After a period of recuperation, Naomi Long has returned to work as party leader. In her speech she called for a way to be found through the current political impasse to “[demonstrate] through words and actions, mutual respect for both British and Irish Identity and our commitment to share this space together, in co-operation rather than conflict”.
Her call for an external talks facilitator was reiterated.
She spoke about the “frustration and indeed anger which is felt by the public at the continuing drift that we are witnessing at Stormont” … though I’m not sure how this hostility towards the prolonged political gridlock can be measured? Certainly no one seems to have organised a popular march or rallied people to threaten to vote differently if the parties don’t breakthrough and find a consensus on the matters which divide them.
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Commenting on the current Alliance mayors in Belfast and Lisburn & Castlereagh councils, Long said that the “culture of collaboration and cooperation we see between Belfast and the North West, all seems to be in stark contrast to the complete absence of leadership and cooperation elsewhere in politics”.
“I had not expected when I stood in front of you in the Park Avenue Hotel in East Belfast on 26 October last year after being elected as Party Leader that by the same date this year, the Assembly would have collapsed; that I would have led the Party through both an Assembly and a General Election; or that I would stand here one year on against the backdrop of 10 months suspension of devolution and with no immediate prospect of its return.
“The frustration and indeed anger which is felt by the public at the continuing drift that we are witnessing at Stormont, is matched if not surpassed by the anger and frustration that we feel – those of us who are eager to resolve this impasse so we can get back to doing the entirety of the job which we were elected to do and deliver the changes in policy and priorities which are necessary to modernise our public services and meet the needs of our people.”
She said that “Assembly colleagues, the staff in our constituency offices, and our central team in headquarters and at Stormont […] have continued to provide the same service to their constituents which is so valued and to identify and plan for the changes which are needed, in policy, in practice and in legislation, if and when that Assembly returns”.
“It has at times felt distinctly like we’re engaged in a battle of hope over expectation, but I firmly believe that good work is never wasted and the investment in time which each of the team has made in their own policy area is already paying off in terms of Alliance and will hugely benefit NI in the future. So thank you to you all – your work is hugely appreciated and valued.”
On MLA salaries:
“… the situation where 90 MLAs continue to be paid a full salary is simply not sustainable in the long term. The public anger and exasperation with that is rapidly souring into bitter cynicism, and what little respect the public had for politics and the institutions is fast leeching away.
“That’s why back in March, when the first deadline was missed, I called for salaries to be reduced to by about one third, reflecting the more limited responsibilities that MLAs were exercising, and that’s why I reiterated that call this week as over Halloween, what was the indoor fireworks equivalent of a political deadline passed – with more of a wimper than a bang.”
“And whilst salaries have been the focus of attention, it is that steady parade of missed deadlines, each slipping by, seemingly consequence free for the parties involved, which I believe is truly damaging to public confidence and to the political process.
“It seems that in this Northern Ireland Last Chance Saloon, the barman never calls time.
“But of course, whilst it may appear to be consequence-free for the political parties who are engaged in this standoff, it is far from consequence-free for the people who we represent.
“The political drift of the last 10 months comes on the back of an Executive which failed to even deliver the basics of a budget, let alone drive the kind of change which is desperately needed to make our public services sustainable for the future, create an environment where business can flourish and grow, and a society in which all of our people can be proud to be full and equal participants.
“The setting of a budget in Westminster, while it frees up departments to spend 100% of this year’s allocation, does nothing to alleviate that interminable drift. Without ministers in place, that money will still have to be spent in line with the last Executive’s policies and priorities and so there is no opportunity for innovation or reprioritising or redistributing money to where it is needed most.”
On the impact of not having a budget or an Executive:
“We had a stark reminder of this in the most recent report from the Department of Health on the implementation of the Bengoa Review on Health Service reform, one of the largest and most pressing challenges facing us at this time. While the work has been continuing between the department, trusts, managers, clinicians, and unions, they have now reached the stage where if we are to implement the report recommendations, we need a minister in place to redirect funding to new priorities and take forward the required legislation.
“And from that largest and most complex of problems, to one of the smallest and simplest of interventions, the pain of not having an Executive in place is being felt throughout the community. The latest casualty is the Volunteering Small Grant Scheme, introduced in 2013 to offer volunteers limited financial assistance with expenses as they volunteer with those disadvantaged through disability, poverty or social exclusion. This scheme has been axed as there is no Minister in place to continue what was a scheme operated on a year by year basis, a cut that will save a relatively small amount of money but will affect over 700 organisations supporting people in our community.”
Long said that the people she met in Derry yesterday “cited how critical it was that there are ministers in place to take key decisions”.
“As Colm mentioned earlier, we met with the Principals and governors of two small primary schools separated by a narrow country road – one integrated, one Irish Medium – who want to build on their already close relationships to establish a shared campus school which could serve as the education provision for planned new housing in the city. Their buildings are in a poor state, restricting their ability to grow and expand until a decision is taken but because it is the first collaboration of its kind, it will require a minister to take the decision and the risk that the first of anything entails.
“We met with Women’s Aid and talked about the challenges they face in terms of funding and the need for local legislation to be modernised to address the issues of stalking and domestic violence.
“We met with business leaders who rely on the road networks and connections between the main NI transport hubs in order to build this city’s competitiveness in tourism and business, but who are frustrated at the absence of an Executive to drive forward infrastructure investment in road, rail and public transport.”
“… we have heard the serious impact that the lack of a single coherent voice representing NI interested in Brexit is having on the levels of uncertainty in every sector. I want to thank Stephen [Farry] for his work in developing our Brexit position, and to others in the party and outside of it who have given generously of their time to assist the party with that work. I genuinely believe that Stephen is one of the most knowledgeable politicians in these islands on the impact that Brexit will have on Northern Ireland. Sadly, he is not leading the Brexit negotiations – that has been delegated to those in the UK government whose enthusiasm for Brexit is exceeded only by their lack of any clue as to how to achieve it.”
On the way forward she reiterated her call for the Secretary of State to appoint an external facilitator to the talks.
“And so it is clear, that while deadlines drift by, and the political talking drifts on, we are drifting not drifting in a calm sea but in dangerous and choppy waters.
“There are real and serious consequences for us all of lack of an Executive. Be under no illusion: when our politics is failing at Stormont, our community is hurting across the board.
“That’s why we are calling on the Secretary of State to reconsider our proposals for an external facilitator to be brought in to give new impetus and focus to the talks. It is clear that the recent phase of Sinn Féin and the DUP being left to work through their differences alone has yielded precious little substantive progress. In fact, the secrecy which of late has surrounded those negotiations due to the exclusion of other parties from the room, not only limits the opportunity for creative approaches to be taken, but allows each of the main players to blame the other for the failure.
“If we want to see devolution restored, then we need a concerted effort involving all of the parties and the two governments, to find a way through this impasse in a way which acknowledged honestly that these disputes are, at their most fundamental, not simply about a language act or an armed forces covenant. They are at their core about demonstrating through words and actions, mutual respect for both British and Irish identity and our commitment to share this space together, in cooperation rather than conflict.
“And that is where Alliance’s vision and values are so desperately needed in the conversation. Northern Ireland is my home and despite all of its flaws I consider myself blessed to live here. It allows me to enjoy the privilege of being fully British, fully Irish, uniquely Northern Irish, and proudly European. My identity is multi-layered and it is all the richer for that. It is that richness, that embracing of the layers of identity that exist not just in each of us but in our communities that ultimately holds the key to a better politics and a better future.
“We are committed to showing that brave and courageous leadership, which Jim Roddy [who addressed an earlier conference session] called for: we are willing to be generous in our approach to resolving this impasse. We do it because the alternative – the unpicking of the Good Friday Agreement – is unthinkable and completely unacceptable.
“That agreement set out in black and white the importance of connectivity and interdependence to our future. I believe that vision of seeing ourselves not as islands, either physically or metaphorically, but as neighbours first and foremost. Our success within NI, within these islands and beyond in Europe and globally rely entirely on our ability to recognise and maximise partnership and interdependence.
“As Martin Luther King Jun famously said ‘We must either learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools’.
“The divisive political rhetoric which permeates not just local politics, but also national and international politics, is having an impact on our community. That emerging nativist and divisive politics seems to be emboldening some of the worst traits in society. In Alliance, our challenge is to focus on delivering politics which instead empowers people to be their best.”
On hate crime and paramilitarism:
“In recent months we have seen Catholics driven from a shared housing development in South Belfast, foreign nationals having their homes attacked and their vehicles burned. That is not the Northern Ireland that we want, but it is not enough to simply say that. We need to recognise that there is at the heart of that antipathy and hatred of difference an abject failure of political leadership to show that difference is not to be feared: that otherness is not a threat: that diversity should be not just tolerated but celebrated.
“There is a lack of leadership which stands up for shared space and defends it when the first cracks – or flags – begin to appear: that is willing to challenge paramilitarism in all its guises and stand with those who fall victim to it.
“If that leadership is to come from anywhere, it will come from those of us in this room. And that is why, despite the uncertain times in which we are working we need to focus on growing our number, increasing our influence, strengthening our voice – not for the sake of the Alliance Party, albeit that that would be great, but for the sake of creating the kind of vibrant, diverse and integrated society which is the key to our future success.”
Sometimes accused of being invisible ‘west of the Bann’, the Alliance leader spoke about her commitment upon being elected leader to expand the party’s “membership base and its influence beyond our traditionally strong areas in Greater Belfast”.
“This conference is just one part of living up to that commitment, but it brings to fruition a year of wider work and outreach which has seen our membership grow and diversify, our local associations across all of Northern Ireland strengthened and in some cases revived, and which allowed us to fight those elections with candidates which in every case were grounded in their local constituency.
“We were faced with unexpected challenges and we turned them into unexpected opportunities – and I hope we enjoyed it, too. We grasped the unexpected challenges and transformed them into opportunities to take the Alliance message to new places, to introduce and promote some new faces, and to ensure that our voice and our vision remain relevant in an unpredictable and often frustrating political environment.”
Long drew her speech to a close with a call for adaption and a reminder that the local government elections are not far away.
“There is an old saying that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I thought, as I was preparing for today, I would google it to see where it came from, but instead found and adaptation which many of you would maybe appreciate more, ‘When life gives you lemons, find someone with gin and have a party’.
“Well, we certainly have a quite a party here that I am happy to be part of and proud to lead. The uncertainty is far from over, but we are in good health and have the values, the vision and determination to make the most of whatever lies ahead.
“In the run up to the local Government elections in 2019, just 18 months from now, we need to focus on growth. That’s why the last of our panels today specifically focused on breaking through not just the 10% electoral barrier but in areas where we currently have no representation. That can change.
“We have an opportunity in this impasse to demonstrate that we are a credible alternative to binary politics; that we offer solutions not recriminations; and that we deliver for people on the ground when their faith in politicians is at a low ebb. But to do that we need to see the opportunity and grasp it: As Thomas Eddison once said: ‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’”
She called for “no barriers in our communities and no barriers to our growth”, adding:
“How great it would be if the next time we hold our Autumn Conference in Derry, we were welcomed to the city by a local councillor… or maybe two. Any why not? Why not in Omagh, too. Or Armagh? Or Enniskillen, Ballymena, Newry or Cookstown?
“Let’s get out there, starting today, and show that when we say Alliance is For Everyone, it isn’t an empty slogan, it’s a statement of purpose and we intend to deliver.”
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.