David Ford: we are more committed to transforming Northern Ireland than you, Mr Robinson #ap2015

Alliance empty setThis year’s Alliance Party conference was focussed on party members and supporters rather than reaching out to the public at large. Delegates were reminded about the core party values and principles. There were no visiting clerics or representatives of loyalist band forums. No one from the Syriza Greek government. Instead, Alliance heard from friends in the victims, integrated education, science, arts and environment sectors.

While Peter Robinson was criticised for making DUP victory in East Belfast his number one priority, it was clear that compounding 2010’s victory for Naomi Long by retaining the seat for a second term is a key way of “stepping forward” and living out Alliance’s vision of a shared future. You can listen back to most of the conference.

The party are betting a lot on one constituency. On May 8, commentators will barely mention the party’s overall election performance in the other 17 constituencies (though David Ford and others will pore over the tallies and results to find signs of consolidation, growth and shrinkage).

Alliance bucket collectionAlliance are throwing the kitchen sink at East Belfast. The buckets were out at lunchtime to collect donations from delegates towards May’s campaign. It’s a high stakes game, and as we discussed in the Coffee Club session over lunch, not all the cards and players are under the control of Alliance. A UUP, TUV or UKIP candidate appearing on the ballot paper would tilt the balance towards Alliance. A Green or soft PUP candidate would tilt the balance back towards the DUP. It will be a number of weeks before all the players are confirmed. [And if Naomi fails to get re-elected, expect a delicate co-option back into the Assembly, a new Alliance leader, and an uphill struggle to regain momentum at the 2016 elections. Oh, and expect new SDLP and DUP leaders too.]

David Ford attacked practically every other party in the Assembly. While inevitable to some extent, some of the leaning rhetoric in the main speeches repeated soundbites from last year (eg, Gavin Robinson and Ruth Patterson).

Oddly, he made practically no mention of how Alliance’s manifesto pledges and values were being applied to his own Justice department – maybe that part of the speech was sacrificed to squeeze in welfare reform? But no discussion of policing, crime levels, court closures, trafficking, prisons, or the consultation on abortion.

Party leaders really need to rethink the length of their speeches: a shorter twenty minute speech could have covered the same ground and delivered better pitched messages with more room to breathe. Not that Alliance members were complaining: everyone I spoke to talked warmly and positively about David Ford’s leadership and speech. While not given the cult-like status of Gerry Adams, David Ford is a remarkably settled and secure party leader!

Away from East Belfast, welfare was a major focus in light of Sinn Féin’s reverse ferret last Monday. At first contradictory – while carefully argued in the more detailed nuances – Alliance seemed to argue both that they opposed cuts in Westminster and supported cuts to Executive departments budgets because Northern Ireland had to live within its means.

Wordle of David Ford speech to Alliance 2015 conferenceNumbers in the conference room were surprisingly low until the deputy leader’s speech. ‘Surprising’ because La Mon Hotel is on the doorstep of Gilnahirk and the streets of East Belfast that are paved with gold yellow bricks. Numbers in the room rose when Naomi got up to speak, and were bolstered again when David Ford was cheered on to the stage for his annual address. Some familiar faces who were ‘new’ at the last two conferences could be spotted. But a lot of faces were missing. Boosted membership has not properly translated into enthused and energetic activists.

A history of the party was launched after lunch today. For those who read Hope & History (£12-20) or are familiar with the party’s beginnings, I suspect you’ll find that for many founder members, Alliance was not just a belief in reconciliation and living together harmoniously in an absence of tribal politics, but was as much about an expression of ecumenical religious values. Newer members don’t share that zeal to the same extent. Numbers were down today, and the age profile looked younger. The party is changing and evolving, and perhaps one generation is starting the handover to the next. Established elected representatives and party officers need to factor that into their planning … something that isn’t obvious in some constituencies (like Lagan Valley) who have made decisions to run well established candidates rather than build the profile of aspiring candidates in 2016 and beyond.

2014’s Alliance conference was overshadowed [Ed – livened up?] by the continual defence of Anna Lo’s comments about Irish unity. This year a different woman – Naomi Long – was the centre of attention. This time next year, if she loses an election she might be leader and back in the Assembly. And if she retains her seat, she’ll be busy consolidating her position to make sure East Belfast becomes a Westminster seat for life.

The Times, They Are a-Changin’ for Alliance.*

[*applies to DUP and SDLP too] 

– – –

Alliance Party president Andrew Muir welcomed delegates to the conference with “céad míle fáilte” promised that there would be no sectarian jokes about yogurts, no cakes and no homophobic language.

Then it was over to four new councillors elected for the first time in 2014. East Belfast MLA Judith Cochrane gave them all a witty introduction. Should it not work out at the Assembly she has a bright future in the Belfast Empire.

Alliance councillors 2x2Having wowed the conference last year as a candidate, Nuala McAllister returned to the podium and spoke of the different types of walls that she’s encountered in North Belfast: social, economic, political as well as physical ones.

Interface barriers are no longer seen as an acceptable solution, so those who thrive on division have had to find new invisible barriers to divide our community.

She commended the people of the area who are committed to breaking down the walls, opening gateways and creating opportunities.

Patrick Brown told delegates about going to interview David Ford last year for his dissertation and being persuaded within the first five minutes to stand in the Rowallane DEA for Newry, Mourne and Down council. He didn’t put up any posters, but unseated a sitting UUP councillor with hundreds of transfers from eliminated nationalist candidates. He stopped short of recommending this minimalist campaigning approach to Naomi in East Belfast. party insiders give credit to Stephen Farry for spotting the opportunity in an area that Alliance had long neglected.

According to her introduction, Amanda Grehan spent “over thirty years in the hospitality industry before realising her true calling to ‘cheer up Grumpy’” working for Trevor Lunn in Lisburn and being elected to the Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council. She explained that she had no ambitions to be an MLA, an MP or an MEP.

In fact I don’t see myself as a politician but more as a civic representative, and I do want to represent everyone.

Emmet McDonough-Brown was the final councillor to speak, summing up Alliance’s approach on Belfast city council as

building coalitions, working together, solving problems

Stephen FarryMinister for Employment and Learning Stephen Farry spoke of his department’s “investment] in the skills of all of our people and providing the opportunity for every person to develop to their full potential, and to have a full stake in society”.

Unemployment has now fallen in Northern Ireland for 25 consecutive months. This is the longest continuous fall in unemployment since the mid-1990s.

He mentioned the creation of “over 1,400 new higher education places in STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, including a significant expansion in computer science places”.

And we have embarked on a plan to double the number of publically-funded PhDs over the course of this decade, all in areas of economic relevance.

In line with our support for STEM, I was pleased to be able to recently facilitate the first ever Science Festival in Northern Ireland, which exceeded all targets and expectations. I was further delighted that this was so strongly supported by my good friend, Drew O’Brien, the Special Representative for Global Partnerships for the US Secretary of State. We are working together to create new STEM-based exchange opportunities that we are opening up in the United States.

On Further Education:

we have taken steps to build and enhance our local colleges and make them the first point of call for investing in vocational skills and delivering innovation for businesses. A forthcoming Further Education Strategy will further consolidate this role.

He spoke about the new Higher Level Apprenticeships that “will become an alternative pathway to higher level skills, providing secure and sustainable employment for young people” and looked forward to the imminent launch of “a new system of Youth Training to provide vocational skills for young people between 16 and 24”.

Economic Inactivity is the hidden form of unemployment. Northern Ireland has sadly had the highest rate in this regard over the past thirty years, and this problem has defied the ups and downs of the economic cycle. Over the next few weeks, the Executive is set to agree a strategy to address economic inactivity for the first time. This will also be a first for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Work to engage with young people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training has been taken forward in partnership with the community and voluntary sector through the Pathways to Success Strategy. We are now building on this through the design and delivery of the United Youth Programme, spanning both employability and good relations interventions for some of our most marginalised young people.

A new Disability Employment and Skills Strategy will soon be launched. The minster said that while zero hours contracts “may well suit some people .. for many others it may be the only employment option available, bringing in turn uncertainty over levels of income and disruption to family life”.

If casual labour is to be an increased feature of our economy, it is crucial that our regulation keeps up with the pace of change. I have presented comprehensive proposals on the Executive on the regulation of Zero Hours Contracts.

Through putting in place measures such as a ban on exclusivity clauses, creating a Statutory Code, and requiring employers to demonstrate why someone should not in due course move to a regular contract, we would be going further in regulation than any other part of the UK.

Alliance beardsLooking wider than his own department:

We are reaching a fork in the road, and big decisions to be taken over the coming months and years will determine which path Northern Ireland follows. One path leads to a prosperous economy, and a shared, cohesive society, underpinned by good governance, the rule of law and sound public finances. The other path leads to continued division and economic stagnation, scarred by bad governance, disorder and underfunded public services.

Alliance is determined to travel down the first of those paths. But I regret to say that all other four Executive parties are heading in the other direction.

On spending and Alliance voting against the Executive’s Budget:

Due to Alliance, the other parties now at least accept the premise of the costs of a divided society, but drag their feet over doing anything about it.

There is a no other government in the world that would seek to balance their books through spending cuts alone, in the absence of at least some fair and progressive forms of revenue-raising. And now, we are seeing clear proof of several parties do can’t even do their sums or know the value of anything.

In voting against the Budget, Alliance was not seeking an easy way out – trying to have it both ways, staying in government while failing to take responsibility for tough decisions.

In sharp contrast to both the UUP and especially the ever-opportunistic SDLP, our opposition was based on the grounds that it was not actually strategic enough and the tough decisions were being ducked by both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Stephen Farry addressed “the ongoing debate around teacher training” which he said was a “failure of other parties to act strategically, and to break away from vested interests”.

Our present system is fragmented and costly, not keeping pace with international standards, and is not consistent with the stated aspirations of a shared and inclusive society. It is a clear-cut example of costs of a divided society. And lest anyone thinks that this is some academic debate, remember that all five parties went to see the Prime Minister to ask for additional resources on the basis that they would address such distortions in our public spending.

At a time when teachers are set to be redundant and many, many graduates cannot obtain teaching posts, and there are many other pressing skill needs within our economy, the continued subsidies towards teacher training colleges and the authorisation by the Department of Education of an inflated number of training places makes no sense.

People are quite right to demand the very best standards for future generations of school-children, and people are quite right to ask how we are to ensure that we educate our children together if we cannot even train our teachers together?

Let me clear, that I am committed to delivering a world-class, shared and inclusive and financially sustainable system of teacher training, which respects equality and diversity and delivers professional teachers that can work in any type of school. If this can be achieved in Glasgow and Dublin, then why not in Belfast and Northern Ireland? I remain committed to both highlighting this issue and to working towards reform.

Second Alliance panel 2x2A second panel looked at key Alliance issues through the eyes of Jude Whyte (victims campaigner), Mary Roulston (Principal of Millennium Integrated Primary), Joanne Stewart (Director of Development at NI Science Park) and Anne McReynolds (The Belfast MAC).

The hall filled up to hear Naomi Long deliver her speech as deputy leader. She avoided all reference to her main opponent in East Belfast – Gavin Robinson – and left the jibes to David Ford.

… there is no-one more conscious than I am that our next electoral test is only 53 days away.

… The euphoria and elation over what was a major step forward, not just for East Belfast and Alliance but for the centre ground in NI politics, has perhaps been dulled a little by the seemingly never-ending cycle of crisis and talks at Stormont, the lack of political leadership from other parties to deliver on decisions made and challenge their critics rather than be hostages to them, not to mention the relentless grind of flags protests, which have poisoned politics here for the last two years, in what was a deliberate, reckless and orchestrated attempt by the DUP and aided by UUP, not only to take East Belfast back but drag all of Northern Ireland back.

[Ed – that’s a 115 word sentence!]

Being in Westminster is important because it put us in the position to be a fresh, more progressive voice for East Belfast and Northern Ireland:

  • one which promotes evidenced-based policies in support of scientific, social and economic progress;
  • one which challenges the anti-European and anti-immigration rhetoric that often fuels racism and xenophobia;
  • one which supports the protection and extension of equality and human rights, for the LGBT community, for women and girls and other marginalised groups at home and abroad;
  • one which actively supports freedom of religion and belief, including crucially the right of freedom from religion; and
  • one which has fought consistently against the burden of the government’s cuts agenda being carried by the poorest in our community, whether in or out of work, whether or benefits or not, whilst the tax dodgers – both corporate and individual – seem to escape the same scrutiny and pressure.

Being in Westminster is important because it has put us in a position to have a level of access to and influence with government and with the opposition which we have never previously enjoyed, helping us to contribute to and to challenge decisions which directly affects my constituents in East Belfast and the people of NI as a whole and allowing us to deliver real change on their behalf.

Naomi LongThe East Belfast MP went on to remind delegates that she had stepped down from the Assembly and City Council when elected to Westminster while other politicians “are still dragging their heels”. Alliance had published their political donations while other parties still lacked transparency under the “security exemption”.

Until that secrecy is finally lifted, the whiff of corruption will always surround local politics.

She spoke at length about the Stormont House Agreement and welfare reform:

David Ford could not have been clearer back before Christmas when the Stormont House Agreement was signed: this was not a deal, but a deal to do a deal – the real test would be delivery. He was also clear on Christmas Eve when asked specifically whether Sinn Fein’s assertion that the deal protected all current and future claimants permanently from being any worse off under welfare reform was correct, that not only was that not what parties had agreed, but that it wasn’t even possible for the Assembly to do.

No-one with a basic grasp of maths could have argued that the pot of money being made available for a transitional period of five years to ease the worst effects of the reform plans could stretch to that.

Let’s be clear, I am not arguing in favour of welfare reform or cuts to the public sector – far from it. In fact, unlike Sinn Fein, I went to Westminster and voted against the cuts where it matters – where it could actually have protected the block grant.

But the choice now facing the Assembly is not welfare reform or no welfare reform, cuts to public expenditure or no cuts …

Not one person is better off today than they were before Monday’s bombshell – in fact those reliant on benefits and those who work in the public sector are worse off as there is more uncertainty now about future funding …

So if we are going to find the extra few hundred million which Sinn Fein want to allocate to additional protections, the question they need to answer is which budget are they taking it from?

Are we really protecting the vulnerable if we further raid the Department of justice budget and leave people with fewer police officers, less supervision of those on probation, less access to legal aid? Are we really protecting the vulnerable if we reduce investment in mental health, emergency departments, the ambulance service, and care packages for the elderly or disabled? Are we really protecting the vulnerable if we stop investing in the skills and support that people need to access jobs and if we deny potential investors the flow of talent they need to make such investment worthwhile?

She continued:

But whilst Sinn Fein are undoubtedly to blame for precipitating the current crisis, it is not themselves alone who are in denial about either the gravity of the situation we are in or the reality of what the future will look like as, regardless of the complexion of the next Westminster Government, the squeeze on public funds will continue.

The SDLP, for example, were happy to posture about opposition to the welfare reform package, safe in the belief that the Stormont House Agreement and the Assembly would survive, as the other parties would drive it through and take the pain on their behalf. However, that cynical politicking has backed them into the unenviable corner along with the Green Party of having to either admit that’s what they were playing at or sign the Sinn Fein petition of concern.

And there was more:

We’ve seen that whether it’s opposition to de-segregating teacher training, or a refusal to even engage with David Ford on proposals to increase the cost of firearms licences by a few pounds, a few pounds which would go straight into the PSNI budget to make our streets safer for everyone.

Not only will they not face the reality that the budget they agreed means difficult decisions have to be made, at the same time they continue to squander your money on personal crusades and vanity projects, whether court cases to uphold the gay blood ban with not a scintilla of evidence to justify it, or opening a school with only 15 pupils whilst other schools struggle with composite classes or face closure.

If all that were not enough, we have the spectacle of the Ulster Unionists who point blank refused to endorse the Stormont House Agreement now chastising SF for refusing delivering it. It would be laughable were it not so serious.

Naomi used the words of Martin Luther King [Ed – is he Alliance’s Mandela?] – “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability” – to sum up her understanding that while change is needed, “it require[s] each one of us who want[s] that change to step forward and make it happen”.

She expressed frustration by the lack of progress and wasted opportunities for her constituents.

I see them every day facing unemployment, facing homelessness, facing educational disadvantage, facing paramilitary-controlled communities, facing daily struggles to make ends meet and looking for hope and leadership to make life better for them. I get angry on their behalf.

… the Good Friday Agreement … was supposed to be a new dawn in local politics, an opportunity for our politicians to take the reins. 17 years ago. There are people who weren’t even born when it was signed who are now working and yet thanks to the immaturity of some of our political leaders, the political process isn’t.

Instead of a voluntary redundancy package for the civil service, maybe what we need is a compulsory redundancy package for those same politicians.

But rather than “give in to the counsel of despair” Naomi was buoyed by people who had already demonstrated change, and cited examples of former Alliance Belfast Lord Mayors who had challenged and guided the city. [Ed – Máirtín Ó Muilleoir would have generously thrown in an example from another party too … Alliance missed a trick.]

Founder member of Alliance and Deputy Lord Mayor Maire Hendron was singled out for praise and tribute.

Naomi Long wrapped up her speech with a section looking specifically at East Belfast.

For me, the real power in the story of Titanic is not the tragedy of its maiden voyage but the fact that Belfast built a ship which was the largest, the most luxurious and the most innovative of its time – a world beating feat of engineering – and it is that triumph which can be an inspiration for our future, not just in East Belfast but across Northern Ireland …

Today, whilst the nature of employment has changed, on that same site Titanic Quarter is still offering real opportunities. Whether it’s education in Belfast Met; innovation at the Northern Ireland Science Park; tourism at Titanic Belfast and the heritage assets of the Slipways and Pump House; creative industries in the Paint Hall studios; high tech engineering and computing in the many software and IT companies; renewable energy at Harland & Wolff, or the many other employment opportunities that exist in Titanic Quarter – East Belfast and Northern Ireland can once again be world leading …

It is the talent, ingenuity, skills, resilience, dedication and determination of our people which sets us apart from other potential investment locations and it is that which we need to focus on and invest in if we are to regain our place on the world stage …

Our job in Alliance is to create the opportunities and conditions in which that greatness can flourish. To create the conditions where people can not only aspire to better but can achieve it.

[Ed – Didn’t NI21 Aspire to Better?]

… let’s go out and offer people who are frustrated a real alternative to disillusionment and disengagement – the chance to shape their future for the better. The power will literally be in their hands as they make their choice in the ballot box

David Ford and shadowDavid Ford’s speech to conference revisited many themes from 2014’s speech in the same venue, though oddly avoided talking about his own Justice ministry in any detail. He said that Alliance had:

… a vision, with values and with a united, strong determination to take all of Northern Ireland forward, not like those who are hung up on taking one constituency back. More specifically, to take back East Belfast from the progressive path that it took five years ago.

He said that “even those of us who had believed victory was possible did not realise the impact” Naomi’s win would have.

For the first time ever, an elected Alliance MP, our Deputy Leader, was in the House of Commons: questioning Ministers; successfully amending the law; playing a full part in the Northern Ireland Select Committee and all-party groups; engaging with the London media.

David Ford referred to Alliance staff “[enduring] pickets, firebombs, and death threats”.

Under threat, Naomi has shown she’s made of steel to match the shipyards of East Belfast. In the heat of debate, she has displayed passion, intellect and integrity. In serving her constituents, she works at a rate that I have never seen before. That’s why the people of East Belfast elected her in 2010, and that’s why I’m confident they will do so again.

He nearly referenced the DUP’s “moving forward” strapline when he stated:

Because unlike the Peter Robinson, who describes his number one target as “returning East Belfast to DUP hands”, Naomi’s number one target is taking East Belfast forward. Her priority is people, not party, but she delivers spectacularly for both.

David Ford said Alliance’s first MP was “not a flash in the pan, but a very significant staging post”.

The UUP and SDLP “failed the test of uniting our society”.

In the turmoil of the chaotic relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein, it’s easy to forget the dysfunctional UUP/SDLP relationship when they were in charge. Despite the potential of Good Friday 1998, the efforts to keep power-sharing going via the SDLP and UUP proved pointless.

He praised fellow Executive minister Stephen Farry:

I hear comments from within the Universities and Colleges, as well as the skills and training sector, emphasising the step change in his department, compared to his SDLP and UUP predecessors.

David Ford wide shotLooking wider …

It is a real privilege to lead the Stormont team. I am proud that though we come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and can disagree on many things, we are absolutely united on the fundamentals. Even on sensitive issues of personal conscience, like abortion, we can have rational, thoughtful discussions.

On May 2014’s elections:

… the year since Conference 2014 has been something of a roller-coaster. Just after Conference we went into the double election campaign, for new Councils and the European Parliament. Not everyone who stepped forward for Alliance got elected – there were difficult new boundaries and a number of near misses – but I know that a bright political future awaits them.

But remember that we were told that we would be wiped out as a result of the flag protests, and just look at what we did achieve. Representation on seven of the eleven new Councils, from Causeway Coast and Glens to Newry, Mourne and Down. Enough strength to secure powers of call-in on several of them. An increased group in Belfast, with a stronger grip on the balance of power in City Hall, ensuring that issues are decided on their merits and not a sectarian headcount.

And in the European election? 47,000 Alliance votes. 47,000 people wanting to take Northern Ireland forward. Our best result ever, surpassing even the vote achieved by Oliver Napier in June 1979, the month after he so nearly won East Belfast. A vote which came not just from our heartlands, but from every part of the region. So thank you Anna, and all those who stepped forward in the Council elections.

David Ford reviewed the year’s political events:

… the sense of stagger and stagnation, of crisis and collapse, that characterised politics here for months was overwhelming.

Peter threatens to resign over the OTR scheme. Martin threatens to withdraw support for policing because Gerry is questioned by police. Peter threatens a graduated response to lawful parades determinations, and marches all of unionism and loyalism once more to the top of the hill, or should I say Twadell. There they have sat for over 600 days, burning up £15million of the police budget that they pretend they care about, and putting the very lives of officers at risk from terrorist attack. Gregory’s pathetic but abusive “Curry My Yoghurt”, Gerry’s “Trojan Horse”, and Sammy’s likening of a Sinn Fein MLA to a brainwashed ISIS recruit.

The budget crises of June, July, October, and December. The all-night brinkmanship talks that they all appear to thrive on, but which the public just roll their eyes at. The inefficiency and ineffectiveness that arises from the distrust between them and their mutual fear of losing votes on their respective extremes. Believe me, after five years of seeing how these people attempt to run a government, the TV series Number 2s isn’t so much comedy as reality television.

David Ford spoke too of investigative journalists exposing cover-ups of sexual abuse, misappropriation of public funds, and attempts to inappropriately influence decisions of public bodies.

He mocked the First Minister’s “ground-breaking and historic” visit to West Belfast.

You would think he had visited South Georgia or Pitcairn. What poverty of ambition for this society when they get excited that seven years after taking up office the First Minister has deigned to visit West Belfast.

They quote C S Lewis, that “day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different”. Well, I say back to them, that for the people of Northern Ireland, 21 years after the ceasefires, 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and after 12 years of devolved government, things aren’t half different enough.

The constant political games damage our economy and divide our community. Combined with abuses of power and privilege, they corrode public confidence in the political process; reasonable people say “why bother”; and turnouts fall. No wonder the vox pops on the radio are so relentlessly disparaging of what passes for politics at Stormont.

He spoke of “the opportunities to move Northern Ireland forward”.

Time and again governments in London, Dublin and Washington pledge their support, and commit time and energy to show it’s real. A Corporation Tax Bill at Westminster; significant financial incentives from the Treasury; open doors and active support for job creation from the United States.

But what do they get in return from tribal politicians? Half-hearted agreements, the difficult issues kicked down the road, and more crises.

Remember, our concerns with the Stormont House Agreement were not with what was agreed, but what was not agreed. Events since have justified my description of the Agreement as ‘a deal to make a deal’.

The refusal of other parties to engage in a meaningful way on the issues of parades and flags, both official and unofficial, keeps the pot boiling, because that serves their electoral strategies, regardless of the consequences.

David Ford pointed to some Alliance successes on dealing with the past:

… I am working hard to ensure that DoJ delivers for victims and survivors. And we secured agreement that a crucial aspect of dealing with the legacy of the past is reconciliation. Northern Ireland needs healing, as well as remembering.

He characterised the Stormont House process as being “driven by money”.

Long-term mismanagement and populism by other parties finally caught up with them, as we had long warned it would. Months of financial crisis came to a head alongside years of campaigning by the business community for the power to reduce Corporation Tax.

Stormont House committed the UK government to deliver on the latter, and the Executive parties to sort out the former. The two are absolutely linked. We can’t reduce Corporation Tax without a sustainable budget plan. Our worry remains that the other parties want the benefits, but won’t face up to the necessary work.

Let’s be clear. Alliance supports the devolution of power over Corporation Tax, and the opportunity to set a rate level to that across the border. However, nobody should believe that Corporation Tax alone is the silver bullet that will transform our economy. No inward investor is going to say “I like your tax rate, I don’t care whether you have skilled workers.”

Some of the other parties get that. But Alliance goes further. Yes, we need skilled and qualified staff. But we also need to invest in our infrastructure and improve our planning system. We need a real and coherent focus on sorting out all that is holding our economy back.

On Stephen Farry’s teacher training debacle:

So what happened when Stephen sought to address one of these issues- the fact that we train far more teachers than this society needs, at the expense of the university courses on which economic growth will depend?

Nationalist politicians leapt to the defence of the sectional interests of St Mary’s College and Unionists responded to bang the drum for Stranmillis. One for me, one for you politics, rather than a sensible decision on the prioritisation of scarce resources. Stephen’s balanced decision was called in to the Executive, where he won the argument hands down – how I wish you could have seen him resoundingly demolishing the arguments put up by other Ministers – but we lost the vote: eleven – two.

Here was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the Executive parties didn’t just sign up at Stormont House to get another Wonga loan from George Osborne. An opportunity to simultaneously tackle duplication, to restructure services, and to take a step towards integrating education. But every other Minister – DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and UUP – bowed to sectional interests.

Young people will continue to be trained as teachers for careers that do not exist and many of those who wish to study STEM subjects will have to leave Northern Ireland, meaning that they are less likely to become wealth creators here. To put the absurdity of the decision in even more stark relief, the other parties’ decision means that we continue to artificially inflate the number of teachers we train while simultaneously announcing 500 job losses for teachers.

So much for the backward-looking parties’ fine promises of supporting reform and restructuring. Sectional politics wins every time.

… If they can’t be trusted to stop interfering when Alliance reforms would save two million pounds, how have they the nerve to claim they can be trusted with finding two hundred million to pay for reduced Corporation Tax?

On this week’s welfare reform U-turn by SF and talks …

This week’s crisis raises even bigger questions about the future of the Agreement, even of the institutions. I don’t know who to be more frustrated with. Is it the SDLP, who sat silent throughout the Stormont House discussions on Welfare Reform, didn’t object to the agreement that was presented to the Government as the basis for all the other financial commitments, and then pursued a shamelessly populist strategy as the Welfare Bill made its way through the Assembly? Or is it Sinn Fein, who have now turned a full 360 degrees, opposing welfare reform, agreeing to implement it, and now opposing it once again.

Whoever is being more disingenuous, cynical or stupid, let me be absolutely clear where the blame will lie if this Agreement falls apart over welfare reform. It will lie with every MLA who signed last week’s Petition of Concern – Sinn Fein, SDLP and Green Party. Don’t let them get away with their claims that it’s all about protecting the vulnerable, because it’s not. It’s about protecting their own votes.

We can’t protect vulnerable people if we have to take another £200 million or more out of public services to fund further adjustments to benefits. We can’t protect the vulnerable if we have to take hundreds of millions out to pay fines to the Treasury. And we can’t make the step change in job creation if we can’t afford to reduce corporation tax. Their actions will damage jobs, damage public services, and damage the most vulnerable. Not so much left-wing as incompetent.

He said it was all about votes.

Forget the vulnerable in the long-term and focus on the party in the short-term. That’s their message …

Isn’t it strange that unionists opposed proportional representation, and said the X vote was better, yet whenever a Westminster election comes round they try to cobble together pacts to undermine a fair fight on the rules they claim they prefer? …

If they can discipline one of their own Councillors for sticking to her principles and telling the truth, we can expect more of the same …

Just a few months ago, the DUP Leader stood in this hall and made his Conference speech. You might have thought he would want to overturn the Sinn Fein majority of just four in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but you would have been wrong. He named East Belfast as his number one target. He wants to take it back. That’s what he has said. Take it back in every sense. The key passage was an attack on this party and what we stand for. I don’t intend to reply in kind – I don’t do bile and venom the way Mr Robinson does – but I am going to respond to his charges.

I am proud that in this party, we know how to treat flags with respect and fly them in the right place at the right time. We don’t use them to mark territory like dogs on a lamp post, to tell other people who’s in charge, and who’s not welcome.

I am proud that in Alliance we respect the rule of law and we uphold the determinations of the Parades Commission, the body established by Parliament to sort out the mess created on the streets by some parading groups and some protestors.

I am proud that Alliance representatives have stood firm for the rights of everyone in this society, including the female majority and religious, racial and sexual minorities.

I am proud that we, and only we, take a responsible approach to public expenditure, including proper consideration of fair and progressive taxation and service charges. Boasting about paying the lowest household taxes in the UK does nothing to provide services to those in most need, and cuts no ice when Ministers take their begging bowl to the Treasury.

So that’s my response to Robinson’s attempt to demonise Alliance as “flag-lowering, parade stopping, gay marriage supporting and water charging”. As for his claim that we’re “holier than thou”, well, we’re not.

But we are more committed to transforming Northern Ireland than you, Mr Robinson. We are more effective in government than you Mr Robinson. And we will work harder than you, Mr Robinson, to make our vision a reality.

It was Alliance who forced the DUP and Sinn Fein to publish a shared future strategy. It was Alliance who led the demands for it to be strengthened. It was Alliance who proposed what became the Haass talks. Alliance who pressed the governments to step up and take on their responsibilities when those talks failed.

Alliance ensured that the Stormont House Agreement included a commitment to an independent audit of how divisions in our society impact on the delivery of goods and services, and to consider how to reconfigure service delivery to build a shared future. And it will be Alliance who works to hold the parties to that commitment.

It’s Alliance who kept the promises on double-jobbing, and Alliance who led the way on transparency in public life.

In government, it’s Alliance Ministers who are tackling the big issues, facing up to our responsibilities, and delivering change. Managing our budgets, advancing a shared future, reducing unemployment and upskilling the workforce; reducing crime and re-offending, making communities safer and less divided. That’s what the people of Northern Ireland want, and need. They need political stability, political integrity, and a genuine commitment to uniting this community.

So in the face of the latest crisis, what are we to do? Give up and go home? Withdraw from the Executive and let them do their worst in two more departments? No. Like our founders, and all those who have promoted the Alliance vision of a radical alternative, we refuse to stand by and let our community suffer. Instead, we recommit ourselves to the task of securing political stability, demonstrating political integrity, and building a genuinely united community. To the task of mobilising all those who want a different, better future to step forward.

David Ford reminded delegates that “the biggest protests in Belfast this year haven’t been about flags or marches – they’ve been about facing down racism, and championing diversity”.

People want change; our task is to convince them that stepping forward to vote Alliance will bring that change closer, and that voting for the other parties pushes it away. To remind them that the UUP are sitting on the Twaddell Camp Committee alongside the DUP and PUP; that so-called moderate Gavin Robinson stood grinning outside the Court beside Ruth Patterson the day she admitted a charge of grossly offensive communication.

To remind people that no other party was prepared to back our proposal for a moratorium on flags decisions to avoid the new Councils being distracted by divisive arguments. That the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Green Party between them this week put the very future of our political institutions in real jeopardy, and the public services that they claim to defend at risk of further, and frankly dangerous, cuts.

History has left us a legacy of a society with two groups of people with two diametrically opposed views on a whole range of issues. They have maintained those differences for a century, while these islands, Europe, the world have changed beyond recognition. But to suggest that every person in Northern Ireland falls into one of two camps is simply nonsense. We are a much more complex society than that, more diverse, more open.

We see that when we engage with others who are concerned about the environment, about animal welfare, about international issues. We see that when we engage with those running integrated schools. We see that when we speak to a host of those working in local charities and community groups. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not the defining issue of everyday lives. It is time that our political structures and our political system recognised that.

The truth is that we are saddled with structures at Stormont which make building a united community harder, not easier. There is too much emphasis on protection for sectional interests rather than promotion of a shared future. We have seen in recent weeks and months that there is no likelihood of the sectional parties doing anything about this. Change has only happened where Alliance MLAs, an Alliance MP, and Alliance Ministers have stepped forward and driven change.

Our task now is to set out a bold, radical but realistic vision of what Northern Ireland could be, if people step forward with us and make it happen. A Northern Ireland where we take big steps forward.

Where we can afford to take big decisions on Corporation Tax because we’re prepared to take equally big decisions about tackling wasteful division.

Where we don’t insist on one sided policies on flags or decisions on parades.

Where the first priority in new councils is making local communities better places in which to live, work and play; not what flag to fly, what language to use on the letterhead, and what to sell in reception.

Where we celebrate the things that unite us, rather than commemorating the events that divide us.

Where children are integrated in schools – genuinely integrated in the classroom and playground, not segregated in a so-called shared campus. And where those schools deliver for all our children, not just some.

Where our colleges and universities are supported to educate and equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to contribute to society and compete in a global marketplace.

Where we have a health service that is effectively reformed and restructured to deliver world-class healthcare.

Where politics is known for delivery, not dithering; where politicians work to unite people, and to build confidence, rather than to divide them and play to their fears.

That’s the Alliance vision. Unique in Northern Ireland. A message to inspire and motivate people. A message to take to the doorsteps in the Westminster campaign and to keep on promoting to next year’s Assembly elections and beyond.

The same message, of aspiration and ambition for our community that motivated you to step forward and join Alliance, can motivate many thousands of others to step forward and vote for us. So let’s go from this place, committed to that vision and to making it a reality. Determined to build the kind of future that our community deserves. Not just deserves, but desperately needs.

After lunch and fringe events, the Alliance history Hope & History (Brian Eggins) was launched and Anna Lo chaired a panel discussion on What does the Environment do for Northern Ireland and how should we protect it? with contributions from Stephen McCabe (NI Environment Link), Joanne Sherwood (RSPB NI Director) and James Orr (Friends of the Earth).

Party chair Neil Kelly closed the conference, remarking

I would urge everyone, myself included, come May the 7th, 10 o’clock in the evening, I want to be able to say to myself that I could do no more to retain East Belfast.

David McCann interviewed Alliance’s South Belfast candidate (and Belfast City councillor) Paula Bradshaw and party leader David Ford.

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