larne, of course, went one better. It was a real delight to go down there a couple of weeks ago to see John and Margaret Mathews in their official chains as Mayor and Mayoress, taking the lead in promoting the Borough and raising money for charity. Well done.

We also said some farewells this year. Can I particularly mention Susan O’Brien MBE, a former Mayor of North Down, as well as Janet Crampsey, former Mayor, and Robin Cavan, former Deputy Mayor, in Carrickfergus? All of them have now stepped down from Council, but not from their commitment to Alliance.

Within the Assembly group, there has also been significant change. After many years of service to Alliance, in almost every role, Eileen Bell has stepped back a little by retiring from the Deputy Leader’s post. She will continue to be the MLA for North Down until, like her friend Susan O’Brien, we elect two younger people to keep up with her level of work.

Four years ago, Eileen and I fought a keen, but amicable, contest for the leadership of Alliance. When I won, Eileen immediately agreed to serve as Deputy Leader, ensuring that the team as a whole continued to make progress. For that we all owe her an enormous debt of thanks. I know that she will continue to work for the party, most notably as spokesperson on victims.

A few weeks ago, I heard Monsignor Denis Faul on radio, being interviewed on the needs of victims. Fr Faul is not a knee jerk Alliance supporter, so it was all the more revealing when he said that only two politicians in Northern Ireland cared about victims, Eileen Bell and David Ford. In fact, he was wrong, for what I have done on behalf of victims has been in support of Eileen. She has worked tirelessly, and is the only politician I know who is respected by victims groups from all sections of the community.

Today is my first public opportunity to give my personal welcome to the new Deputy Leader, elected a fortnight ago, Naomi Long. Naomi is unique. One of the youngest members of the Assembly, one of the most articulate and hard working, a key member of the team that has provided stability and progress in Belfast City Council in recent years. She is passionate about her commitment to building a United Community. Already well respected by political opponents and by Governments, I know that she will continue to be a major influence on Northern Ireland politics in the coming years.

Sadly, some of our farewells are final. This year, we lost one of the key figures in the foundation and the early years of Alliance when Basil Glass died. Basil was perhaps the least well known of the leadership trio with Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper, but he was certainly well-known for his hard work in every area of his South Belfast constituency.

Few successful lawyers from Malone got involved in the messy business of politics when Alliance was founded. Basil did. Even fewer worried about the welfare of the people of Sandy Row and the Markets. Basil did. Few were prepared to reorganise their business and professional life to allow them to put in many hours every day for Alliance. Basil did.

The first Chair of the party, Basil was later Chief Whip in Stormont during the seventies. He excelled in both roles, meticulous in his attention to detail, a lawyer to the core. Yet he was warm and open in his relationships, he encouraged the active involvement of younger members and he travelled all over Northern Ireland – and further afield – to promote Alliance, building the organisation on which we still depend to this day.

Mary has told me how a few days before his death, Basil and Rev Harold Good planned the funeral service. Not just the two of them: while they discussed, Mary was downstairs at the piano, playing through possible hymn tunes for Basil’s selection. Such was Basil’s attention to detail, in his private life and in his public life. Most of all in his work for Alliance. We honour his memory today.

While Alliance had a good election last year, the aftermath has been mixed for Northern Ireland. A statement by the IRA of an end to the campaign of violence led to the very significant act of decommissioning of weapons. We should recognise that there has been momentous progress on that front.

However, we also need to read the last few reports of the Independent Monitoring Commission in detail. Alliance was founded on the basis of respect for the rule of law in every aspect of our community and political life. There is no place in politics for those who rob banks, smuggle fuel, intimidate, threaten and exile.

The IMC called it right. It is not good enough for Republicans to highlight the paragraphs showing progress on the reduction of street violence and ignore the sections on organised crime. Nor can we allow obstructive Unionists to say the opposite.

Let’s remind ourselves: the IMC exists because Alliance first presented proposals for it and we pushed the two Governments to establish it. It is a pity that it took so long to persuade them, but I cannot imagine how we could hope to make any progress at this time without the existence of the IMC.

The last IMC report was equivalent to that classic school report on a mediocre student: “Some progress, but must try harder. Does not always show he understands the fundamentals.”

Republicans must show that they understand the fundamentals of a normal peaceful society. That includes what we refer to as paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration. There must be no shootings or bombings. There must also be no street violence, no paramilitary beatings, no intelligence gathering or targeting. There must be no criminal activity of any kind.

They must also co-operate fully in bringing wrongdoers to justice. Republicans must demonstrate their full support for upholding the rule of law. Alliance is not going to allow Northern Ireland to move from a paramilitary-dominated society to a mafia-dominated one.

We will continue to act as we have done before. Where Republicans move in the direction of normal, peaceful politics, and act responsibly, we will assist. Where they fail to do so, we will stand up to them.

We did that in the wake of the murder of Robert McCartney just over a year ago. Our East Belfast team supported his family, not because it was easy, not because they were Alliance supporters, but because every family, every citizen has a right to justice. We saw then the crude attempts to intimidate an entire community in the Short Strand.

In the May elections we saw the people of that area speak. Sinn Féin suffered one of its few losses in recent years, and we achieved the election of Councillor Maire Hendron. Once again, there is a Councillor who will work for people in every part of Pottinger.

Let’s not get suggest that Republicans are the only people on the wrong side of the law. There remains a considerable problem of Loyalist terrorism and organised crime too. The feud raging between dissident Republicans and the Provisional IRA in Ballymurphy is equalled in every squalid respect by the turf wars over drug empires in East Belfast.

In recent weeks, I have met the families of Craig McCausland and of Raymond McCord. Both were murdered by Loyalists. In neither case has anyone been convicted, and there are allegations of a cover up. Those families deserve justice, just the same as other victims deserve justice.

While Loyalists have almost abandoned terrorism for money-making, they retain the ability to twist political events their way. Just remember the post-Whiterock riots last September.

I was able to see police video coverage of the riots just two days later, shortly after the Chief Constable showed it to the Secretary of State. Some of it has not appeared on television, though much is now in the public domain. It remains etched on my mind.

There was clearly an orchestrated attempt by the Orange Order to defy the law and break through the police lines into Catholic neighbourhoods. They were supported by UVF gunmen, well organised and in place spoiling for a fight.

So, who was to blame for the violence? Unsurprisingly, the PUP was unwilling to decide, or to take action against its associates if any had been shown to be involved.

The Ulster Unionists were different. They knew whom to blame. The UUP Leader rushed out a statement. “We are All to blame”, according to the UUP. There was a more detailed list following. It started with the Police and the Parades Commission and – at the very end of the list – it finally got round to mentioning the paramilitaries. They came just after the Orange Order.

Well, Reg Empey was wrong. On a key issue, a defining moment for his new Leadership, he got it totally wrong. We are not all to blame for the violence. Those of us who did not fire the shots, did not organise or support an illegal parade and did not stir up sectarianism for many years are not to blame.

It’s time Unionist leaders accepted responsibility for their actions in maintaining divisions and stoking fears.

When the Orange Order stages an illegal march, why can’t Unionists put the blame where it belongs? When UVF gunmen shoot at police officers, why do Unionists pretend it is the fault of the police?

Are they too dependent on the votes of paramilitary-linked parties in Belfast City Council? Are they afraid to stand up for the rule of law against the thugs and bullies?

Of course we know that ‘decent people vote Ulster Unionist’. We know it because they told us at election time. Actually, they are right. Decent people do vote Ulster Unionist, the same as other decent people vote for other parties. In fact, rather more decent people vote for other parties.

When you see the absence of leadership from the Ulster Unionists, the mentality that says they cannot criticise the actions of unionist terrorists, you do begin to wonder whether that group of decent people shouldn’t reconsider where they cast their votes.

What I cannot understand is why the UUP is still slavishly following in the wake of the worst elements of the Orange Order and unionist paramilitaries. Do they really support the rule of law?

It seems to me that the UUP is not only running scared of the DUP, they are unwilling to take stand against the paramilitaries. They have abandoned any pretence of belonging to the political centre. The great hopes of 1998, of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon working together for the whole community, are dead and buried.

Remember what we said during the election campaign: Integrity Works. Pandering to sectarianism costs.

The retreat from partnership to tribal politics has been well matched on the other side of the political divide. Take the most recent policy paper from the SDLP on the north-south agenda.

Much of it was practical common sense. Alliance has no problem in promoting partnership and co-operation across the border as we seek to develop our economy and build appropriate infrastructure for the 21st century. The border on the island of Ireland does create serious economic distortions, and there is much to be done in addressing problems shared with the Republic of Ireland.

But the whole approach was not presented in a way that said ‘this makes economic sense’. It was more a shopping list of nationalist aspirations. It almost seemed that they sat down and tried to list every possible public policy issue, and called for an all-Ireland institution or strategy to be introduced.

Remember that the Sunningdale Initiative failed, and the Good Friday Agreement almost never happened, because Nationalists overreached on all-Ireland institutions. There is much to be gained by removing the barriers that impede co-operation across the island. It isn’t just a matter of simply dreaming up more and more bodies for the fun of it.

The SDLP is also the party most committed to the retention of sectional Designations for MLAs, and is bitterly opposed to increased accountability and collectivity for Ministers. At Leeds Castle, Alliance made some proposals to improve collectivity, which were adapted by the Governments to the proposal that there should be an Assembly vote to validate the Executive as a whole. The SDLP objects, describing this as an ‘exclusion clause’.

Now the current proposal is not ours. But I wonder what kind of Executive is envisaged if some people expect to be Ministers without being prepared to vote confidence in the Executive as a whole.

We have seen it before. Ten Departments operating in independent silos, private fiefdoms for the Ministers’ whims. Meanwhile, OFMDFM does nothing because the First Minister isn’t speaking to the Deputy First Minister. And vice versa.

Just imagine what would happen if justice was devolved in those circumstances. Would it be Gerry Kelly doing his own thing with the department of police? Or Ian Paisley Junior playing around with criminal justice? Or the real nightmare scenario: the two of them given joint power in circumstances where there was no shared understanding, no common policy, no real collective responsibility.

Power sharing works. Power division costs.

I am also concerned that there has been little attempt by Government to deal with this sectarianism. To give them credit, the current Ministerial team is clearly working on the fundamental issue of building a Shared Future. While we disagree with Lord Rooker’s prescriptions for councils in the Review of Public Administration, he is at least aware of the dangers of entrenching sectarianism.

Peter Hain has certainly acted in a more inclusive way in his dealings with the parties, meeting all five parties regularly, not just two. Yet he proposes to reconstitute the Policing Board by giving the DUP a seat more than they deserve, either on the basis of the last election results or current numbers of MLAs. Is this yet another sop to keep them sweet?

Despite the work on a Shared Future, there is still no sign that it is at the heart of Government policy. I have great regard for those who are working on the policy, but I fear that they are confined to a small corner of the NIO and other Departments are ignoring them and following their traditional route of pandering to division.

Only this week, a former adviser to David Trimble was claiming, as an achievement, that they had blocked work on developing a shared future while the Assembly was sitting. He may want to see a continuation of our own form of apartheid. We will work to oppose that at every opportunity.

A key area for a shared future is developing integrated education. On Wednesday, the Minister made great play over an announcement of funding for a number of schools. Several hundred million pounds for existing segregated schools. On Thursday, she refused to fund three new integrated schools. One of them with an enrolment for September of a hundred and twenty pupils to start their secondary education. This is far more than many established secondary schools.

If the Government is serious about a Shared Future, shouldn’t Ministers tell the Department of Education?

The Secretary of State talked recently about the need to rationalise the over-provision of school places. Fair enough. We cannot afford to waste scarce resources on vacant classrooms and empty desks.

If there was a moratorium on the announcement of new capital expenditure until strategic plans were drawn up in different areas, that would make sense. But we haven’t got strategic planning.

Instead, the Department is throwing money at existing segregated schools, while refusing to fund integrated schools. Meanwhile, last year, 700 pupils were turned away from integrated schools because there aren’t enough places to meet the demand.

It’s time to tackle the schools problem seriously. We currently spend 30% more than they do in the rest of the UK on education, far too much of it on maintaining and heating half empty buildings, rather than on teachers, books and equipment.

We simply cannot afford to waste this money in order to socially engineer a divided society. We cannot afford the money, we cannot afford the effects.

Maybe we need to tell the Government. Sharing saves money. Separation costs.

In the course of the current discussions with the two Governments, we have urged them to put the Shared Future at the heart of the process. Since there is no evidence that traditional politicians will initiate change, there is a serious responsibility on Government.

It is time that Ministers stopped playing round with the failed document of December 2004. The so-called ‘Comprehensive Agreement’ didn’t address the core of our problems: it was simply an attempt at a quick fix between the DUP and Sinn Féin alone. It wasn’t comprehensive, in either participants or subjects addressed. At the end, it wasn’t even agreed by the two parties involved.

Since Ministers now appear to recognise some of the flaws in the working of the Agreement, I will continue to call on them to deal with these fundamental issues, and stop trying to get a quick fix, since that would inevitably break down in a few months.

The Agreement says that the two Governments are active participants in the process of reviewing the Agreement. They must take the initiative in a truly comprehensive and inclusive process and not just leave it to the parties to engage in a further round of sectarian trade-offs and side deals.

Alliance will continue to put forward positive proposals. Despite all that is happening, we have a duty to promote the politics of hope. This society is changing. It is simply not the case that we are permanently divided into two mutually antagonistic groups that live, work, worship, play and educate their children apart.

Many people reject the old labels altogether. Others happily claim a mixture of identities. Our task is to provide the political voice for all those who seek a different way.

It is one of the depressing features of elections here that they are presented not as a decision on the election of representatives but as two parallel contests within two tribes. Is it any wonder that those who do not consider themselves as either unionist or nationalist are much less likely to vote?

Creating a Shared Future must be at the heart of the process. Action is needed on a number of fronts.

A key element is have our citizens working together. In the current round of talks, we have proposed to the Government that they should set up a round table on the economy, working with the parties. This would both provide an opportunity for positive engagement and inject some urgency into the process of dealing with an issue of vital concern to our future.

We are told that the public sector in Northern Ireland is too big. That is simply not true. Rather, the private sector is too small. Does anyone here want to see fewer nurses? Fewer teachers? Fewer police officers? Do we want to reduce the level of public services we receive?

The real issue is to create a culture in which the private sector grows. Far too many of our people are, if not unemployed, under-employed. We need to develop a modern economy, based on a high skill work force, in which the private sector receives the necessary support to become the engine of growth for the economy.

Ministers constantly talk about the level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland, compared to England, Wales and Scotland. The need to cut these costs is part of the justification of the review of public administration, which is supposed to save £200 million a year.

Alliance is much more concerned at the money wasted on maintaining segregation. Two years ago, we estimated that it costs a billion pounds a year. That figure is now accepted as realistic by Government. It may well be higher. Almost ten per cent of our total public expenditure wasted. That is an outrageous figure and we will make it a priority to reduce it.

What of the institutions of the Agreement?

Inside the Assembly, it is time we had a voting system which does not discriminate against those of us from the centre ground. That means doing away with divisive sectional designations and introducing a straightforward weighted majority.

An Executive was established in 1999, based on power division, not power sharing. It didn’t work. {Para break} As well as the major crises, there was a constant background of bickering between Ministers who would not co-operate with each other. We need a voluntary coalition, one where Ministers share collective responsibility, if we are to have a coherent Government.

When we meet Ministers from the two Governments next week, we will tell them to forget the quick fix. End the side deals between Downing Street and the DUP, Downing Street and Sinn Féin. Take time for a comprehensive agreement. That means both comprehensive and agreed.

It is time for attention to all the outstanding issues, so that we get away from a stop-start, revolving door devolution. Only by dealing with the core issues at the heart of the Agreement will we provide any form of stability.

To have an Assembly which hasn’t met for three and a half years is bad. To see that Assembly sit and fall apart after a few months would be disastrous. This time, it must be got right

Around the world, Northern Ireland is seen as a relative success story. We have been given all of the international advantages. There is utter amazement that local politicians cannot get their act together. We cannot continue to try international patience.

But at home, there is a growing cynicism among the general public over a stalled peace process.

Meanwhile vital tasks involved in restructuring our economy, improving public services, protecting our environment, upholding the rule of law, and tackling divisions urgently need to be addressed.

I became involved in the politics because I recognised that the democratic process was the right and the effective way to make positive change in this society.

But if others are not careful, more and more people will feel that democratic politics has no real contribution to make to their lives. The political process will be reduced to a bad soap opera.

Let us therefore be quite clear.

The sectarian political system has existed for as long as this state, and it has brought us precisely nowhere. 50 years of single-party government, 25 years of violence, ten years of tactical ceasefires, tribalism, and responsibility shirking.

It is time to abandon that system.

We cannot afford another generation of political instability, social backwardness and economic stagnation, least of all while our neighbours in the Republic stride into the future.

We have done, and will continue to do, our utmost to present positive and feasible proposals for progress on everyone’s behalf – on the economy, on law and order, on the institutions, on human rights, on exiles.

Unlike others, we do not seek to put unionists first, or nationalists first. We simply seek to put people first.

People may or may not think that we have the right answers, but they must recognise the certainty that we, and we alone, are at least asking the right questions.

Our vision is a society with a world-class police service and no gangsters.

Our vision is a society with a competitive economy providing the best career paths for our people.

Our vision is a society where children grow up together, rather than being driven apart.

If that is your vision, whatever your religious background or national affiliation, this is your party.

Alliance works, tribal politics costs.

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