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Leaders Speech

October 20, 2001 12:00 AM
By David Ford, Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland in Alliance Party Conference 2001

President, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

May I first of all associate myself with the tribute you have just paid to my friend and predecessor as Leader, Sean Neeson. In the immediate aftermath of the Assembly election, Sean was asked by the Assembly team to take on the role - and I was the one who suggested it. Under his leadership, we have done much internal work to prepare for the future - notably through the publication of `Centre Forward'.

More crucially, we have played a major behind the scenes role in ensuring that some of the obstacles to the implementation of the Agreement were overcome. In particular, the radical but appropriate decision to step down in a number of Westminster constituencies was crucial in ensuring the defeat of anti-Agreement candidates.

I believe that when the history of these last few years is properly considered, Sean's role will be recognised by the wider community. Thank you Sean, for all you have done for Alliance in the 24 years since you were first elected by the people of Carrickfergus.

I would have preferred to deliver my maiden conference speech as Party Leader in more optimistic circumstances.

Alas, both internationally and here in Northern Ireland, we are going through difficult times. The old certainties of the late 20th century have faded into the history books, leaving us to address new challenges.

The appalling terrorist attacks on the United States have redefined global politics. Over the past few years, we, in Northern Ireland, liked to see ourselves as the centre of global attention. It is arguable if we ever truly were, or should have been. But today, the battle against terrorism tops the international agenda.

It is understandable that Britain, the United States and the international community should respond to these attacks through military means. However, it is important that this response is proportionate and in line with international law and the United Nations Charter.

I condemn the terrorist attacks without equivocation, while at the same time recognising that there is widespread concern at the failure to resolve a number of international problems - such as the Palestinian question - or to ensure that globalisation benefits all countries more equally. It is entirely logical to seek to tackle terrorism directly while also cutting off its support by dealing with related issues.

As the Prime Minister said: `The sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan is as inviolable in the eyes of almighty God as can be your own.' The Prime Minister was Gladstone, the year was 1873, but the principle is unchanged.

The lessons from this global change for Northern Ireland are twofold.

First, we must no longer regard ourselves as a place apart. As others face up to their ancient quarrels, then so must we - we cannot afford to become a political, economic and social backwater.

Second, as the international community moves on, we must learn to sort out our own problems ourselves, without running off to London, Dublin or Washington to provide solutions to every minor difficulty.

And difficulties we have. As we meet today, we face the possibility of yet another suspension of the political institutions. But this time, it may not be a 24-hour, six weeks or even three-month affair, but a prolonged deadlock that demonstrates much deeper problems.

At the same time, threats to the rule of law from paramilitaries have proliferated. The Government has finally taken action against the UDA and the LVF. This recognises what people have known for quite some time: that their ceasefires had become a sick joke. The activities of the IRA and UVF must continue to be closely monitored.

We are privileged to have with us today Jane Kennedy, the Northern Ireland Office Minister who has responsibility for many of these difficult security decisions. Unlike some party leaders, I have not called for her resignation. I want to thank her for addressing Conference and wish her well in her duties. This party will back the Government when it takes the necessary hard decisions, and we will offer constructive criticism at all times.

One of the paradoxes of the peace process is that, while the intensity of the conflict may have moderated, the divisions in Northern Ireland are starker than at any time. Let us be clear, these divisions exist in every part of society. They are not confined to those working class areas that hit the headlines, but they exist in the leafy suburbs and rural areas, among both Catholics and Protestants.

The period of the Agreement, and the subsequent referendum, was a time of great hope. But three years on, the flaws have come into much clearer focus. Both in the document and in the methods of its implementation.

The political wrangling, the rise in violence, and the increase in sectarianism are all inextricably linked.

On the one hand, we have political polarisation. On the other, the rigid sectarian version of power sharing contained in the Agreement. Together, they threaten the institutions.

The rise in sectarianism, particularly among the young, and growing communal segregation show that the political system, under the Agreement, has failed to tackle the greatest problem facing Northern Ireland: the divisions among our people.

And some people think there is no need for the Alliance Party!

There is a great myth that the Alliance Party's sole - or principal - purpose was to bring Unionists and Nationalists together in Government, and then to let them get them on with running Northern Ireland together. Well, the Agreement makes them do that - and it isn't much of a success. They have not tackled the fundamental problem of a divided society.

When this party was founded, it was founded on a vision of a shared, non-sectarian society. It was the vision of Phelim O'Neill, even before he joined Alliance and was a progressive dissident within the Unionist party. It was the vision that Oliver Napier outlined in the party's founding statement, and the vision that John Cushnahan upheld during the dark days of the mid 1980s.

When John Alderdice was elected Leader, he established the working party that wrote `Governing with Consent' and provided the basis for making that Vision a reality. He argued strenuously for a non-sectarian society in the talks of 1991/92 and of 1996/98. That there is an Agreement at all, is testimony to his leadership. As I said earlier, under Sean Neeson's leadership, we have started to work out how to express that vision in the wake of the Agreement.

I stand today firmly grounded in the Alliance tradition, but with the duty of spelling out the way forward in this new era, the post-Good Friday world. It is a challenge to all of us, but I particularly want to thank Eileen Bell and Kieran McCarthy for the part they are playing.

As you know, two weeks ago, Eileen and I concluded a vigorous and positive campaign for the party leadership, one that was accompanied by good humour and continuing friendship. Eileen is held in very high esteem in Alliance. We both talked of uniting the party and Eileen has shown her dedication to our ideals by accepting my offer of the Deputy Leaders' post.

I thank her for taking on this role: she will make a big contribution to our future. Kieran has also taken on significant responsibility with the position of Chief Whip. I know that he will robustly defend our interests in the Assembly.

Alliance has done more than any other party to protect the Agreement, but for us the Agreement was only ever a means to an end. It represents a significant step forward towards a truly shared society, but it does not, of itself, guarantee that.

There is an interpretation of the Agreement, and it has become the majority view on both sides, that it is about two separate communities living in uncertain co-existence.

There is no glue to hold society together, just a sort of band-aid approach, sticking over the divisions, rather than seeking to heal them. But Alliance is committed to healing society.

As Leader of Alliance, I utterly reject the notion that we are to be forever regarded as two tribes in an uneasy truce, rather than a united community that cherishes true diversity.

But why are we in this crisis? The failures are clear.

Consider the Ulster Unionists. We have witnessed their abject failure to sell the Agreement to their supporters; a half-hearted commitment to power sharing; and their leader regularly putting party unity ahead of the need to unite society.

Look at his approach to the exclusion motion against Sinn Fein early last week. The motion could have been one of democrats uniting against terrorist-linked politicians, indeed it should have been.

But the Unionist leader turned the matter into one of Unionists versus Nationalists, with a predictable outcome. Mr Trimble erred by making it a one sided Unionist move and compounded the error by enlisting the help of the PUP.

I wonder why those Unionists who continually talk of Sinn Fein/IRA don't refer to the Progressive Unionist/UVF party? Especially after the Lammas Fair bomb? Pots and kettles come to mind.

This issue was just one of many which reveal the failure of pro-Agreement parties to articulate and defend a shared vision of the future - or even to accommodate each other's needs.

I remember Addie Morrow telling me that the only way you could get two Irish farmers to co-operate was if they were doing down a third. Sometimes over the last three years it has seemed as if the UUP and SDLP - the parties of the First and Deputy First Ministers -were acting like those farmers. They only worked well together when they were carving up the power and excluding others.

That is why I have spoken of the dangers that instead of a pluralist society, we are heading towards a `dualist' one. Everything is fine if you are a mainstream Protestant who votes UUP or an orthodox Catholic who votes SDLP. But heaven help the rest of us. I first gave this warning over three years ago, and not much has changed.

Witness the behaviour of the SDLP over policing. I am the first Alliance Leader able to welcome the constructive engagement of the SDLP with the police service at the highest level.

And I do welcome it.

But let's not forget how they dragged their feet for years. Then, overnight they signed up - and now they are lecturing everyone else. I hope that there will be no further equivocation - on their part.

The SDLP like to present themselves as a modern European Social Democratic party. How then did they come to invent and defend the system of tribal designations for MLAs, which runs counter to European anti-discrimination measures and human rights standards? As a modern European Liberal party, Alliance will co-operate with fellow members of ELDR to enhance those standards, not detract from them.

Unfortunately, it is not just parties in Northern Ireland that have problems with the concept of modern politics. I believe that the spectacle of last weekend's events in Dublin showed that the Celtic tiger society has not adjusted to the new form of politics promised by the Agreement.

Imagine the reaction if the British state, backed by a protestant church, staged a state funeral for members of the 1912 UVF.

To allow families to bury their loved ones in consecrated ground, outside the prison walls, was an act of compassion. To organise a state funeral for men whom the Minister of Justice described as `martyrs', just a month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, is more than a mistake. It is a disgraceful blurring of the lines between democracy and terror, illustrating the intertwining of nationalisms and religion.

The main obstacle to progress was - and remains - the issue of Decommissioning. There is a clear need for both Loyalists and Republicans to deliver. Not because hard-line Unionists say they must, or even because I say so, but because it is part of their obligations under the Agreement and they have promised action on numerous occasions.

The method does not matter, only that it is verified to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain and his colleagues. But delivery is becoming urgent.

There is a growing perception that there is a moral vacuum in the implementation of the Agreement in the light of the inability of the authorities to adequately address the growing threats to the rule of law.

Organisations officially `on ceasefire' have continued to engage in a range of activities, including brutal assaults and even murders. Initially, violence was directed against those perceived as being from their side of the community, but it rapidly escalated into attacks on the security forces, and blatant sectarian murders.

The response of authorities to these threats has been sporadic and half-hearted, although I am glad that the Government has finally taken action against the UDA and LVF. But I want to make this party's position clear.

Whether an action is a breach of a ceasefire does not depend on the perceived backgrounds of the victim and the perpetrator. Unionist terrorists do not have the right to assault Protestants and Nationalist terrorists are not entitled to shoot Catholics.

Alliance says that the rule of law must be upheld in all circumstances. For us the truth is the truth, a crime is a crime, and a breach is a breach.

This moral ambiguity plumbed the depths in the Government proposals after the Weston Park Talks, with the suggestion of a general amnesty.

There is an issue to be dealt with concerning paramilitary suspects who are `on the run'. But proposals from the Governments clearly implied that no prosecutions would be pursued for offences committed prior to 1998.

Many people have had significant reservations over the early release of paramilitary prisoners. It is one thing to release prisoners early after they have been convicted of an offence, and quite another to not pursue prosecutions. This would be tantamount to accepting that the terrorist campaigns were legitimate.

Even in South Africa, suspects had to apply to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and confess their crimes before even being considered for an individual amnesty. After September 11th, it is surely inconceivable that any Government would seek to legislate for such an amnesty.

Tragically, since the Agreement, there has been a rise in sectarianism and also a creeping growth in overt racism, so long hidden below the surface. Segregation is actually increasing, in both public and private housing areas.

The clearest example of this increasing sectarianism can be witnessed on the Ardoyne Road twice a day, as the girls of Holy Cross walk to and from school through lines of police officers. There has been too much pious waffle about there being two sides to the problem.

Let's be very clear about this. There are not two sides to the Holy Cross dispute. Children have an absolute right to attend school unimpeded. Four-year-old girls have a right not be abused, harassed and frightened on a twice-daily basis. Police officers should not have pipe bombs thrown at them while escorting pupils to school. There should not be anything to discuss, because the school protest is immoral and should end immediately.

That would be the best way to clear the air for discussions about the concerns that are shared across the divide in North Belfast - about jobs, housing and community facilities. But it is sickening to suggest that these issues should be addressed as a trade off for the ending of the disgraceful protest.

There is an increasing display of paramilitary flags and murals across Northern Ireland, sending out ugly messages, seeking to offend and frighten. It is time that murals glorifying organisations that commit murder were recognised for what they are - an incitement to hatred - and removed.

As sectarianism and segregation have increased, the response of the authorities has been pitiful.

The Executive, in its first Programme of Government, gave virtually no attention to the promotion of a shared society, although we pressed them on this when the Assembly discussed the draft Programme. They did nothing to address our concerns, nothing to heal the divisions. So we voted against the Programme because our concerns had been ignored.

Schools are important, hospitals are important, trains and buses are important. But this is not Scotland or Wales. We have to tackle far more fundamental problems than they do. The Executive will be judged by its ability - and willingness - to tackle the biggest problems in our society. So far, they have failed.

Whatever happens, there is a clear need for radical thinking, both on how to sustain effective institutions, and on how to tackle the deep divisions.

I intend to ensure that the opportunity provided by the Agreement is used to create a shared, non-sectarian Northern Ireland, with a single united community.

I want to outline some of the steps that I believe need to be taken.

It is critically important that people are honest about what is happening. That applies to Government, the Assembly, political parties and the security forces. It is better to compromise the so-called `inclusive' basis of the political process than to cover up wrongdoing and erode public confidence in the process.

We have to tackle sectarianism and other forms of intolerance. I told you that the Executive failed to tackle this in the Programme for Government. But I am pleased that the Assembly subsequently accepted an Alliance resolution that instructed Ministers to establish an inter-

Departmental working party to deal with paramilitary symbols.

Kieran McCarthy has also campaigned for the introduction of legislation akin to the Football Offences Act.

We need specific programmes to promote communal sharing and combat segregation. Alliance has already set a target for integrated education: 5% of our children to be educated in integrated schools by 2005, 10% by 2010. We will actively seek new methods of promoting the transformation of existing schools to integrated status.

Following the suggestion of the Party President earlier, I intend to seek direct talks with the main Churches. I do not accept that their historic concerns can be allowed to stymie all movement within mainstream education. I know that Eileen Bell will be as robust in tackling the Maintained School Trustees as I intend to be in questioning the Transferors' Representatives in Controlled Schools.

Government policies in Northern Ireland are now subject to Equality screening. Just as important, all policies should also be appraised for their impact on promoting sharing over separation.

There are very significant developments in progress - for example in Nursery Education - which must not be allowed to entrench divisions. In particular, capital schemes, which will determine the future pattern of pubic services for many years, must be closely scrutinised.

The human rights of every individual must be upheld. The consideration of a Bill of Rights is becoming a contest between those of us who seek the highest international standards for every citizen and those who seek special group rights for what they term `two communities' in the region.

I don't believe that Nationalism or Unionism or any `isms' have rights: I believe that all our people have rights, whether or not they are nationalist or unionist.

There is provision within the Agreement for a comprehensive Review, due within the next two years. Alliance will work hard to remove the awful sectarian designations that actively discriminate against us.

We should replace the `cross community' voting system with a simple weighted majority scheme, in which all members are treated equally. There have to be greater incentives for the development of cross-community politics, and genuine collective responsibility into the Executive.

At times, we have not been as good at building links with other groups and parties as we should have been. My diary is filling with meetings in Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Brussels. I want us to co-operate with those who share our concerns outside Northern Ireland.

If we are to promote a shared understanding of non-sectarian politics, we also need to work with other groups in this region who are not part of either Unionism or Nationalism. I will be writing next week to a number of other parties and groups, inviting them to discuss issues on which we can work together to end sectarianism. For too long the centre ground in Northern Ireland has been divided.

Alliance has pressed the Government for some time to introduce specific Hate Crimes Legislation. At his party conference, the Secretary of State promised action. We will scrutinise the details closely. It is vital that we do not end up with a further statute like the useless Incitement to Hatred Act of the former Stormont Parliament.

Much has been written and said about the identity of the people of this region. The truth is that each of us has a very mixed background: we are not two monolithic tribes. Personally, my passport says UK Citizen, but my heart will be inside a green shirt on the terraces of Lansdowne Road this afternoon. On the one hand, I have a community of interest with my immediate neighbours, on the other I increasingly identify with the developing European Union.

It is important that we reject any notion of two separate communities, especially in public policy.

The one common identity that we have is that we are all Northern Irish. Some of us may have been born elsewhere, some may come from ethnic minorities, but we are collectively the people who will decide the future of this region. The reality is that we actually have more in common with each other than with the people of `the rest of' Ireland or `the rest of' the UK. A shared history - for good or ill - and shared institutions reinforce the experience of a shared daily life.

I said earlier that I utterly reject the notion that we are to be forever regarded as two tribes in an uneasy truce, rather than a united community that cherishes true diversity. The role of this party is to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland do, truly, share the future.

None of us joined Alliance seeking an easy life. We joined because we do not want to be slaves blindly following sectional politics, automatically condemning Northern Ireland to the continuous vicious circle of violence and sectarian hatred.

There is no other party that realistically challenges the status quo.

Only Alliance wants everyone in Northern Ireland to be truly equal.

My message to you, to everyone out there, is to join me join Alliance and share the future.

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