Low key Alliance conference warns “fear and mistrust … limit us to living smaller lives” #AP2018

Alliance Party members met in the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast today for their annual party conference. It was a low key event, with attendance slightly down* on last year, when the party was buoyant after good results in the 2017 NI Assembly election and members were still unaware of the surprise General Election that was just weeks away from being announced.

* The party leader disputes my perception of turnout!

Without an election campaign and without a functioning Assembly with plenary sessions and committee hearings to create stories, Alliance’s impact in political discussions is muted, and their ability to build political capital constrained. Challenges to improve the accountability of local councils are worthwhile, but don’t excite their support-base or keep the party in the headlines.

At today’s conference, deputy leader Stephen Farry talked about Alliance needing “to be innovators who are shaping events, not passive participants”. Naomi Long talked about “the kind of courageous leadership which is willing to take risks to bring people to where they need to be and engender in them the confidence to make the necessary steps towards mutual respect and accommodation”.

While the leader’s speech was chock full of analysis about the political stalemate and articulation of Alliance principles, it was relatively light on specific ideas. The leader did remind delegates of some of the key planks in the newly published Next Steps Forward policy paper, chiefly a role for a transitional Assembly, scrutiny committees and in particular a cross-party Brexit committee.

Naomi Long had barely stepped down from the stage when Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald dismissed “any proposed shadow Assembly [as] a retreat from power sharing”. But it’s clear that the party are happy to have contributed a set of proposals into the current political fracas that may be picked up by other actors – parties or governments – that can be renamed and presented as a way forward at some later date.

Alliance would say that demonstrates a quiet leadership that doesn’t involve fearmongering or divisive rhetoric. In the local electoral market, it’s quite a distinctive way of doing politics, creating potential without trying to maximise votes.

But it was surprising that more of the leader’s speech wasn’t devoted to outlining the aspects of Northern Ireland society that have stalled, stymied or threatened by the twin absence of Stormont institutions and Direct Rule. Giving a voice to the vulnerable whose services are being shut down, workers who are on protective notice, public services that continue not to be transformed, and positions that remain unfilled because there is no First Minster or deputy First Minister to sign off the appointments.

The (overly long) panels showed that party members and representatives have plenty of chutzpah and grassroots connections. But the sense of hope at last year’s Alliance Party Conference seemed to have been dulled in the intervening 12 months and needs a bit of a polish to get its sparkle back.

Alliance need a working Assembly more than the DUP and Sinn Féin. They are less pass-remarkable about other parties than the UUP and SDLP. But being known for politeness is not an alternative to being able to point to policies that are being implemented – a feature of being in the Executive until May 2016 – and ideas that are being discussed widely in the public square.

– – –

The conference began with a welcome from party president Alderman Geraldine Mulvenna and a screening of the latest party political broadcast.

YouTube video

Two long panels led up to the deputy leader and leader speeches.

Brexit – A Societal Change was the topic for former leader David Ford David Ford MLA in discussion with Prof Hugh McKenna (Dean of UU Medical School), Jennifer Fulton (NI Environment Link), Mairead McCafferty (NICCY) and Stephen Martin (Assistant Chief Constable PSNI)

Cllr Michael Long introduced Cllr Tim Morrow (Mayor of Lisburn & Castlereagh), Cllr Nuala McAllister (Lord Mayor of Belfast), Cllr Gavin Walker (Deputy Mayor of Ards & North Down) and Cllr Carole Howard (High Sheriff of Belfast) to talk about leadership in local government.

The audience cheered and applauded with enthusiasm as Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry took to the podium.

“We meet at a time when our future has never been so uncertain. We are living through a period of unprecedented change. We have that unique opportunity to choose our place – to be on the right side or the wrong side of what may be a defining moment in history. We have that choice to step forward and be champions of a united community, that places reconciliation and healing at its heart, and to be plugged into Europe and rest of the world. The challenges are many and real, there is no escaping that, but with every challenge, there is an opportunity.”

But he said that Alliance have “always stepped forward to make often the first steps and frequently the big steps”.

“It is our collective responsibility to rise to this challenge, with renewed might and vigour, to ensure that every single one of us has the future that we deserve. It is the easiest thing to sell a binary, reductive choice. It is a more challenging to sell a vision that requires people to challenge their own prejudice, their own preference and place reconciliation and unity at the heart of the narrative.

“The really the relevance of radical stance is neither a united Ireland nor a Northern Ireland firmly within the union, but a united community, living, learning and working together. That is where the transformation will come from.”

He reflected on the current political stalemate.

“As we meet today, we are in our 15th month without a government – 15 months. While there have been has been many challenges, crises, and breakdowns in devolution over the past 20 years, this time, it seems qualitatively different. The achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, almost 20 years ago next month, was a time of great elation and opportunity.
And while Northern Ireland has been transformed in so many ways since then, many of those hopes have not been realised.

“In too many respects, peace was seen just as the absence of violence. But peace is also the presence of justice and the presence of reconciliation. For many victims and their families, ongoing needs for justice, truth and practical assistance to address mental and physical injuries go unrealised. And our society remains scarred by deep division and segregation, with at best piecemeal progress towards integration including in key areas such as housing and education.”

He blamed other parties for “[reducing] politics to a transactional brokering house for different sections of the community”.

“To turn a famous statement from the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz on its head, ‘Peace became the pursuit of war by other means’ with ongoing conflict around issues such as flags, parades, narratives of the past and language.”

The economy, public services like health and education, and public finances are impacted.

Many of the reforms and changes that are happening in other places are not happening here. And the risk is that we fall further and further behind and our economy and society stagnates. It could take years to catch up.

“So as we meet Northern Ireland has: No Programme for Government, No Strategic Budget, No Economic Strategy, No Investment Strategy, No Social Strategy, No Skills Strategy, No Productivity Plan.”

He said that “all of this is before we consider the impact of Brexit” which he said will be viewed as “a huge historic mistake” and “an act of self-harm to the UK [and] to both parts of Ireland”.

The deputy leader outlined a series of implications of Brexit before saying:

“Brexit has thrown the constitutional question back on the table in contrast to a situation where despite the legitimate competing aspirations of unionists and nationalists, it had largely been parked.

“In conjunction with the ongoing cultural war and the trench warfare of what has passed for a talks process over the past year, it has fed an increased polarisation in our politics. We must recognise that many nationalists and indeed some others are questioning the functionality of Northern Ireland and looking to a united Ireland, while many unionists are acting irrationally at odds with their longstanding aspirations, drawing around the wagons and recasting the siege mentality of old.

“It is in this respect that I have been saying that Northern Ireland is being slowed pulled apart. It would be a cliché to talk about Northern Ireland being at a crossroads. But major historical choices face not just this society, but the UK and Irish Governments that will influence the future direction of travel. And whatever route we take, Kellie Armstrong will remind us that the road will be full of potholes.

“For Alliance, we must ensure that we don’t just seek to remain relevant, but that are in fact having a meaningful and substantial influence over events. And in doing so, we must seek to apply our values and follow our values, including liberalism, the rule of law, justice, fairness, compassion, integration and reconciliation. We need to be innovators who are shaping events, not passive participants.”

What does this look like in practice?

“First of all, we need to get a talks process restored and to find the means to break through the immediate political deadlock. Naomi will shortly talk about our ideas in this regard, building upon the proposals we published earlier this week. Yet any restoration of institutions will provide only short to medium term relative stability but cannot address the more fundamental dynamics without further actions.

“Second, we need to defend the Good Friday Agreement. This has come under attack from some hardline Brexiteers who see it as an obstacle to the implementation of their ideological masterplan. Yet we in Alliance know that it must be more than defence, there has to be reform to address flaws in the institutions, and to remove the institutionalisation of sectarianism.

“Next, we need to deliver measures to address the legacy of the past, implementing the Stormont House Agreement, delivering a Pension for the Severely Injured, alongside proceeding with Legacy Inquests and critically from an Alliance perspective in particular, promoting reconciliation. Ultimately, there is not a path to a reconciled and cohesive society unless we can deliver a comprehensive process for dealing with the legacy of the past.

“Closely linked to reconciliation lies the promotion of an integrated society. With deep divisions in our society remaining so stark, and indeed in some respects, becoming even more deeply entrenched, there must be a greater onus on the government and others to promote and facilitate integrated education and housing.”

Brexit was a recurring theme in his speech.

“I also wish to highlight a further challenge. Much of the thrust of what the European Union is offering is essentially defensive in nature. It is about avoiding a border, protecting the Agreement and defending existing north-south co-operation. What is on offer is less than the full Single Market. We have to be conscious of not just avoiding damage but thinking ahead to the future of the Northern Ireland economy and where growth can be achieved.

None of this can be achieved unless there is a greater recognition of what unites the people of Northern Ireland than divides them.

“People here have different identities, many of which are multi-layered, diverse and indeed fluid. All identities and aspirations are legitimate. In many respects the European identity transcended the competing local identities and allowed many, especially young people, to buy into something bigger. But we do need to think how we can better consider ourselves as a united community and ground this with reference to universal values.

“So Conference, Northern Ireland can have a bright future. But nothing is certain. Nothing is guaranteed. There are choices and decisions to be made. But it must be a future that is in our hands.”

Delegates rose to their feet to welcome party leader Naomi Long MLA.

“Each year, as I begin to prepare my conference speech, I start by looking back over the previous year’s speech and reflect on everything that has happened over the course of the last twelve months.

“When we met here last year, we did so in the wake of the Assembly elections, and celebrating our highest number of votes since 1979 and our highest share of the vote since 1987. Little did we know when we met, however, that we were about to do it all again in a snap General Election last June, when the Prime Minister rolled the dice to try to increase her parliamentary majority ahead of Brexit negotiations. A divisive and rancorous campaign, yet again exploiting the politics of fear and division, was reflected in the result which almost entirely balkanised Northern Ireland.

“Further, the Prime Minister’s high risk and ultimately ill-fated strategy, delivered a much weakened Westminster government, now reliant on a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. That closer relationship between the DUP and the Conservatives not only raised fresh questions about the ability of Government to act impartially as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, but also led to a sense that they permanently had one hand tied behind their back during negotiations, with no ability to exert any pressure to get a deal done.

“And so the tone for a long and frustrating year of political stagnation was set: government unwilling or unable to reconfigure the talks to enhance the possibility of success; the number of parties around the table getting fewer and fewer; the scope for agreement becoming narrower and narrower; the points of disagreement becoming increasingly intractable; and the likelihood of success becoming more and more remote with each successive attempt.”

The East Belfast MLA contrasted the year of “political stagnation in Stormont” with a year in which she said Alliance “have continued to take real steps forward”.

“Despite the divisive nature of the Westminster election, we ran a strong campaign and largely consolidated our results from the Assembly, and I thank all of you who played a role in that: we have also continued to see new members stepping forward in record numbers over the last year.

“That momentum led to continuing growth of our local associations in areas where we have currently either no or limited elected representation. We have seen Associations being reconstituted in constituencies like Newry and Armagh and activism and campaigning taking place in a number of our key growth areas, culminating in our first one day Autumn Conference in Foyle, in October.”

She thanked staff at headquarters, the Assembly and constituency offices for their dedication and commitment during “a difficult few years, full of uncertainty”.

“More recently, we have held the first of our planned action days, starting in Omagh, led ably by our local team and supported by people from right across the party and I want to thank each of you who stepped forward to help. Most of all, I want to thank Stephen Donnelly for the commitment he has shown to maintaining that development work on the ground and providing a consistent and coherent voice for the Alliance Party’s values and vision.

“I’m sure you will all want to join with me in congratulating Stephen on his official selection as our Candidate for the forthcoming Westminster by-election in West Tyrone. I hope that each of you will step forward and support him practically as we offer the people of West Tyrone a shared and inclusive vision for the future and full-time representation in Westminster.

“Right across all of our associations, I have been hugely encouraged by the level of commitment and energy which you as members have demonstrated at a time when it would be easy to be cynical or jaded about politics: having had the opportunity to meet with almost all of our local council teams and local associations in the last 2-3 months, it has not only been enormously energising but has been a great opportunity to discuss how we intend to develop the party further in the months ahead and particularly in preparation for the Local Government elections in 2019.”

The speech switched from reflection on the year to reflection on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Last night, at our conference dinner, both in the words of Senator Mitchell’s message and in the panel discussion, we were reminded of how in 1998, with the signing of that historic accord, the feeling that we had crossed a Rubicon in Northern Ireland politics was palpable.

“Of course we knew – indeed Senator Mitchell explicitly warned at the time – that there would be challenges ahead and a lot of hard work to do to maintain progress. However, the Good Friday Agreement set out the basic building blocks for a stable and inclusive society: commitment to peace and a culture of lawfulness; the principle of consent; the need for power-sharing within Northern Ireland; good relationships internally, with an emphasis on reconciliation and integration; and, strong, cooperative relationships with and between our nearest neighbours.

“Those fundamental principles were the essence of the Alliance vision for devolution when the party was formed almost 50 years ago, and they remain the only feasible way forward for our society. The architecture and structures may change and evolve but those key elements still provide the key to resolving our difficulties, past and present.

“It says much about the growth of this party that many of our members – many of you here today – are too young to have any real recollection of Northern Ireland pre 1998. Last night, Hannah Irwin spoke powerfully about her hopes for the future as someone who was born just a month before the Good Friday Agreement. For you it is, perhaps, hard to comprehend the sense not just of relief – but the sense of possibility – that accompanied that historic signing and the Yes result.

“For me and for those of my generation, the Troubles were the backdrop to our entire childhood and teenage years: for some of you, it was the backdrop from which you tried to shield your own children as they were growing up.

“I was born in 1971, at the start of the Troubles and so had known nothing else my entire life: the abnormal was my normal. We lived smaller lives, constrained by both geography and fear. We knew our own neighbours and neighbourhoods and there was reassurance in that familiarity in times which were turbulent and uncertain.

“As I watched Derry Girls this year, Lisa McGee’s brilliantly written coming of age story of four teenage girls growing up in Derry in the 90s, it resonated deeply. Many of the misadventures could have been set almost anywhere, but the black humour was most definitely our own.

“However, the last few moments of the final episode of the series captured for me the reality of growing up in the Troubles in the juxtaposition of two scenes: the first of the girls, laughing and dancing in the safety of the school, without a care in the world: the second, of a room full of adults, concern etched deep on their faces, as they gathered around the TV to watch the unfolding news of a horrific bomb attack and loss of life.

“It was a timely and powerful reminder of how fragile the normality we sought to construct in the worst of times really was, and how horror and brutality managed to force its way into our everyday lives.”

YouTube video

“To see that come to an end, initially with the ceasefires of 1994, the first time in my life that I thought things might actually change, gave many of us hope. That hope was cautious and tentative, as we’d seen false dawns before. But in 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement, flawed and imperfect as it was, it felt like that hope became real and tangible.

“We now find ourselves in a very different context: where not just agreement but hope itself – the very sense of possibility – seems to be in short supply. Yet we need both, if we are to find a way through our current difficulties to realise the full potential of that Agreement. And I believe it is our job in Alliance, as it always has been, to reinject that hope – that sense of possibility – back into our political discussions.

“One could chose to despair that in 1998, our society could take huge steps forward on issues such as ceasefires, prisoner releases and decommissioning, yet now we are stalled by issues which seem relatively small by comparison. Then, the distance between parties was a chasm, now the gaps are much narrower, yet seemingly more difficult to bridge. But I refuse to give in to a counsel of despair: I chose instead to believe that what we were capable of once, we are capable of again.

“These are different times politically, socially, economically whether we look locally, nationally or internationally. The 1990s saw the rise of Cool Britannia, the Celtic Tiger was prowling and there was a sense of confidence about our place in the world and what the future might hold. New Labour swept to power on the promise that “things could only get better”, a song which captured the mood of the time and, in these islands, as much as anywhere, we were riding a wave of optimism. We were partners in Europe: we could be partners on Northern Ireland.

“That optimism has long since been replaced by a sense of uncertainty for the future. Brexit is unpicking the political, social and economic relationships on which we have come to rely, more in Northern Ireland than perhaps anywhere else in these islands. Increasing protectionism and nativism in politics and growing insularity, bordering at times on xenophobia, is in stark contrast to the focus on globalism, multi-culturalism and interdependence in the 1990s.

“Supporters will argue that Brexit is about being more open and more engaged – independently, confidently – with the big, wide world beyond Europe; however, it’s hard to take that entirely seriously when the very same people were in a state of near apoplexy this week at news their beloved navy blue passports would be imported from France. Indeed, just like the word ‘passport’ itself. How can they hope to do trade deals if the end goal is to import nothing? ‘Ourselves alone’ isn’t a recipe for economic success in any language.”

The audience applauded at this irony.

“Whilst optimism can help create fertile conditions for progress, it is trust that enables us to step forward and build for the future. Sadly, what little trust was developing between parties and, crucially, between parties and the electorate, has been badly eroded. Lack of transparency and openness and failure to deliver on commitments has poisoned the political well.

“Recent revelations at the RHI inquiry that this culture of secrecy had begun to infect even the Civil Service, with the admission that they routinely failed to minute meetings to avoid embarrassing ministers and to evade the scrutiny of Freedom of Information requests is a damning indictment of a lax approach to governance in some Departments. The almost conspiratorial approach that seems to have pervaded parts of the system, keeping not just the public but other ministers in the same Executive in the dark about key decisions, is toxic to trust and confidence.

“Politics needs the checks and balances of accountability and scrutiny to protect the public interest and ensure independence and professionalism from both ministers and senior civil servants. That is why we continue to place openness and transparency at the heart of our political campaigning, both in terms of party political donations and good governance, whether in the Assembly and Executive or in our local councils.

“Whilst I welcome the fact that all large donations since last July will now be made public, the decision not to backdate the measure to January 2014, as anticipated in my amendment, co-sponsored by a former Secretary of State, is a massive U-turn. To hide behind consulting with local parties is a bit like holding a vote in a turkey shed about whether we should celebrate Christmas.

“This isn’t about what local parties want; it’s about the right of local voters to know who the major donors are and decide for themselves who pulls the strings. Alliance will continue to work with others to push for the original date to be reinstated and for a review of the threshold at which donor information should be published. Just this week the Lib Dems again raised the issue in NI Questions and tabled an Early Day Motion on the matter, for which I am very grateful, and Labour have also pledged their support.

“And in local councils, whether in Lisburn & Castlereagh, where we are pressing for an independent member to be added to the Audit Panel in line with best practice, or in Belfast where having successfully pursued recording of meetings, we have now taken our concerns about transparency of funding to the Audit Office, we will continue to press for the highest standards.

“So, there is a lack of optimism and of trust, but at the heart of the current malaise is lack of vision and, particularly, of a shared vision for our community. The yes vote in 1998, laid a foundation on which we could build, not just a stable and peaceful future, but also one in which we were reconciled to our neighbours and integrated as a community.

“Yet the hard yards of reconciliation and integration were, by and large, left to individuals, communities, and voluntary groups with little or no real political support or encouragement. Instead, politicians continued to emphasise difference, exploit divisions and use fear as a motivator to rally the vote, rather than seeing the enormous benefits than can accrue for the whole community by celebrating our diversity as an asset and recognising that it enriches us rather than diminishes us.

“As most of you came here today, you passed through the legendary townland that is Ballyhackamore – this week named as the best place to live in Northern Ireland by The Times. So what makes it special? Well, apart from the fact that I live there…

“It is one of the most mixed, most integrated parts of East Belfast – not just in terms of the religious make-up, but also in terms of social mix and age. In that settled environment, where people feel safe and secure to live, work and socialise, businesses have flourished and a sense of community has grown.

“That is my vision for everyone in East Belfast: not just the affluent suburbs like Ballyhackamore, but for every neighbourhood from Ballymaccarrett to Ballybeen. If we can create communities which are open and shared, safe and welcoming, they will flourish and prosper and everyone will benefit. And the same is true for Northern Ireland as a whole.

“Building that shared vision is challenging in an environment in which both Brexit and the collapse of the institutions are increasing pulling communities apart, with unionists looking increasingly to Westminster and Nationalists looking increasingly to Dublin. In doing so, there is a failure to focus on the challenges which our community faces together and together seek the solutions.

“That requires leadership: leadership which at so many critical points over recent years has failed to materialise. We need the kind of courageous leadership which is willing to take risks to bring people to where they need to be and engender in them the confidence to make the necessary steps towards mutual respect and accommodation.

“Whilst leadership may be lacking elsewhere, however, it was prominent this morning on our Local Government panel – where Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, Mayor of Lisburn and Castlereagh, Tim Morrow, High Sherriff of Belfast, Carole Howard and Deputy Mayor of North Down, Gavin Walker, talked about their year in office and the opportunities it has presented for them to demonstrated what civic leadership by Alliance can achieve.

“I want to congratulate you, Nuala, Tim, Gavin and your families for all you have achieved this year and for how well you have represented the party. You have done us proud. And to Carole, I wish you every success in your year ahead – and especially congratulate you for managing to get Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as your first Royal visit.

“And it would be remiss of me not also to say a particular thank you to the chair of the panel, Group Leader in Belfast City Council, and all round wonderful guy: Councillor Michael Long. I know better than most just how much time and energy he invests not only in leading the team but in showing courageous and tenacious leadership to shape a better council and city for the future. I am hugely indebted to him for this and much, much more.

“And I see that leadership in abundance each week as the Assembly team meets in Stormont to plan ahead. It is not an easy time to be an Assembly Member, but despite that I am surrounded by a team full of energy, ideas, and guts: who continue to work tirelessly to develop policy and fresh legislation for when devolution is restored; who deliver for their constituents with practical help and advice; and who are always prepared and informed to articulate publicly the party position. To Stephen, Kellie, Paula, Trevor, David, Stewart and Chris – thank you for your leadership and for your support.”

Naomi Long highlighted recent policy initiatives from the Alliance Party.

“Since the collapse of the most recent talks, there has been no indication of how the government intends to move forward and get parties around the table again. There has been a complete lack of forward momentum.

“We have spent the last 14 months in “care and maintenance”: the big decisions about the reforms required to deliver high quality sustainable health, education, infrastructure, economic development are simply not being taken. That cannot continue. The people of Northern Ireland deserve – they need – a functioning government. The current drift is simply unsustainable.

“Lack of optimism, lack of trust, lack of vision, lack of leadership and lack of forward momentum: all of which led us this week to publish Next Steps Forward, our route map to restoring devolution and dealing with the backlog of decisions affecting those who elected us.

“Problem solving is what politics is about – whether developing policy, legislation or working in the constituency office. It’s what Alliance has continued to do throughout this crisis whether in our proposals, to try to overcome the seeming irreconcilable positions on the Irish Language adopted by others; or publishing our Brexit paper, Bridges not Borders, with practical solutions to the challenges we face.

“We will not simply stand on the side-lines, wringing our hands, or worse, add to the problems by pointing the finger. Even if we are at times slipping notes under a locked door, as Stewart so colourfully described it, we remain absolutely determined to play a positive role in getting devolution restored.

“Alliance remains convinced only fully inclusive multi-party talks, chaired by an independent facilitator, can re-establish trust between the parties and hold them to account, privately and publicly, for their actions. They also provide the only prospect of delivering an inclusive Executive.”

She listed some of the elements in the Next Steps Forward proposals.

“We have proposed transitional Assembly arrangements, running in parallel with the talks, as a step towards the restoration of full devolution. To be clear, we want no part in any talking shop: we do not need yet another arena in which MLAs cut lumps out of each other for sport. We need to start taking back responsibility.

“By reconstituting Assembly Committees, MLAs can start to do the job we were elected to do: to give advice and guidance, scrutinise departmental spending and planning, and develop policy and legislation. Plenary sessions would allow us to progress legislation, via Committee Bills or Private Member’s Bills.

“The formation of a cross-party Brexit committee would give NI a voice in the discussions which are shaping our future, whilst the re-constitution of the Policing Board would restore the oversight required to maintain public confidence and accountability in policing.

“These time-limited transitional arrangements would allow parties to deal with issues of substance and of real concern to our constituents; to take responsibility in return for our salary; and, most importantly, to help to clear the backlog of decision-making which has developed during the impasse.

“We have also proposed that Westminster legislate for key devolved matters such as the Irish language and equal marriage which have become a barrier to restoration, erasing some red lines and changing the dynamics of the talks process.

“Indeed, this week, the first steps will be taken to introduce a private members bill on Equal Marriage at Westminster. While it has a long way to go yet, it is a major step forward towards the day when LGBT couples in NI will finally be able to say “I do” and get the same recognition and respect under the law as any other married couple. My only regret is that yet again it is Westminster and not Stormont delivering on LGBT rights and equality.

“Finally, we have identified reserved matters which Westminster should also progress including, crucially, reform of the petition of concern. That would ensure a restored Assembly could deal effectively with other social policy and equality issues and preventing any one party frustrating the will of the electorate.”

On legacy issues …

“The planned Government consultation on the enabling legislation to implement the Stormont House Agreement on legacy, the funding of legacy inquests and the implementation of a pension for the seriously injured should also now proceed without further delay. Victims and survivors have waited long enough: they ought not to suffer further due to lack of political progress. There is a moral obligation to address this issue now.”

Finally …

“We have shared our proposals with the other party leaders in a genuine attempt to create the space politically in which broader agreement is possible and an Executive can be formed.

“I remain as convinced as ever that a positive vision, bold ideas and strong leadership is the only way to move NI forward and realise the full potential of this society. We all have a choice to make: do we stand still, squander the progress made and watch new opportunities pass us by? Or do we step forward, together and start to build that more equitable and just future, at peace with ourselves and with our neighbour, in which everyone has a stake?

“Do we allow fear and mistrust to hold us back, divide and weaken our community, limit us to living smaller lives? Or do we step forward together, in hope, to shape a future filled with possibility and opportunity, where we celebrate our diversity as a strength and create vibrant, open and welcoming communities in which all of us can flourish?

“Conference, I know that we are ready to take those next steps forward, in our communities, in local councils and in the Assembly. The challenge is now to others to step forward with us. Thank you.”

While Secretary of State Karen Bradley MP was over in Northern Ireland on Friday to greet Prince Harry and Megan Markle, a diary clash meant that she didn’t appear as originally hoped at the Alliance Party conference.

After lunch, delegates heard from Turas project manager Linda Ervine about the history of the language training project in east Belfast.

And the final panel addressed Delivering Societal Change with Kellie Armstrong MLA chairing the discussion with Emma Butler (Integrated Alumni), Cllr Andrew Muir (Ards & North Down council) and Richard Kirk (Institute of Civil Engineers). The conversation dealt with everything from the possibility of a bridge across the Irish Sea to the lack of diversity and representation in local politics. Probably the most wide-ranging and interesting of the three panels throughout the conference.

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