The post has been updated with audio from most of the sessions during the day … and there’s one last post reflecting back on the conference mood, the party’s future and quick interviews with David Ford, Naomi Long and Andrew Muir.
After the award of prizes …
… the remaining delegates debated (well, spoke in agreement of) two motions. Neither could be described as the party breaking new policy ground – though both do speak into important issues in Northern Ireland.
Motion 1 was that “Transport: Conference expresses alarm at the poor state of the transport infrastructure in NI and the imbalance in funding between roads and public transport”. Proposed by Kelly Armstrong, seconded by Anna Lo. Included a maiden conference speech by Andy Boal.
Motion 2 was “Shared Future: Conference recognises the critical importance of a shared future towards achieving economic prosperity and addressing social deprivation. Conference further recognises that managing a divided society has a detrimental impact on our public sector finances and limits our ability to invest in the measures that create growth within our economy.” Proposed by Stephen Martin and seconded by Harry Hamilton.
3pm No party could ignore the economy at their party conference. So – you guessed it – Alliance had an economic panel after lunch, sponsored by the Federation of Small Business. Unlike some other party conferences, after the panel’s quick introductory statements, the conversation was genuinely opened up to the floor.
Stephen Farry chaired the panel of Angela McGowan (chief economist at Northern bank), Siobhan McAleer (founder of the Mortgage Shop), Seamus McAleavey (chief executive NICVA) and John Woods (former director of Friends of the Earth).
1.30pm At a popular lunchtime fringe meeting the Irish Peace Centres invited participants to do some relaxed blue skies thinking. Using a ‘molecular structure – word association in 3D’ (which wasn’t to be confused with ‘a load of balls’) and doodles they explored how to maintain and grow a peaceful society. Breidge Gadd, Noreen Campbell, Anna Lo, Naomi Long and Chris Little were on the panel chaired by Peter Sheridan.
12.05pm David Ford is now on stage. He walked up the aisle to applause but with the kind of pop music you’d find at other The Wordle above summarises the content of his 30 minute speech.
The first section of David Ford’s speech could be titled “I told you so” as he outlines how his predictions at last year’s conference have come true.
Naomi Long MP. MP for her home seat, elected by her neighbours as MP for East Belfast, with the largest swing in any constituency in the country.
Refers back several times to Oliver Napier’s work and level of success in the East Belfast constituency. He ridiculed the DUP’s chances to win back the seat.
I was surprised that Peter Robinson, in his Conference speech last November, emphasised East Belfast and talked up the DUP’s chances next time. But his claim “that whenever the next Westminster election comes our number one target will be returning East Belfast to DUP hands” was bluster without substance. Naomi is leading change in East Belfast and far beyond.
Around the Shared Future he explained:
… Alliance participation in the Executive had to be about more than a narrow focus on justice. We had voted against several programmes for government because they did not do enough about building a Shared Future for all our people. For years we have been leading the argument that creating a shared society is fundamental to healing our divisions, building a strong economy, funding our public services, and tackling deprivation. So we insisted that there was progress on what is now officially called ‘Sharing, Cohesion and Integration’. As a result, we saw publication of the first ever locally-produced document on building a shared future, the consultation on CSI.
Let’s be clear. The consultation document is bereft of vision, and weak on delivery. It does not recognise the role to be played by every Department, every agency of government. It will have to be significantly strengthened and then put into place.
But let’s be equally clear. If it had not been for Alliance demands, there would be no CSI document, there would be no action at all on a shared future. We wouldn’t be having the debate. The UUP’s David Trimble and the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon never managed it, David Trimble and Mark Durkan never managed it, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness never managed it. Only when Alliance demanded it of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness was there any action by locally elected Ministers. Alliance was leading change.
He cited a specific example of Alliance values in Government:
An area of particular concern to many is the continued physical division of our communities. I inherited many so-called ‘peace walls’ from the NIO. Early last summer, I was asked to extend a barrier. Rather than extending the peace wall, I insisted that the Department invested in diversionary activities for young people and I have supported an initiative by the Community Relations Council to promote good relations in the area. Promoting community relations not building barriers. We don’t make people safe by building walls. We make people safe by taking actions to promote good relations and bring people together. Alliance at work; leading change.
He didn’t miss the opportunity to mention new recruits to the party. Some of the higher profile newbies were seated in the front rows.
As Alliance is increasingly seen to be leading change, we are attracting a growing number of new recruits. I have signed more letters welcoming new members in the last year than any other. They come from all parts of Northern Ireland and are fully representative of the whole community.
Some have previously been associated with other parties; most have not been involved in politics at all. But the Alliance message is reaching people, our track record’s convincing people, our vision appealing to people, as never before.
Today, I welcome them all. Indeed, we will welcome anyone who supports our principles and our policies, who wants to work to build a shared future, who wants to join in leading change.
That applies to Harry and Paula Bradshaw, who have come to us from unionist backgrounds, just as it applies to my Antrim Council colleague Oran Keenan and others who have come to us from nationalist backgrounds, and those who have never been part of any other political group. This party has always been big enough to embrace diversity, whether of age, gender, class, race, religion or orientation and every member has a part to play.
I suspect that there will be some other new members in the coming weeks and months. In some cases because they feel that the parties they have previously supported are outdated, and stifling. In all cases, because they want to be part of a dynamic movement, building a different future, leading change.
Both David Ford and Naomi named staff who were contributing to Alliance’s success. One face was missing from the room this year:
I also want to say a very warm word of thanks to Gerry Lynch, activist since he was at school and Executive Director for the last three years. He has played a major part in promoting professional campaigning in Alliance and we wish him well: he can’t be here today as he is currently in England preparing for a missionary posting to Botswana.
The mention of Sean Neeson – who is retiring from the Assembly in May, but now totally bowing out of politics – provoked a standing ovation.
Half way through the speech, David Ford switched away from retrospection and congratulations, moving on to policy issues.
… delivery is not a word that many people associate with the political system here. Take the economy, for example. The Executive is supposed to have made the economy its first priority, but the evidence for this claim is weak.
As part of our budget proposals Alliance called for effective investment in skills during the recession, to enable everyone to benefit from future economic growth. But we don’t just call for things – when we have the opportunities to deliver, we do so. I hope to shortly set the terms for a contract for the building of the new police, fire and prisons college at Desertcreat, Cookstown. I will ensure that we use whatever powers we have to insist on the provision of apprenticeships by the successful bidder. 50 or so apprenticeships would be a huge boost for Mid Ulster. An Alliance minister, making a difference. Not reacting passively, but leading change for a stronger economy.
Justice was one of only two departments who published their budget in time to meet the DFP deadline.
While most departments failed to meet the commitment to publish their budgets, the Department of Justice, led by an Alliance Minister, – as Naomi kindly pointed out [in her speech] – delivered on time. Our businesses and service users in the public, private and voluntary sectors needed confidence and certainty. Alliance delivered.
There were snippets in the speech to mention other traditional Alliance values and policies.
Because we cannot grow a stronger economy without a shared society. A fundamental building block in a shared society is shared education. Not only will shared education benefit young people, and society as a whole, through better integration, understanding and acceptance but it will also bring financial benefits and educational improvements. We led on this for many years, and it is increasingly accepted as the way forward.
At a time of economic difficulty, many people start to talk about protecting the vulnerable. Often, they are thinking only of older people and people with disabilities. Certainly, such groups need protection. We need to do more to remove or reduce the unfair subsidies that benefit the better-off, rather than those who are in greatest need.
We also need to do much more work to provide essential services for those experiencing mental illness or with a learning disability. Our team is doing a lot of work on areas covered by the Bamford report some years ago, to ensure progress is made
Within the Department of Justice, I have set up a wide-ranging review of access to justice. I want to see that those who need advice or assistance can get it easily and cheaply and to promote mediation and alternative dispute resolution, rather than always assuming that civil disagreements should end up in court. The purpose of legal aid should be to assist those in need, not enrich lawyers. [loud applause]
Why is Belfast the only city of its size in these islands – probably in Europe – where it is assumed that you can deal with a problem of congestion at rush hour by building yet more roads for commuters in their cars?. Everywhere else, the emphasis is on quality public transport, which benefits everyone.
In his speech, David markedly avoids scoring cheap political points by teasing politicians from other parties.
I am here to promote the positive Alliance vision, not to denigrate others.
On the topic of water …
Take the vexed issue of meeting the costs of a decent water service. For too long, the other four parties in the Executive played cheap populism. They put off hard decisions until tomorrow. The problem is that tomorrow arrived on the day of the water crisis. We are all paying the price for the under-investment of the last twelve years, years when local politicians were in charge. They can’t get away with blaming direct rule Ministers any longer.
Alliance, in contrast, has been prepared to tell the truth. And the simple truth is that our water system needs investment; we need to find a fair way of paying for improvements, that is based on the amount of water we use and the amount we can afford to pay.
The amounts levied should be linked directly to capital investment and the regional rate should be reduced correspondingly. That would be a fair system, it would be progressive in its effect, it would improve vital public infrastructure. Alliance, leading change for improved public services.
The worst thing about these difficult decisions is when politicians use them to boost their popularity. But the fact is that political populism catches up with you. Promising that you will never ask for money for the water system only works until the water system breaks down. Claiming the lowest household taxes in the UK might get you applause in your party meetings, but it doesn’t help your negotiating position when the Treasury finds out. And the Treasury always finds out. [laughs]
The theme of the second half has been that “change is possible” and that Alliance is “leading change” … using the word “change” in almost Obama-esque quantities.
This year, we look forward with determination – determination to work for change, and to deliver change. We look forward with determination to win more votes, and win more seats. We look forward, with determination, to growing the movement and building the momentum for change.
The speech ends with an ovation and the annual holding a grand child shot.
11.50am Naomi Long gets up on stage to a standing ovation. The mood of the party members attending conference is very celebratory. They’re excited by the progress that they’ve made this year, and talking about
Naomi Long starts her deputy leader speech by looking back on her year. She says that the East Belfast victory was a result of hard work, and thanks supporters and campaigners, paying special tribute to her election agent and founding member of Alliance.
Local factors can never be dismissed in any election, but Alliance growth was more than just local., This was about people across NI who are weary of negativity, buck-passing and the blame game. People who don’t just want to see change, but want to be change – people who are recognising in increasing numbers that voting Alliance and joining Alliance are good ways to give substance to that desire for a different kind of future and a different kind of politics.
Speaking about the negotiations which led to the devolution of policing and justice powers she says “I think we for the structures right. But most of all I think that we got the Minister right.”
Addressing the issues facing ministers in the Executive in the current economic climate, she says
Despite the arguments which have been made against this path, it is clear that the current Government remains determined and the block grant is fixed. This means that difficult choices will have to be made and some of those decisions will inevitably be unpopular … Creating an impression at this stage that cuts can be avoided is not just delusional, but dangerous. Refusing to face reality or causing delay by avoiding hard choices is doing the public a disservice, denying them the chance to properly examine the proposals which have been made and challenge any weaknesses.
David’s immediate response to an interface problem was to invest in building relationships between people rather than barriers, shows the difference that having an Alliance Minister can make … Anyone can identify problems – leaders identify solutions.
11.45am Andrew Muir (North Down councillor) made one of the strongest and best-written candidate speeches (he’s standing for council, not the Assembly) in which he stood over his contribution to local politics, and outlined Alliance’s green credentials while slightly rubbishing the Green Party.
I am proof that you can be green by voting yellow. Whilst the Greens talk about obscure issues, I am focussed on the real issues of concern affecting people’s everyday lives.
As Northern Ireland’s first openly gay councillor, he also spoke about efforts being made to build a shared and inclusive society in North Down:
I broke the mould and have been warmly accepted by most people. I am however aware that I’m not the only gay in the village. Whether it be engaging with the Loyalist Ladies of Loughview or the local GAA club, I am taking real action to build a Shared Holywood which powers a strong economy …
Andrew Muir was followed by Chris Lyttle.
11.25amMLAs and candidates are giving a succession of 10 minute talks in the lead up to the deputy leader and leader speeches at half eleven. Harry Hamilton will apparently be speaking from the podium later on this afternoon. Paula Bradshaw and Ian Parsley are both present too.
Speakers in this section included Judith Cochrane, Billy Webb, Stewart Dickson, Geraldine Mulvenna, Kieran McCarthy and Stephen Farry.
10.35am Enda Kenny, Fine Gael’s leader is now addressing the Alliance conference. He congratulated David Ford’s election as Minister of Justice and Naomi Long’s election to Westminster, referring to it as “a reward for the commitment and dedication of the Alliance Party members who have toiled for four decades to promote the philosophy of reconciliation throughout the most difficult, divisive and bloody period of Northern Ireland’s troubled history”.
In his twenty minute speech he promised dissidents that
On March 11th, if the people charge me with the responsibility of leading the next Government, I pledge that Government will use every resource at its disposal to confront this threat. Our Minister for Justice will work hand in hand with the Assembly’s Minister of Justice, and the Gardai will continue their excellent cooperation with the PSNI.
He spoke about the all-island economy, with both sides of the border experiencing recession and unemployment, needing to increase competitiveness, sharing a peripheral island location in Europe, and needing to “seek benefit from a joint approach to current EU policy initiatives”.
After the Assembly and Dail elections, I would hope that both administrations would agree to work on a detailed strategy to help this become a reality. Elements of this strategy could include moving towards a harmonised corporate tax rate for the island, joint marketing of the island for tourism and attracting foreign investment. Fine Gael is firmly committed to retaining the current 12.5% corporation tax rate in the Republic and I am aware that discussions are ongoing on giving the NI Executive powers in this area of taxation.
Talking about community involvement:
One of my real concerns is that the current peace process is too much a creature of the politicians. We must ensure that ordinary citizens feel they are stakeholders in the process as well. The Agreement provides for this but it has not been fully implemented. Strand 2 of the Agreement proposed the establishment of a North South Consultative Forum to involve representatives of civil society from across the island. The intended objective was that they would provide advice to both administrations on social, cultural and economic issues of an all-island/cross-border nature. I believe that by drawing on the knowledge, expertise and insights of civil society we can construct a direct people-to-people experience which will be complementary to the Government-to-Government process.
Enda Kenny outlined his vision for Ireland in 2016.
My political philosophy in one sentence for the work I do in the Republic is that by 2016 – the centenary of the rising of 1916 – when the first faltering steps towards financial independence were taken, that by 2016 we should be able to demonstrate that we’re the best small country in the world in which to do business, in which to raise a family, in which to grown old with dignity and respect.
He finished by saying that he was “very happy to work with the Alliance Party and other parties” in the future. The party members in the call gave him a standing ovation as he finished his speech.
The conference chairman couldn’t have known about Brian Cowen’s resignation at 2pm when he thanked Enda Kenny at the end of his speech!
That was probably the most important speech by any politician in the Republic of Ireland today, anywhere, in terms of what’s coming and in terms of that guarantee of friendship and mutual support and a better future for everyone on the island.
And I’m really taken by your vision for 2016. That’s something that we can work with here. We have a decade of very serious anniversaries coming up: 1912, 1914, 1916, 1922 etc. and we really need to work out how to deal with those.
So the words of Mr Kenny are very heartening to hear. We will watch with extremely keen interest how things go in March in the Republic of Ireland. Thank you very much indeed.
10.15am After the Party President’s welcome, North Down candidate Anne Wilson opened proceedings, confidently speaking about environmental issues and her expectation to be elected to the Assembly in May.
Anna Lo up next, talking about why Alliance was the only party for her. She refers to party efforts in South Belfast during the recent water crisis and says that NI Water’s “communication with the public was a disaster.”
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.