The family atmosphere was obvious at the SDLP conference. Generations mixing, lots of babies being cooed over, and a continuous buzz in the rooms and corridors outside the conference hall. [Scroll down to the bottom of this post for other speeches from the SDLP conference. Environment Minister Mark H Durkan addressed delegates early on the Saturday morning.] In fact, it was only in the minutes before Alasdair McDonnell began his lunchtime speech that the hall finally started to fill up.
The speech began with a period of silence to “stand together with the victims, their families and the people of France”.
Much of the leader’s address was a campaigning speech, pitched at the third of delegates who hadn’t yet cast their vote in the ballot box upstairs in Armagh City Hotel.
There was no detail about the deal carved out by the DUP and Sinn Féin that is expected to be launched early next week. He hinted that the SDLP could leave the Executive if next May’s Programme for Government fell short of their ideals, but not suggestion that they would follow Mike Nesbitt out into opposition any sooner.
Compared with speeches at previous annual conferences, there seemed to be unanimous agreement that it was McDonnell’s strongest and best delivered. The speech gained traction within the hall towards the end, though while everyone in the hall rose to their feet at its conclusion, it was obvious that not everyone was clapping. But any undecided delegates who held off casting their vote would have been mildly impressed.
When you elected me Party Leader in 2011 I said I would do three things: I would recruit new candidates; I would re-organise the party and I would make the party battle ready for elections not just this year or next but for the next twenty years.
I set about developing a strategy to professionalise and update the party. I never promised you overnight success but I believe we’re moving in the right direction. There is a long hard graft ahead but we have never shirked from a challenge.
Forty-five years after this great party was born we recognise that we do need to update, to refresh and to reach out to a whole new generation of people.
It was Away back 30 years ago on a visit to Washington when Tip O’Neill – the former Speaker [of the House of Representatives] –said to myself and other SDLP colleagues that there were a number of very simple ingredients to a successful campaign. He advised us that we needed the issues that mattered to people, candidates that people would vote for and we needed to put a good organisation behind them.
Well conference, I think over the last couple of years we have recruited some great candidates. And we have the issues and the policies nailed down: we were never short of new ideas. And we have the party structures, increasingly better organised and already ready to do electoral battle in the years ahead.
I intend to make good on my promise of party renewal but that work is not yet complete. I know what’s needed to win elections: it’s called hard work, vision and dedication. I know that together, you and I can make this party successful again.
We often talk about Vision. Conference it’s no good having a vision unless you have a plan to put into action to make it happen.
I have both. My vision has been guided by the founding principles of this party. It is a vision of a new and better Ireland for the next generation, brought about by honest dialogue, active persuasion and genuine agreement.
It is an Ireland brought about by uniting people around a common cause, like the United Irishmen 225 years ago whose objective was a simple one: to unite Catholic, Protestant and dissenter under the common banner of Irishmen and Irishwomen. That vision won’t be realised by wishful thinking. It will require considerable time and effort to make it happen.
As we do so first of all we must bring about genuine reconciliation within the North and then between the North and the South. We must undo the hurt and the pain arising from 30 awful years of violent and savage conflict.
Second we must secure meaningful social justice, and ensure that no child can be left behind and that no adult is denied the dignity of a decent life.
And the third point, we must ensure that Northern Ireland works for all its people and that all the resources we can muster, whether natural or man-made are marshalled to create prosperity and economic opportunity for all in 2016 and in the years beyond.
When I took over in 2011 the political obituaries were already written [for the SDLP]. The need for reorganisation and renewal was screamingly obvious and I threw myself into that, and I think I can claim some success in that regard. The other job that needed to be done was to reunite the party, to get us all pulling on the same rope and hopefully in the same direction.
That was why I offered a system of collective leadership, so that as many as possible of the senior members of the party and the office-holders would be involved in all major decisions. It has proved challenging at times but I remain determined to with deliver openness, partnership and meaningful change.
Because change is coming.
Generational change has been under way for some time as a look at our new council team will prove.
Generational change is making its way through this party, and eventually it will get to me. [DELEGATES LAUGH]
I don’t expect to stay for ever, or for even a moment longer that I need to get the job done. But we do need proper succession planning at all levels in this party because it is absolutely integral to the project of continuous party renewal which we have already begun.
That project is already reaping rewards. We are beginning to see more than just the first green shoots of recovery in areas where people have embraced the need for renewal and recovery.
We have helped to, breathe life into branches that were moribund and we’ve discovered some exceptional new faces and new people that will be future key players in the party.
I am very proud to say that in the upcoming Assembly Elections we will have about 60% of our candidates fighting an Assembly Election for the first time. [McDonnell points to candidates sitting behind him on the platform] These are some of the people that will put the SDLP back in control at Stormont, back in control of the politics that we know this country needs. To me that is meaningful change.
Following the local elections in 2014, 40% our councillors were new and 40% of our councillors were women (up from 22% in the previous cycle). At the recent Westminster elections we retained our three MP seats: a tremendous result given that it was an election of cynical unionist electoral pacts and some particularly dirty political tricks in my own Constituency.
From a party values point of view, our guiding pillars are Reconciliation, Prosperity and Social Justice. Conference the question for you and for me is how do we use these key pillars help us break the current stagnation and political deadlock?
We may well be on our way to another half-baked agreement but how long will it be before we are back for more discussions, let’s call it Stormont House III?
The public are sick, sore and tired of political inertia and to be honest so am I. We need long-term and sustainable solutions and we need to get outside the political class to find them.
The current round of talk has gone on for some 9 weeks but in reality the crisis has been with us for almost 3 years since we sent for Richard Haass was brought in to sort it out.
The big issue is dealing with the past, obtaining satisfactory arrangements that will provide truth and justice for victims and survivors.
Britain is resisting tooth and nail our every demands for open and fair disclosure of the sort of information that victims and survivors require. We will not settle for anything less than truth and justice for victims and survivors.
We could create functional structures that might deliver truth and justice but the refusal of the British to allow access to fundamental information, under a blanket barrier of National Security, will frustrate any structure that is devised.
On the issue of Welfare we have demanded adequate mitigation around the severe welfare cuts. Our original amendments on the Welfare Bill were sabotaged when the DUP deployed their Petition of Concern. We will demand adequate protection for the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalised in our society. Massive cut backs to working tax credits and child tax credits have made a difficult situation almost impossible.
Paramilitarism has been a scourge on this society and holds back political, social and economic progress. We have to rid Northern Ireland – for once and for all – of Paramilitary groups and paramilitary activity and paramilitary influence. There must be zero tolerance of Paramilitary activity and the associated mafia-like community stranglehold that goes with it. Both Governments and all political parties must work together to eradicate all aspects of paramilitary pressure on our communities.
Many of you will share my frustration that we seem to lurch from one crisis to another at Stormont. We risk facing a future of recurring deadlock and crisis management if we don’t start addressing the fundamental issues holding our society and our people back.
Conference, I believe there’s a real need some meaningful way of again reconnecting the whole political process with our social partners. There’s got to be a permanent and protected space where business and trade unions, farmers and retailers, community and voluntary bodies, the churches and other key stakeholders can have some direct input and impact on the political process.
I believe that it is time to move beyond the Stormont political bubble. We have a delicate political system which is facing the challenges that the Good Friday Agreement could never have foreseen. We must find creative ways of solving the new problems that have arisen in recent years.
Following the Good Friday Agreement we had hoped that having partnership and power-sharing at the centre would create a political space for reconciliation to happen and trust to be built but that changed with the St Andrews Agreement a decade ago.
That modification of the Good Friday Agreement encouraged some of the parties to maximise their vote by standing as single-community champions, as tribal chieftains cannibalising support from smaller groups within their own community.
Rather than tackle the underlying conflict, they have frozen it. From their perspective forward movement is destabilising, so they seek processes which are static rather than dynamic. And for them it is literally safer to divide up poverty than to seek prosperity. It is safer to pluck a couple of old issues out of their frozen conflict, and to have another sham fight about flags or parades, than to tackle the real challenges that real people face in the real world.
For them it is safer to treat a real issue such as the welfare cuts in the old sham fight way than to do what people are crying out for, which is to cut an honest deal as real politicians in the real world would do.
Although people rail every day on the radio against the Stormont stalemate, there is little or no evidence that the responsible parties are suffering much electoral damage. For instance the policy of the ten-minute DUP Ministers should have hurt the DUP electorally but it probably won’t once we’re caught up in the election trap.
While the DUP might have blamed Sinn Féin and indeed other parties for their in-out regime we know the real reason was because they were blind-sided by Mike Nesbitt [walking out of the Executive]. They devised a silly scheme to prevent their departments from working properly. The public were furious and so was I.
Finance Minister Arlene Foster was content to monitor what she called rogue and renegade elements, the nationalist and republican Executive colleagues during the recent crisis.
Health Minister Simon Hamilton decided to put his feet up at a time when the out-patient waiting list is at 153,000. That’s not the worst of it, that’s going to be 200,000 barrier by April of next year at the rate it’s growing at. Whether Simon decided to stay in post or not this rise in waiting list numbers is coming at us.
That is a damning indictment of successive DUP Health ministers who each in turn have failed to get to grips with our health service or help alleviate the excruciating pressures faced by the public and by health workers.
Rather than Arlene acting as a watchdog on finance perhaps Simon could have been watching the waiting lists and may Simon could have done something about them.
The DUP always put their party political interests rather than the people’s interest first. Can that go on indefinitely? I think there has to be a better way to doing business and attending to public affairs.
And let me predict what will be the central thrust of the campaign at next Assembly election. On the DUP side the slogan will be: “Vote for us or else Martin McGuinness will become the First Minister”. And Sinn Féin will respond: “Vote for us because Martin will be First Minister”. Who needs policies and programmes when we can reduce democratic debate to such banal simplicity?
Well, actually I want policies and programmes that make a difference. And I think you want them. And I think our people out there want them.
Conference I want to assure you that our party will assess in-depth the quality and character of the next Programme for Government that will come after the next Assembly election. And if it doesn’t come up to the mark or deliver for the public then we will not shy away – we will not be afraid – to make some very tough decisions around that.
In the meantime we have just got to find ways of shifting the political centre of gravity out of the frozen conflict zone, created by Sinn Féin and the DUP, and into the social and economic sphere. If we embrace the model of social partnership then that will mean that social justice and the economy are top of the agenda.
The hard won peace process helped transform this region but it was never meant to be the final chapter. It was a foundation stone for a better future.
If we are to see this society and its people truly emerge from conflict we need another kind of transformation. We need a prosperity process that produces training, and skill development and economic opportunity for our young people. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8million and a good bit less than half of them are economically active. We lag dangerously behind our neighbours in the South and indeed across Europe.
We need to have at least one million people working if we are to have any hope of building a prosperous society. At present we generate revenues of around £14billion a year but we consume £24 billion and we end up with £10 billion of a block grant. My big worry is that London will not pay forever and we know this current Tory government are not going to roll back on their austerity programme and they’re going to cut our support here to the bone.
So our situation is fundamentally and economically unsustainable and that is why we desperately need our own prosperity strategy.
That’s we put at the top of the talks agenda jobs, infrastructure development and skills development at the top of the agenda along with the other issues like welfare, dealing the past and paramilitary activity. . Welfare has been a difficult issue but we have stood firm to protect the vulnerable and marginalised in our society.
I believe that the fiscal deficit is an unspoken but absolute barrier to our aspiration of Irish unity. Unless we make Northern Ireland work economically our dream of Irpish Unity will remain pie in the sky.
We can make Northern Ireland work by building our community to generate enough revenue to pay for the public service we want without being dependent.
We need a new consensus between the two governments, the five parties and the public for a programme of rapid economic growth.
We want to offer the Government a new deal: let them advance to us some of the subventions, perhaps five years’ worth and let us invest that in building a future. And after 12 or 15 years I believe that we’d be able to pay our own way and stand on our own two feet.
[Ed – not unlike what Mike Nesbitt suggested in a speech in 2011.] http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/10/22/uup-conference-short-sweet-secretary-of-state-spoke-an-orange-lodge-scolded/
Over the last 60 years there have been 15 major economic reports highlighting the general economic downward trends. We don’t need any more reports to tell us the obvious, to tell us what we already know.
The primary investment of the Prosperity Process should be in a massive programme of workforce training and skill enhancement at all levels. At its core should be very strong collaboration between business and third-level education linked in to quality research and development investment in line with the best practice in the Irish Republic and across Europe.
We need to think unconventionally, to make the case for infrastructural investment from the Treasury which we can and will repay. We need better roads, we need rail and we need better broadband connections and we need to be first movers in the development of wind, wave and tidal energy and to use such projects deliberately and strategically for continuous enhancement of workforce skills.
If we want our people to prosper, we can’t leave the economy just to the economists because running societies and changing things for the better is not their business. Change requires pro-active political intervention, change is the business of principled politics. We want that long-term deal with the Treasury that helps create prosperity.
If we can create the space for one million of our people to be in work than we are one step closer to bringing the people of Ireland together. If we make Northern Ireland work then the case for a United Ireland becomes a lot more compelling. Conference, creating prosperity will see us realise that ideal.
If we are to achieve Prosperity and Irish Unity we need to reconcile all the people living on this Island. At the time of the Good Friday negotiations the SDLP fully recognised the challenges inherent in re-integrating paramilitary prisoners back into society, and we also recognised the necessity to do so.
It hasn’t been without its challenges and it is time for all parties to speak out on some paramilitaries who took the benefits of the peace process and are still wreaking havoc in communities across Northern Ireland.
We want an end to all paramilitary activity and the mafia-like community control that flows for it. It is not enough for them to have a non-aggression pact with the British but continue to oppress ordinary people in deprived communities.
The recent Independent Panel Report has provided Sinn Feín with a unique opportunity to break the political deadlock by just telling the truth. [APPLAUSE]
Awful crimes were and unfortunately still are being carried out in the name of the people of Ireland, that’s your name and my name. We can’t turn a blind to that and we won’t turn a blind eye to it.
The current proposals on the negotiating table have fallen far short of the Eames Bradley proposals which were torn up by Unionist politicians. Dealing with the past has been extremely difficult. We will continue to demand truth and justice for victims and survivors.
The Legacy Bill proposed by the Secretary of State provides cold comfort for victims. The proposed Historical Investigation Unit must have the full power to investigate all outstanding cases and those that were inadequately completed or unfinished by the Historical Enquiries Team. But the British Government want to sweep as much as possible, of the past dirty war under a carpet, a carpet of national security. We are not and will not agree to that. No crimes can be concealed by a blanket of national security.
If we are to build a better future that we all want for our children then we must deal with the past in a truthful and ethical way. Truth and reconciliation are inextricably bound together. If we want to become a truly reconciled people then we must be comfortable with difference in our workplaces, in our neighbourhood and in our public places.
That is the only way we will he able to heal the hurt of the past and start looking towards a prosperous new Ireland.
The recent BBC/RTE opinion poll and cross-border debate was informative. There is a broad agreement that people both North and South want to see this Northern Ireland work. They want to see power-sharing and partnership delivering real reconciliation and they have reasonable concerns about whether the ‘basketcase’ economy in the north could bear the weight of unity.
We can’t unite Ireland until we unite this place and start making it work properly. The SDLP are the only party who have the credibility and vision to deliver on a new and agreed Ireland.
Conference over the coming year I intend to widen and deepen our outreach to a number of key allies in Dublin, London, Brussels and te United States. I will continue to advocate as I always have done for SDLP interests. Over the past 4 years we have managed to re-establish crucial links with friends that we had previously lost touch with and this re-connection has been vital to sustaining the party renewal process.
People are excited to see what exactly our renewal and regeneration process will look like. All will be revealed in the weeks ahead. If we all commit to the renewal and rebuilding process, t I expect some very positive days ahead for this party.
One of the key priorities for us in the next year is opposing with every sinew we have the possible British exit from Europe. The SDLP have played a pivotal role and will continue to play a pivotal role in leading the all-Ireland debate. Sinn Féin and the Unionists are not committed in any meaningful way to Europe. We are the only party prepared to show leadership on this vital issue and to advocate strongly for the European Union.
As a passionately proud Irish man and a European I am deeply worried about the ramifications for this island if Britain exits the European Union.
Such an exit would have a devastating impact not just on the City of London and other major British Cities but it would have adverse consequences for the massive daily trade between Ireland and Britain.
For us in the North it would have a punishing impact in particular. Some people reckon it might cost us as much as £2,000 a head in terms of lost income and lost revenues.
If Britain were to exit from Europe, where would funds be found to replace the EU Single Farm Payment for Northern Ireland farmers?
A report prepared for the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Open University Business School, says that between 2007 and 2013, a total of £2.42 billion in EU funds came into Northern Ireland, and half of that £1.2 billion was in Single Farm Payments.
Does anyone think that Britain will be able or willing to replace that, especially if Britain still has to contribute to the EU budget as a non-member in order to get access to the EU Single Market? Our agriculture industry would be devastated if Britain was to leave the European Union.
The SDLP view is that Europe has been good for us good for us in a dozen different ways. It has evolved and developed over the past 70 years for the better.
Its goal from the outset was and remains to cultivate mutual dependence between European states so they could never again go to war with one another, as they did with such disastrous consequence twice in the last century.
Reaching out to mobilise civil society in favour of staying in Europe will be crucial to winning this referendum. It’s a process that must occur both within Ireland and Britain. They have to reach out to the Irish diaspora-our sons, daughters, aunts, uncles and cousins living in Britain. They need to be a moderating voice in a campaign which could be overwhelmed by Euro-sceptics in Britain.
We in the SDLP cannot allow Britain to sleepwalk out of Europe. Irish people – North and South – have a huge role to play. It’s a fight the SDLP are determined to lead on and determined to win.
In summary, 45 years after this party helped inspire a generation seeking equality, social justice and a better future, the SDLP must rise up again and renew itself all over again. During the past 20 years we have put all our efforts into ensuring that the problem political parties were integrated into the structures of devolution and that there was some basic decency.
This cost our party very dearly. I’m not saying we would do things differently. If we had to do it over again I’d be quite prepared to make the sacrifices that were necessary to get us from the hell that we were in with violence and all the rest.
Our principled stance in serving the public good and politics well is over. We will refuse to be a mud-guard for the problem parties any longer. [INTERRUPTED BY LONG APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]
We have woken up to the harsh realities of doing business with those who are resisting power-sharing and cross border development at every term. And we’re wide awake to the difficulties of doing politics and doing business with those who can’t tell the truth about the past.
We will stand together. We won’t be afraid to make tough decisions in the interests of the betterment of our society. To meet the challenges of the next 20 years our party has adopted a powerful programme of renewal and rebuilding which will be crucial in helping us develop key policies, recruit the best representatives possible and appeal to voters whatever their age or background. That’s the agenda we’re setting for the next 20 years.
We’ll be creating jobs and growing the economy, that’s going to be front and centre of all we do.
To those that say we can’t, or say that we have had our time, I say that this party will be great again.
I believe passionately in this party and its bright future because, when the SDLP is strong, our politics are so much the better for it. When the SDLP is strong, the structures of government work much better and much more constructively.
When the SDLP is strong, the marginalised and the weak in our society are protected. When the SDLP is strong our people have hope, hope for a brighter future.
There is a better way and that’s the SDLP way and that’s were we’re going.
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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.