The smaller party conferences are often more unpredictable and less stage managed.
Contributions from the platform and the floor tend to be much more forthright. The social scene at many of the party conferences – particularly the SDLP – trumps the business in the hall. With the smaller groups, the social and political are combined, with banter and the odd heckle accompanying the serious business of the day.
On Saturday afternoon the Workers Party held their Northern Ireland conference in the Crescent Arts Centre. It clashed with the DUP conference seven miles away to the south east of the city, but Brian McDermott kindly emailed through summary extracts of many of the speeches and presentations. (Previous years’ conference business is chronicled in the Slugger archives.)
Gerry Grainger WPNI Chairperson:
There is a new political elite carving out a career for itself on the back of the Good Friday Agreement and on the back of working class people in Northern Ireland. The priorities of that new political elite are self-preservation and self-advancement. They are not going to challenge the interests of big business or multi-national companies on behalf of working people and the working poor.
Gemma Weir on Why we need a Bill of Rights:
… a whole section of the Good Friday Agreement is given over to “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity” … However, one vital part of this section of the Agreement has not been implemented. Paragraph 4 of this section of the Agreement commits the British Government to constitute, after a process of consultation through the Human Rights Commission, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
Today we are still waiting for such a Bill of Rights 15 years after that Agreement. The demand for a Bill of Rights seems to have gone off the political radar.
The importance of a Bill of Rights for the people of Northern Ireland lies, not in its links to any specific constitutional proposals for government, but in its universality: in its ability to provide reassurance in a situation where all possible political features are new and uncertain. Uncertainty breeds fear, and particularly the fear that whatever new structures emerge there will be victors and victims. A Bill of Rights is a mechanism to permit political life to flourish.
Oisin Scullion made a case for a Civic Forum:
Who in the Assembly can speak for trade unionists and workers, women, young people, ethnic minorities, those who do not subscribe to tribal and sectarian camps, the gay and lesbian communities, the disabled, victims and survivors, human rights organisations, children and the numerous other interest groups, be they churches, business or educational interests …
There have been very spurious arguments advanced against the Civic Forum. The first is that it would be an expensive talking shop. Surely those who say that are confusing it with the Assembly. Secondly that it would be in conflict with the Assembly. I say why not? Somebody needs to challenge and hold the Assembly to account.
Samantha Brown addressed the Workers Party’s submission to Haass:
For us the issues of parades, protests, flags and the past are primarily political ones. They relate to the continuing dominance of unionist and nationalist politics and the persistence of sectarianism and segregation in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the continuing difficulties surrounding Parades and Flags are about the failed politics of the past …
The first steps in changing the Assembly should be to do away with the need for MLAs to declare themselves as either unionist or nationalist. There must also be an end to the D’Hondt method of forming the Executive and there should be no more “cross community” or parallel voting deals. Changing the way the Assembly works, how it appoints the Executive and how it reaches decisions is now an urgent priority.
In rejecting the sectarian philosophy of “separate but equal” we promote “Citizenship” as the alternative to nationalism and unionism. We are also aware that we must take firm measures taken to secure an integrated society.
We believe that the three immediate steps should be: a programme for integrated housing; a commitment to the introduction of integrated education and integrated teacher; training in Northern Ireland; and an accelerated programme to dismantle Northern Ireland’s “peace walls”.
John Lowry talked about The Left Response:
The Assembly and Executive have failed the great majority of people, working class people across the sectarian divide, who are struggling daily to make ends meet. Whether it is their failure to deliver the new beginning, the new political dispensation envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement or their failure to develop any plan, any vision or ambition in terms of an economic strategy for Northern Ireland, they have failed.
They will always fail. They will always fail because they do not have the interests of working class people, Protestant or Catholic, at the heart of their political programmes. The DUP and Sinn Fein, indeed the Ulster Unionists or SDLP, Alliance or even the new liberal political formation NI21, all are part of the global political set up that has bought into the pervading economic mantra, that the State and public sector have no role to play in economic life …
The Workers Party views the world and Northern Ireland in a different way from the other parties. We want to set out today the Left Response to the malaise that exists politically, socially and economically.
- It means a change in the way that things are done.
- It means greater direct intervention by Government, to not just hold the market to account, but to determine economic outcomes.
- It means favouring the public over the private, the collective over the individual, social solidarity over selfishness and greed.
- It means asking ourselves what vision of a better world do we have and then setting about bringing it into being.
Big ideas for the future, but also things which can be done for the better in the here and now, immediately. There will be those who say, all very well and fanciful but not living in the real world. Well there are two things I say in reply to that. Firstly in any ideological debate about the merits of socialism over capitalism, I am totally confident about the outcome of that. But secondly, try living in the real world of those who are living in poverty, cannot make weekly food bills, or working in fear of losing their jobs, and ask them do they think things need to change.
The Left Response to Northern Ireland today involves:
- Changes to the way we are governed
- A Bill of Rights
- Reinstating The Civic Forum
- Addressing Poverty and the Working Poor
- Utilising State and Public Assets to deliver economic change.
… The Workers Party support the call by trade unions for the introduction of a Living Wage to be set at a minimum rate of £7.65 per hour, as a first step in tackling poverty in Northern Ireland. Many of these 170,000 workers are sales assistants, cleaners, kitchen and catering staff, bar staff and leisure attendants. Many work in local councils and government departments.
We are calling on the Finance Minister to introduce legislation at the Assembly to allow local authorities to pay this rate of a Living Wage. Furthermore we are calling on the Assembly to introduce legislation that will govern those private sector employers who avail of public contracts and procurement. No public contracts should be awarded unless the employer is paying the Living Wage Rate of £7.65.
But the real answer to tackling poverty and low wages is to create jobs.
The Workers Party NI conference was also addressed by Feeonagh Chambers, Ciaran McGeough, John O’Farrell (ICTU), Kevin Hanratty (NI Human Rights Consortium, pictured above), Lynn Carvill (member of original Civic Forum) and Peter Heathwood (paralysed in a 1979 shooting).