Alliance shifted their conference this year to a larger venue. More exhibition space, more spaces to chat, a larger hall, and a lot more parking. It was a good move and party members and exhibitors alike seemed universally positive about the new venue.
The mood was upbeat though definitely not smug. A pride was taken in Alliance values being translated into policy decisions in two departments. Some big characters who shaped the party’s policies and growth were remembered: Oliver Napier, Tony Hill and Addie Morrow.
With no election immediately around the corner it’s easy for a party to talk about growth in the distant future but more difficult to point to tangible green shoots in the here and now.
Judith Cochrane – tipped by several people at the conference (both party members and not) as an MLA to watch in the future – spoke about shared housing as part of a shared future. While she praised some of the DSD minister Nelson McCausland’s positive language, she questioned how deep the belief spread through his party.
Trevor Lunn addressed the issue of education, and included this comment about selection:
Selection will eventually wither on the vine in the face of public opinion. In the meantime if parents feel the need to put their children through stress tests at age ten that’s up to them. My advice to them will continue to be “don’t do it”.
A panel of councillors – chaired by MLA Stewart Dickson – described their experiences working for the whole community within local government.
Stephen Farry concentrated his remarks on his work as minister for Employment and Learning. He left others to comment on the department’s (short) future. As minister he had “united” the department “around a single and overarching mission related to investing in people, skills and jobs”.
He introduced a new catchphrase: shared future proofing. Both the Department of Learning and Employment and the Department of Justice will use this to examine all major policy decisions. Farry explained that shared future proofing was “much broader than the equality duty and even the good relations responsibility, and asks searching questions regarding whether new policies will assist sharing or further entrench division”.
He spoke about tuition fees, the additional 700 university places in STEM subjects, his objective to double the number of PhD places by the end of the decade, next week’s launch of NI’s first higher Education Strategy, and the growth in “apprenticeships across the age spectrum” (one of whom is 85 years old).
The “field of teacher training” needs change.
It is clear that a multitude of providers in a declining market is not sustainable. We appear to have a system that is driven by the interests of institutions rather than the needs for future teachers.
He announced that a pilot to open careers advice centres on Saturday mornings will commence in Belfast to better engage with adults, recognising that “fewer and fewer people will spend all their working lives with just one employer”.
Deputy leader and MP for East Belfast Naomi Long spoke immediately before David Ford.
The Government’s Welfare Reforms will have far-reaching consequences, and the Assembly will have only limited flexibility to change what has been decided at Westminster. In that context, I think the people of Northern Ireland need full-time MPs who are focused solely on the job of holding the Government to account and representing their interests in Parliament.
Commenting on “a decade of centenaries of contentious events in our shared past”, she said the “manner in which we publicly mark those historic events, which remain both sensitive and emotive, is hugely important to preserving current stability and, more importantly, building a peaceful, stable and shared future going forward”.
Handled well, the coming decade has the potential to allow us to explore our past together, aiding understanding through education and discussion, helping us learn from our past and look to how we can create and shape stronger and better relationships and enhance community relations. By contrast, if handled poorly, it has the potential to be a highly charged and fractious period, marked by deepening antagonism and division within society, playing to and reinforcing centuries old divisions rather than focusing on future progress.
By recognising respectfully our shared and often difficult history, and refusing to be held captive by it, but instead focusing on our interdependent and shared future, we can use this time as a watershed transition between our divided past and our shared future.
Naomi Long referred to her contributions at Westminster, including raising “the issue of transparency in party political funding in Northern Ireland for a second time in Prime Ministers Questions”. She said that “the security situation has changed significantly” and “whilst risk can never be entirely eliminated, it should not outweigh the right of the Northern Ireland public to be able to openly scrutinise the finances of local parties”.
It is not credible for local parties on one hand to argue that Northern Ireland is a safe and attractive destination for tourism and inward investment, whilst at the same time arguing that the security situation is too dangerous for normal democratic scrutiny.
On Wednesday she again challenged for a change in the legislation and also pressed the Prime Minister “to commit on behalf of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland to … voluntarily publish their donor list”.
David Cameron neither committed to changing the rules nor publishing the NI Conservatives details, though Labour may now take an interest in how the Conservatives use this loophole.
Naomi Long paused to pay tribute to men who had strong links with her constituency and had recently died. Sir Oliver Napier “came close to winning the East Belfast Westminster seat which I now hold and I know that he was delighted to have witnessed that victory in 2010 and see his ambition for the constituency of East Belfast and for the Party realised”.
Addie Morrow served for 16 years on Castlereagh Council during what she described as “’a challenging environment’, for the sake of politeness” saying “I’m not sure there is a polite euphemism which could do justice to the treatment to which he and Alliance colleagues were subjected”.
Naomi Long said that Addie Morrow had “delivered real change, playing a critical role in the foundation of Lagan College, the first integrated school in Northern Ireland”.
It is hard to comprehend the fierceness of the opposition which the prospect of educating children together elicited at that time. It is even harder to comprehend, when some of his fiercest critics in the endeavour, now talk about shared education as though it is a novel concept.
Speaking about the Alliance’s two Executive ministers, Naomi Long described the imminent demise of the Department of Education and Learning as “the extraordinary and shameless lengths to which our opponents are willing to go, in order to remove Stephen from the Executive”.
Let’s be clear – if properly thought-through reform removed our entitlement to an Executive position, but gained in return more efficient government for the people we represent, I would be happy to accept that – indeed more than just accept it – I and I know Stephen would actively advocate for it.
She finished by lifting her eyes up from the “foundations” of the party and said that “for us in Alliance, there are no ceilings”.
Hinting that Alliance aren’t necessarily wedded to staying in the Executive once DEL is removed [the party haven’t met to come to a formal position on the matter], Naomi Long stated:
Whilst others continue to debate whether success would be easier won in Government or in Opposition, we know the truth. Success depends not on the position in which you find yourself, but in what you do with it and it is never easily won.
We grew in opposition – we have continued to sustain that growth in Government. Our ambitions for the future will be delivered by maintaining our consistency of vision, our unity of purpose and our strength of leadership as we go forward in the years ahead.
Party leader David Ford took to the stage without any musical fanfare, but only the accompaniment of a standing ovation and flashing cameras. No teleprompter either. He began by reflecting on Naomi Long’s speech:
I was at the back of the hall listening to you talking and I couldn’t help but notice the contrast with a few weeks ago when the Ulster Unionists elected a new leader. He took the first opportunity he had to tell everyone he grew up in the leafy suburbs of East Belfast. He actually said If I lived a mile nearer the city centre I couldn’t have been leader.
Well Naomi Long grew up more than a mile nearer the city centre than Mike Nesbitt did. She got where she got not because of an accident of birth but because of hard work and determination. She was councillor and Lord Mayor because of her dedication to serving the people of Belfast. She won a parliamentary seat because she inspired dozens of us to go out and work for her and thousands to go out and vote or her. Because in Alliance we don’t care where you’re from or what school you went to. What we care about is what you’re doing to make Northern Ireland a better place. And we can have no finer example than Naomi.
Commenting on last May’s election results, David Ford said:
In half of Northern Ireland, the half centred on Belfast, we are not the fifth party: we are now the third party. That’s some progress. That’s some victory. That’s leading change.
He too reflected on the contributions of Oliver Napier as an introduction to his comments on the 2010 Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy from DUP and Sinn Fein which Alliance “panned”.
Should we have praised their achievement in agreeing any strategy at all? Certainly not. Our job, even now that we are in the Executive, is not to walk away from our principles, or water down our determination. Our task is to hold to our ideals, to demand the actions that we know are needed.
While Alliance has “worked with the other parties to try to produce a CSI strategy worthy of the name” David Ford was clear that the party “will not sign up to anything that sells that name short”.
The test for our support will be high, because what is at stake is whether or not the Executive will deliver for our community on the biggest single challenge facing us – the creation of a genuinely shared future …
I will not sign off on any strategy that doesn’t result in more children being educated together; more people living in shared housing communities; more interface structures coming down; and a robust process for dealing with the scourge of flags and emblems that blight and label so many areas of Northern Ireland.
In a speech nearly entirely devoid of sound bites, David Ford criticised other parties’ approaches to ‘shared future’.
When he’s not threatening to collapse the power-sharing objective over the badge on a cap that some prison officers wear, Peter Robinson is talking about a Shared Future.
When they’re not insisting that the sectarian designations of the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved for ever and a day, the SDLP are talking about a Shared Future.
When he’s not wrapping himself in the Union Flag at the UUP AGM, Mike Nesbitt is talking about a Shared Future.
And when they’re not cutting all the funding of the Department of Education’s cross-community youth programmes, Sinn Féin are talking about a Shared Future.
But talk is cheap, just like a ticket for the odd sports event being played by the “other side”. Genuine leaders would turn up at Windsor Park before, and not after ‘God Save the Queen’, or arrive in Armagh in time for ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ before the Dr McKenna Cup match. Gestures may be a good start, but gestures are empty if they don’t lead to actions with more substance.
He described the DUP and Sinn Fein intention to remove the Department of Employment and Learning as one of two options: vandalism at a time of economic difficulty, or malice against Alliance’s growing strength.
Ministers lose their posts. That’s politics. But it looks to me as if Stephen is going to establish a record: the first Minister anywhere in these islands who is threatened with the sack because both he and his party are successful.
Talking about own department’s work, David Ford recalled a recent conversation with a former direct rule Minister who said “that prison reform was put in the ‘too difficult’ file and left for a devolved Minister”.
‘Too difficult’ is not a term that an Alliance Minister understands. Like much else in the field of justice, rather than being too difficult to do, prison reform is too important not to do.
On the subject of interface barriers and peace walls, he described “one of my most positive experiences as Minister” when he “went up to Alexandra Park off the Antrim Road and helped a dozen children to cut a ribbon and open a gate in the barrier that had divided that park”. “How sad, how utterly ironic that that opening a gate in a public park made live national news” on “BBC News 24”. [ahem, BBC News Channel]
David Ford described the UUP and SDLP as “mirror images of each other, casting about for relevance as their support drains away, no longer able to convey a sense of purpose to the electorate because they can’t agree on what that purpose is”.
Another two parties, Sinn Féin and DUP, are also mirror images of each other. But if the SDLP and UUP are to be pitied, the DUP and Sinn Féin are to be feared. There is plenty of fine rhetoric, but behind the rhetoric they have settled into a cosy carve-up.
He appealed to voters, members and elected representatives of other parties, asking:
Do you want to go on forever, locked into the same old politics? Or do you want to see a step change; a radical shift in the politics of this place? … if your ambition is change, if you want to see a genuinely shared future, will you ever be able to achieve it in those parties? … take a look at our Shared Future checklist. If you agree with it, can sign up to working to deliver it, then this is the party you should be in.
David Ford finished his speech with a challenge to the party. Having “changed the electoral map” he had “ambitious targets”.
It’s time to lift the ceiling off our electoral ambitions. So here’s a challenge: that in 2014, we will elect yet more Alliance Councillors –will you work to ensure it?
Another challenge: that in 2015, our seat in Parliament is successfully defended, whatever the boundaries. We owe it to Naomi – will you work to ensure it?
And a final challenge to you all: that by the time of the next Assembly elections, Alliance won’t just be in the top five, but we will have moved this party upwards out of fifth place. Will you work to ensure it?
Conference, we are leading change. We are delivering change. Our community needs that change. We must continue. Let’s all commit to that.
David Ford received a looooong standing ovation.
After a break for lunch, delegates returned to the hall for three sessions. As well as later topics of health and the environment, the first panel looked at the next steps in North-South and East-West relationships. [The mathematician in me wonders whether a three dimensional party should also tackle Up-Down?]
Fine Gael TD Brian Hayes spoke first and made a number of interesting reflections. The audio is worth a listen. He commended the shared service model within the public sector in the north – eg, HR Connect, IT Assist and Account NI – and expressed a hope for cooperation in police training.
And as the minister of state for the Department of Finance I’m interested in Northern Ireland’s household charges and property taxes. I understand your property tax works out at an average of about £1,200 per year. I think we’ve a lot to learn from Northern Ireland [delegates laugh] on how to establish and collect a tax [more laughs] and of course I cannot help but refer to Sinn Fein who accept a relatively large property tax in Northern Ireland but are against it in the Republic.
Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker also addressed the delegates.
While David Ford spoke, one youngster in the audience was joining the dots. It’s a puzzle that Alliance need to complete. Their strength – of sorts – in the Executive comes from being a two man band and being able to roll out “shared future proofing” across two departments. Eliminating DEL weakens their hand.
With the SDLP and UUP wedded for now to staying in the Executive, would Alliance be stronger, more distinctive, and better able to stay true to their principles by going back to their opposition role and attacking policies from the outside. Which would play better with the “half of Northern Ireland” outside Belfast that does not yet elect many Alliance councillors? And do current voters and members have any stomach to give up power?
Aside from the Executive, leadership and succession planning will also be big issues over the next few years. Quite a number of the current MLAs may choose to retire at the next election. Will they be willing to stand aside and allow new candidates to be co-opted into their seats and salaries to build up a public profile before the Assembly elections (which may next time only return 5 candidates in 16 constituencies).
And if the Alliance party leader should decide to step down while the party is still on the up, could some form of co-leadership (not unfamiliar to the Alliance) between, say, Stephen Farry and Naomi Long satisfy the party’s love for Naomi as well as their need to have a figurehead in the Assembly?
In the meantime, there was a buoyant mood about the party conference. While Flash Harry may have dedicated “Another One Bites The Dust” to the outgoing UUP leadership at the after-dinner cabaret on Friday evening, while the UUP are “Under Pressure” and the SDLP ask “Was It All Worth It?”, Alliance have proven that they have “Staying Power” and adopting “I Want to Break Free” strategy to nudge their way up from fifth place to a higher ranking. Time will tell.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.