Forward, not Back - 2015 Conference Speech

Alliance Party Conference Saturday 14 March 2015, Abridged President's Speech
A céad míle fáilte to the Alliance Party’s 45th Annual Conference

The Alliance Party’s conference is an annual opportunity to celebrate our achievements to date and discuss how we advance onwards.

Since foundation and our first Annual Conference on 27 March 1971 in the Ulster Hall society in Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition.

In the current situation, it is understandable that people feel despair and frustration at the political process but it is important to take time to stand back and understand the journey undertaken and the road ahead. 

In the sixties, people marched for civil rights, in America, Northern Ireland and beyond.

In the seventies, government raised the profile and dignity of women through the Sex Discrimination Act and other legislation.

In the eighties, former Alliance Leader Bob Cooper was at the forefront of ensuring workplaces respected religious and political diversity.

The status of lesbian and gay people also started to transform in the 1980s from criminalisation because of who we love towards full and equal citizenship, hastened by the election of a new Labour Government in 1997.
In the nineties we also managed to craft tentative peace and power sharing in Northern Ireland with ceasefires in 1994, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and devolution intermittently from 1999 to 2002 and then 2007 onwards.    

Things have changed. No longer do we see protests against ecumenical church services nor, as we have seen this week, is it acceptable to disbar and discriminate against people with disabilities.

Many of us now work together with people of different religious belief.

Nationalities have also changed with Northern Ireland enjoying a mix of people identifying as British, Irish, Northern Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian, Indian, Portuguese, Chinese and many more.

We’re all minorities now in a complex and diverse Northern Ireland.

These are the facts. Society has changed. Social attitudes have also changed. But sadly, few of our politicians have. It’s time for our political system to catch-up. 

The Alliance Party welcomes and embraces the new Northern Ireland emerging from the shadow of our past and has no time for old, out dated, discriminatory attitudes irrelevant to modern day society.

That’s why you won’t find any sectarian or homophobic jokes about yogurts or cakes at our conference. Nor will you find talk of equality being used as trojan horse.

Such language and attitudes have no place in modern day Northern Ireland, never mind a major political party.

The time to end sectarian politics and successive political crises has long since passed.

That’s why Alliance exists. We seek to build a better future where we move forward building upon the gains achieved towards a new society where we live, work, socialise and learn together, moving forward, not back.

As Alliance Party President I am extremely grateful for the opportunities to serve the people and the party, whether today as President or since 2010 as a Councillor or in recent times as Mayor and now as Westminster candidate for North Down.

These opportunities have provided me with fantastic scope to build an open and inclusive future, champion the environment and open up our political institutions.

But yet, when other politicians are given similar opportunities they select a much more negative approach choosing instead to criticise the cost of division and the duplication of services but then vote to send millions to an unsustainable and divided teacher training system. 

But it doesn’t end there. Others, speak one day about tough budgets and the need to make savings but then support nightly protests at Twaddell costing us over £1million per month whilst community relations deteriorate and people suffer.

When other parties assume positions of responsibility, they take the rights but not the responsibilities. Happy to play fast and loose with Northern Ireland’s economy and public finances.

Instead of political leadership, they treat legislation on welfare reform as a political tool to win votes.

When legal rulings don’t suit their own personal prejudices money is wasted on fruitless legal battles.

Northern Ireland can be better than this.

Alliance in government has shown what real political leadership looks like. Governing for everyone, speaking up for everyone, delivering for everyone, moving Northern Ireland forward not back.

I’m proud to be associated with Alliance and our leadership team, headed up by David Ford as our Leader, Naomi Long MP as our Deputy Leader and Stephen Farry as Employment and Learning Minister.

5 years ago people from across East Belfast chose change and elected Naomi as their MP.

Let’s repeat this positive step forward and ensure Naomi’s re-election by signing up at the stall outside to help the campaign fight ahead.

Just think about the powerful message this will send when Naomi is re-elected on 7 May this year.

Northern Ireland moving forward, not back.

Today we send a clear message, "Yes She Can".

On the 50th Anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday March last weekend, Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader who helped organise the voting rights marches in Selma, said, “When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come walk in my shoes and I will show you change … Be hopeful. Be optimistic.”

Today is the day when, despite the grim appearance of politics here, we remind ourselves of that.