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President's Address

April 13, 2002 12:00 AM
By Colm Cavanagh, Party President in Alliance Party Conference 2002

Welcome to the 2002 Annual Conference of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

The last time we were in Carrickfergus, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Party. We looked back over 30 years of hard work and we felt great satisfaction at the progress that we as a community in Northern Ireland have made.

And we looked forward to the coming years with some foreboding: Will the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement survive? Will we and the other parties (both Pro- and Anti- Agreement) be able to agree sufficiently, co-operate sufficiently, compromise sufficiently, to keep the body politic of Northern Ireland in operation? Or do we lapse back into the type of violence that the people of Palestine and Israel are inflicting on each other right now?

In simple terms here's where we are now:

For Unionists and Nationalists their chosen roles are clear. They have a goal in mind. From the extreme forms of unionism and nationalism, more is demanded and, by definition, it is harder for them to compromise, to move right to the centre of the political spectrum. It is harder for them to provide the compromises demanded from the centre. It was never going to be easy - and yet, there are signs that they have begun to play a positive role, however little they respect the ideological - and in Northern Ireland's case the theological - politics of their opponents. Sinn Féin's silent absence from the Special Session of the Assembly on the death of the Queen Mother appeared to cause much less offence, than the verbalised, mote-in-the-eye, extreme view of the First Minister on the nature of the Republic of Ireland.

So, and perhaps due entirely to the intervention of the Alliance Party, it is entirely accepted that the Assembly will survive to the elections in May 2003 when the people will choose their 108 representatives to take Northern Ireland forward to May 2007. Those elections will be very important for Northern Ireland and for this Alliance Party. So what is our role? What is the role of the Alliance Party to 2003? To 2007? To 2011? To 2015 and thereafter?

Do we know what the role of the Alliance Party is? What leadership are we offering the schizophrenic people of Northern Ireland? Why does Northern Ireland have to be so long-suffering? What are we saying to our friends? What are we saying to the people of Britain and of the Republic of Ireland? I have no fear of either state. I have lived in both states. I studied for six years in Dublin. I have family relations in Belfast and Dublin. Yorkshire and Galway. Edinburgh and Donegal. And for what it's worth, like many - perhaps most - most people in this island, I also have relations in New York and Melbourne, Chicago and New Zealand, Amsterdam and San Francisco, Montreal and Sudan.

So the London and Dublin Governments may generalise when they think of Northern Ireland. They certainly do not always listen to the voice of Alliance. Just look at their failure to take David Ford's advice to think through the present Assembly voting system to the opening day of the next Assembly.

But recent years have shown that London and Dublin do try to work closely together, hand-in-hand, where Northern Ireland is concerned. We have gone long past the days of Haughey and Thatcher, when each thought they knew what was best for all the people f of NI. From the days of John Major, and Albert Reynolds plus John Bruton, London and Dublin have begun to focus more on finding a solution that would work. The arrival of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern has very clearly put the ball in the court of the people of Northern Ireland. "You decide in a peaceful manner", they say, "and we will support you".

Never have the Unionists had such support from the Irish Government before. Dublin has changed its constitution and removed its territorial claim. If the unionists persuade a majority of the Northern Ireland people to stay in the United Kingdom, then that is what will happen.

Never have the Nationalists had such a clear statement from the British Government before. So many changes have been made in the symbols and running of Northern Ireland that unionists, still the largest section of the community here, claim that it has become "a cold house" for them! But if the nationalists persuade a majority of the people to turn towards Ireland, then that is what will happen.

And yet it seems to me that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin have read the parable of the Wind and the Sun. It is possible to do by persuasion what is not possible by threat or coercion.

So then: What is the role of Alliance in these coming days?

What is the role of the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics?

Janus-like, we face both ways. For the last century we have suffered all the disadvantages of this.

Let us look also for the advantages. Why do we have to be Either-Or, Either One or The Other?

Do we have to be one or the other? Can we not consciously choose to be both?

Having paid as grievous price for trying to be one or the other, can we not consciously choose to be both?

The Good Friday Agreement actually confirms in words our right to be Both. Both-And. Both British and Irish. And that gives us the right to choose at any time that we choose to emphasise.

A whole lot of people in NI do not see themselves as either Unionist or Nationalist. The 1998 Northern Ireland Life & Times Survey indicated that 25% of Northern Ireland Protestants do not describe themselves as Unionists; and 33% of Catholics do not describe themselves as Nationalists. That's about 30% of the whole population of NI! That's about 450,000 people!

What is the identity of these centre people: these "OTHERS"?

A lot of these people are obviously members of the centre parties - The Alliance Party and our friends in The Women's Coalition. And manifestly a lot of them either do not vote at all, or they vote for Ulster Unionists or the SDLP, as parties that are a little less ideologically zealous in their brand of nationalism.

And it is with these people that the best hope lies to create a co-operative, reconciled community. So what can we do to help implement that vision of an integrated society; a reconciled community; a community which will be able in future - if it wishes - to make peaceful decisions about its national identity? The way Slovakia and the Czech Republic could divide without civil war. The way Germany and France could unite other than by force.

People who engage in sectarian acts do so because of indicators given out in the wider society right from the top down.

When we look at the budget figures for NI, how much does it cost us to run a segregated society?

Segregated schools: How many extra schools do we have because of segregated provision? One estimate is that we have about 70 more second-level schools that we need.

How much money could go into reducing road deaths and violent crime if so much police time did not have to go into keeping hostile crowds apart? If people did not insist on public parading where they are not wanted? If people did not object to parading on "their" public road?

If someone is intimidated to force them to move, how does our society respond? We help them to move, we have moved thousands and thousands of people since 1969 at enormous public cost. When was the last time you say anyone, anyone at all, being brought to court for intimidating someone out of their home?

The legislature brought in the Incitement to Hatred Act. When the first case was brought to court, the court refused to convict because it was not demonstrated the accused person actually intended to incite to hatred.

So what did we do? Did we pass another law saying that intent need not be proved? No, we did nothing. Did you know that is a person is found at night with housebreaking equipment that can be convicted without proof of any criminal intent whatever? Then why did we wait for so many years and let people incite to hatred without any penalty? Why did we let sectarianism flourish? We have world reputation for it.

The GFA has entrenched the view that Northern Ireland consists of two power blocs who must be brought into mutually assured destruction.

But the GFA is not the ceiling of our ambition. Let it be the floor upon which we will build an integrated society.

David Trimble wants a Border Poll. We think this would polarise the people the very day we are asking them to elect representatives to work together for the next four years.

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