Alliance demands better from parties, politicians and the Secretary of State #apni19

On the second anniversary of the last NI Assembly election and exactly two months before the next local government poll, the Alliance Party faithful gathered in the Stormont Hotel in East Belfast for their annual conference. Their slogan has morphed from ‘Step Forward’ to the harder-sounding ‘Demand Better’ and party leader Naomi Long pulled no punches in her negative assessment of the Secretary of State’s “appalling dereliction of duty” to restore the Stormont institutions.

It was an energising and somewhat incensed speech from the party leader was well received by the 300 or so delegates whose demographic seemed a little younger than some previous years.

Throughout the day there was a lot of talk about having commitment, determination and experience; leading through dialogue; of evidence-based decision-making; mention of values and vision, and being positive, progressive and pro-European; openness and transparency; while tribes were described as having an ability to divide.

Alliance’s 9.1% of first preferences in the 2017 Assembly election was a particularly strong result. In the 2014 local government elections, they only received 6.6% of first preference votes, down on the 7.4% in 2011. The party only has representation on seven of the eleven councils, with strong bases in Belfast, Ards and North Down, and Lisburn and Castlereagh.

Deputy leader Stephen Farry paraphrased President John F Kennedy: “we will do all of these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Alliance’s mix of being nice, playing fair and tackling complex issues is their trademark and is core to their values. “We don’t have a base that we have to rally on either side” explained Castlereagh South candidate Michelle Guy.

Yet for precisely those reasons, Alliance’s message can be drowned out by other parties’ negativity and often fails to gain traction and connect with and excite new voters in council polls.

Given the toxic mix of Brexit, culture and legacy issues dominating political discourse, Alliance will need to shout loudly with their pitch for voters to ‘Demand Better’ in order to be heard above the shadow wars already being stirred up by the larger parties. To wrestle the conversation back and overcome the apathy that has even crept into the politically-interested and members of all parties, Alliance would need to be relentless in succinctly pointing out failures of policy and leadership that voters can relate to and then pivoting to positive Alliance solutions to address those failings.

Over the course of the day, women were to the fore up on stage. Fresh and enthusiastic council candidates were showcased in the Party Election Broadcast and a panel chaired by Ards and North Down councillor and long-distance runner Andrew Muir. In his introduction he described working alongside the DUP as “like running an ultra-marathon in gale force winds and hailstones” with the need to “improvise, adapt and overcome”. He challenged the assembled delegates: “strong Alliance teams get things done – just think what we could do with bigger teams.”

Omagh candidate Stephen Donnelly got a big reaction when he implored voters to “shake off the cobwebs of apathy and get down to a polling station and vote Alliance on May 2”.

An invited panel chewed over the topic of city deals. Bill Wolsey (MD of Beannchor) was the most outspoken, with a somewhat cheap but very quotable line after a reflection on the EU referendum campaign (he supported Remain) and challenges of Brexit:

“I think there’s a feeling within the community – if you come back to my industry – that one of the major parties couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery. And the other major party’s determined to see the brewery go bankrupt. And that is no way for us as a society to move forward. What is good for business and what is strong for business should be good for the whole of our society.”

Later in the afternoon, another invited panel discussed child, youth and maternal mental health provision.

Deputy leader Stephen Farry spoke of “a time of unprecedented crisis”.

“We may not be seeing necessarily large-scale violence or confrontation on the streets. But we are witnessing a gradual and persistent erosion of the pillars of this society; the pulling apart of those things that hold this place together; the deterioration of our public services; the undermining of our economy potential; and the dashing of so many hopes and dreams.

“With the Good Friday Agreement, and successive periods of devolution, Northern Ireland has had many opportunities to build on those foundations that were laid, to press on and transform this society, and to deliver integration, reconciliation and justice. But instead these opportunities have been squandered through the exploitation rather than healing of divisions, through populism and failure to engage in evidence-based policy-making, through clientism, corruption and cronyism.

“No political system can survive, let alone flourish, without a basic level of trust and respect between the key actors. Who knows where we would be today if people hadn’t arguable kicked on from what was arguably the high water-mark of devolution between 2010 and 2012? But instead, we have had an accelerating deterioration of relationships, the absence of devolved government – for two years, two whole years, conference – the potential unpicking of what had been successful police reform, the political weaponisation of how we deal with our painful past, and finally, Brexit has taken the situation to an even deeper abyss.”

He recognised the “strengths that lie here in Northern Ireland”.

“The skills and creative talent of our people. Our landscape and our attractions. And the clear demand of a majority of our population for progressive social reform, economic opportunity and a shared and integrated society. Amidst all of this, we must not lose sight of this central reality Regardless of all the tensions and forces pulling us apart, this rich and diverse society only can work based on sharing and interdependence.”

On Brexit, Farry was applauded when he said that “there is no such thing as a good or sensible Brexit”.

“Implementation has gone even worse than most people’s worst fears. The UK invoked Article 50 without any idea of the type of Brexit it wanted. It has spent the past two years negotiating with itself, with the Government, the Labour frontbench, backbench Brexiteer and of course the DUP all indulging in incompatible redlines, creating unrealistic expectations, imaginary solutions, unicorns and delusions.

“Notwithstanding this, Brexit will fail either through an economic catastrophe or through it being reversed. This inevitable failure of the Brexit process of course will be laid at the door of Ireland and the wider EU. And indeed, we must be alert to the forthcoming stab-in-the-back narrative from the Brexiteer zealots that the perfect version of Brexit would have delivered if that pesky EU had not got in the way. [audience laughs] In this way, it will reflect the commitment of diehard communists who refuse to let go of their ideology despite the examples of the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China or German Democratic Republic.

“But we must also be wary of the scapegoating that comes from betrayal narratives. Brexit poses huge challenges to Northern Ireland. Any version of Brexit raises the spectre of new divisions, boundaries and friction. It poses threats to identities and rights, to the all-island economy of sales and supply chains, and to future opportunities and livelihoods.”

There was much applause when he said: “we must never forget that Northern Ireland voted to remain.”

Farry explained that Alliance’s priorities and preferences are (in order):

  • a People’s Vote to reconsider Brexit, with the option to remain in the EU;
  • the whole of the UK remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union;
  • a Special Deal that helps the Northern Ireland economy and defends the Good Friday Agreement.

“By contrast” he said, “the UK Government and DUP allies are acting contrary to the interests of the UK as a whole and of Northern Ireland in particular. Moreover, the DUP doesn’t speak for Northern Ireland. In particular, they are now very clearly at odds with large elements of the business community and civil society. Indeed, in seeking the hardest Brexit possible and risking even a catastrophic no deal, the DUP seem prepared to tear the last remaining strands of fabric holding this society together.”

What will happen next?

“While there is a need for certainty as soon as possible, certainty around a bad outcome is not the certainty that most people and businesses want Going over a cliff-edge is pretty certain, but also pretty terminal.”

Farry made his pitch for a second referendum.

“Conference, the best, most coherent and democratic route through Brexit is a People’s Vote. Alliance has led the way in championing the People’s Vote here in Northern Ireland. It was the leadership of Alliance councillors that saw first Newry, Mourne and Down and then Belfast City Council pass resolutions in favour.

“The 2016 Referendum may have been the biggest UK vote to date. But it was a stark choice between a clearly-defined Remain but an undefined Leave option. Questions persist regarding the fairness and transparency of the process. Many false and obtainable promises were made, including the health funding pledge on the side of a bus. Furthermore, the complexities, risks and impacts of Brexit upon so many areas of life are now much more apparent.

“Democracy is an ongoing and active process. It cannot be a betrayal of the people who voted in 2016 to now check in again with the people again given what is happened. What do some people have to fear?”

Farry went on to outline the mechanics of such a vote.

“Any referendum at this stage would require an extension of the Article 50 timeframe. It would take around 24 weeks from start to finish. Parliament would need to legislate for it and set the question. For us, the optimal approach would be a multi-preference vote between: Remain, the proposed deal, and no deal. Remain must definitely be a choice. While unpalatable, it is unlikely that any referendum would be viewed as legitimate and conclusive without a No Deal option. The Electoral Commission would inevitably advise as such.

“It is said that a new referendum would fuel further division. But the UK is already badly divided. It is far better to heal on a more rational platform rather than slavishly following an approach that makes us all worse off. So Conference, if the opportunity comes for a People’s Vote we must take that. But, we also need to bank the backstop and avoid a catastrophic no-deal outcome.”

The remainder of the deputy leader’s speech analysed the “huge impact on our public services and economy” of “political deadlock”. He suggested that “Direct Rule is not a realistic option for a divided society of Northern Ireland that needs shared governance” and this week’s budget was “a series of quick fixes to the plug the holes in a sinking boat – Northern Ireland’s public finances are in a mess.”

On legacy issues:

“The past cannot be swept under the carpet. Coming to terms with our past is central to the process of reconciliation, and the rule of law must always be paramount and not blind to injustice. The Stormont House Agreement mechanisms represent the best and last opportunity for a comprehensive system to deal with legacy. There will of course be some changes that need to be made, but this template is the only viable way forward.”

Party leader walked through the delegates to strains of Elvis’ “a little less conversation, a little more action, please”.

“Each year, as I start to write my conference speech, I read through my last year’s notes and reflect on any political progress over the intervening twelve months. It will come as no surprise to anyone in this room, that process didn’t take much time this year. However, for any of you harbouring the hope that will mean my speech is shorter than usual – I can assure you that you aren’t getting off that lightly.

“It is hard to believe that we meet again this year, for the third year in a row in the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly; without any clarity or certainty regarding the likely outcome of Brexit; and without any clear pathway from the chaos in which we are now to where we need urgently to be.

“Just this week, also for the third year in a row, quietly and without any debate or scrutiny, absent of any real challenge or meaningful local input, a budget for Northern Ireland was laid, in the form of a written statement at Westminster. A written statement – not even afforded the limited opportunity for an hour of questions provided by an oral statement.

“This is not how we should be governed. It is not good enough. And it needs to change.”

On the Secretary of State’s role:

“Yet it passed with barely a whimper, so accustomed are people becoming to not only the appalling dereliction of duty exhibited by the main political parties, who have failed to find the accommodation required to allow us to do the jobs we were elected to do, but also to the equally appalling dereliction of duty by the Secretary of State [interrupted by applause] who has made no concerted effort to end this interminable drift despite it allegedly being her top priority.

“Now I confess that I haven’t seen Karen Bradley’s to do list, but if restoration of the devolved institutions is indeed her number one issue, heaven help those who find their concerns further down the list!

“Her claim in the House of Commons that she has approached resolving the impasse with “laser-like focus” is evidence only that we can now add lasers to the list of things the Secretary of State knew nothing about when appointed to her current role, alongside unionism, nationalism, entrenched voting patterns and sectarianism.”

On the need for change …

“Of course, the Secretary of State is not ultimately to blame for the current stand-off between the parties: however, she is responsible for the lack of urgency attached to either get the Assembly restored or put in place alternative arrangements to deliver government if parties continue to refuse to step up to their responsibilities.

“When we met last year, we did so in the wake of the collapse of talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP. We had just published our Next Steps Forward paper, setting out a range of options to try to address the outstanding issues: options including the potential to legislate on some key issues at Westminster, to re-establish Assembly Committees in parallel with talks, but perhaps the simplest yet most fundamental proposal was that an independent chair should be appointed immediately and all-party talks convened as a matter of urgency.

“Instead, we got nothing. No attempt or effort to re-engage parties. A vacuum was allowed to open up and was filled with recriminations, with claim and counter claim as to whether there was a deal, a draft deal, an accommodation, and that argument has poisoned the atmosphere ever since and continued to cause rancour even at the most recent discussions with the local parties.

“To be blunt, the time has long since passed for that argument to be put to rest. Irrespective of what anyone thought or hoped at the time, whatever happened in the lead up to February 14th last year, it clearly didn’t work.”

Long delivered a lengthy list of Alliance policy positions that cannot be moved forward due to the lack of a functioning Executive and Assembly:

“[We] would have been here today talking about progress to deliver legislative change, such as Kellie Armstrong’s Private Member’s Bill on integrated education, or the decisions on key infrastructure projects from the A5 to the North-South Interconnector, for which she has lobbied strongly.

“Paula Bradshaw would be telling us how the necessary legislative and policy reforms to deliver the Bengoa recommendations for health, which she has championed, have been implemented. Trevor Lunn would be updating us on delivery of licencing law reform to support hospitality and tourism and on the actions being taken to renew and refine the mitigations needed to protect people from the worst effects of Welfare Reform.

“Chris Lyttle would be reporting back on the progress made by the independent review of Education which he called for to address financial sustainability in schools, on the Childcare Strategy and action plan and on implementation of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act.

“We would have heard from Stephen Farry about the work being done to mitigate the impact Brexit is already having on research collaboration in our universities and on job creation and economic growth. And special thanks is due to Stephen Farry for the leadership he has shown and the persistence he has shown on the issue of Brexit.

“Stewart Dickson would be outlining progress on prison reforms started by David Ford and on work to insure the Farmer Report recommendations to keep families connected with prisoners is fully implemented.

“John Blair would be telling you about the response to the Brexit challenge faced by the agri-foods sector and the plans he is demanding to tackle the even bigger threat to all our futures that is climate change.

“I would be updating you on progress to deliver a pension to those severely injured during the Troubles – people who carry the physical and mental scars of the Troubles with them each day and those who care for them, often at significant detriment to their financial security. I would have good news to share about the implementation of the Hart Inquiry recommendations to give the recognition and financial support so desperately needed by those who were victims of institutional abuse.

“Perhaps the cross-party group on which I sat before the collapse of devolution, would have started to progress legislation to deliver equal marriage and finally bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of these islands.

“But last February didn’t deliver. And so we aren’t in that position.

“Instead, we’re standing here over one year on and while our Assembly Team have been championing all these and dozens of other issues consistently and persistently, we hit the same brick wall of lack of a Minister, time and time again.

“Though we represent the concerns with which we are confronted, day in and day out – as we meet with our constituents, with local businesses, as we talk to local GPs and hospital staff, as we visit schools and listen to parents, as we fill in Universal Credit claims and attend Personal Independence Payments appeals – we are denied the opportunity to effect the kind of change which is so clearly, desperately needed.

“The kind of change people have a right to expect. To demand.

“We can finger-point and assign blame between parties until we are blue in the face, but it will not move us forward and it will not deliver the progress which our community deserves. And I for one think that the public are sick and tired of the bickering – of politicians fiddling while our public services and our economy burns.

“Because we are not simply standing still: with every day that passes we not only lose opportunities to make progress but we fail stop the relentless deterioration in our public services, business and community sector confidence, and in community relations. And we continue to erode the fundamental public belief in politics as a means to deliver the change they demand.”

On her own attempts to get the parties back to talks …

“All parties now need to focus energy, our resources and our collective will to getting our differences resolved, government reformed and devolution restored.

“And that’s why in September, when there was no prospect of any government intervention, that I initiated the first process to get all parties back into the same room. Not only was that the first time the main parties had been in the same room for almost 8 months, but it was the first time possibly since the Good Friday Agreement that all of the parties and independents were actually included in any process.

“Whilst that initial meeting did not result in much agreement – nor did I expect that it would – it did two things: it demonstrated beyond doubt that, despite Government reluctance, it was possible to get all the parties to come to the table and it also made it abundantly clear that a huge amount of heavy lifting is required to re-establish trust and relationships between parties before any Executive can be restored.

“Whilst we continued to meet with parties individually following that initial meeting, it was and remains clear that we need a proper, structured and sustained process if there is to be any prospect of devolution being restored.

“In December, I travelled to a conference in Yale and Senator George Mitchell spoke of meeting with a group of paramilitaries who were engaged in talks to bring about a ceasefire to their war-torn country. The talks had faltered and stalled. Communications had broken down. Things looked bleak. He asked one of the lead negotiators ‘Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel?’ Their reply sums up our situation perfectly: ‘Senator, there is always light. But right now, there is no tunnel.’

“With that in mind, and in the continued absence of any process initiated by government, I again convened all party discussions in bilateral format in January. Again, every party participated and, this time, we managed to get agreement on two things: that we should continue to meet informally as party leaders – not a great step forward but something – and that if the Assembly was to return, the institutions and governance arrangements required significant reform.”

On RHI, the need for better governing, and Brexit …

“Because while the Assembly chamber has lain dormant, save for tourists and visitors over the last two years, the same cannot be said of the Senate Chamber at the opposite end of the building. There, under the scrutiny of the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry, any remaining doubt that the Executive was dysfunctional have been swept away by a tide of evidence of the depth and scale of that dysfunction.

“Our experience in previous Executives and our complaints about the lack of collective decision making and responsibility within the Executive; about other parties’ Special Advisors and Party apparatchiks wielding greater power and influence than their Ministers; about the lack of accountability of Ministers to the Assembly and about the utter disregard for due process, openness and transparency were once simply dismissed by both the DUP and Sinn Féin as whinging.

“Well, no longer. That our concerns were based in fact has been exposed by the forensic questioning of Sir Patrick Coghlan and his Inquiry Panel whose incredulity at the lax approach to record keeping and the contempt of those in power for proper procedure was visible throughout the public hearings of the Inquiry.

“When we opted not to re-enter the Executive in 2016 unless there was significant reform and an equally significant change of attitude, we were right to demand better than what had gone before. And yet even we were unaware of just how far from the expected standards of good government the largest parties in the Executive and the DUP in particular had departed.

“The Inquiry Report, due later this spring, will not make edifying reading, I suspect, and few if any of those involved in RHI will emerge covered in glory. However, it is important that we use it to learn lessons for the future not simply to rake over our past.

“Not least among those lessons is the danger to good governance and the threat to government itself is appeasing the demands of the two main parties, and in which even civil servants felt pressure to protect them from criticism and scrutiny rather than upholding due process.

“That’s why last month we published our ‘Better Government’ proposals and have now sought meetings with the leaders to discuss our proposals for reform. Because if and when there is a return to devolution, it has to be based on openness and transparency; on proper accountability for Ministers and Advisors; on collective responsibility and on raising standards throughout government.

“Only with genuine reform of the Petition of Concern, replacing of parallel consent with weighted majority voting, and restructuring of the Executive to enhance and incentivise cooperation, will we have an Assembly and Executive which is not just restored, but which is fit for purpose, fit to deliver and sustainable in the longer term.

“Conference, talks to do so must start now. We need an independent chair to convene them: someone with the impartiality to command respect, with the focus to drive the process and with the authority to call it if parties fail to agree or engage seriously. And if parties refuse to come, then they should not be paid. [paused for applause] And if it becomes clear that there is no will to restore the Assembly, then it needs to be shelved and alternative arrangements put in place to make decisions as we cannot continue in a state of suspended animation forever.

“The process cannot wait, as some would wish, until Brexit is over, because whatever happens in 27 days time, it is clear that the slow motion car crash that is Brexit will not be over but merely be beginning.

“Negotiating our future relationships with the world and planning for all of the contingencies will continue to consume the time, energy and resources of Government for years to come. Just imagine, conference, that investment redirected towards building a sustainable economy, tackling health inequalities and poverty and investing in education for our young people for a modern digital revolution. It would create the kind of vibrant economic powerhouse which would benefit not only the UK, but also Ireland and the rest of Europe.”

She summed up the UK government’s chaos:

“Instead, government spends millions of pounds of taxpayers money preparing to deploy the army in the event of no deal; stockpiling essential supplies; staging practice customs traffic jams – consisting I believe of 57 trucks and a stray bin lorry; making contingency arrangements for shipping involving a ferry company with no boats, whose terms and conditions were cut and pasted from a fast food delivery company; and people yesterday are being issued with International Driving Licences written in biro to which their photograph is glued with Pritt Stick in something more reminiscent of 1950’s Blue Peter than the sixth largest economy heading into the 2020s.

“If Armando Iannuci had written this as an episode of “The Thick of It” it would have been rejected for being too far-fetched.

“As a result of this folly, we are embarked on a regressive path, one which is insular and backward looking, which ignores the peace and progress of the last 70 odd years in favour of jingoistic nationalism and which denies us the continued benefit of working closely with our European partners, neighbours, and friends.

On hell …

“There has been a lot of talk about ‘hell’ of late – about who has reserved their special place and how. I’m not going to add to that debate today. However, there’s an old adage which says that ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ I disagree: The road to hell is paved with misplaced nostalgia for a glorious past which never existed in a globalised world which has utterly changed.

“The Brexit people voted for can never be delivered. For every Leave vote, there was a different version of Brexit. Now that is a fine strategy to win a referendum, but it’s a much less effective means of creating any cohesion about the future people actually want outside the EU.

“They were promised a deal that doesn’t exist. If there was a Canada Plus or Norway plus plus, why would the Canadians and Norwegians settle for less? They were promised a Brexit that would deliver £350m to the NHS each week when instead the EU nationals working in our already overstretched health service are leaving in increasing numbers since the referendum, all of it predictable but none of it put on the side of a bus.

“In short, our membership of the EU is a racehorse, which we are trading for the promise of a unicorn and so whatever donkey Theresa May brings home from Brussels will never and can never satisfy the expectations either of those who voted for a unicorn or those who just want to keep the racehorse.

“The tragedy of all of this is that many of those who voted for Brexit did so out of genuine anger and frustration that they had not benefited when the economy was booming but suffered hugely when it failed. They have borne the brunt of government austerity while those who caused the banking crash and financial crisis walked away scot free. Their concerns are legitimate, but their problems are not the fault of the EU, and Brexit is not the solution.

“And now even the most ardent fans of Brexit admit that we will all probably be worse off for anything up to 50 years. Every credible economist predicts that those areas which are currently poorest will be worst affected by Brexit. Just how angry and frustrated will those people be to yet again be the people who shoulder the greatest burden by those who can champion Brexit whilst off-shoring their hedge-funds, who are insulated from reality by inherited wealth and who stand to make a fortune playing the currency markets or when their vulture capitalist companies come along to feed on the carcasses of businesses destroyed.

“Here in Northern Ireland, whilst Brexit did not cause the collapse of our Assembly, it undoubtedly added to the strain and without question has made restoration more difficult than would otherwise have been the case.

“The Courts may say that leaving the EU does not breach the legal terms of the Good Friday Agreement, but common sense tells us that the entire premise on which the Good Friday Agreement relied was that of increasing collaboration and interdependence, of frictionless movement of people, goods, services and capital, and of the diminishing focus on borders and nationalism across the EU. Nowhere in the EU was that model more important and nowhere in these islands will any departure from it be more keenly felt than right here.

“Yet in act of gratuitous self-harm the very people who claim to value the union above all else, the DUP, backed Brexit and in doing so put the question of the Irish border right back at the centre of political debate after years of diminishing focus under functioning devolution – a situation which Sinn Fein have predictably and gleefully exploited. Still the DUP, giddy on their new-found notoriety among the ERG set in Westminster are now touting and ignoring the irreparable damage that an ERG-style hard Brexit will inflict on Northern Ireland – a region which opposed Brexit of any kind, hard or soft.”

The leader took a much-enjoyed swipe at her East Belfast successor in Westminster who this week unexpectedly voted differently on the Cooper Amendment from his DUP colleagues.

“And if you doubt that they are ‘giddy’ you need look no further than the MP for this constituency [East Belfast] who admitted that he [Gavin Robinson] voted the wrong way this week on a key amendment because he was – and I quote – ‘caught up in the carnival atmosphere’ of the votes. These votes will determine our economic and political future. It’d be nice to think those voting were taking them slightly more seriously than ordering candyfloss or having a ride on the helter-skelter.

“We have been clear from the outset: there can be no good Brexit, but if this is going to happen a no deal Brexit would be the worst possible outcome.

“Parliament has failed over the last two and a half years to articulate clearly what it wants. Another 21 month extension to this process would merely prolong the damaging and paralysing uncertainty. If, as the votes suggest, a majority of MPs actually oppose no deal then they need to back the Withdrawal Agreement which is the only basis for a deal.

“And if Parliament are not up to the job, fine. Put it to the people. Let’s have a People’s Vote, but this time one based on the real choice between the donkey and the racehorse we have, not the unicorn which never existed.”

Long thanked former party leader David Ford who retired in June after 20 years as an MLA. An election nerd, he’s heading up the local government campaign team in Antrim and Newtownabbey.

“There has never been anyone in the history of the Alliance Party – or perhaps even in the history of politics – who gets more excited at the prospect of an election – especially an STV election – than David, and so I look forward not only to hearing about how many extra seats we gain in Antrim and Newtownabbey, but also the precise number of votes and transfers at each stage to at least two decimal places, which got each candidate over the line.”

“At the Assembly, we were delighted to be joined by John Blair, who has not only tackled his new role in the constituency with real energy and focus but has also made himself an indispensable part of the Assembly Team over the last 8 months. Given John’s background in fisheries and inland waterways, his interest as a councillor on rural development and his years of environmental activism, he has brought fresh leadership to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural development portfolio building on the work which David had been doing.

“Of course, for us John’s selection as an MLA seemed routine – for years he had served as a local Alliance councillor, building up his reputation as an active and vocal advocate for his constituents. However, his selection was also a moment of history as he became the first openly gay Member of NI Assembly, another barrier broken by this party and another step towards the more representative and inclusive Assembly and society to which we all aspire taken by Alliance.

“I also want to congratulate Cllr Julian McGrath who replaced John on Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, where he has hit the ground running and has established himself as worthy successor to John and a valuable member of the team.

“Of course, not all change comes about in such a positive way and since last year we also mourned the passing of Cllr Barney Fitzpatrick, after a long period of declining health. Despite illness, he continued to attend and participate actively in Council business and to serve his constituents until the end. His funeral service attended by political reps from right across the community was a fitting tribute to a man whose entire life was dedicated to public service and who lived a shared present while he worked to deliver a shared future.

“Born in West Belfast, he was an Irish-speaking member of the RUC and in the PSNI for 38 years, shot by the IRA while on patrol during the Troubles. After his retirement, he went on to serve as a local councillor and was an active member and lay server at his local church, St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Portstewart.

“Like so many people in Alliance, he was a man who challenged sectarianism by his very being: someone who didn’t fit neatly into any box, who wasn’t easily labelled or pigeonholed, but who saw the community as one community and saw his role as serving it.

“He is hugely missed by us all and by the people he served. Having been selected to fill the council vacancy, Cllr Chris McCaw has continued that tradition of standing up for and defending a shared and safe community, not least in relation to the recent spate of racist posters which appeared in Portrush.”

Long talked through the Alliance councillors completing and commencing terms of office in local councils.

“Each of you – each of us – are from very different backgrounds, with vastly different experiences, working in different day jobs, juggling different family commitments, facing different challenges but what unites you all – what unites us all – is the commitment to the values and vision of Alliance and a passion for shaping our community for the better.

“Alliance’s record in local government as you have heard this morning is strong: driving openness and transparency, challenging sectarian carve-ups, promoting diversity, good relations and equality, supporting economic development, protecting our environment, and creating safer communities.

“With council elections exactly two months away to the day, it is crucial that we focus our energy and resources in the next eight weeks to ensure that the one tier of government that is working continues to deliver and that we increase the influence of Alliance on those Councils to make it deliver better. We don’t do that simply because we want Alliance to win – which we do – but we do it because when Alliance wins, the people of Northern Ireland win too.

“Today, conference, we have seen just a small selection of the people who are standing for election – in our Party Political Broadcast, our candidate videos and in our panel debates this morning. They are inspirational people and they represent the broadest cross-section of society you will find in any local party.

“They are regular people, who live and work in their community, who share the same hopes and fears for the future as their neighbours, and who not only understand but share the frustration and anger that people feel with the state of politics right now. They are people who believe rightly that our community deserves better.

“What sets them apart – what makes them special – isn’t a privileged background or powerful connections but their determination to not just to believe that better is possible, but to step up, roll their sleeves up, and do the work to deliver it.

“Because better is possible. But it is not inevitable. We have to make it happen. We have to choose it. We have to demand it. In just two months time, every voter will have a chance to do just that. We can cast their votes as they always have and get more of what we always have got.

“Grasp this opportunity. Knock the doors. Address the envelopes. People demand better. It’s up to us to deliver. Thank you.”