Alliance delegates gathered again in the Stormont Hotel for their annual conference, marking the 50th anniversary of the party’s formation and celebrating a year of growing success at three successive elections (local, European and Westminster).
The mood was upbeat, attendance was strong, yellow clothing was prevalent, and while there are no elections just around the corner to fire up the crowd, there was a sense of achievement and satisfaction at the party’s fortunes.
One indicator of an enthusiastic political conference is the death of the hotel wi-fi, and Alliance certainly stretched the east Belfast venue’s connectivity.
Three figures were notably absent.
Party leader Naomi Long couldn’t attend and deliver her speech: “diagnosed with a severe respiratory infection and […] on bed rest and fluids under doctor’s orders”. The optics of wheezing through a speech in light of Covid-19 would have been appalling, and the difference between viral and bacterial infection would have been lost in the outrage. Yet with the leader becoming such a vital element of the party’s brand and attractiveness to new voters, the silver lining on the cloud was the useful reset for the party to pull together and make conference a joyful success without their beloved leader.
Party president Geraldine Mulvenna read out an apology and message of encouragement from East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson who has been undergoing treatment for cancer and is back in hospital.
Also absent was another of the party’s veteran MLAs – “he shall not be named” – though his likely successor Sorcha Eastwood delivered a barnstorming speech, noting the demolition of Jeffrey Donaldson’s Westminster majority from 17,229 to 6,499 and emphasising her belief that “Team Lagan Valley” would return not one but two MLAs at the next Assembly election.
You can listen back to the two panels which filled the morning agenda:
- Educational reform with Prof Bob Salisbury (Salisbury Review), Maddie Bridgeman (Integrated Education Fund), Gerry Campbell (CCMS), Ruth Leitch (QUB), chaired by Chris Lyttle.
- Shaping our future with young councillors Rachael Ferguson, Sorcha Eastwood, Danny Donnelly, Eóin Tennyson and chaired by Andrew Muir.
Recently elected North Down MP and deputy leader delivered the main speech, walking up to the stage to strains of (Naomi’s song) Something Good Can Work by Two Door Cinema Club.
Farry characterised Alliance’s “recipe for success” as down to the quickly changing society, the party’s coherent and consistent policy on Brexit, and community frustrations around the politics of deadlock and delay.
He also outlined three immediate challenges emerge from New Decade, New Approach deal:
- sufficient reforms to the Petition of Concern;
- reflecting the changing nature of our society in the Stormont institutions; and
- addressing Northern Ireland’s public finances.
You can read and listen back to the full speech below.
After lunch, the former Secretary of State Julian Smith dropped in by video to thank the Alliance Party for their contribution to the recent talks process.
“We did the deal in January, all of us, we took a positive decision for the future of Northern Ireland but there is so much work to do and there is an opportunity for Alliance with its founding principles to continue to draw together the two extremes of Northern Ireland.”
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne took to the stage and explained that “this as the best job I’ve ever had”. He recalled waking up at 2.30am on the morning of his interview for the top post with the image of a seesaw out of balance in his head. He could see big issues weighing it down, soaking up time of people he talked to: legacy, the fight against serious terrorism, and policing big parades and demonstrations. These preoccupying issues were getting in the way of what was changing in Northern Ireland and he saw little evidence of finding ways to answer the phone faster, being more visible in communities, quickly turning up at crime scenes and incidents. It was time for the PSNI to rebalance the seesaw.
He outlined three pillars of his reform programme:
- A force of 7500 officers to recognised the “clamour and recognition for community policing”, more visible and more responsive;
- A modernised police estate. As Accounting Officer, Byrne is the “proud owner of 185 portacabins” and a 200-year-old building in Enniskillen that’s sinking into the ground. He’d like to see improved conditions for officers, a campus style headquarters on the outskirts of Belfast that could consolidate specialist teams, a new Police College, and fewer austere police stations through demilitarisation.
- Characterising the force’s IT infrastructure, particularly the mobile technology used by front life staff, as slow and outdated, Byrne is pushing for a Digital PSNI transformation to enable officers to shift away from 19th century processes into more efficient ways of working.
The Chief Constable discussed the effect of Brexit on policing in Northern Ireland. The loss of the European Arrest Warrant would necessitate falling back to 1957 legislation, though he’d prefer to see parity or an improvement to the existing provision.
He finished by reiterating his three key promises:
- we care about the communities we police, we care about our partners, and we care about the aspirations of our workforce’
- we listen to you, our partners and our workforce;
- we should be defined by how we act to protect the communities we serve and improve the conditions of staff.
The conference finished with a panel discussing diversity and cohesion.
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Stephen Farry’s speech in full:
First of all, you’ll have noticed I’m not Naomi Long! … But I’m sure she’s tuning in and watching with huge interest and making sure I don’t say anything I shouldn’t be saying. But I do want to pay tribute to all she’s done over the past months and years to get the party to where it is today.
This is of course our 50th Anniversary Conference. And rightly, we will look back and reflect over the past half century with pride. At the same time, we come together at a time of unprecedented success and influence for Alliance.
It is great to see many of the founding generation of the party with us here today, people such as Briege Napier, Jim Hendron, Dennis Loreto and the Glendinnings. We will be marking the 50th anniversary much more formally at an event during April. Our founders would be delighted at the current success of Alliance, and it is of course built on the foundations that they laid.
Indeed, for a brief few weeks at the end of January, we simultaneously had representation in Local Government, in the devolved Assembly, at Westminster, at the European Parliament, plus a seat in government.
So we meet on the back of our most successful electoral year…to date.
Our success in the Local Government Elections exceeded our wildest expectations, with an incredible 53 councillors from a pre-existing base in the low 30s. And still with a few more votes in the right places, we could have won even more. We are now players in councils right across Northern Ireland.
But as it turned out, the Council elections were just the warm-up act for the Alliance surge to take Naomi all the way to Brussels and Strasbourg with a quite stunning result with an impact well beyond our shores.
And in the General Election, our vote went up right across the board, with some spectacular increases in many constituencies. I previously described Alliance as the fifth party in a four-party system. But now we have made the historic breakthrough to be the third party in terms of the share of the vote.
And of course, I am delighted to be here before you as Alliance’s second ever elected Member of Parliament. It was especially poignant to win North Down during the 50th anniversary year as the party’s founding document was signed in Bangor.
I want to also take this opportunity to once again put on record my thanks to my election team so ably led by my election agent and successor Andrew Muir. And Andrew has literally hit the ground running as an MLA in our Assembly group.
People are often asking what was the recipe for Alliance’s success? For starters, Northern Ireland is a changing society, and changing more quickly than many appreciate. More and more people are moving away from traditional labels, and expressing open, mixed and multiple identities.
Second, we called Brexit right from the very start, and have been coherent and consistent throughout. We have clearly articulated and defended Northern Ireland’s interests.
Thirdly, we have channelled frustrations around the politics of deadlock and delay, and channelled that desire to see change, reform and delivery. Success has bred even further success. And the old canard that a vote for Alliance is a wasted vote has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
We have proven that we can win anywhere in Northern Ireland and we are drawing our votes from right across the community. We have proven that in a political context usually framed around the constitutional question and a clash of identities that a liberal and cross community party can not only survive but flourish.
But Conference, while we have broken that particular glass ceiling, there can be no room for complacency or sitting back on our laurels. We must press on to new heights. And we must recognise that we gather at a time of unprecedented challenges for Northern Ireland, combined with uncertainty within these islands, across Europe and around the globe.
So, there is no escaping from Brexit. Though apparently, the word Brexit has been banned in Downing Street and across government, except to references in an historical context. However, Brexit is set to dominate the political and economic and security context for at least the next decade. We were proud Remainers and we remain passionate Europeans today and into the future.
The European Union is central to shared peace and prosperity across the continent. And it provides the framework to better address common challenges such as international development, migration and climate change.
Coming to our own situation, Northern Ireland only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. That was assisted by close cooperation between the British and Irish Governments, and the joint participation in the Single Market and a Customs Union that dissolved borders.
We should look forward to and aspire to Northern Ireland rejoining the EU sooner rather than later. But for now, Boris Johnson is set to pursue a reckless hard Brexit. The Brexit extremists exhibit the characteristics of revolutionaries, in this case fuelled by a libertarian ideology and wishful, delusional thinking. Dissenting voices are labelled as enemies of the people.
Like most revolutions, it will at some point run out of steam and destroy itself, but for now a collision course has been set with the European Union with an irresponsible and unworkable prospectus for a future relationship.
The UK is turning its back on its biggest and most important neighbour for the pipe dream of a global Britain, all the time failing to acknowledge that it is through the EU that the UK can best project soft power and expand international trade. And without selling off the NHS or betraying our farmers and agrifood sector. And not undermining employment rights or putting our environment further at risk.
But it gets even worse, this government seems determined to sacrifice international human rights standards, and can’t even commit to upholding the European Convention on Human Rights, something that is so central to our Good Friday Agreement. And most immediately, the Government is playing fast and loose with the Northern Ireland/Ireland Protocol.
Boris Johnson is failing to recognise the realities that flow from what it has already signed up to. This is a tendency that is also infecting some of our own local Ministers. We are not fans of the Protocol. We don’t want to see any borders and friction anywhere in these islands. Northern Ireland depends on integrated supply chains and sales networks both north-south and east-west.
We preferred May’s Deal with its backstop. The Johnson Deal is a harder Brexit and the Protocol is now the front stop. But the Protocol is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and failure to implement it not only undermines the UK’s ability to negotiate Free Trade Agreements but also risks leaving Northern Ireland in a ‘No Man’s Land’, with the Good Friday Agreement undermined and a renewed risk of a hard border on this island.
It is not in our interests to have a cowboy economy. We are a mature, rules-based, and globally-integrated economy. Business needs certainty now and into the future. The Protocol does brings us challenges. But we must be in the place of seeking mitigations and flexibilities, rather than evading responsibilities. And that sharp distinction must be understood.
And with mutual trust, potentially we could build on a protocol and protect services and freedom of movement and enhance the all-island economy.
Pending the revolution eventually eating itself or a wider reconsideration of Brexit itself, there is no alternative but making this Protocol now work as well as possible for the good of Northern Ireland.
And on the theme of making Northern Ireland work, we now have the New Decade, New Approach document. While we have had some robust engagements with both Governments over the past few months and beyond, I do want to place on record our thanks to both Julian Smith and Simon Coveney and their teams for getting us to this point.
Conference, let’s be clear, Northern Ireland should not have had over 1,000 days of uncertainty. Huge damage was caused to our public services and economic drivers during that period, alongside the unknown missed opportunities that will have passed us by.
And we should recall that prior exercises of devolved government were lacking in many aspects of good governance, coherence, strategic vision and delivery. Obviously more of that at the end of next week.
New Decade is not perfect solution. We are no illusion around its flaws and limitations, but coming from where we have been, it is a necessary starting point. It is far from the summit of our ambitions. For us, the central objective remains building reconciliation and creating an integrated society.
Three immediate challenges emerge from New Decade.
First, the reforms to the Petition of Concern need to be delivered, and if they are insufficient the Government must go further. This is essential for delivering a fair, equal and rights-based society.
Second, the changing nature of our society must be reflected in our institutions. It is long past time that the designation system in the Assembly and the associated voting system were changed.
Third, we must address the situation facing Northern Ireland’s public finances. And indeed some important weeks lie ahead. Let’s be clear, the current situation is both the product of a decade of UK austerity and local mismanagement and waste of public funds. Therefore, the devolved institutions both need to pitch for additional resources for Northern Ireland, while not only promising but demonstrating the ability to deliver meaningful reforms.
We should continue to press the UK Government for further assistance based on our legacy of division and violence, and the pressures that flow from that. But we shouldn’t be afraid of our feet being held to the fire on reform.
Alliance has been clear and consistent in highlighting the considerable distortions to our public finances from a divided society, while calling for this to be addressed with resources redirected into public services. Others are now sharing this narrative, but the challenge falls to the Executive to turn this into reality.
No one involved in politics or within their community can be under any doubt of the enormity of the challenge facing our health service. Accident and Emergency facilities are often at breaking point, waiting lists are beyond belief, GPs are far too stretched and our staff in the health service are undervalued and underappreciated.
Northern Ireland is missing out on new drugs, treatments and technologies that are available elsewhere in these islands. Meanwhile our mental health challenge gets ever deeper, with a particularly serious challenge around suicide prevention. And on top of all of that, it must now also address the yet uncertain impact of the Coronavirus. This society can’t carry on this way for any longer. The Bengoa reforms need to be delivered.
And also in Education, we also need some Bengoa-style reforms. And our new chair of the Education Committee Chirs Lyttle has been calling for those for many years. Alliance is proud to have played the central role in securing commitments in New Decade to that comprehensive top to bottom review. While our education is world class in many respects, there remain challenges of inequalities and underachievement. Not enough is being done to prepare young people for the world of work.
Too many young people are still educated separately, missing out on invaluable educational and life experiences. And once again an inefficient and ineffective system prevents enough money from being invested in the front line, in addressing special educational needs, and investing in teachers. The goal must be to have children educated together in the same classroom.
Of course, Alliance is now back in Government. This was not a straightforward decision, but it was right thing to do. This is a time for everyone to step up and to take responsibility. We are delighted that Naomi has taken over the role as Justice Minister. She will be work closely with all of the Justice stakeholders, including the Chief Constable from whom we will here later. And it is right that we pay tribute to the officers of the PSNI and all other actors in our criminal justice system who work on behalf of this society and the rule of law, while under ongoing threat and danger.
Naomi has a busy in-tray. She will be bringing forward a domestic abuse bill before the Easter recess. For the first time this will close an important gap for victims of domestic abuse, introducing an offence to cover emotional or coercive behaviour.
An advocacy support service for victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse will also be created in order to provide a more coordinated and tailored response to their needs. She will also implement key Gillen recommendations which also have the potential to transform the experience of vulnerable complainants, for example by avoiding retraumatisation in repeatedly having to give evidence.
An important theme was the need to speed up justice, which has much wider impacts on the entire criminal justice system. This is why she will introduce a Committal Reform Bill to streamline the committal process and help tackle delay in the system.
Naomi has met with victims of stalking who have been failed by the gap in the current law. This is why a Stalking Bill will be introduced in the Autumn, and will also provide a more effective and appropriate legislative framework to protect victims. We will also be introducing a range of measures to tackle paramilitarism and organised crime by the end of the year, including enacting the Criminal Finance Act.
And she will continue to lead a cross-departmental approach to stamp out paramilitary control of communities, building a culture of lawfulness and confidence in the entire justice system by creating safe, shared communities. So we need Naomi back on her feet sooner rather than later!
We are committed to making devolution work. There is no other sustainable way to govern this region than power-sharing.
But Alliance is conscious of calls for wider change across these islands. We recognise that Brexit and other factors have energised the debate around the constitutional question. Given the nature of Alliance, some may suggest that this would be a particular challenge. But on the contrary, these are debates in which we can engage with confidence.
Alliance is not a party that is defined by the constitutional question. We are not an amalgamation of unionists and nationalists in some uneasy co-existence. Rather we are a proud cross-community party, self-confident in our identity. And while there may be some members who prefer the Union, and some who prefer a United Ireland, and indeed many who are open to persuasion, we are not only united, but defined, by our shared commitment to make this society work, to overcome division and to build a better future.
Wherever lines are drawn on maps, these will remain the core challenges for this place, and in turn the spirit of partnership and co-operation across these islands, built on the Good Friday Agreement, must be preserved and indeed enhanced. We don’t believe that there is currently the case for a border poll, and nor are we pursuing one, but we do recognise that there is a very fluid situation and multiple active debates are underway.
So Conference, we can with confidence, and without prejudice to any outcome, engage in civilised, rational and evidence-based discussions. And in all respects, we will be guided by our vision and values and always advocate what we think is best for Northern Ireland.
Still, there are other uncertainties in the decades ahead with which we must engage. Across Europe and in many parts of the world, the traditional rules-based international order is coming under more and more stress.
We are seeing the rise of populism and nasty, exclusionary manifestations of nationalism. Sadly, many of these traits we’re now weeing here within Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom. We see this with the hostile environment, the abuse of the Windrush generation and the undermining of human rights standards.
In particular, we reject the looming Immigration Bill. Immigration and specifically freedom of movement have not only provided great assistance to our economy but enriched our society.
There is a false choice presented between developing our local skills base and being open to the rest of the world. We must do both. So beyond seeking mitigations from that legislation to recognise our specific economic circumstances of Northern Ireland, we are opposed to these proposals as a matter of principle.
All of this is put in context by the current climate emergency. This is set to be the greatest and global challenge facing us all. We should be inspired by the leadership demonstrated particularly by many young people.
A pan-society and pan-governmental approach will be required, and some difficult decisions and choices lie ahead. Great ingenuity and innovation will also be required. And through a Green New Deal, new economic opportunities do lie ahead.
We are determined to provide strong leadership, and to ensure that the burdens of change are shared fairly and equitably.
So Conference, as Alliance enters its second half-century, we do so with confidence and pride. We have played a crucial and constructive role in transforming Northern Ireland. But there is much more to do.
The next few years are set to a roller coaster, but through our vision and values, we will be instrumental in steering this society to a secure and better future.
Thank you very much.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.