Alliance celebrates “making hope flourish in darkness” #AP2017

When Alliance booked their conference into the Stormont Hotel last autumn they had no idea that there would be two Assembly elections and much political turmoil before the annual meetup.

The mood in East Belfast today was that of quiet celebration. To have kept all eight MLAs in an election that decreased the number of seats in each constituency from six to five is a result they should be proud of. Only one other party – Sinn Féin – increased its vote share in every constituency. Growth outside their traditional Belfast/east coast base must be particularly encouraging. South Down’s Paddy Brown received generous applause.

Yet as I pointed out in Stratagem’s CoffeeClub lunchtime fringe session on elections and referendums, Alliance need to quickly decide how to bank and invest this result, lest it is reversed at the next poll. Complacency cannot be allowed to take root. Some of the growth between May 2016 and March 2017 was a recovery of past losses.

Succession planning is a key task. Not just locally identifying individuals who are willing and able to replace some existing MLAs when they choose to retire, but also helping those individuals start to build a local profile before and during the next batch of local government elections so that the electorate can identify in advance the likely new candidates or co-options.

The family feel that’s most frequently found at SDLP conferences was prevalent at Alliance today, with lots of children and babies inside the main hall as well as enjoying touring around the exhibitor stands with their endless supply of sweets and pens. The young party staff members energetically moved through the conference venue carrying messages and steering MLAs and councillors towards their front row seats. Yet older retired members of the party were given their place: party president Anna Lo welcomed delegates and founder member Jim Hendron publicised his personal mémoire about the party’s beginnings. There were no references to balloons – though one exhibitor had some on their stall – and no mentions of private social media groups.

Naomi Long delivered her first conference speech as leader. There was wild applause but no pumping music as she walked up towards the platform.

At well over five and a half thousand words it long (pun unintended) and at times the pace was too rushed (rarely pausing for breath at punctuation like full stops) to take in the detail of what was being said. Sixty or seventy word sentences were common – and in one case an 87 word sentence with multiple clauses – littering a script that cried out for pruning and a more succinct oral style.

The presentation was competent and well received by the delegates. There were no earth shattering policy U-turns. No hysterics. Instead the speech emphasised core reliable Alliance principles and ideals, and took the time to praise hard-working staff. Alliance’s five points to participate in the Executive back after May 2016’s election were reiterated.

The party’s other challenge is to be distinctive in the centre ground while acting collegiately in the opposition to which they can now officially belong. That assumes that the party does not take up the Justice ministry whenever d’Hondt is next run. However, while the party council was meeting at the close of the conference to consider the latest talk updates, it seems unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Féin will accede to all five of Alliance’s demands and entice them back around the Executive table.

(It’s also unthinkable that Alliance will volunteer one of their eight as Speaker when that first item of business comes before the Assembly on Monday. SDLPs’ Patsy McGlone is the favourite to take the Speaker’s chair now that confidence has been lost in Robin Newton.)

One of the longest interruptions for applause came after an improvised section in which Naomi looked up from her printed speech and instead embraced the liberal values that are so often left unstated but underpin Alliance. She spoke about young people’s perceptions of the nature of Northern Ireland society.

Young people go away to university, they will go away and have experiences elsewhere, and that is a positive thing if they want to come back. But often what they get is a flavour of a society that is more liberal, more tolerant, more welcoming, more open and they don’t want to return to a society where people in politics dictate who they can marry, and when they can buy a drink over the weekend of Easter. They want to make those choices for themselves. We need to change Northern Ireland society into the kind of society where they are empowered to do that.

A session in the morning included a contribution from Baroness May Blood about integrated education while there was space to talk about Victims and Brexit in the afternoon. Party deputy leader Stephen Farry noted in his speech that the Alliance manifesto for the March election was large than the manifestos of the other four largest parties put together.

Other people will decide whether Alliance can dust off those policy ideas and bring them into the Assembly chamber on Monday, or whether they will have to wait some weeks or months longer and concentrate on local government delivery instead.

– – –

Madam President, distinguished guests, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen, friends.

Before I start my formal speech I would like to add my own personal condolences and also my solidarity to the minute’s silence we held here this morning at conference for those who were affected by the tragic events in London earlier this week. When I was an MP I regularly entered Parliament through Carriage Gates. I regularly spoke with the officers there who stood between us and were the thin blue line that protected not just individuals but democracy from attack. I was hugely indebted to them at times for their cooperation and assistance with my own security and I want to send them in particular my thoughts and prayers on the loss of their colleagues.

As always conference, it is an honour and a privilege to stand before you today to address conference. It is a particular privilege and a pleasure to do it in East Belfast.

It also feels a little strange, after 10 years of doing so to introduce the Party Leader, to now be doing so as Party Leader. After almost six months in post, I am finally adjusting to my new role and my new title, though it did take a while. In the early weeks of leadership, I pre-recorded a radio interview. I promptly forgot about it, and the following morning when I was listening to the news, they said that they would be speaking to the Alliance leader next. For a second, I wondered what David was at this time!

Whilst we have had other opportunities to say thank you as a party, David, I do want to take this opportunity to reiterate my thanks here at our annual conference, not only David for what you have done for the Alliance Party and for Northern Ireland as a whole during that time, but also for the way that you’ve done it – often at great personal cost, but always with grace and dedication.

When I spoke of David’s leadership at our special dinner in November to mark his time as Party Leader, I said that leadership is not just a position you hold, but an attitude you have, and that has proven yet again to be the case with David.

Over the last number of months I have taken to jokingly calling David our Leader Emeritus. Though I say that in jest I think it is a good title for to cthisall him a “former leader” would be to diminish the role that he serves within the party.

It speaks volumes of David’s commitment to Alliance that unlike many politicians when their time as leader ends, he has neither disappeared nor become a critic or a passenger, but has continued to play an active and valuable role, as an MLA and within the leadership of Alliance and for that continued support and guidance, I am hugely grateful.

Of course behind every good man is a good woman and so I also want to extend my thanks to Anne and to the family – we owe them a huge debt not just for his fifteen years but for continuing to put up with the demands we make on his time now when I think they thought you were finally getting him back for a while. When I took on the leadership about five months ago, I undertook to do a number of things, key amongst which for me was to build the party and its membership outside our traditional areas of strength.

I did so with a view to the next elections which I rather optimistically thought would be local Government 2019. As we all now know, that optimism was misplaced; however, the strategy was not.

I have always believed that the vision which we have as a party for an inclusive, open and fair society is one which is as relevant to people in Lisnaskea as Lisburn, in Newry as Newtownards, in Derry as Dundonald and the response to our membership drive confirms that that is the case.

That work of reaching out beyond our traditional base, renewing and reinvigorating local associations right across Northern Ireland was reflected membership growth in every constituency.

One of the best jobs you get to do as leader is to sign the new members welcome letters and to see not just the number of letters each day but the geographic spread of those addresses has been a real encouragement, as was meeting many of our new members when they toured Stormont earlier this year..

For those of you who are with us at your first conference today as new members, you are very welcome we appreciate your support.

That strategy was also put to its first electoral test with the collapse of the Assembly in January and the snap elections which it triggered.

At a time when there was little good news for liberal politics either nationally or internationally and in an election which was itself incredibly polarised, we managed to buck that trend, polling our highest number of votes since 1979 and our highest vote share since 1987.

Over 70,000 people voted Alliance across Northern Ireland – a 50% increase in our vote and in many constituencies our vote doubled or tripled from the last election only eight months before. Not only did we hold our eight seats and more securely, but we were the runner up in both North Belfast with Nuala McAllister and in South Down with Patrick Brown.

I think that success was down to two main factors – the quality of the campaign which we ran as a party and the quality of the candidates.

Thanks to recruitment and growth in the party, we were able to field candidates in every area who were genuinely grounded in their constituency, capable not only of representing Alliance to the people but also of representing the concerns of local people in our campaign.

I want to thank each of you who had the courage to step up and run as a candidate. Whilst many of you did so knowing that you were unlikely to win an Assembly seat this time, you still worked your constituency and took the Alliance message into neighbourhoods that hadn’t been canvassed by Alliance for a generation. Without your efforts we could not have achieved the results that we did.

You have recruited new voters, new members and you are well placed now for potential gains in the local council elections. My advice to you is simple: work like you won and next time you will.

The only other advice I have for you is: keep your diaries free.

As I did my tours of constituencies each Saturday of the campaign, I was struck by two things: Firstly, the enthusiasm and dedication of our volunteers who, regardless of weather, were determined to get the Alliance message out in every area, and secondly the welcome that that message received as we chatted to people on doorsteps and in town centres across Northern Ireland.

I want to thank all of you who participated in the campaign and gave of your time, your talent and your money to make it a success.

Actually, I was also struck by a third thing: my dog Daisy is officially a celebrity now, thanks to social media, TV and newspapers – I have a sneaking suspicion that at least some of the people who came to chat with us were more interested in getting selfies with Daisy that they were discussing the final detail of policy. And that was only the candidates!

I also want to say a brief but very sincere thank you to our staff team. For any party to run two major elections in eight months, and to do so not just at such short notice and to such tight deadlines but to deliver the successful campaign and results which they did is remarkable. What is more remarkable is that they delivered it on a shoestring budget.

That they also managed to simultaneously provide us with support for the talks, organise our Annual Conference for this weekend, and keep the party ticking over is nothing short of miraculous. To Sharon, Debbie, Sam, Nuala, Connie, Ben, Scott, Michael and Lauren – thank you for all that you do, most of which goes unseen but all of which is appreciated.

To our constituency and research staff who absorbed the upheaval, disruption and stress of setting up offices after the May election only to have the future thrown into chaos 8 months later, but who have continued to provide the vital constituency services on which f our success rests – thank you for all of your patience and dedication.

Whilst we were delighted at the election result we of course never lost sight of the fact that the election in itself was the result of a political failure and, unless the difficulties which brought about that collapse can be resolved, then the future for devolution is bleak.

Whilst it was a successful election for Alliance, the mark of a truly successful election for us and for Northern Ireland will be if the devolved institutions can be reformed and power sharing restored on a more sustainable footing and we can start the job of delivering real change for the people.

Regardless of the size of the mandate of any party, it is not worth the ballot papers which it is written, unless you are able to exercise it by working together with others. That is the challenge which we all face now and that will be the challenge which remains if the current talks fail to produce an Executive on Monday and another election is called.

Bertie Ahern this week described the prospect of another election as “pointless time wasting”. It undoubtedly is. We will return to Stormont as we have after this month’s election with mostly the same parties, the same people and the same problems. However, it is more serious than just a waste of time.

We are days away from the end of the financial year yet we have no budget. We are days away from the triggering of Brexit yet we have no Brexit plan. We are already overdue the Assembly vote required for the regional rate yet we have no Assembly. We have no Programme for Government – in fact we have no government .

This is no time for any parties to indulge themselves in the vanity project that is another election. Our community and voluntary sector, our essential public services, like the health and education, are already feeling the dire effects of budget uncertainty and reduced services and job losses. We owe it to those who rely on those services and to those who deliver them, to get a functioning Executive established now and get back to doing the job that we were elected to do.

Whilst the collapse of the Executive was disappointing, it was also predictable. We realised towards the end of the previous mandate that significant reform was required to make it fit for purpose and so when we entered negotiations in May about the Justice ministry, we were clear about the failings of the previous mandate and we offered five clear steps that would make progress towards that reform.

Firstly, we wanted to address deficiencies in governance – particularly the abuse of the petition of concern – in order not only that we could end the veto on socially progressive legislation for which there is overwhelming public support, but also that we could ensure that no one party could recklessly exercise a veto over others. That reform is long overdue.

Secondly, the failure of political parties to confront legacy issues including ongoing paramilitarism in our community with integrity, was a growing point of tension between parties which needed resolved for the sake of devolution but more importantly to improve the lives of those living with its consequences.

Thirdly, we recognised that there was a need for parties to face up to and address the costs of segregation and division in society in order to allow us to build a more shared and integrated society but also as part of the means of addressing the very real budget pressures facing departments and to put our public finances on a more sustainable footing.

Fourthly, we sought a plan to develop and promote integrated education in Northern Ireland as a means of delivering not only high quality and sustainable education but also as a means of meeting the demand of parents for their children to be educated together and for society to be healed.

Fifthly and finally, we wanted to secure additional funding for skills to ensure that not only could tuition fees be maintained at their current level without a negative impact on the competitiveness of our universities, but also to we could attract the kind of high skilled jobs and opportunities which we believe are necessary if we are to create a more dynamic and balanced economy.

The outright rejection of our five points confirmed for us that any Executive formed would not only fail to address those key emerging challenges for our community and for devolution, but in the manner of that rejection, the highhanded approach, it would potentially struggle to deliver anything at all. As such, it was not an Executive in which we could take up a role.

The decision to go into opposition was not without risk, but reality within months our position was vindicated and within eight months the very issues which we had raised contributed to the Executive’s collapse.

Whether in government or in opposition we intend to drive change, for good.

That means firstly good government.

As I prepare my conference speech each year, I usually read through my speech from the year before.

When I addressed conference last year and in almost every preceding year I did so in the wake of scandal – some accusation of corruption, cronyism or greed – at the heart of our political system – whether it was an expenses scandal, dodgy land deals, or some other allegation which cast a shadow of mistrust over our political system. Last year we met in the wake of an expenses scandal at Stormont, and fresh allegations emerging from the probe into NAMA and the Project Eagle sale.

This year the whiff of corruption and cronyism rapidly became intolerable, as further allegations emerged about the Social Investment Fund – public money – our money – being used to line the pockets of those who the Chief Constable described as “community workers by day and paramilitaries by night”.

That a self-proclaimed UDA commander, who brazenly claims to be “homeland security” – a direct challenge to the rule of law – can continue as Chief Executive of an organisation which is in receipt of Government funds would be completely unthinkable elsewhere. It is long past time that it was unthinkable here.

And we stand here today without an Assembly in place and with the future of devolution uncertain, in large part due to another scandal – that of the botched renewable heat incentive – and of the inability of the Executive to deal maturely, competently and transparently with the crisis which it precipitated.

Conference, I want to pay tribute to the work of Trevor Lunn as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, diligently and patiently drawing out the key information and exposing the flaws in the scheme, the inconsistencies in the accounts and in how it was developed, implemented and monitored.

The murky influence of Special Advisors who in some parties appear to be directing ministers rather than the other way around; the attempts to conceal from public scrutiny the beneficiaries of the scheme; the fact that even when the impact of the lack of cost controls had implications for the budgets of other departments, the extent of the projected overspend were hidden from Executive colleagues; the lack of full disclosure to the Assembly about the real reasons for the overspend all exposed a systemic failure of government.

Compounded by the fact that those who had presided over the mess seemed to be happy to take power, but not so happy to accept any responsibility, this episode highlights to us all the need for real change in how the Executive conducts its business, in terms of openness and accountability.

It seems that history keeps repeating itself but yet nothing is learned. Nothing changes, except that the whiff of corruption is rapidly becoming a stench which hangs heavily over the guilty and innocent alike. And with every fresh revelation, every new allegation, the public’s trust and confidence in politics and politicians is further eroded.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the area of political donations. Year after year we have pressed for change, for swift progress towards open and transparent politics. Year after year other parties have sought to prevent it. In doing so, they further fuel the public’s mistrust and suspicion.

Public scrutiny is critical 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.

In every other part of the UK, publication of any donation or donations from a single source over £7.5k is mandatory. Northern Ireland is exempt on the basis of security. However, the time has long since passed where the security situation can be used to justify such a lack of transparency.

You cannot argue on one hand that Northern Ireland is a safe and stable region for inward investment and tourism, whilst simultaneously arguing on the other that it is so abnormal and so dangerous that the same degree of transparency around donors cannot apply here as elsewhere.

Despite prolonged and sustained assaults by both dissident republican and loyalist paramilitaries on Alliance we continued to publish in line with the standards in the rest of the UK.

Alliance again called on the Secretary of State to end donor secrecy when we wrote to him during the RHI scandal in December. We continue to make that case in the talks process for an immediate lifting of the NI donor publication exemption.

Thanks to an amendment which I made to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions Bill), all donations made since Jan 2014 which reach the publication threshold in GB, can be made public once the security exemption is lifted. Yet even now in the current talks there are attempts to limit any change to future donations only.

We have been and will continue to press hard on openness, transparency and accountability both between Minsters in the Executive, between the Executive and the Assembly, and crucially between political parties and the public we are elected to serve.

We have an opportunity to deliver good government during the current talks process. We must not squander it.

We also remain focused on delivering good services. For those of you who were at the dinner last night, I’m sure you will recall Tom Ekin’s speech – I suspect some of you might never forget it! – and specifically when he said that if the relationships between parties are to improve and normalise, and if the Executive and Assembly are to regain the confidence of the public, they need to start doing things. They need to focus on delivery.

That is all the more the case given the pressures which our key public services face. Our health service is facing a funding gap of £200 million pounds this year alone and the combination of increasing pressures from an ageing population and advances in medical care make the future grave.

Last night, David Gordon said that if you could read the Bengoa Report and not wake up in a sweat during the night, then you were a braver person than he. That report makes for stark reading. Our National Health Service is simply not sustainable without major reform.

I want to thank Paula Bradshaw for her work on Bengoa on the Health Committee and for her measured and sensible approach to the need for reform. I believe as she does that there are challenges facing our health service and such is its fundamental importance to every one of us, that we need a cross-party compact agreed as part of the negotiations that party political campaigning on health reforms, regardless of who becomes health minister, is simply out of bounds.

We need all parties to sign up to the road map presented by Bengoa and work with patients and clinical staff to shape a service fit for purpose for the future, which delivers high quality care and is financially sustainable. That cross party approach has allowed real progress in places like Glasgow and Manchester and our constituents deserve no less.

Yes the decisions will be difficult and some will be unpopular, but our choice is not between the current service and a reformed service. Our choice is between a reformed service and no service at all. The choice is between a national health service and a notional health service.

Whilst health is stark it is not the only service facing mounting pressures. We also face huge challenges in our education system – the challenge of empty desks, limited resources, a lack of coherent planning and the continuing challenge of educational underachievement which limits the opportunities and life chances of too many of our young people.

I want to thank Chris Lyttle for the work which he has done both as vice chair of the education committee in holding the Minister to account but also in East Belfast where he has been one of the political drivers behind Eastside Learning Partnership, aimed at driving up aspiration and attainment in education particularly in disadvantaged areas.

We also however as an Executive need to focus on fostering good relationships, not just between parties in the Assembly but also in the wider community. I think most people would recognise that whilst the peace process has delivered relative stability, the reconciliation process has long been the Cinderella element of that work.

[Coughs and takes drink] This is real flu not man flu!

We recognise the value of integrated education, not just in terms of the efficiency of delivery but also in terms of the challenge it makes to prejudice and in how it helps build and foster better relationships throughout our community. I am therefore hugely indebted to Kelly Armstrong for the work that she has already completed on her proposed bill to support integrated education and to reform the mechanisms for transformation. Kelly has taken her bill already through public consultation and I hope and trust that when the Executive is up and running we get the opportunity to debate that legislation and to see it become law.

But we need more that good government and good relationships and good services. We need good prospects for our young people if we are to build a better future and if they are to see their future here with us making contributions to this community rather than elsewhere.

Part of that has been the work that Stephen has been doing in the Department of the Economy but also his work on Brexit because for many young people the notion of becoming and insular and inward looking society is not one that wants to tempt them to remain. When it comes to issues of skills and skills development it is hugely important that we equip our young people with the talents and abilities and that we guide them towards the right career choices so that they are able to help our economy flourish but also to realise their own aspirations without having to leave Northern Ireland.

I also want to thank Stewart for the work he has done on social value legislation recognising the important role of the third sector in delivering economic change.

When I was at the young people’s debate as part of the elections, there were I think forty young people in the room and they asked them how many of them saw their future in Northern Ireland. I think only 5 or 6 of them said that they saw it here. The issue is not just about skills. It is about the nature of the society that we create in Northern Ireland. Young people go away to university, they will go away and have experiences elsewhere, and that is a positive thing if they want to come back. But often what they get is a flavour of a society that is more liberal, more tolerant, more welcoming, more open and they don’t want to return to a society where people in politics dictate who they can marry, and when they can buy a drink over the weekend of Easter. They want to make those choices for themselves. We need to change Northern Ireland society into the kind of society where they are empowered to do that.

That project however, also requires good leadership.

There has been much talk for very obvious reasons in recent days of what leadership looks like. The passing of Martin McGuinness once again put the nature of his leadership in the spotlight but it also, in how people responded to news of his death, put the wider quality of leadership under scrutiny.

As someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I am under no illusions about the role of Martin McGuinness and the impact of the IRA campaign on our community. I did not and I will never seek either to diminish the wrong that was done or the grief that was caused or in any way justify the use of violence in Northern Ireland. It is not acceptable now and it was not acceptable then.

Neither do I whitewash out the broken and profoundly unjust nature of the society into which people like Martin McGuinness were born. I understand the anger which led many young people right across our community to turn to violence; nevertheless, I still believe that choice was wrong, destructive and ultimately did more harm than good.

In all that I have said and done since I have acknowledged the genuine and justifiable anger, hurt and pain of those most directly affected by violence: those who bear the physical, emotional and mental scars of the terrorism which gripped this country for over 30 years.

But I also recognise that in these last twenty plus years, he not only moved away from violence but sought to bring others with him. I recognise the value of that work which he did not only in challenging his opponents but also in stretching his own constituency, throughout his time in office as a minister and in office as deputy First Minister.

People like Martin McGuinness, like Ian Paisley, like David Ervine and many others have a chequered past. They contributed in word and deed to the Troubles and to the painful legacy which we have inherited but I acknowledge and appreciate that they also contributed to the peace when they moved from entrenched positions towards the relative peace that we now enjoy. That move allowed progress to be made towards a brighter future and for that I am grateful.

However, that darker legacy is still with us and even this week we have continued to wrestle with it, in how we find the right words ro express our sympathy to a grieving family without at the same time compounding the pain of another grieving family. How do we complete the work of addressing the needs of victims and survivors and their varying desire for truth, justice, practical and emotional support and recognition in a way which demonstrates integrity, compassion and honesty? But also allows us to move forward.

If we are to do so, if we are to transition beyond bitterness and hatred, beyond division and conflict, beyond revenge and recrimination, then that demands that we reconcile ourselves not only with each other but also with our painful and broken history. Ultimately, in life we make peace with our enemies but not with our friends so we have to find within us some generosity, the grace, the bigger vision of a better future that gives us the determination to do so in difficult days.

The past cannot be undone but it does not have to be repeated. It cannot and should not be erased but it also cannot and should not forever overshadow and limit our future. We must find a way to make hope in the dark places.

And so I turn my thoughts to other leaders – some with us in this room, some who have now passed on – who lived through those times but who chose peace when violence was the more obvious choice. Who chose building a shared future when others were tearing the present apart.

And so as I draw my remarks to a close I want to turn my thoughts to other leaders – some with us in this room, some who have now passed on – who lived through those times but chose peace when violence was the more obvious choice. Who chose a shared future when others were ripping it apart.

I think of the leadership of those who came together in 1970 and formed the Alliance Party as a radical alternative to increasingly divisive and violent politics, at a time when others took Northern Ireland over the brink of destructive action and reaction. People who made hope flourish in a dark moment.

I think of the leadership of those who joined and led the party, throughout the 1970s and 1980s and who worked ceaselessly for peace. Who spoke out courageously and without fear or favour against every injustice and all violence and continued to be a voice of reason and calm in unreasonable and turbulent times. Who made hope flourish throughout the darkest of days.

I think of the leadership of those who led the party through successive rounds of talks and negotiations up to and after the Good Friday Agreement. Who were consistent in their commitment to devolution and in their support for the rule of law. Who recognised that reconciliation is not a soft option but a hard necessity if we were to secure real peace, not merely the absence of violence.

They offered a real alternative to the darkness. They ensured that the hope of real change would continue to flourish.

We in this room are the people who carry forward that legacy: who are charged with being the change-makers for today and for tomorrow. Who have a vision of a society which is not about us and them, but about what we can achieve together.

We have a rich and diverse membership, one which is growing rapidly in every part of Northern Ireland; a membership made up of people of all ages, all backgrounds, of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, faiths and abilities: what brings us together, what unites us, what makes us strong are our shared beliefs and common values.

Those values bridge across our membership, from the founder members of this party to the newest members in the room. We are joined and connected by a fundamental belief that our people here, however diverse, have more in common than divides them.

When it comes to difference, we have a choice: we can use it to divide people and make it a weakness or we can embrace and celebrate that diversity, and make it our strength. In Alliance we will celebrate it.

We have a strong and a proud legacy, but more importantly we have an important job to do in this society, continuing to offer an alternative vision for the future: an aspirational vision of a society which is progressive, liberal, fair and open, in which rights are respected, talent is celebrated, creativity is nurtured and each person is valued.

That is a vision which only a party which itself is progressive, liberal, fair and open – a party that has a diverse and vibrant membership – a party committed to offering hope for the future, not fear of it – can truly represent.

Today in Parliament Buildings just across the road, the future of devolution hangs in the balance. The clock is ticking down to Monday’s deadline.

Whilst others may secretly hanker for a period of direct rule or feel that another election may offer the chance of a better result for their party, we are clear that neither will solve the problems which we face today.

Voter turnout in the Assembly election was the highest we have seen since that first Assembly election after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. People saw the institutions in real jeopardy and the clear message they gave to each of us elected was that they want to see devolution restored and delivering.

Our peace process and our institutions are imperfect and unfinished. They are a work in progress. The clear message from voters was the one echoed by Bill Clinton in the Long Tower Church on Thursday: “Finish the work”.

Conference, we are up for that task and whatever is ahead, be it talks or elections, whether in government or in opposition, we will play a positive and constructive role in raising the standards of Government; of moving beyond the divisions of our past; of building peace and reconciliation; of driving forward a progressive, liberal, just and vibrant society.

Of being a radical alternative to the established binary politics.

Of ensuring that hope continues to flourish.

Of delivering change. For good.

Thank you.

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.