SDLP Conference 2009

In a working capacity, I attended the 37th Annual Conference of the SDLP. Having taken out exhibit stalls and fringe meetings at other party conferences, I decided this time to see if I could be just as, or even more, productive doing neither.

I watched the main speeches by Minister Margaret Ritchie, Alban Maginness, and Mark Durkan.

Ritchie underlined her continuing work to realise mixed social housing, with inference to a shared future. Meanwhile, she made clear her aim of a united Ireland; no, repeating, she “unambiguously supports a united Ireland”, which the audience responded to loud applause. Ritchie said that unionists must be “convinced” that a united Ireland would be “better” for them.

Maginness made a strong speech (see below; no online link), describing how he intends to run his election campaign for European Parliament. He said, “We must proactively engage with those from other traditions both religious and political.” At the conference dinner, I complimented him on his speech, while telling him that I will be interested to see how he puts into action this pledge.

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Durkan’s speech was par for course — what one usually hears a party leader give at their annual conference (extract):

By now I was getting tired of the Barack Obama references, particularly when I wasn’t hearing how those citing him would apply his experiences and lessons to their own campaigns.

The two fringe meetings I attended were the highlights of my day. I did not attend the fringe  that featured Paddy Hill (Birmingham Six) and Raymond McCord (Guildford Four), which I understand was a powerful and emotional event.

Instead, the first fringe I went to was hosted by Alasdair McDonnell, with guest speaker Rev. Norman Hamilton (Presbyterian Minister, Balysillan, Belfast). Rev. Hamilton spoke very well, in my opinion.

He said that what he heard in the speeches just given in the conference hall, he could describe in one word: nationalism. The challenge was for the SDLP to reach out beyond their ordinary constituency, not in a grand announcement, but through the statements that they made. Rev. Hamilton provided an example of the Presbyterian Mutual Society crises, with 50,000 people directly affected. McDonnell replied that he did not want to see anything that might “pick the scab” (i.e. a nationalist representative being critical of a Protestant-based organisation). Rev. Hamilton positively replied that giving support for the online petition for the Government to guarantee the deposits of PMS customers was picking what scab? This session wasn’t adversarial; it was very invigorating, and there assurances that this discussion will be further developed.

The second fringe I attended was hosted by SDLP Youth, “Change: How to energise the NI electorate”. The context was the success of Barack Obama’s campaign for presidency. Guest speakers were Neil Ward (Irish Labour), Conall McDevitt, and Mick Fealty (via video presentation). The session was chaired by Peter Armstrong (SDLP Youth).

Conall explained why he got involved with the SDLP originally: because it was an exciting social movement. I drew the comparison with Obama’s campaign, which succeeded in motivating otherwise disengaged individuals. Of course, this begs two questions. One, what is the next social movement initiative that will benefit the SDLP. Two, how do you maintain the enthusiasm after initial success?

Here, I am paying attention to how the Obama campaign organisers’ attempt. They have just established a new group, Organizing for America, which will “work alongside the President to support the agenda that you fought so hard for”:

Overall, yes, I found it very productive to float about. Kindly, whenever I was describing my work to someone new, invariably that person would say to me, “You must meet so-and-so. Follow me!”

Looking forward to the next party’s party conference.

Alban Maginness speech:

Alban Maginness MLA
European Candidate

In these early days of 2009 we find ourselves as citizens of a world in a state of change – both, economically and politically. The old order has disintegrated, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of Wall Street.

We are all bracing ourselves for the challenges ahead. Times will be tough. Firms and families will feel the strain.

But different times demand different approaches, if out of adversity we are to seize opportunity.

During the next four months as we embark on the European Election campaign we all must work harder for those, who need us most.

The SDLP’s job is to represent and reflect the biggest ambitions people have for themselves, their families, their communities, this country and for Europe.

For eighteen months into devolution very few are fascinated / mesmerised at the mere fact of power-sharing government.

You want to know what Parties are doing to make a real difference.

You want to ask, is this the best devolution can deliver?

What happened to the bright new promise of May 2007?

The political love story between the DUP and Sinn Fein has changed from the newly-weds to the nearly dead.

Sweetness and light was replaced by fall-outs and fractures, boycotts and belligerence, walk-outs and walkovers.

Power sharing has been replaced with a power carve – up under the stewardship of Lord Castlereagh Councillor in chief, Peter Robinson.

While bending at the knee to play a bit part role in the DUP show, Sinn Fein have adopted a Simon and Garfunkel approach to politics – Here’s to you Mr Robinson.

Here’s to you Mr Robinson the nationalist right to a justice ministry.

Here’s to you Mr Robinson the hard won power sharing protections of the Good Friday Agreement.
 
And if it wasn’t for the sterling work of my party colleague Dominic Bradley, here’s to you Mr Robinson the right of any Irish language speaker to use their language in any official capacity.

Every way Nationalists look at this they lose out!

However, the SDLP will continue to be the champion of partnership government.

But we are not prepared to stand by and watch the inclusive process abused in favour of a power carve-up by the two larger parties.

Nor will we let the bully-boys turn a democratic assembly into the rubber-stamping Supreme Soviet and a supposedly accountable executive into a Politburo.

For the SDLP are in politics to serve, not to rule.

We can argue without fear of contradiction, that the processes got better results and bigger outcomes when the SDLP have been at our strongest arguing for the interests of Nationalism and the wider community.

Using our craft and our experience and our dogged determination, we brought home the difficult issues – most notably policing.

Last year we recognised the flaws in the Programme for Government and Budget and voted against it.

Our stand has been vindicated.

This year SDLP proposed building social houses as a means of alleviating homelessness and boosting the construction industry, the lynchpin of our economy.

And once again making your needs our priority we are asking the Finance Minister to revisit his budget on the floor of the Assembly next week.

What a different situation we might be in if the SDLP had been at centre stage over the last few years rather than what we have at the moment.

For if Margaret Ritchie has proven anything it is that she and the SDLP are both, up to and up for government.

And unlike others we are not afraid to face down Peter Robinson.

Like many we lament not only the five wasted months of last year but the last five wasted years of inept political representation in Europe.

In the midst of the present recession there is one great certainty and that is the collective political and economic strength of the European Union and its institutions.

The SDLP are the only truly Pro – European Party in Northern Ireland.

We are proud of that commitment and recognised for it.

We have the support and solidarity of our friends throughout Europe and in the Parliament, in particular the Party of European Socialists.
 
Through our member
ship of the PES, the SDLP will have unprecedented access and influence at the very highest levels.

I will be proud to serve within that Group come the 8th of June.

The SDLP will restore the North’s voice in Europe. Rightfully we will win back our seat.

But let us be real – we have a battle on our hands against some familiar foes.

There is Jim Allister, a political Rip Van Winkle, whose thoughts have been frozen in the 1980s. A malevolent voice intent only to destroy power sharing and our membership of the EU.

While Barbara de Brun has gone from minister of hospital closures, to an MEP with no public exposure.

Fair play to Barbara, she has managed to remain silent over the past five years, in at least two languages.

Unfortunately the DUP appear to be playing a game of I’m a European Candidate Get Me Out of Here.’

Edwin was voted off first, soon followed by Nelson, the Ulster Scot, leaving Diane alone in the DUP jungle with Nigel nowhere to be seen.

But this is not a media game and the SDLP has still a job to do.

We must capture the imagination of the people, the ambition of youth, and the very soul of our society.

We must proactively engage with those from other traditions both religious and political.

And we have to turn all those stay – at – home SDLP supporters, into active SDLP voters.

After all we committed ourselves to the European ideal when others rejected it as anti-Irish, neo-imperialist, or as a rich man’s economic club.

They were proven wrong on all counts.

As I have said many times before Europe is Here! Not over There!

We are citizens of Europe, as well as citizens of Ireland. Europe is the living political reality of today and it was never more important than today.

If we want Europe to play an honourable role on the world stage and in the Middle-East to counter the damage from an unbalanced American role and to help the peoples of Israel and Palestine find peace and security in a two state solution then we need for the EU to have a coherent foreign policy.

And the EU must take up the challenge of that partnership and work together to ensure that there are no more Gazas, no more Congo’s, no more Darfur’s.

Domestically, Europe is the great dynamic that has shaped and formed Ireland North and South since 1973 and will continues to do so even more in the 21st Century.

For the EU has not only transformed the Irish economy over the past 4 decades – it continues to do so today.

That Euro-dynamic continues to impact on all aspects of our lives as witnessed by many who live in border areas such as here in Armagh.

A key objective now must be the establishment of a sustainable all Island economy only made possible by the EU.

An economy which addresses the needs of farmers, fishermen, workers and businesses.

That champions the rights of those on low pay and ensures fair pay for good work.

That offers protection to the working, the workless and strives to improve work prospects for the future.

And that supports those creating jobs through innovation, enterprise, and technology.

These are the challenges which lie ahead if we are to reclaim the rich legacy of John Hume, which has been, squandered by his inadequate successors.

We offer a change for the better, a voice of positive ideas for a positive future.

This is our work. These are our ways. This is our time. Seize the moment.

Thank you.

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