Compared with last year, numbers were up at the Alliance party conference.
Lots of new faces, including the Parades Commission stand at which staff and commissioners were doing a bit of outreach. [Will the DUP take their money at their conference?] Missing were any flag protests. The PSNI and hotel security were ready – perhaps even expectant – but there were no marches up the Gransha Road to La Mon hotel.
Now that Alliance have two Executive ministers and are established as one of the five large parties – as opposed to not being one of the top four – it’s easy to forget that Alliance still only have eight MLAs. (They’ve also have 43 councillors elected across 14 councils. And an MP too.)
Flags – and the fallout from the Belfast City Hall vote – dominated the conference. Speech after speech made reference to the build up to the vote and the subsequent protests and their affect on the party as well as Northern Ireland in general.
Party president, Councillor Billy Web opened the conference with a well written speech. He said that Alliance’s “long standing policy” of flying the union flag on designated days was “reflects both the constitutional position and diversity of Northern Ireland in a balanced and respectful way”.
Our Belfast Councillors took the position that was most likely to make Belfast City Hall truly a City Hall for all. But as we all know this decision did not come without its difficulties.
Those leaders of political parties with ‘unionist’ in their name have a lot to answer for. Their actions, and at times inaction, demonstrated their unsuitability for office.
When we were threatened and targeted they defended the 40,000 leaflets they had distributed. Leaflets which deliberately stoked up tensions, targeted Alliance and specifically Naomi Long, and this week were glibly described by Mike Nesbitt as ‘part of an awareness campaign.’
When we were attacked their silence was deafening. When this country was in turmoil we were blamed and called pan-nationalists, and accused of seeking publicity.
But those who faced this so publicly did what this Party does best, they stood firm in the face of the storm, took courageous positions and were not swayed from core Alliance values.
A panel of elected representatives spent forty minutes talking from the platform about different aspects of the Alliance’s For Everyone strategy. Chris Lyttle gave an overview, before passing across to his East Belfast colleague Judith Cochrane.
Other parties would do well to copy the next session which allowed four young members to explain why they joined the party and give their vision of a shared future. Powerful personal testimony.
Stephen Farry spoke about how Alliance policy influences the work in his department, Employment and Learning.
No mention of DEL’s once-agreed-now-forgotten demise. There were mentions of labour mobility, integrated teacher training, economic inactivity, the benefits of a lower corporation tax, the ICT Action Plan, NEETS, a 60% increase in publically funded PhDs and an extra 1,200 undergraduate places. Highlighting the necessity for “higher level skills and a stronger concentration in STEM subjects” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), the North Down MLA said:
Our people are our main asset. It is on the basis of their skills that Northern Ireland will compete with other regions and countries around the globe.
Liberal Democrat MP and deputy leader Simon Hughes spoke very warmly of Naomi Long’s contributions to Westminster, highlighting her – rare in Parliament – engineering background and describing her as a role model.
Naomi Long – MP and deputy Alliance leader – spoke about double jobbing and party funding transparency, saying that double jobbers’ voting record at Westminster “told its own story”. She commented on “how thin the veneer of normality is” in Northern Ireland.
Obviously unobservant, until pointed out to me during Naomi Long’s speech, I’d never realised the symbolism of stylised ‘A’ of Alliance. The East Belfast MP said that building was so fundamental to Alliance that the A is styled as a bridge.
She rhetorically asked when would there be a better time to make building a shared future a priority? The time for excuses and delay was over.
Solutions to problems and the building of a shared future would never be achieved through riots or separate talks. Instead “inclusive conversation” with other parties and the wider community was required.
Our choice – put bluntly – is between a shared future and a scared future. We are not interested in the politics of fear. Alliance has not and will never indulge in that kind of politics, nor will we allow others who choose to do so to deflect us from the challenge of transforming our community, from making the difficult decisions that are required to deliver that change, or from showing leadership for everyone in our community.
We reject the politics of fear in favour of the politics of hope, the politics of aspiration. Those foundations of hope and aspiration are the base on which this party was built – conceived in the belief that all of the people of Northern Ireland deserved a better, more peaceful and more prosperous future and sustained by the belief that, as a community, we still do.
The politics of hope and aspiration are where the best future lies for everyone in our community. Alliance is the party that will continue to lead the way, in articulating a clear vision of a shared and inclusive future for everyone, the opportunities that realising that potential will bring and in building the bridge to take us there.
David Ford’s thirty minute speech was televised on BBC Two NI [available to watch for the next seven days]. His intended reference to “Mid-Ulster” had to be removed in order to comply with the BBC’s broadcasting restrictions during an election period. [Either all or none of the party leaders get an opportunity to speak about the by-election.]
These last three months have certainly been a tough time for Alliance. But I am sure we are the stronger for it. We have come through the fire – literally – and we have not been found wanting. That strength is recognised by the media, and by commentators who are not always sympathetic. Our growing strength has certainly been recognised by other parties, who pay us attention like never before. When I first became party leader, what they used to call ‘the four main parties’ largely ignored us. They don’t ignore us now.
He referred to “DUP and their UUP lapdogs deliver[ing] leaflets targeting Naomi Long over the flag issue” and asked “why did they deny they were responsible?”
We always put the imprint ‘published by Alliance’ on our leaflets. We are not ashamed of what we say, but clearly the DUP was ashamed of its actions. So ashamed that an elected DUP Councillor claimed he worked for a delivery company when challenged.
David Ford characterised Northern Ireland as being “at something of an impasse”.
… the DUP and Sinn Fein avoiding the difficult issues. Avoiding the difficult issue of a Single Equality Bill, achingly slow progress on the RPA and ESA. No sign of progress on parades and a Languages Bill. They simply fail to follow through and deliver. And, worst of all, they have made no progress whatever on reaching agreement on a shared future. Surely, this is the most pressing issue for Northern Ireland?
Contrast the collective failure of the Executive with progress made in the two Alliance Departments, Justice and Employment and Learning. Look what can be achieved with radical, progressive approaches, based on evidence of what works, rather than hidebound by dogma.
As Justice Minister he avoided critiquing the minutiae of PSNI actions, but said:
The lives – and the livelihoods – of so many are being disrupted by a minority hell-bent on causing disruption, without any thought of the effects of their actions on the people of every part of Belfast, of those who runs shops and provide services, of potential investors who could help provide the jobs we so urgently need.
Yet again, the problems of this society are being played out on the streets, putting enormous pressure on the Police Service. In my position, I am not going to second-guess the difficult decisions that operational commanders have to take in response to street disorder or to give any impression that I am trying to direct political policing. Yet I know that there will be support in this hall and across the community for resolute action against those who continue to disrupt society. Including the resolute action taken against those who have been organising illegal street protests.
I sincerely hope that those who have taken part in illegal protests will now recognise the damage they are doing and call off those protests. But if they don’t, I hope that there will be a united political voice in support of the PSNI as they seek to deal with protests.
A united voice supporting the rule of law, not the weasel words we heard from unionists about the protests at Seaview Football Ground earlier this month. A united voice, not the complaints we heard from nationalists seeming to put pressure on the Police.
There ought to be a united voice supporting the rule of law from every party. Ought to be, but I doubt it. Because too many politicians are unprepared to support the police if it means confronting their own supporters. Alliance politicians don’t pick and choose which laws to uphold, which police actions to support, depending on whether they are perceived to be against “our side” or “their side”. Alliance has always stood for the rule of law, for everyone.
David Ford appraised how unionists and nationalists interpreted “shared future”.
For unionists, it means a homogeneous society, where everyone is supposed to feel unionist, to accept what Peter Robinson calls “the settled status quo”. Where the union flag flies everywhere, 365 days a year. Where the Irish language receives no official recognition. Where the term the “Queen’s highway” is allowed to excuse the designation of entire communities as being the domain of one section of the community only, with the flying of flags and the painting of kerb-stones. Where the Parades Commission is only supported when it takes the “right” decisions for unionists.
For nationalists, a shared future means a version of “parity of esteem” that looks more like “separate but equal”. Where the public demand for integrated education goes unheeded and the logic of training teachers together is not recognised. Where elected representatives will forever have to be “designated” as us or them. Where playgrounds can be named after terrorists because sure its only “nationalist” children who will play in them.
While he’ll not like the comments, Mike Nesbitt will be pleased that he wasn’t ignored by David Ford in his leader’s speech:
Mike Nesbitt will probably insist that I am misrepresenting his party and his politics. He likes to portray himself as a moderate, and committed to a shared future. Yet, he leads his party, day-by-day, ever-closer to the DUP.
In a recent interview in relation to Mid-Ulster, he described a suggestion that voters may wish to know what a candidate’s views were on issues that he might actually vote on at Westminster as – and I quote -“an extraordinary assertion”. He insisted that people always have, and assumed that people always will, vote – and I quote him again – “orange and green”.
This is the man who was elected leader because of his perceived ability to communicate a distinct identity and purpose for the UUP. Well from what I’ve seen, Mr Nesbitt has undoubtedly much experience of reading from a autocue, but it’s Peter Robinson who is writing his script.
That last sentence was rewarded with sustained applause.
Basil McCrea and John McCallister weren’t name-checked, but Basil’s New Party did get a mention:
Two ex-UUP MLAs are now in the process of setting up a new party. Another unionist party. I acknowledge that it is attempt to move unionism forward, but simply realigning unionism will achieve nothing. Change will only happen when we build a strong, radical centre ground, in total contrast to both unionism and nationalism.
On integrated education:
A Lucid Talk poll in the Belfast Telegraph this week shows that 79% of the population would like to see their children’s school becoming integrated. A school for everyone in the local community. So a target of 20% of children in Integrated Schools by 2020 is entirely reasonable, practical and in line with the wishes of a large majority.
Returning to flags, David Ford clarified the right to fly at home:
And let’s nail the lie before unionists repeat it any more. Alliance respects everyone’s right to fly flags on their own houses, whether owned or rented. But nobody has the right to use lamp posts and telegraph poles like a dog marking out territory.
There was a call for a new political battleground:
The challenge for this generation, for the lifetime of even the youngest person in this room today, is to break out of that cycle of tit-for-tat, short term actions. To find a way to break the strangle-hold that the old politics still has over our community’s future.
To fight a new political battle – not the ancient and outdated battle of unionist versus nationalist, or of orange versus green; but between old politics and new politics; between backward, inward looking politics and forward, outward facing politics; between zero-sum politics and win-win politics; between politics “for our side” and politics “for everyone”.
Let’s be absolutely clear. Alliance is the force by which we will do so. Only Alliance occupies the shared ground where we will have to build a shared future.
Quotes from President John Kennedy about the Apollo space programme …
we choose to do these things in this decade, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills; because the challenge is one that we are willing to accept; one we are unwilling to postpone; and which we intend to win
… and from his brother Robert Kennedy …
Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
… finished the speech.
Alliance has come through the fire of recent weeks, we have been tested and we have not failed. In northern Ireland, we are that change – we can break down the walls – every one of us is one of those ripples, new and old members – all our actions are those ripples building into waves that will sweep away the walls of prejudice and intolerance .
Our momentum will continue to build, our movement for change will continue to grow. Whatever is thrown at us – metaphorically or literally – we will relentlessly: strive for change, lead change and deliver change. We will create a new, better Northern Ireland, based on a new, better kind of politics – a politics for everyone.
After lunch the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers had a déjà vu moment and returned to the same La Mon Hotel platform ten weeks after delivering a similarly all-things-to-all-people speech at the DUP conference.
She spoke about the recent protests, referred to David Cameron’s “personal decision” to host the G98 in Fermanagh, remembered the La Mon Hotel bombing, as “one of most shocking and brutal attacks of the Troubles”, and paid tribute to both PSNI officers policing the streets and to the recent death of Constable Philippa Reynolds.
Theresa Villiers’ sound bite was that solutions can not be imposed from London but instead require “local solutions, local leadership, local drive”. Northern Ireland cannot afford to spend £1 million a week policing protests.
She ticked a box mentioning Corporation Tax, but simply said that a decision had not been made.
Conference closed with a panel of external experts talking about the economy.
Eric Bullick was at the conference for a while, though it would take a miracle for the party president’s wish to come true: “we’re looking forward to welcoming you next year as our second MP”.
A lot of the set piece speeches at the conference were confident and at times more defiant than previous years. The party will be pleased that its relevance extended to attendance at the conference by journalists from the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News, the News Letter and the Irish Times. In previous years, not all would have attended.
Alliance has become a warm house for disaffected Ulster Unionists: I spoke to several lapsed UUP members who had recently joined Alliance. One had only voted once for Alliance in his life, but now saw them as his chosen political vehicle. I didn’t spot any disgruntled SDLP defectors.
While the babies and toddlers that were ever-present at Dunadry conferences are no longer to be seen [Has Alliance fertility dropped?], many – though by no means all – of the new members were young.
New members spoke about being welcomed and some have already been assimilated into roles within local constituency structures. The test will be whether membership is renewed, and whether new recruits are willing to canvass at forthcoming elections.
While there’s no automatic retirement age, with one MLA in his seventies and another already over 65, Alliance do need to think about succession planning. Relatively few councillors were on the platform today. There was no public mention of a European election candidate – though Anna Lo is being talked about as a possibility – and the unwinnable Mid-Ulster seat was not being used as a means to boost an EU candidate’s profile.
Alliance’s other weaknesses must still be its geographic spread and its middle class niceness. Knocking doors in loyalist inner east Belfast will not be “For Everyone”. Yet as a party, Alliance needs to implement a strategy to more publicly serve – and later attract votes from – working class communities.
More People Than It Used To Be Everyone