Alliance Party Conference 2010: Party Leader Speech (David Ford)

[Following is abridged version of speech by Alliance Party Leader, David Ford MLA. Coincides with above video extract. Full speech available at Alliance Party website.]

“Delivering Responsible Government”

… It really is time our political leaders learnt to grow up and take responsibility, and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland here at home. It is time that we saw some real leadership from those who have been given the duty of leadership through the ballot box. The largest parties still expect to be mollycoddled by governments. If parties were really showing leadership, we would see action in Stormont, by politicians elected to Stormont, to solve the problems at Stormont.

Alliance has always been prepared to work constructively, to do what is right, not what is popular. While I recognise that other parties have done the same at different times, it has far too often been in a atmosphere of brinkmanship, provocation and confrontation. Such behaviour shows that we have only a kind of pseudo-stability in our politics, not genuine partnership. Yet some politicians don’t seem to realise that their antics don’t just threaten the political institutions, they threaten the entire peace process and give succour to the men of violence.

On Good Friday 1998, there was a great feeling of euphoria across this whole community that politicians had reached an agreement. There was an expectation that things had changed, that we were living in a new era. Sadly, that did not last. Although we were told that the Agreement was an historic accommodation between unionism and nationalism, the UUP and SDLP failed to deliver.

This pattern was repeated at the election of 2007. The government focus moved to seeking an accommodation with the new majority parties, further promises of a new beginning were made. The public relation machine told us that we were at another new beginning, we had a new historic accommodation.

And yet? And yet what? Despite the bonhomie between the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister, not much was delivered over the next year or so. Issues that had not been already agreed – replacement of the eleven plus or an independent environmental protection agency, for example – were still not agreed. Ministers practised the art of stand-off, not the art of compromise. The nadir of this dreadful record was the failure to take any strategic action on promoting good relations and building a shared future.

Then matters got worse when Peter Robinson replaced Ian Paisley as First Minister. We didn’t have the good personal relationship any longer and we still saw no progress by the Executive on tackling the difficult issues. Just more of the same, and that’s not very much. Politics remains in a crisis and that crisis is deepening.

We are not just in a crisis over the devolution of justice, or the regulation of parades. We are in a crisis because the parties in the Executive have no shared vision, no shared values, and no plans for a shared future.

Last March, in the wake of three murders, we saw the First Minister and Deputy First Minister stand together with the Chief Constable. The problem was that they stood together because of what they were against, not because of what they were for.

We have an Executive which is dysfunctional, operating to a weak and insubstantial Programme for Government. It is not very good at implementing that Programme and well nigh incapable of agreeing anything else. Where issues were not agreed in the Programme, we have total chaos.

However, just because the Executive is not delivering does not mean that our team is resting on its laurels. Every Alliance MLA has to work twice as hard as other MLAs in Committees, where each of us sits alone, but with the assistance of Kieran Deeny and Brian Wilson, our United Community Group colleagues, we cover every item of business.

… We are, at present, in the role of opposition at Stormont. Unlike those who think you can be represented in the Executive yet engage in silly stunts on a weekly basis, we recognise that there is a role for constructive criticism, supporting what is right and opposing what is wrong.

We are ambitious for Alliance and ambitious for Northern Ireland. We want to develop stable and sustainable political institutions which underpin a normal society. On the other hand, the Executive has missed too many opportunities. It has failed to provide good governance, failed to improve the economy, failed to promote sustainability of either the economy or public services. Most of all, it has failed to even start on the task of building a shared future.

We continue to seek changes in the institutions which will provide better governance, including normal government and opposition politics, with parties changing places as the electorate decides. The current structures were set up to support a peace process, not to provide coherent government. We will work for a consensus that recognises there is a better way and, in the meantime, we will play our part in the current institutions in a fair and honest manner.

We judge business in the Assembly on the basis of our vision and our core values. We will do so whether we are in government or opposition, because if we go into government, our vision and our values will remain unaltered and we will continue to pursue them.

You will all be aware of the sensitivity of the current crisis, but I want to tell you what we are doing to assist in resolving it.

We have said for some time that the important issue about the devolution of justice was to ensure that there was an agreement between the parties on the necessary policies, capable of being delivered through an agreed Programme for the Department of Justice. We have said that this is far more important than the personality of the Minister.

Just look again at the mess around the eleven plus, or the failure to have an independent environmental protection agency. Both of these show the real problems that arise when agreement was not reached in advance and individual Ministers did not agree with the majority of their Executive colleagues. Such a position would be absolutely untenable for justice matters, given the serious issues that will be the responsibility of the new Department.

That is why, 18 months ago, we very specifically refused the suggestion that we should provide a Minister who would have no real role, no powers, no influence. There has been a continuing media storm about who the Minister might be and we have continued to say, on every occasion in every way possible, that the issue is about policy, not personality.

Of course, I am ambitious for Alliance. Of course, I believe an Alliance Minister could be relied on to do a good job, a fair job, an impartial job as Minister in the Department of Justice, or any other Department.

But, in the present set-up, that Minister would have to have policy agreement among a critical mass of MLAs and Executive Ministers if they were to have a chance of delivering what the people expect.

It is immensely flattering to have people suggest that an Alliance Minister would be the best option to ensure smooth devolution of justice. That suggestion has come from journalists and commentators, from individuals involved in the justice system and from ordinary citizens with no axe to grind. I agree with them. An Alliance Justice Minister would be good for Northern Ireland, but only if the circumstances are right.

Obviously, I cannot go into the detail of what policy proposals we have put to other parties at this time. But I can assure you that the work done by our team, on paper and in face to face talks with others, by Stephen, Naomi and Gerry, is robust and providing the basis for real negotiations.

Remember that this is not merely about the institutions of justice. For us, no Executive is worth supporting if it is not engaging seriously with building a shared future. We need to see a meaningful consultation on the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy and swift action to implement that strategy across every Department and public agency.

Let me read you something I read yesterday: “The people of Northern Ireland are fed up with the delays, the nonsense, and the complete inability of those who were given responsibility in the last election to take that responsibility and live up to it.” It sums up current circumstances perfectly, doesn’t it? Actually, I said it in the Hain Assembly on 24 November 2006, the first sitting after Tony Blair did his deal with Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams at St Andrews.

When Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sat at that ‘diamond shaped’ table nearly three years ago, they promised that they would deliver good government for the people of Northern Ireland. So far they have failed, but the current crisis gives some opportunity to address the outstanding issues.

That is why I believe that the position of the UUP is totally wrong. Faced with a dysfunctional Executive, we have sought to provide stability and assist in resolving problems. The UUP holds two seats in the Executive, but is playing no constructive role, and allowing its backbenchers to indulge in cheap attacks.

Faced with the upsurge in dissident terrorist activity that the IMC recently reported, such behaviour is not just cheap politics, it is potentially destabilising to the entire peace process. The UUP justification appears to be that ‘the DUP did it to us when we were in charge’. That may be true, but do responsible adults adopt the attitudes of the playground?

The news of the secret talks last weekend between the Conservatives, UUP and DUP has to be seen in that light. If the Conservative leadership is prepared to tell the UUP to start to be less negative and work with others to bring about stability, that is to be welcomed. However, as the story unfolds, it appears that was not the agenda, or at least not all the agenda.

Tories in Northern Ireland have claimed to be non-sectarian and progressive, saying that they are seeking to introduce what they describe as ‘national politics’ to our society. I am not sure that nationalists would agree the language, but that is a credible position, although undermined by the way they need to highlight the role of Catholics – like women – in their organisation. The ‘New Force’ tie-up with the UUP calls those claims of non-sectarianism into question, but perhaps they hoped to reform the party of Craigavon and Brookeborough.

However, if there is any truth whatsoever to the talk of unionist pacts and realignments with the DUP also included, the claims of non-sectarian progressive politics are sunk without trace. If there are members within the ranks of the local Conservatives who genuinely believe in a shared future as a priority, I fear they are now in an impossible position. It certainly seems that some Conservative parliamentary nominees are now in that position.

On the other side, the SDLP also seems unsure of its position. A couple of weeks ago, one candidate for its leadership was calling for a three party coalition. He wanted to see SDLP, UUP and Alliance joining together in opposition to the DUP/Sinn Féin duopoly. At the time, I said I was doubtful, because of the attitude and behaviour of the Ulster Unionists. There’s also a slight issue with the way that the two of them participate in the mandatory coalition.

Now, this week, the other SDLP leadership candidate is so unhappy about working with Alliance, that she says she would leave the Executive if an Alliance Justice Minister was elected. She bases this on a claim that there should be five nationalists to six unionists in the Executive, which sounds pretty tribal to me. So upset is she, that she would resign and give the DUP an extra Minister. Not only tribal, but stupid tactics from the position she claims.

Faced with the behaviour of the UUP and SDLP, it seems there are really only three coherent positions in local politics. The DUP holds the unionist territory, Sinn Féin holds the field of nationalism and Alliance stands firmly on the ground of the anti-sectarian centre, of a shared future for all our citizens, regardless of their background or beliefs.

Those who are unsure of their position between the centre and their tribal background, seem to revert to type when any pressure is on.

The dominant parties are suffering a failure of leadership, and it begins to seem that they will need the direct assistance of the two Governments to get out of the holes they have dug for themselves. Twelve years after Good Friday, three years after St Andrews, that position is pathetic.

Frankly, calling in the Governments is asking for a figleaf to cover the embarrassment of doing the deal that they have known for a long time must be done. It is not just on environmental grounds that I hate the sight of helicopters on the Stormont lawn, but it may be necessary again.

If the people are as disgusted by all this carry-on as I am, then I trust that they will take the opportunity of making their opinions known where they count, in the ballot box. This year, there is a real chance of change, at least in East Belfast, but maybe elsewhere too. Just imagine the effect that the election of an Alliance MP or two would have.

So where do we go from here, at this time of crisis and tension for our community?

We have a unique vision that defines us. A vision of a shared and integrated society, where people are free to live and learn, work and play, together. A vision of a society which is progressing economically and socially, because only integrated societies grow and prosper. A vision of a politics that unites, not divides.

We will continue to put forward positive, constructive proposals to break the deadlock.

We will use whatever influence we have to build a shared future.

We will press for the values of civil liberty and freedom for every individual, including the right to be free of labelling by others.

We will work to provide opportunity for all.

We will work for a sustainable society, a sustainable economy, a sustainable environment.

We will work to provide security for every family.

We will work to realise that vision wherever and whenever we have the opportunity, in the Assembly, in Councils and in any talks.

We will take that message to the people in the coming weeks and months, confident that only Alliance can deliver, only Alliance will deliver, only Alliance can win for everyone.

ENDS

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