There was a buzz around the SDLP conference in November as delegates met to resolve the leadership contest. Normally, there’s a family feel to SDLP conferences, with two or three generations of families milling around the venue, passing babies between parents and grandparents. There are often more people chatting outside the conference hall than sitting inside listening.
Under new management, the SDLP have moved their conference from the autumn to springtime, and today held their 2016 conference in the beautiful St Columb’s Hall. (Sinn Féin used the venue for fringe events at their all-island ard fheis this time last year.)
Last week’s Alliance Party conference had more delegates, and while I described it as “subdued”, today’s SDLP conference would have to be labelled as “lacklustre”. While the crowd warmed up for Colum Eastwood’s speech, they remained remarkably passive during the rest of the event.
The UUP conference in October was full of belief. Never mind the rhetoric from the stage, ordinary party members talked about the unionist party having turned the corner and being on an upward trend. Results were expected to follow. SDLP members don’t exude that same conviction.
In his late night speech as party leader, Colum Eastwood proclaimed that “our voice is back and is getting stronger by the day”, adding “the SDLP is back in the conversation”. The evening applause in the hall was strong. But the vigour and enthusiasm was not so obvious during the earlier panels and debates.
In May’s election the SDLP must try to hold onto their fourteen seats and ideally add one or two more to demonstrate how the party’s fortunes have reversed. To outside observers that is a tall order with sitting MLAs like Delores Kelly in Upper Bann under severe pressure.
Colum Eastwood’s honeymoon as a new party leader was brief and has been eclipsed by the emergence of Arlene Foster. The DUP have had a much larger bounce than the SDLP.
The SDLP’s conference was the opportunity to differentiate the party from Sinn Féin and People Before Profit (Eamonn McCann is expected to do well in Foyle and Gerry Carroll is a shoe-in in Belfast West).
It was an opportunity squandered. New ideas seemed constrained to the leader’s speech. The conference set proclaimed “Build A Better Future” but few ideas seemed to stick to the wall.
While present in his evening speech, Colum’s notion of “progressive nationalism” was absent during the panels which discussed crime, the EU contribution to our economy (with input from two former leaders Alasdair McDonnell and Margaret Ritchie), better government, health and learning.
The party’s sole Executive minister Mark H Durkan delivered a speech that was peppered with sound bites (and too many jokes) but was low on energy. He compared the “great workmanship of builders of the past” on show in the city’s built heritage with the SDLP, whom he said were gathered as “the great builders of the future”. The last time he’d been on the stage of St Columb’s Hall was as a child reciting a poem during a Derry Feis, an even more cut throat business than politics. He had made “bold decisions on fracking” and spoken out about bonfires.
Referring to the Irish election campaign:
If Gerry Adams doesn’t know how to answer questions about taxes, what chance has a good republican to know how to pay them?
OFMDFM was characterised as “One For Me and Ditto For Martin … or is it One For Marty Ditto For Me”. Transport NI was “Transport N O”. But the jokes were
On Peter Robinson’s departure as DUP leader:
Have we really seen the end of the man that makes Frank Underwood look like Frank Spencer?
But knowing that every school in Northern Ireland is an “eco-school” doesn’t really set the electorate on fire. Mark H Durkan reckoned that the SDLP has the tools, vision and hunger … but for me it was absent except in the rallying call at the end of Mark’s speech when he asked “Can we fix it?” and the delegates shouted their reply “Yes we can”.
Deputy leader Fearghal McKinney was affectionately introduced as “our silver fox” as Karen McKevitt welcomed him to address the delegates. Usually regarded as a Fermanagh man, Fearghal spent his first few years “living only a stone’s throw away from this very hall”.
Our people can and should dare to dream that life can be better; that our children won’t be forced to leave these shores for the promise of work in Australia or America; that our Health Service can provide a service that is fit for the 21st Century; that we can provide world class education and training for our young people and become a much more cohesive society, at peace finally with its troubled past.
The SDLP has been a catalyst for change in the past and I believe we can be a force for good in the future too. We need to reach out to those who are disillusioned with politics and demonstrate the courage and conviction which SDLP giants demonstrated in the past.
Forty-five years after this great party was formed it’s time to re-capture the spirit and zeal which helped transform our society.
Were any of us surprised by Arlene Foster’s comments last weekend when she reverted to type and appealed to the DUP faithful for their vote to ensure Martin McGuinness does not become First Minister?
And we can safely predict the main thrust of the upcoming Sinn Féin Conference – vote for us and we’ll make Martin McGuinness our First Minister over Arlene Foster!
I don’t want to read any more health horror stories. It is time the Executive took collective responsibility for Health and for once and for all tackled the issues together. If we begin to make the changes that we require in Health this will have infinite positive knock on consequences in work places and right across our community.
The deputy leader received a sustained standing ovation at the close of his short remarks.
After a break, the remarks from economist Paul Gosling and Cathy Gormley-Heenan at the start of a panel discussion about “Delivering Better Government For All” are worth a listen. [Ed – did one delegate really stand up to ask who the “all” where?]
Two poems were read to remember 1916, Francis Ledwidge’s Lament for the Poets (by the Irish nationalist and British soldier about death of victims in Easter Rising) and WB Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death written (by another Irish nationalist, this time about the death of a British soldier).
After dinner, delegates returned to St Columb’s Hall. Flanked by the party’s Assembly candidates on either side, Colum Eastwood began his twenty five minute speech by suggesting “this party has a new feel, a new spirit, about it”.
This is a party which feels good about itself again. The people in this hall tonight and the many friends and colleagues outside – the values they represent and the vision they set for this Island are the reason I am in politics. I didn’t get into politics to sit on powerless committees or to keep things as they are. I got into politics to make a difference.
I am aware and privileged that I lead this great party which John Hume and Seamus Mallon shaped. I am aware and privileged to know that I now live in an Ireland which they imagined, which they fashioned, which they built. I am conscious in this hall, in this city of Derry, that I have the privilege of following them. We’ve been left with a powerful inheritance.
The greatest legacy of this party is the lifting of the boot of violence from the neck of our people – north and south of this island.
After so many years of hardship and hurt, people openly embraced the proper innocence of hope. I saw that hope, I believed in it, and I joined the SDLP. That same hope has carried me to the stage I stand on tonight.
The SDLP were “the party of the next challenge”.
In Dublin and London at the moment there has been much talk about the ‘national interest’. If anyone wants to know what the ‘national interest’ actually looks like they should take a study of the SDLP. We have degrees in the subject.
From the early days of the Troubles this party put the Irish national interest to the top of our agenda and never shifted from it. We put the safety and the well-being of our people first. And by the way that I mean all our people, Catholic, Protestant, Nationalist, Unionist, Southerner and Northerner.
He called back in votes that had been loaned to other parties.
In the pursuit of the peace, the national interest asked that we loan others some of our vote. But it is only good manners to let them know that those days are now gone. [applause] Those days are now over. Let it be known conference, from here tonight, from this moment on, the SDLP is calling in that loan! [more applause]
He referred to Martin McGuinness’ switch of constituency for the Assembly poll.
The Joint First Minister Martin McGuinness has announced the he is coming back into Derry in the expectation that he will be gifted three seats. Well Martin should take a look and see what happened recently in Donegal. Three into two won’t go.
And in a few short weeks’ time Derry will tell them the same. Derry will tell them the same because the same verdict is forming and felt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, in Armagh, in Antrim and in Down. The North needs a different government. It needs a new alternative, a new alternative which can break free from what Stormont has become.
Stormont must do more than simply exist. Our Joint First Ministers have failed to catch the public mood. Stability is no longer enough. Historic handshakes are no longer enough. After nine long years of broken promises, we now have a right to expect better.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. We were all promised so much more. This is true of the Unionist and Nationalist peoples alike. There is no segregation in our disappointment. We are all united by it.
Look at the overall record of Stormont’s current leadership. One in four of our children live in poverty. One in five of our pensioners live in poverty. Almost four hundred thousand people are currently on hospital waiting lists. 6 out of 10 children do not achieve 5 or more passes at GCSE. 11,000 households a year are deemed to be now homeless. One in five working adults struggles to keep their head above the poverty line.
This is their record. May’s assembly election must be a referendum on that record. Nowhere has their disjointed and dysfunctional approach to government been more on show than in their approach to the economy, education and skills.
Martin McGuinness said this week at an Assembly committee that our economy is “in a healthy enough place”. Last year some 22,000 people were forced to leave Northern Ireland because of a lack of opportunity at home. That’s around the population of Portadown. Tell those people that we are in a healthy enough place.
Tell the people of Ballymena that we are in a healthy enough place. Tell people living West of the Bann or in the West of Belfast that we are in a healthy enough place. Tell those whose benefits are frozen thanks to Sinn Fein’s decision to hand welfare powers back to the Tories that we are in a healthy enough place.
Tell the dairy farmers who have seen their incomes drop by thousands of pounds this year that we are in a healthy enough place. Tell the public sector workers, teachers, classroom assistants, cleaners, nurses that have been given paltry 1% pay rises at best that we are in a healthy enough place.
That doesn’t sound healthy to me.
The big idea in Colum Eastwood’s speech was ‘a pledge for government’. The SDLP would not enter an Executive if the Programme for Government didn’t redress the current regional imbalances and if it didn’t invest in higher education.
In any upcoming programme for government, we’ll make secured and deliverable funding for the A5 dual carriageway, A6 dual carriageway and an expanded university at Magee key priorities before we join any government. That doesn’t mean vague commitments like we have in the present budget, with a billion pounds worth of projects based on £100m pounds worth of lending.
But the SDLP will go further.
In the past this party has stayed within the Executive without signing up to a Programme for Government. That ends now. We will only enter the Executive if we can agree to a Programme for Government which actually meets the need of people in the North.
That Programme for Government needs to include a commitment to distribute investment in jobs, infrastructure and education across all of Northern Ireland, not just parts of Belfast and its suburbs.
We will stop this new partitioning of the North, where West Belfast receives just over 1% of total available assistance from Invest Northern Ireland. An area with the highest child poverty levels, the highest housing waiting lists and some of the worst deprivation in Europe, receives just 1% of total job creation funds.
Spending on jobs and on infrastructure must be targeted to the areas where it’s required. Massive regional imbalances must be addressed.
This is the Fairness Promise I am making tonight – between the SDLP and people in areas of need. We will not allow any future government to ignore you. For any of our opponents watching tonight. This is what proper politics looks like.
After 9 years Sinn Féin and the DUP have had one economic idea, the reduction of corporation tax. Instead of bringing forward a range of economic measures which would support this one idea, they believe that a reduction in the tax rate alone will be a silver bullet.
The SDLP’s thinking goes way beyond this. We believe that devolving corporation tax is simply not enough. We want to see the devolution of many more fiscal powers and levers but also of those functions like telecoms and broadcasting not currently devolved. We want more intensified North-South economic integration and an all-island plan for infrastructure.
All of this needs to be within a long-term financial framework agreed with London which will give Northern Ireland sufficient financial security to take on long term transitions such as our own tax system and our own welfare system.
And such a financial compact should be for thirty years and would continue in the event of the constitutional status of the North changing. No other Party has identified such a radical framework for prosperity.
That’s what proper politics looks like. Right now we have a failing economy. And while Stormont’s leadership looked South and see lower corporation tax, what they failed to understand was the diversity of policies which led to the Southern economy’s success
One of the South’s main policies was to invest in education and skills. Stormont’s leadership are doing the opposite. Our universities, further education colleges and training centres should be flourishing centres of learning, not floundering on tighter budgets and slashed investment from the Northern Ireland Executive.
We’ve already seen cuts in courses and student places at Queens and Ulster University, while thirty seven percent of students go abroad each year to study. That cannot be allowed to continue.
But we also need to look at new ways of learning – our colleges must become centres of vocational excellence where those who don’t take a traditional university route can develop the skills and abilities that the modern economy requires.
The SDLP will not support a Programme for Government unless there are agreed spending increases for vocational training, university places for undergraduates and postgraduates and apprenticeships.
Those who attack us for this stance fail to understand the basic premise of building a successful economy which can compete globally.
In the South for every euro they spend on higher education, they’re generating €4.25 for the economy. For every hundred jobs in a university, 117 jobs are created through knock-on effects.
We’ve rightly ring fenced health spending, and we spend millions of pounds on a divided primary and second level education systems, yet they can cut investment in third level and training. We’re spending hundreds of millions on redundancy payments and hundreds of thousands on party political Special Advisors.
We must find the money to put our universities and colleges back on track so they can compete internationally. Anyone who says we can’t shouldn’t be in politics. Under new SDLP leadership, our young people will no longer be raised for export.
On globalisation and digitisation …
This evolution to proper politics is desperately required. The staleness of government and its policy development means that Northern Ireland risks being left behind.
This new age of globalisation is not in the habit of waiting. The digitisation of our economy will form new environments and grow new jobs. Western economies are undergoing a revolution which new technologies are dictating. Such is the speed of change, we may not yet be able to fully imagine the jobs of the future but we must prepare for them nonetheless.
The white heat of this revolution requires an agile and innovative public sector and government. It means escaping from a policy formation which is more focused on the electorate cycle rather than truly building for the future. That future also requires the engineering of an economy which is simultaneously able to provide shelter and opportunity amidst the spiralling volatility of an increasingly intimate global market.
“Prosperity and fairness” were vital “to build towards the reunification of this island”. But it was important to make Northern Ireland work as part of that aspiration.
The SDLP’s core mission boils down to this understanding.
A fractured Ireland will always be an Ireland in waiting. A fractured Ireland will never be fully at peace within its own imagination. A fractured Ireland is a poorer Ireland, less capable of achieving its full potential. But for Ireland to be reunited, Northern Ireland has to work. This is the essence of our Progressive Nationalism.
As I have said before, we now have a selfish and strategic interest in making Northern Ireland work. Although many have been slow to grasp the significance of that statement, people should understand that this is a major departure for Northern Nationalism. Whilst working to build a new North, we are also strategically building our broader nationalist vision.
On remembering 1916 …
In the run down to the centenary of the 1916 Rising we should remind ourselves that our faith rests in the authority and sovereignty of the Irish people.
And the people of Ireland have a different understanding of what a ‘good Republican’ is than some of our political leaders. Good Republicans don’t smuggle diesel and make fortunes from the border.
And last week we were reminded that the ragged rump of dissident republicanism intends to escalate violence ahead of this celebration. The reminder came in the form of bomb under the van of a prison officer.
In return, we must escalate our response.
Tonight I invite all those parties who claim inheritance and inspiration from the 1916 Rising to join with me in stating that violence will never again be used as a political tactic on this island. 100 years on, this would be a powerful statement of the values and principles in today’s Ireland.
Those who go against this, go against the sovereign authority of the Irish people. They will be left to wander ever further down a dead end. They will finally understand that they are in conflict with the Irish people, no one else … that is a fight you’ll never win.
In marking 1916, we must also redouble our efforts to reconcile with the Unionist people of this island. It was the great Ulster poet, John Hewitt, who wrote: This is my country; my grandfather came here / And raised his walls and fenced the tangled waste / And gave his years and strength into the earth.
Hewitt was a great believer in regional identity in Ireland and described his identity as Ulster, Irish, British and European. My grandfather fenced that same tangled waste, just outside of Cookstown in the very heart of Ulster. We all belong to Ulster and it belongs to us. We all belong to this island and it belongs to us.
The SDLP has never and will never deny or dilute the complex mix of identities which contribute to the richness of Ireland. But the proper protection and respect of an identity does not result in politics standing still.
Such change demands an adult and mature engagement.
We know what the United Kingdom looks like. We know Westminster and the devolved Stormont. We know of the block grant and Unionism deep personal attachment to the Queen and to the history of two world wars in which all of our grandfathers died.
And to all those things this party respectfully bows its head.
But we also know the block grant is shrinking. We know the emotional attachment is not as strongly reciprocated from what unionism calls the mainland.
We know Scotland is edging toward independence and we know the population figures in the North are moving toward a 50/50 balance between unionism and nationalism.
We know what the United Kingdom looks like – we don’t yet know what the United Ireland looks like. That picture cannot be properly drawn unless Unionism frees itself enough to engage in that dialogue.
I have met plenty of civic and church leaders who are open and welcoming of mature and respectful debate and who can read the signs of the times as well as I can.
I want to begin a credible conversation with unionism to describe the Ireland that would include the things that are core to their British identity.
I invite them to join us in drawing a picture of a New Ireland in which the Ulster identity would be as central and as comfortable as the other 3 provincial identities. As an Ulsterman, I’d be comfortable with nothing less.
The prize of reconciliation is still elusive.
When we look at the different areas of people’s lives we realise that the only place where real progress has been made is in the workplace. In most workplaces people are treated equally and fairly and generally leave their political baggage at the door. This required hard legislation.
But in other areas of life such as housing – where we live – there is deep religious segregation. The SDLP will drive for fundamental housing reform including strong legislation to help bring people together.
In our streets and in our sports clubs, people’s lives outside of home or work, there is also deep division. In many ways the two communities lead very different lives. The SDLP will develop a plan for reconciliation in these areas so that difference means diversity rather than division.
On Europe …
As the June referendum approaches, it is important to say that this party are also proudly part of a broader continental identity. We are no narrow nationalists. The referendum on Europe comes after the May election but in importance it may be in first place. This party were never half hearted or lukewarm or careful about our membership of Europe. We are no Johnny come Latelys.
We knew that political and economic isolationism were more likely to lead to conflict and economic depression. We knew that peace is to be found in dialogue and celebration of difference and that prosperity is to be found in co-operation and open borders.
We have championed the European Union. Like every human institution, it is not perfect but like democracy itself, it is better than the alternatives. This party has the heritage and the calibre to lead the debate on staying loyal to the European Union. Between now and June the 24th [sic] that is exactly what we in the SDLP will do.
And to those who have come here and made their homes here, from Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and across the European Union I say to you tonight – we won’t let your families be divided, we won’t allow new borders on this island or in Europe, we, the Social Democratic and Labour party, we’ve got your back.
Colum Eastwood concluded his speech:
Conference, the late great Seamus Heaney once said that the voice of sanity is getting hoarse. But our voice is back and is getting stronger by the day. The SDLP is back in the conversation.
Politics always offers a choice. But you need to back that choice, you need to vote for it. Frustration isn’t cured by staying at home.
Vote for change on May 5th, vote for the SDLP. Conference, our past is as proud as our future is promising. We can build a better Ireland, we can build a better Northern Ireland. We can build a fairer future. We can build a better future. That future will work best when we build it together.
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.