Subdued Alliance say it’s “time to get Northern Ireland moving forward, faster” #ap2016

Compared with last year’s Naomi Long election rally, today’s Alliance Party conference was a subdued affair. Delegate numbers were stable, but the palpable passion of 2015 was muted.

Goodbyes were said to long-standing MLAs who were standing down. David Ford mostly avoided political knockabout in his half hour speech. Liberal values were emphasised as much as sharing and reconciliation, with several speeches mentioning the party’s support for LGBT rights and limited reform of abortion.

Yet this is an election where consolidation is not good enough for Alliance. Growth is needed. Two additional Alliance MLAs (a rise from 8 to 10) could give them a good chance when the d’Hondt tombola is spun after the election in May. On very crowded ballot papers, a few hundred votes here and there will keep candidates from the parties that tried the hardest in the race while others are excluded.

Naomi Long delivered a speech which reminded delegates about the decision she made when she graduated from university and chose to stay in Northern Ireland. Having been deputy leader of Alliance for ten years, she is the prime candidate to take over from David Ford after May’s election, and today’s address conveyed to delegates that her rejuvenation was complete and she is reinvigorated and ready to return to front line politics.

Stephen Farry received praise from the party leader for his work as a minister and his contribution to the Executive. While some commentators (and audience members) attending Slugger O’Toole’s post-conference event questioned the wisdom of Alliance returning to the Ministry of Justice, Stephen Farry is the obvious choice if when the moment comes.

After party chairman Andrew Muir’s opening remarks, a panel on embracing diversity and brief speeches by Assembly candidates, three senior figures in the party took to the podium.

Stephen FarryStephen Farry, Minister for Employment and Learning outlined Alliance vision that “by 2030 Northern Ireland will be regarded as the most innovative and dynamic region in Europe”.

Driven by the skills of our people and our investments in science and technology, Northern Ireland will be a leader in the knowledge economy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, agri-food and tourism.

The productivity gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will have been closed, and indeed Northern Ireland will be well above the UK average.

We will be a much prosperous society, with higher wage levels and greater levels of equality and social mobility.

More people will be in employment than ever before, and we will have finally addressed the longstanding structural problem of economic inactivity.

He reiterated Alliance’s pro-Europe stance and described the UK Government’s referendum as reckless and unnecessary.

Alliance realises that the European Union is not perfect and does need to be reformed … Europe is about consolidating peace, and promoting peace and human rights. Countries are still queuing up to join at the time that some in the UK are itching to leave …

Northern Ireland does well in terms of access to European Programmes and support for our rural economy. We won’t be fooled by any notion that Northern Ireland would get the same or more money back if we were left in the hands of the UK Government.

But leaving aside the financial transfers, the critical point is that Europe offers access to a huge single market worth over £700 Billion. And exports are central to the Northern Ireland Economy Strategy, with over half already going into that EU market.

The voices of the business community are overwhelming for staying in. It defies belief that some parties and politician, who claim to support the local economy, would deny the logic of those who are the experts in creating wealth and jobs. The prospect of leaving Europe, at the time when we are about to deliver that long sought ability to lower the local rate of corporation tax, is a cruel irony.

Our access to Europe is one of the most compelling reasons for investing into Northern Ireland. I have done a lot of work on encouraging investment over the past five years. In all of that time, I have not a single investor who has advocated that Northern Ireland would be better out of Europe.

On the need for skills and further/higher education …

With the decision to set a date and a rate for a lower rate of Corporation Tax of 12.5% from 1 April 2018, the requirement to invest in the skills base takes on an increased urgency.

I will continue to advocate this lower rate of Corporation Tax as something that can transform our economy, and showcase the quality of our people and the quality of our universities and colleges to the investment community.

But let me be clear, Corporation Tax will not work in a vacuum. It is about both tax and talent. This is an inescapable requirement for the Executive to invest much more in our skills base – addressing the funding gap to our universities, building our economic focused FE Colleges even more, and delivering our new system of apprenticeships.

On the economic benefits of diversity …

There is one further component that undermines Alliance’s economic vision – that is an open, diverse and integrated society. It is these societies that have the most successful economies.

We need to ensure that we provide a progressive society to encourage local people to stay and to attract other people to come. And this includes ensuring that we have the full spectrum of progressive social policies in place – including equal marriage.

I was in San Francisco and Silicon Valley six weeks ago – the tech centre of the world. And yes, these are genuine factors behind investment decisions.

On skills …

Northern Ireland has historically had a low profile in terms of skills. But since 2011, we have been radically turning that around with greater provision all round and at higher levels, with a particular focus on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

We have improved the start of the skills pipeline with a greater focus on careers, including a revised Careers Strategy for Northern Ireland and the Skills Barometer – the most modern instrument for measuring skill needs anywhere in Europe.

Farry highlighted a gender imbalance in high growth sectors …

One particularly important theme is that we ensure that we address the gender imbalance in terms of the profile of workers in different sectors of the economy. Women are graduating in greater numbers than men, but are remain under-represented in the upper echelons in terms of many professions and high growth sectors of the economy. We cannot expect to compete in the global marketplace, if we don’t make full use of the local marketplace of talent.

Naomi LongThe conference delegates chuckled as deputy leader Naomi Long started her speech:

It has been twelve long months since I last addressed you at conference. I promise you this will not be an angry speech.

She reflected on the Westminster 2015 election, and thanked staff, campaigners and voters, in particular those involved in her own campaign. Describing the East Belfast result as “a moral victory” she added:

For those who said our win in 2010 was due to the scandal surrounding due to the DUP at the time or was merely a protest vote, we have demonstrated with the help of the East Belfast electorate that it was much, much more than that. It was a sincere and sustained move to choose more progressive politics and make real change.

That Unionism united would poll scarcely two and a half thousand votes more than Alliance That the DUP would need the help of the UUP, UKIP TUV and PUP to wind back their traditional heartland of East Belfast would have been unthinkable only six short years ago.

The party’s deputy leader delivered a largely personal speech. Having lost her Commons seat in May 2015 …

For the first time since I was 29 I found myself without an elected role and with a real choice about my future.

She said that her reasons for joining the party were stull true today.

The speech included sections on gender inequality and diversity. How could an MP fail to challenge a member of the public who said “Get the ethnics out”?

It wasn’t just principles that encouraged me to come back but the passion I have for NI and realising it.

She spoke about abortion – acknowledging that Alliance representatives had the freedom to act in line with their conscience – and said that unlike other parties, David Ford and and Alliance had kept their promises to Sarah Ewart around Foetal Fatal Abnormalities.

There was a call for politics in NI to become more transparent and accountable.

Only by being so can the public scrutinise and judge for themselves whether politicians are making their decisions in the public interest or their own or their party’s interests.

Every year I speak at our conference and every year there appears to be some accusation of corruption or greed at the heart of our political system. It’s as though nothing is learnt from the repetition – nothing changes except what was the whiff of corruption is now rapidly becoming a stench which hangs heavily over the guilty and innocent alike.

Year after year Alliance has pressed for change and year after year other parties seek to pause progress, further fuelling the public’s mistrust and suspicion. Scrutiny is key to delivering open, transparent and accountable governance. No politician should seek to pause progress towards delivering it and the public will rightly question the motives of those who do.

David FordParty leader David Ford began his speech by singling out deputy leader Naomi Long for praise.

Naomi is no longer an MP. But after the flag protests, the insults, the threats, the violence, Naomi added 4,000 votes to what we were told was the high water mark of 2010. Only a cynical five-party pact, between parties which have been tearing lumps off each other ever since polling day, managed to scrabble together enough votes to unseat Naomi – and even then they couldn’t manage to get 50% in a supposedly Unionist seat like East Belfast.

Do I need to remind you of the graceless, personally insulting speech made by the new MP at the election count? Let’s just say this. I am looking forward to the Assembly election and the start of another Five Long Years. More Long service to the people of East Belfast. More Long leadership in the Assembly. More Long work to transform Northern Ireland. Many more Long Years. Welcome back to the Assembly team, Naomi.

The applause in the hall was … long.

In Council elections, our vote up by 50% in 2011, and up again in 2014, despite all the predictions to the contrary. Our best ever European election result in 2014. In the Assembly elections of 2007 and again 2011 an increase in votes and seats.

With the Assembly election looming, Ford said that the party faces the challenge “of ensuring enough Alliance MLAs are elected to ensure we retain a seat in the smaller Executive”.

In particular, through three long autumns of talks, we have seen so-called political leaders fail time and again to deliver the significant, important changes that this society needs. Those parties charged with leading our Executive and our political process have held us back; dithering and disagreeing; protecting their own votes at the expense of progress; mis-managing public finances for short-term gain. Perhaps worst of all, preventing us from dealing with the past in a way that would allow us to move into the future.

Recently, the Secretary of State said she was disappointed at the outcome of the so-called “Fresh Start” of last November. She’s disappointed? How does she think we feel? And if she’s disappointed, why did she sign-off on it?

On victims …

Of course, in any agreement not everyone will get all that they want; compromise requires give and take. But when it comes to victims and survivors, all parties should have been prepared to give, and the two governments should have insisted on that. We told the Secretary of State, time and again, that we wouldn’t sign up to an agreement that, again, left victims and survivors to the side, and nor should the UK government. We told her that she had the leverage to secure a genuinely comprehensive agreement, but when a deal seemed easier to secure by ignoring victims, she blinked.

I described the so-called “Fresh Start” as a False Dawn for Victims of the past. I am amused, but pleased, that a number of journalists have repeated the phrase. But I am anything but pleased that it is true. Those who expected something for victims and survivors have been let down, yet again.

Shame on those who let them down: the two Governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP. Our position is simple, clear and resolute: deal with the past, or there’s no deal. If only others had been as resolute. And how sad that Arlene Foster, as one of her first comments when she became DUP leader, said that we couldn’t deal with past before the election. She was effectively saying that electoral politics came first; that dealing with the past requires leadership, and she and others weren’t prepared to show leadership in case it cost their party votes. Party first; victims second. So much for new leadership.

On political compromise ….

Yes, we will compromise when it serves Northern Ireland to do so, when it helps us to move forward and make things better. But we won’t compromise when it holds Northern Ireland back. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: We are not a “split-the-difference” party, whose vision is limited to whatever might keep both unionists and nationalists happy at any given moment. Too often, that’s what the political process has amounted to. Too often, that’s what Governments have done. Too often, that’s blocked real change.

ap2016 Alliance Conference HallOn his six years as Minister of Justice …

I can honestly say that there has been more fundamental reform to the Justice system in those six years than in the previous sixteen – or possibly twenty six. All has been around the concept of building a safer community, and a shared community.

Public confidence in the fairness of the justice system: up. Confidence in the PSNI: up. Victims placed at the heart of the justice system, and their satisfaction with how that system dealt with them: up.

Rates of offending: down. The number of first-time entrants into the justice system: down. The proportion of our young people involved with youth justice services: down. Processing times for youth conferences, and delays in youth courts and magistrates’ courts: down. The number of interface structures that divide our community: down.

Millions of pounds seized from criminals and diverted to the community; new laws to tackle sexual crimes, fuel laundering and animal cruelty; the Legal Aid system reformed.

Aside from these short term outcomes, Ford pointed to the justice reform agenda “with outcomes to be delivered in the years ahead”.

Hydebank College, formerly the Young Offenders Centre, is the first example of a secure college in the country, with over 90% [inmates] now engaged in accredited courses which will integrate them with society outside. While credit is due to Prison staff and the staff of Belfast Metropolitan College, the plaque at the front door names two Ministers who provided the leadership, Stephen Farry and David Ford. Two Alliance Ministers leading: moving forward, faster.

Referring to Stephen Farry’s five years as Minister of Employment and Learning, the Alliance leader highlighted “a new strategy to radically transform apprenticeship opportunities, assisted thousands of people to find sustainable employment, and delivered new investments to build our base in science and the knowledge economy”.

The strength of his ministerial leadership has taken that Department from languishing on the margins of government to front and centre, and the new Department of the Economy is being built on blueprints that he drew years ago and has advocated tirelessly since.

If you want to know what “forward, faster; better, sooner” looks like, look at Stephen’s record as Minister. Of course, if you work 18 hour days, every day, things get done!

He praised Stephen’s skills at the Executive, perhaps a nod to Stephen Farry being nominated if Alliance hold the Justice Ministry again after May.

Few of you have seen Stephen in action at the Executive table, in his Department or in the Assembly, but he brings his intellect and his commitment to every task that falls to him. I remember sitting at the Executive table as the sole Alliance Minister. Stephen’s arrival made a huge difference, supporting me and putting the case for reform. Leading, delivering and ensuring we moved forward, faster. This party owes Stephen a massive debt.

Tribute was paid to three MLAs stepping down – Anna Lo, Judith Cochrane and Kieran McCarthy – as well as those standing again and party staff.

When published the Alliance manifest [Ed – hopefully shorter than five years ago] is promised to be “full of ambition for our community” and include “new legislation on integrated education” as well as “a Climate Change Bill and an independent Environment Protection Agency”.

A manifesto that places mental health at the core of the public health agenda; that deals with the legacy of the past; that extends civil marriage provisions to same sex couples; that reforms the Stormont institutions; and that takes the agenda of reform that Stephen and I have delivered in two departments even further.

Of course, all our policies will be based on our key principle: it is time we stopped the delay, the fudge, and the waffle of other parties and moved ahead, further and faster, to build a United Community. No other party puts that first. No other party has that commitment. No other party can be trusted to deliver on that essential change.

Abortion “is an issue of conscience to Alliance” with “different views in the party”.

When I demand the right of conscience for myself, I also advocate it for those who disagree with me. I respect those who honestly and openly express a view different from mine. What I cannot respect are lies and subterfuge. What disgusts me is the behaviour of MLAs who promised women who had experienced pregnancy with a Fatal Foetal Abnormality that they would do what they could to help and then broke that promise. Women with that tragic experience were let down by members of the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP.

To compound that, the DUP sought to cloud the issue by saying that their leader had asked the Health Minister to set up an expert group including clinicians and medically qualified persons. Nice soundbite, if you ignore the fact that I asked the DUP Health Minister to share a joint consultation two and a half years ago and he failed to reply.

Sadly, this subterfuge provided cover for nearly all the SDLP and the majority of Ulster Unionists to join the DUP in blocking modest reform. So much for commitments made. So much for honouring solemn promises.

While Alliance had a free vote, unlike the UUP we had a lengthy discussion, in which colleagues explored the issues and explained their thoughts. In Alliance, we are capable of having sensible, mature debate about very difficult issues, facing up to them with honesty, and leaving the room as friends. Conference, you should be proud of your Assembly team.

Again, I stress that the issue of abortion is a conscience issue. I highlight it simply as an argument for a different kind of politics – a politics that is honest and open, that delivers on promises made, and gets things done. That makes things better, sooner. That moves us forward, faster.

It’s with a record of that kind of politics that we will approach the election. No other party is fully committed to building a United Community, and no other party can say it is as representative of every section of the community as Alliance. But we have other issues which strengthen our unique position.

delgates applaudingDescribing Alliance as “fiscally responsible … that’s political jargon for saying we manage money sensibly”, Ford poked fun at Sinn Féin.

There was much talk in the election campaign for the Dail about the economic illiteracy of Gerry Adams TD. Such personal attacks are unfair. The whole of Sinn Fein is economically illiterate, in the Assembly, just like the Dáil …

Or we could take the planned move of the Agriculture Department HQ to Ballykelly. Not that long ago, I heard officials from DARD tell farmers proposing to invest in their business that they would need a proper business case to get a grant of a few thousand pounds. The same Department is spending tens of millions of pounds to uproot civil servants from Stormont without a business case.

However, we shouldn’t just criticise nationalists for this. The DUP are letting them away with the Ballykelly move, oblivious to the waste of money and the potential damage to business continuity.

The same two parties have just forced a budget through the Executive which does nothing, absolutely nothing, to prepare for the devolution and reduction of Corporation Tax in just two years’ time. A reduction that will cost up to £200m a year. It’s the right policy, but how can they seriously suggest that this is realistic if they aren’t yet planning for such a major change in policy? Perhaps they weren’t serious. Perhaps it was all about allowing Peter Robinson to step down quickly, claiming success on Corporation Tax. Who cares about how our community will pay for it, or maximise its potential? Party first, the economy and public services second.

As we have said many times before, the most important issue for attracting foreign direct investment is not the tax rate. The number one issue is an appropriately skilled workforce. We also know that the other four main parties think it is more important to train more teachers than we can employ, rather than the scientists and engineers who will create our future wealth. Doing what they do best: preserving the old ways, rather than making the progress we need.

On Europe …

I am proud that I am a citizen of the EU. I believe that Britain’s and Northern Ireland’s position in Europe is for the benefit of our society and also of benefit to others. Much of the argument over the coming weeks will be over finance. No doubt the Brexit campaigners will continue to make claims about what might be done if the UK was not making payments to Brussels, but there is little evidence that the Treasury would be as generous as Brussels in terms of the Social Fund that underpins many social initiatives, farm subsidies that underpin our major food processing industry, and the ongoing PEACE programmes …

Such peace-building work deserves to be treated more seriously than little Englanders whinging about bent bananas, or far more disturbingly, Sammy Wilson’s constituent indulging in xenophobic, unchallenged remarks about ethnic minorities.

On that issue, I don’t know which of the two interpretations is worse – the one in which Sammy is interpreted as agreeing with him, or the one in which he disagrees with him but doesn’t have the political guts to challenge him. Either way, Arlene Foster doesn’t seem prepared to act.

As Minister of Justice, he saw “positive benefits that Europe has brought to co-operation between the two justice systems of this island” though noted that “the behaviour of the British Government nearly lost us the European Arrest Warrant last year and they are putting it at risk again”.

We are in real danger of losing the basis of cross-border justice co-operation as a result of the internal disputes within the Tory party. I believe that David Cameron was entirely wrong to get us to this position, attempting – unsuccessfully – to appease the UKIP tendency in the Tory party. Now, we have the spectacle of Theresa Villiers acting as the MP for Chipping Barnet, and entirely ignoring her duties as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Let’s be blunt – leaving the EU would be a massive step backwards for the UK, including, if not especially, Northern Ireland. A backward step we simply can’t afford to take. We’ve had enough of stepping backwards, or standing still. We need to move forward faster, but are held back by the actions of other parties on social and financial issues and by the two Governments in the deals they were so desperate to fix that they missed the big picture on the past.

David Ford’s first vote was cast for Eric Lubbock. The Liberal MP for Orpington died recently.

His radio obituary recalled the story that he wore out five pairs of shoes during his by-election campaign. I think I ought to tell you that ten days ago, for my birthday, some of the family bought me a very useful present. A pair of walking shoes. Not for the mountains, but for canvassing. That’s what they told me, and I intend to make the most of them, in South Antrim and beyond.

The biggest laugh of the speech …

One of Eric Lubbock’s colleagues, asked to what he attributed victory in a Council election, said “faith, hope and canvassing, and the greatest of these is canvassing”. Let’s not overstate the theological context, let’s just get canvassing. Forward, faster.

David Ford Naomi Long after speechThe speech ended …

In a few weeks, there will be young people entitled to vote who weren’t even born on Good Friday 1998. A generation grown up while political leaders squabbled and squandered chances. The Agreement is no longer a fragile young child, nor even a sulky teenager. It is reaching its majority, and it is long past time that politicians in Northern Ireland stepped forward and let us all move forward, faster.

Conference, you have achieved much over recent years. You have achieved more than commentators expected, much more than our opponents thought possible, much, much more than we dared dream. You have shown we are the only people who will move this society forward, and forward faster.

You have shown that we are the only party working for everyone, determined to build a united community and transform this society.

This year, we can confound the cynics, outdo our opponents, and surprise our supporters. It’s time to step forward again. It’s time to end negative, backward politics. It’s time to get Northern Ireland moving forward, faster and who will do that?

We will. Let’s go for it.

After lunch, the conference heard from Labour Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker, and a panel discussed how to make NI the strongest regional economy in Europe before the conference closed.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.