The SDLP leadership and deputy leadership elections loomed over the opening Friday night business in Armagh City Hotel. It was impossible not to notice a reluctance of some representatives and delegates to applaud some of the contributions. And impossible to miss the illuminated advertising truck parked outside the conference entrance. [Scroll down to the bottom of this post for other speeches from the SDLP conference.]
The deal ‘up on the hill’ that is rumoured to be awaiting announcement on Monday also loomed. But by the end of the evening’s proceedings, it was the deaths and ongoing situation in Paris that was beginning to pervade the atmosphere.
Dolores Kelly began her speech by saying that she would not “spend the time available to me tonight setting out my stall to retain the deputy leadership if our party – I’ve leave that to you – I stand by my record”.
Last year if we had if we’re honest two disappointing elections but with some bright spots, particularly new people coming through as public representatives and a big improvement in our gender balance.
On the Westminster election:
There is no point pretending it was a good result in terms of share of vote, but it was an excellent result in terms of seats. All three seats held and in Alastair’s case, an almost gravity-defying performance in retaining for a third time an SDLP seat in an essentially unionist constituency. Long may be continue to confound his Westminster opponents in South Belfast.
She referred to “nasty abuse visited upon Alasdair during the campaign” saying that “it could only have come from people [who] have a track record in destroying people’s lives … I pay tribute to how he came through that campaign with dignity and forbearance”.
“Stop doing it” was the deputy leader’s message “for whoever is leaking internal party organisational memos to the media”, adding that it was “dishonourable”.
Her second message was pitched at Catherine Seeley: “whatever you might put in the paper, Dolores Kelly is going to retain her seat in Upper Bann”.
On the current political situation she said “there is a new breeze blowing”.
People of every persuasion are fed up with the lack of political progress and the lack of normalisation of our society.
The DUP and Sinn Féin “deliver on virtually nothing and even when they reach agreement the deal unravels later”. Saying that “they can’t get anything over the line” she listed the “millions wasted” at Desertcreat, the Maze campus, the A5 with “millions spent, no sign of a road”, “shambolic mismanagement of stadia” and “gross mismanagement of the Health Service by ten minute ministers”.
It is simply shocking when you compare the DUP/SF junta in Stormont with an effective, performing devolved administration in Edinburgh.
She closed her speech:
It’s early days but I see a desire for progressive unionism, form on the union maybe, but serious, perhaps for the first time, about positive partnership across the spectrum of government and every aspect of life here in Northern Ireland.
So I welcome some of the things Mike Nesbitt has been saying in recent times and while I’m dismayed with the Ulster Unionists running with the wolves in places like Twaddell, I am receiving Mike’s signals on education reform, on mental health provision and most importantly on the desire for a Government where the partners will actually try to respect and trust each other.
So my message today is “Signal received Mike” and when we finish the conference and the dust has settled on the latest ‘deal’ we will knock on your door to have some serious bilateral discussions between Progressive Unionism and Progressive Nationalism on the best way forward for Northern Ireland. So be ready.
Motions on the European Union, culture and political affairs were debated throughout the evening. During the section on social development and housing, Ormeau branch’s Dearbhla McDonnell proposed a motion on homelessness.
It wasn’t the first time Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton had stood on the platform of an SDLP conference. The former Presbyterian Moderator and now Convenor the denomination’s Council for Church in Society spoke about reconciliation. His speech is reproduced below in full.
In spite of, or maybe because of, the terrible years of conflict here in Northern Ireland, we are still in the kindergarten when we speak of ‘Reconciliation’. That is not to deny that things have changed radically very much for the better, but one has only to look at the often shameful quality of public debate and discourse to hear language that demeans, devalues and scorns the views of others and what they hold dear.
In such an environment, the language of Reconciliation lives in a far off country. And other factors – such as our increasing devotion to individualism and personal rights entitlements at the expense of communal well being – are making the climate for reconciliation increasingly chilly.
In the next few minutes I want to offer for your consideration four different, but connected ideas, that might just help us restart a worthwhile conversation across our society on what a robust, just and worthy understanding of Reconciliation might look like.
First – Reconciliation must not be captured by, trapped by or ensnared with questions of national identity. Reconciliation transcends constitutional questions, yet values very differing loyalties and identities. This is a key lesson that our colleagues in Rwanda have been teaching us, and which we ignore at our peril. It 1994, a murderous ethnic killing spree between the rival Hutu and Tutsi tribes took the lives of nearly one million people there. A graphic comment from a local leader there:
‘The fact that you know your neighbour killed your entire family and now you’re still in the house next to them and have to see them every day, a lot of people have sort of decided, I don’t have a choice. And either I can let my rage absolutely consume me, or I can accept the fact that I’m not going anywhere, and he’s not going anywhere, and we have to make this work.’
Reconciliation transcends constitutional questions, yet values very differing loyalties and identities.
This takes me to my second point. There is as yet no agreed working definition of what Reconciliation is about. It is certainly not some kind of politicised or political project – though the political arena has much to contribute. More on that in a moment. Neither is it core community relations work rebranded with a fancy name. Nor is it an attempt to persuade you to agree with me.
I want to suggest that Reconciliation is fundamentally the restoring and healing of fractured relationships. It is about the quality of relationships between people, communities and even nations who were, and still are, estranged from each other, often because of the intense pain and hurt inflected and experienced. This leads me to the best day-to-day description of Reconciliation that I currently have… working together for the common good, with generosity of spirit and care for the other at its very heart.
On this basis, we could carefully identify not only our own values, hopes, aspirations, needs and frustrations, but understand and appreciate much better the values, hopes, aspirations, needs and frustrations of the other. With this done, the task would be to work out how to meet the needs of the other in a way that is mutually beneficial.
In Christian terms, this means doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This generosity of spirit and this working together would create more space for the development of the trust and changed attitudes that are necessary for Reconciliation to begin to take root. If Reconciliation is to be genuine and sustained, it must have at its core – benefit and blessing to everyone involved. Put very simply, each grouping, each party, each community should be prepared to be content if the other benefits even more than they do.
My understanding of Reconciliation is of course massively shaped by my understanding of what it means to be a committed Christian – for example, the core teaching of Jesus to love my neighbour as myself and the dramatic outworking of that command in the story of the Good Samaritan…. but equally I am convinced that such teaching is of huge value to those with a different view of life and even those who will disavow any faith commitment.
Can any worthwhile view of Reconciliation do less than affirm that Reconciliation must bring benefit and blessing to everyone involved, and that I, as one party, will be very content if you benefit even more than I do? I fully appreciate that this is a party political conference, but I want to suggest that those of us in this audience, who, as individuals, cherish our faith have a personal responsibility to take those small steps of friendship and fellowship which have the potential to transform relationships across our community.
I am very aware of examples right across the faith communities where members have found such dialogue richly and mutually rewarding. As a Christian first and foremost, and as a Presbyterian on this island, I can do no less.
Thirdly – The healing of broken relationships can either be helped or hindered by the outworking of public policy, so social justice and key policy decisions matter a lot. To put this in plain English: If we are committed to Reconciliation, then we MUST and WILL ensure that housing policy / education policy / funding priorities / investment and employment policies are explicitly designed to ensure that division, ignorance and bitterness are not transmitted to our children either consciously, or by unthinking default. If the quality of education is low in a community and the levels of unemployment are high, then you can scarcely expect that community to be fired up by the need for Reconciliation with another community perhaps in much the same situation.
I readily acknowledge the acute difficulty of doing this. One has only to look at the sectarian graffiti daubed at a Newtownabbey housing development earlier this week. That new development was an initiative under the Executive’s strategy: Together Building a United Community. It had been marketed as a “mixed community where people choose to live with others regardless of their race, religion or background in a neighbourhood that is safe and welcoming to all”.
That aspiration for that development now seems dead in the water and is a salutary warning that even major public policy initiatives can be easily thwarted. The response surely must be to build a robust Reconciliation Policy as well as building the houses and not simply cross our fingers and hope that good intentions with public money will deliver.
Finally – and perhaps the most demanding element of all in Reconciliation is this: Forgiveness and the acknowledgement of wrong doing must surface in public discourse across the whole of our society. As we have seen again this week, those who died in war can be commemorated, but conflict and war itself can never be celebrated. Have we forgotten the words and the example of Gordon Wilson after the Enniskillen bombing in November 1987 in which his daughter Marie died?
His words, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge”, were reported worldwide, becoming among the most-remembered quotations from the Troubles. He told the BBC that he forgave her killers and added: “I shall pray for those people tonight and every night.” His call for forgiveness and Reconciliation came to be called the Spirit of Enniskillen.
That call has not been sounded loud enough in recent times. It must do so.
I offer these thoughts and suggestions to a party whose conference and leadership played a huge part in bringing us from a place of conflict to a place where a peace process is firmly embedded.
I humbly ask you this: As a party and as a leadership are you just as willing now to try to help us transition from the place of the peace process to the place where Reconciliation in well under way in our land?
I hope that the answer is a resounding yes!
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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.