Alliance leader Naomi Long party conference address [Full Text]
Alliance party leader Naomi Long said the UK Government needed to inject momentum into restoring Northern Ireland power-sharing and drop its careful approach. Below is her full speech to the Alliance party conference.
"Good afternoon, Madam President, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, it's fantastic to see so many of you here at our 48th Annual Conference in the Stormont Hotel and even better to be able to welcome you all here to my constituency of east Belfast.
Each year, as I begin to prepare my conference speech, I start by looking back over the previous year’s speech and reflect on everything that has happened over the course of the last twelve months.
When we met here last year, we did so in the wake of the Assembly elections, and celebrating our highest number of votes since 1979 and our highest share of the vote since 1987. Little did we know when we met, however, that we were about to do it all again in a snap General Election last June, when the Prime Minister rolled the dice to try to increase her parliamentary majority ahead of Brexit negotiations.
That closer relationship between the DUP and the Conservatives ... led to a sense they permanently had one hand tied behind their back during negotiations, with no ability to exert any pressure to get a deal done.
A divisive and rancorous campaign, yet again exploiting the politics of fear and division, was reflected in the result which almost entirely balkanised Northern Ireland.
Further, the Prime Minister's high risk and ultimately ill-fated strategy, delivered a much weakened Westminster government, now reliant on a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.
That closer relationship between the DUP and the Conservatives not only raised fresh questions about the ability of Government to act impartially as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, but also led to a sense that they permanently had one hand tied behind their back during negotiations, with no ability to exert any pressure to get a deal done.
And so the tone for a long and frustrating year of political stagnation was set: government unwilling or unable to reconfigure the talks to enhance the possibility of success; the number of parties around the table getting fewer and fewer; the scope for agreement becoming narrower and narrower; the points of disagreement becoming increasingly intractable; and the likelihood of success becoming more and more remote with each successive attempt.
Yet, whilst it has been a year marked by political stagnation in Stormont and huge frustration both for the public and for this party at the lack of progress towards restoring the devolved institutions, for Alliance it has by contrast been a year in which we, at a party level at least, have continued to take real steps forward.
Despite the divisive nature of the Westminster election, we ran a strong campaign and largely consolidated our results from the Assembly, and I thank all of you who played a role in that: we have also continued to see new members stepping forward in record numbers over the last year.
That momentum led to continuing growth of our local associations in areas where we have currently either no or limited elected representation. We have seen Associations being reconstituted in constituencies like Newry and Armagh and activism and campaigning taking place in a number of our
These have been a difficult few years, full of uncertainty, and we hugely appreciate the dedication and commitment you have shown throughout.
key growth areas, culminating in our first one day Autumn Conference in Foyle, in October. Such was its success that we had three strong bids in for autumn 2018 before the day was over. That’s one for Sharon Lowry and her crack staff team to start work on after today – well, you can maybe wait until Monday.
On a more serious note – I do want to thank Sharon and the staff at Headquarters, the Assembly and in our constituency offices for all that they do for the party and for Northern Ireland. These have been a difficult few years, full of uncertainty, and we hugely appreciate the dedication and commitment you have shown throughout.
More recently, we have held the first of our planned action days, starting in Omagh, led ably by our local team and supported by people from right across the party and I want to thank each of you who stepped forward to help. Most of all, I want to thank Stephen Donnelly for the commitment he has shown to maintaining that development work on the ground and providing a consistent and coherent voice for the Alliance Party’s values and vision.
I’m sure you will all want to join with me in congratulating Stephen on his official selection as our Candidate for the forthcoming Westminster by-election in West Tyrone. I hope that each of you will step forward and support him practically as we offer the people of West Tyrone a shared and inclusive vision for the future and full-time representation in Westminster.
Right across all of our associations, I have been hugely encouraged by the level of commitment and energy which you as members have demonstrated at a time when it would be easy to be cynical or jaded about politics: having had the opportunity to meet with almost all of our local council teams and local associations in the last 2-3 months, it has not only been enormously energising but has been a great opportunity to discuss how we intend to develop the party further in the months ahead and particularly in preparation for the Local Government elections in 2019.
Whilst reflection is always the starting point for my speech, I think that this year, more than most, there is good reason for reflection, meeting as we do in the run up to the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Of course we knew there would be challenges ahead and a lot of hard work to do.
Last night, at our conference dinner, both in the words of Senator Mitchell’s message and in the panel discussion, we were reminded of how in 1998, with the signing of that historic accord, the feeling that we had crossed a Rubicon in Northern Ireland politics was palpable.
Of course we knew – indeed Senator Mitchell explicitly warned at the time - that there would be challenges ahead and a lot of hard work to do to maintain progress. However, the Good Friday Agreement set out the basic building blocks for a stable and inclusive society: commitment to peace and a culture of lawfulness; the principle of consent; the need for power-sharing within Northern Ireland; good relationships internally, with an emphasis on reconciliation and integration; and, strong, cooperative relationships with and between our nearest neighbours.
Those fundamental principles were the essence of the Alliance vision for devolution when the party was formed almost 50 years ago, and they remain the only feasible way forward for our society. The architecture and structures may change and evolve but those key elements still provide the key to resolving our difficulties, past and present.
It says much about the growth of this party that many of our members – many of you here today - are too young to have any real recollection of Northern Ireland pre 1998. Last night, Hannah Irwin spoke powerfully about her hopes for the future as someone who was born just a month before the Good Friday Agreement. For you it is, perhaps, hard to comprehend the sense not just of relief – but the sense of possibility – that accompanied that historic signing and the Yes result.
For me and for those of my generation, the Troubles were the backdrop to our entire childhood and teenage years: for some of you, it was the backdrop from which you tried to shield your own children as they were growing up.
I was born in 1971, at the start of the Troubles and so had known nothing else my entire life: the abnormal was my normal. We lived smaller lives, constrained by both geography and fear. We knew our own neighbours and neighbourhoods and there was reassurance in that familiarity in times which were turbulent and uncertain.
The Good Friday Agreement, flawed and imperfect as it was, it felt like that hope became real and tangible.
As I watched Derry Girls this year, Lisa McGee’s brilliantly written coming of age story of four teenage girls growing up in Derry in the 90s, it resonated deeply. Many of the misadventures could have been set almost anywhere, but the black humour was most definitely our own.
However, the last few moments of the final episode of the series captured for me the reality of growing up in the Troubles in the juxtaposition of two scenes: the first of the girls, laughing and dancing in the safety of the school, without a care in the world: the second, of a room full of adults, concern etched deep on their faces, as they gathered around the TV to watch the unfolding news of a horrific bomb attack and loss of life.
It was a timely and powerful reminder of how fragile the normality we sought to construct in the worst of times really was, and how horror and brutality managed to force its way into our everyday lives.
To see that come to an end, initially with the ceasefires of 1994, the first time in my life that I thought things might actually change, gave many of us hope. That hope was cautious and tentative, as we’d seen false dawns before. But in 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement, flawed and imperfect as it was, it felt like that hope became real and tangible.
We now find ourselves in a very different context: where not just agreement but hope itself - the very sense of possibility - seems to be in short supply. Yet we need both, if we are to find a way through our current difficulties to realise the full potential of that Agreement.
And I believe it is our job in Alliance, as it always has been, to reinject that hope – that sense of possibility - back into our political discussions.
One could chose to despair that in 1998, our society could take huge steps forward on issues such as ceasefires, prisoner releases and decommissioning, yet now we are stalled by issues which seem relatively small by comparison. Then, the distance between parties was a chasm, now the gaps are much narrower, yet seemingly more difficult to bridge. But I refuse to give in to a counsel of despair: I chose instead to believe that what we were capable of once, we are capable of again.
Brexit is unpicking the political, social and economic relationships on which we have come to rely.
These are different times politically, socially, economically whether we look locally, nationally or internationally. The 1990s saw the rise of Cool Britannia, the Celtic Tiger was prowling and there was a sense of confidence about our place in the world and what the future might hold. New Labour swept to power on the promise that “things could only get better”, a song which captured the mood of the time and, in these islands, as much as anywhere, we were riding a wave of optimism. We were partners in Europe: we could be partners on Northern Ireland.
That optimism has long since been replaced by a sense of uncertainty for the future. Brexit is unpicking the political, social and economic relationships on which we have come to rely, more in Northern Ireland than perhaps anywhere else in these islands. Increasing protectionism and nativism in politics and growing insularity, bordering at times on xenophobia, is in stark contrast to the focus on globalism, multi-culturalism and interdependence in the 1990s.
'Ourselves alone' isn’t a recipe for economic success in any language.
Supporters will argue that Brexit is about being more open and more engaged - independently, confidently - with the big, wide world beyond Europe; however, it’s hard to take that entirely seriously when the very same people were in a state of near apoplexy this week at news their beloved navy blue passports would be imported from France. Indeed, just like the word “passport” itself. How can they hope to do trade deals if the end goal is to import nothing? “Ourselves alone” isn’t a recipe for economic success in any language.
Whilst optimism can help create fertile conditions for progress, it is trust that enables us to step forward and build for the future. Sadly, what little trust was developing between parties and, crucially, between parties and the electorate, has been badly eroded. Lack of transparency and openness and failure to deliver on commitments has poisoned the political well.
Recent revelations at the RHI inquiry that this culture of secrecy had begun to infect even the Civil Service, with the admission that they routinely failed to minute meetings to avoid embarrassing ministers and to evade the scrutiny of Freedom of Information requests is a damning indictment of a lax approach to governance in some Departments. The almost conspiratorial approach that seems to have pervaded parts of the system, keeping not just the public but other ministers in the same Executive in the dark about key decisions, is toxic to trust and confidence.
Politics needs the checks and balances of accountability and scrutiny to protect the public interest and ensure independence and professionalism from both ministers and senior civil servants.
That is why we continue to place openness and transparency at the heart of our political campaigning, both in terms of party political donations and good governance, whether in the Assembly and Executive or in our local councils.
Whilst I welcome the fact that all large donations since last July will now be made public, the decision not to backdate the measure to January 2014, as anticipated in my amendment, co-sponsored by a former Secretary of State, is a massive U-turn. To hide behind consulting with local parties is a bit like holding a vote in a turkey shed about whether we should celebrate Christmas.
This isn’t about what local parties want; it’s about the right of local voters to know who the major donors are and decide for themselves who pulls the strings.
There is a lack of optimism and of trust, but at the heart of the current malaise is lack of vision and, particularly, of a shared vision for our community.
Alliance will continue to work with others to push for the original date to be reinstated and for a review of the threshold at which donor information should be published. Just this week the Lib Dems again raised the issue in NI Questions and tabled an Early Day Motion on the matter, for which I am very grateful, and Labour have also pledged their support.
And in local councils, whether in Lisburn & Castlereagh, where we are pressing for an independent member to be added to the Audit Panel in line with best practice, or in Belfast where having successfully pursued recording of meetings, we have now taken our concerns about transparency of funding to the Audit Office, we will continue to press for the highest standards.
So, there is a lack of optimism and of trust, but at the heart of the current malaise is lack of vision and, particularly, of a shared vision for our community. The yes vote in 1998, laid a foundation on which we could build, not just a stable and peaceful future, but also one in which we were reconciled to our neighbours and integrated as a community.
Yet the hard yards of reconciliation and integration were, by and large, left to individuals, communities, and voluntary groups with little or no real political support or encouragement.
Instead, politicians continued to emphasise difference, exploit divisions and use fear as a motivator to rally the vote, rather than seeing the enormous benefits than can accrue for the whole community by celebrating our diversity as an asset and recognising that it enriches us rather than diminishes us.
As most of you came here today, you passed through the legendary townland that is Ballyhackamore – this week named as the best place to live in Northern Ireland by The Times. So what makes it special? Well, apart from the fact that I live there…
It is one of the most mixed, most integrated parts of east Belfast – not just in terms of the religious make-up, but also in terms of social mix and age. In that settled environment, where people feel safe and secure to live, work and socialise, businesses have flourished and a sense of community has grown.
That is my vision for everyone in East Belfast: not just the affluent suburbs like Ballyhackamore, but for every neighbourhood from Ballymaccarrett to Ballybeen. If we can create communities which are open and shared, safe and welcoming, they will flourish and prosper and everyone will benefit.
And the same is true for Northern Ireland as a whole.
Building that shared vision is challenging in an environment in which both Brexit and the collapse of the institutions are increasing pulling communities apart, with unionists looking increasingly to Westminster and Nationalists looking increasingly to Dublin. In doing so, there is a failure to focus on the challenges which our community faces together and together seek the solutions.
If we can create communities which are open and shared, safe and welcoming, they will flourish and prosper and everyone will benefit.
That requires leadership: leadership which at so many critical points over recent years has failed to materialise. We need the kind of courageous leadership which is willing to take risks to bring people to where they need to be and engender in them the confidence to make the necessary steps towards mutual respect and accommodation.
Whilst leadership may be lacking elsewhere, however, it was prominent this morning on our Local Government panel – where Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, Mayor of Lisburn and Castlereagh, Tim Morrow, High Sherriff of Belfast, Carole Howard and Deputy Mayor of North Down, Gavin Walker, talked about their year in office and the opportunities it has presented for them to demonstrated what civic leadership by Alliance can achieve.
I want to congratulate you, Nuala, Tim, Gavin and your families for all you have achieved this year and for how well you have represented the party. You have done us proud. And to Carole, I wish you every success in your year ahead – and especially congratulate you for managing to get Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as your first Royal visit.
And it would be remiss of me not also to say a particular thank you to the chair of the panel, Group Leader in Belfast City Council, and all round wonderful guy: Councillor Michael Long. I know better than most just how much time and energy he invests not only in leading the team but in showing courageous and tenacious leadership to shape a better council and city for the future. I am hugely indebted to him for this and much, much more.
And I see that leadership in abundance each week as the Assembly team meets in Stormont to plan ahead. It is not an easy time to be an Assembly Member, but despite that I am surrounded by a team full of energy, ideas, and guts: who continue to work tirelessly to develop policy and fresh legislation for when devolution is restored; who deliver for their constituents with practical help and advice; and who are always prepared and informed to articulate publicly the party position. To Stephen, Kellie, Paula, Trevor, David, Stewart and Chris – thank you for your leadership and for your support.
Since the collapse of the most recent talks, there has been no indication of how the government intends to move forward and get parties around the table again. There has been a complete lack of forward momentum.
We have spent the last 14 months in “care and maintenance”: the big decisions about the reforms required to deliver high quality sustainable health, education, infrastructure, economic development are simply not being taken. That cannot continue. The people of Northern Ireland deserve – they need – a functioning government. The current drift is simply unsustainable.
Problem solving is what politics is about.
Lack of optimism, lack of trust, lack of vision, lack of leadership and lack of forward momentum: all of which led us this week to publish Next Steps Forward, our route map to restoring devolution and dealing with the backlog of decisions affecting those who elected us.
Problem solving is what politics is about – whether developing policy, legislation or working in the constituency office. It’s what Alliance has continued to do throughout this crisis whether in our proposals, to try to overcome the seeming irreconcilable positions on the Irish Language adopted by others; or publishing our Brexit paper, Bridges not Borders, with practical solutions to the challenges we face.
We will not simply stand on the side-lines, wringing our hands, or worse, add to the problems by pointing the finger. Even if we are at times slipping notes under a locked door, as Stewart so colourfully described it, we remain absolutely determined to play a positive role in getting devolution restored.
We want no part in any talking shop: we do not need yet another arena in which MLAs cut lumps out of each other for sport.
Alliance remains convinced only fully inclusive multi-party talks, chaired by an independent facilitator, can re-establish trust between the parties and hold them to account, privately and publicly, for their actions. They also provide the only prospect of delivering an inclusive Executive.
We have proposed transitional Assembly arrangements, running in parallel with the talks, as a step towards the restoration of full devolution. To be clear, we want no part in any talking shop: we do not need yet another arena in which MLAs cut lumps out of each other for sport. We need to start taking back responsibility.
By reconstituting Assembly Committees, MLAs can start to do the job we were elected to do: to give advice and guidance, scrutinise departmental spending and planning, and develop policy and legislation. Plenary sessions would allow us to progress legislation, via Committee Bills or Private Member’s Bills.
The formation of a cross-party Brexit committee would give NI a voice in the discussions which are shaping our future, whilst the re-constitution of the Policing Board would restore the oversight required to maintain public confidence and accountability in policing.
These time-limited transitional arrangements would allow parties to deal with issues of substance and of real concern to our constituents; to take responsibility in return for our salary; and, most importantly, to help to clear the backlog of decision-making which has developed during the impasse.
We have also proposed that Westminster legislate for key devolved matters such as the Irish language and equal marriage which have become a barrier to restoration, erasing some red lines and changing the dynamics of the talks process.
Indeed, this week, the first steps will be taken to introduce a private members bill on Equal Marriage at Westminster. While it has a long way to go yet, it is a major step forward towards the day when LGBT couples in NI will finally be able to say “I do” and get the same recognition and respect under the law as any other married couple. My only regret is that yet again it is Westminster and not Stormont delivering on LGBT rights and equality.
Finally, we have identified reserved matters which Westminster should also progress including, crucially, reform of the petition of concern. That would ensure a restored Assembly could deal effectively with other social policy and equality issues and preventing any one party frustrating the will of the electorate.
The planned Government consultation on the enabling legislation to implement the Stormont House Agreement on legacy, the funding of legacy inquests and the implementation of a pension for the seriously injured should also now proceed without further delay.
Victims and survivors have waited long enough: they ought not to suffer further due to lack of political progress. There is a moral obligation to address this issue now.
We have shared our proposals with the other party leaders in a genuine attempt to create the space politically in which broader agreement is possible and an Executive can be formed.
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