Irish Republican News · November 24, 2003
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Alliance Party
Following the annual conference of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland at the weekend, we present an edited version of the speech by party leader David Ford.

`Former hunger striker hails historic breakthrough' says the paper and the mugshot of me is captioned `David Ford: expected to lose seat'. I can assure you, as Mark Twain would have said, that reports of my political demise were greatly exaggerated.

Reports of the demise of the Alliance party were greatly exaggerated too. Look at what we achieved last November. We went into an election in which the pundits - almost unanimously - predicted that we would lose seats. Some even said we would be wiped out.

Some sections of the media, with their simplistic pre-occupation with the tired old politics of unionism and nationalism, ignored us.

So after all the coverage of whether the DUP would beat the UUP, and by how much Sinn Féin would beat the SDLP, what was the result?

Big gains for the extremes, with the DUP up ten and Sinn Féin up six. Every other party ended up losing seats. Ulster Unionists down a seat (well now it's four), SDLP down six, Women's Coalition wiped out along with UUAP and NIUP. PUP and UKUP down to one seat each.

Yet while the steamrollers of the DUP and Sinn Féin were rolling over the political landscape, crushing nearly everything in sight, Alliance went into the election with six seats and emerged with six.

You achieved that, you defied the extremists, you dumbfounded the pundits, you kept hope alive. Congratulate yourselves, because you deserve congratulations.

For Alliance, matters didn't end with the declaration of the last result in November. We knew that there would be a huge responsibility to put forward constructive ideas in the Review which was due immediately after the election.

Make no mistake: there must be reforms, or there will be no Agreement. Reform is the only realistic pro-Agreement position. Two elements are key.

First, we have to get away from the system that requires MLAs to designate themselves as unionist, nationalist or another title, and rewards those who remain stuck in a tribal camp.

Let's repeat the facts for the benefit of the slow learners in the other parties: S designations are divisive, S designations are illegal under European law, S designations reinforce sectarianism, S designations don't work.

At long last the Governments seem to have accepted the last point, although the issues of division, legality and morality hardly seem to matter to them.

The only realistic way of ensuring that sensitive issues attain cross-community support without sticking tribal labels on MLAs is to require a weighted majority to pass important measures. 60 to 65% would be adequate, while ensuring that it does not become near-impossible to win a vote.

That system is tried and tested in divided societies and special circumstances: why should we be unique in demanding that tribal politicians are rewarded for their obduracy?

The second main reform is about getting a cohesive Government, with a coherent programme and collective responsibility. Giving parties automatic places in Government without regard to trust or willingness to co-operate with each other has caused huge problems so far.

Far from being inclusive, as some would claim, the old Executive excluded 18 of the 108 MLAs and saw the third party taking power in two Departments without responsibility at the Executive table.

Not just the third party: the actions of the UUP, the failure of David Trimble to commit whole-heartedly to partnership, contributed hugely to instability.

The solution is based on the same principle. Any group of parties that can attain a sufficient weighted majority for an agreed programme should be entitled to form an Executive. It would be de facto cross-community, but would only include those who were willing participants.

As in Edinburgh or Dublin, parties would negotiate a joint platform and be expected to stick to it. There would be a meaningful opposition, with a significant role in governance.

Consider one very important function of government, justice and policing. Only an Executive formed on the basis of collective responsibility could possibly take on responsibility for justice.

Does anyone think that unionists would accept a Sinn Féin Minster of Justice, exercising powers on his own, in his own fiefdom, if that party was given first pick under the d'Hondt system? Would nationalists allow the DUP to wield those powers without them having a say?

Don't be misled into thinking that a double-headed Department would be any better. The lessons of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are of total deadlock over vital issues like community relations. Collective responsibility, as advocated by Alliance, would ensure that there was agreement within the Executive on the powers and duties of individual Departments, including justice.

While the main problems have arisen in the local structures of Government, there are other issues too. In many ways the North-South aspects of the Agreement have been the unsung success story.

The North-South bodies have quietly gone about their business. The problem is that we hear very little about their work, and the discussions of the North-South Ministerial Council.

This is why we have proposed that the First and Deputy First Minister, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste would make a joint appearance every year, in both the Dail and the Assembly to report and answer questions from TDs and MLAs.

Alliance believes that Northern Ireland has nothing to fear from increased North-South co-operation. In fact, it has everything to gain. Look at how well we dealt with Foot and Mouth Disease three years ago through informal co-operation across the border.

It is a disgrace that six years on from the Agreement, we have not yet established the North-South Parliamentary Body. MLAs and TDs would gain a great deal from regular meetings. I am not sure who would benefit most.

One other area of the Agreement where progress has been painfully slow is the creation of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. Let me be clear. This is no reflection on the work and deliberations of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

The Commission has suffered from the opposition of Unionists who think it is too green and the opposition of Nationalists who think that it is too orange. Most of all from the actions of the two Governments: at best neglect, at worst pandering to the ill-founded attempts of others to undermine the Commission.

Alliance wants to see the best set of rights protections available to the people of Northern Ireland as possible. The Human Rights Commission are independent and professional people, they are taking expert advise, they are consulting widely.

It is time for all sides to stop undermining the Commission, and let it get on with its job, which should be proceeding alongside the Review.

Unfortunately, the Review of the Agreement was in grave difficulty, even before the Tohill incident.

It's a bit like owning a car, which is due its MoT test. When my car gets to that stage, I get my neighbours John and Billy to check it out and make any necessary repairs, then I take it to the Test Centre to get approval for another year.

But nationalists are insisting that the car is in perfect running order, even though it clearly needs repairs. Meanwhile, unionists are insisting that the car should be scrapped, without even seeing if it would be possible to make repairs.

The true friends of the Agreement have recognised that there are problems with it, both in its design and its implementation. These problems have to be addressed. Not should be, not might be, but must be addressed. Unless we do so, there will be no prospect of seeing the institutions back in operation.

On Tuesday, there was supposed to be a stock-taking exercise for the Review. The Governments intended to convene a round table discussion on progress so far. They didn't even hold that meeting.

The Review is in serious trouble. It may well be terminal. Since May 1998, it has been known that this Review would be held, yet there is little evidence that the Governments were prepared for it to happen.

There has also been a marked lack of serious engagement on the part of the other parties. Although the DUP have started - just started - to treat the Agreement seriously, and live up to their new electoral mandate, they have failed to publish any proposals beyond Strand One, the internal issues. They may be ready to move forward, but there is not yet convincing evidence.

Sinn Féin continue to insist that all is well with the Agreement and nothing significant needs to be done - apart from an ever-increasing list of sins on the part of the two Governments and the unionists and an ever-increasing wish list of demands.

The UUP, following the seven year old lead of the DUP, now say that there is nothing to discuss but paramilitarism, and they have left the Review. But post-election, nobosy seems ot care about David Trimble's temper tantrums.

The SDLP seems to be in denial. Denial of their new reduced role, denial of the flaws in their handiwork. They now seem to be riding two horses at once. They claim that paramilitarism is a huge problem, but resist meaningful actions to defend the integrity of the political process.

Altogether, it is actually a disgraceful betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland. They have a right to expect that the representatives elected last November would now be seriously engaged in getting back to work.

In November 2001, we warned the Governments what would happen if they did not take action to deal with the problems that would arise after the election. We told them then that it would not be possible to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister under the current rules and we urged them to deal with the matter in the eighteen months available, rather than causing an immediate crisis as soon as the votes were counted in May.

I admit it: we were wrong. The Prime Minister took action, action to delay the elections. We had the crisis in November, not May. Tragically, action to delay crises is becoming habit forming for Government: they have almost made it an art form.

I am fed up with their clever ways of delaying crises: I think it's about time they learned to deal with problems. It's time they realised that postponing crises is not good government and certainly not good for Northern Ireland.

First, we had the weakness of the Government in failing to avert the crisis before it arose. Now, the failure of the two Governments to take action to ensure that the Review can proceed with integrity and devolved Government be restored.

Day after day, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, as well as their cabinet colleagues, tell the people of Northern Ireland that there must be an end to all paramilitary activity. They tell us that the IRA is inextricably linked to Sinn Féin. The Minister of Justice in Dublin tells us that Sinn Féin is funded by criminal activity and compares Republicans to Nazis and the Taoiseach does not disagree.

And what action do the Governments take? What sanctions have they applied against a party they clearly regard as in default of its obligations? Well, none actually.

When we met the Irish Government last week, I was told that the Taoiseach had made speech after speech telling Republicans that they must end all violence. I replied that every time Mr Ahern said this and his Government did absolutely nothing it actually made matters worse.

To lecture Republicans in the media, and then negotiate with Sinn Féin as if it was an ordinary democratic party, is to emphasise the weakness of the two Governments.

In early 1998, Alliance took action to ensure that both Sinn Féin and the UDP were temporarily excluded from the Talks. The result was positive. Violence was reduced outside and integrity was introduced inside the process.

But this time, with no clear rulebook, only the Governments can take action. If they aren't prepared to do so, they ought to be honest and announce that they are shutting down the Review.

The problems may have started with local parties. But the problems are now being gravely mismanaged by the two Governments. They are not `honest brokers', managing talks between the parties. They are full participants. It's time they started to put tier cards on the table, too.

The current crisis in the Review does provide an illustration of how the Assembly and the institutions of Government are vulnerable to the lack of trust between parties.

Only one system of Government can provide both stability and broad-based consensus. A Government which depends on a weighted majority with collective responsibility in the Executive. Exactly what Alliance is proposing.

In April 1970, this party was founded to unite the people of Northern Ireland and bring an end to the politics of division, mistrust and hatred. That remains our goal and our focus. Often we have stood alone. We have proven that what matters in politics is to have principles and stick to them.

Alliance is not the largest party locally in terms of votes. But I believe that we stand head and shoulders above all others in our commitment to our cause and our willingness to work for it. We have a hard-working Executive, and a team of public representatives who are second to none.

We have a staff, in headquarters and the Assembly, who are both dedicated and supremely competent. We have volunteers on the ground who can beat far bigger groups in campaigning.

Today, we are at another turning point in our community's history. The last Assembly showed clearly that there is no future in assuming that the so-called moderate parties on either side of the community divide can manage Northern Ireland on their own. The UUP and SDLP had their chance and they failed.

The elections last November proved that. If the Executive had been a success, the parties that led it would not have lost the election.

There is now an opportunity for us that was denied us to most of the last decade. Unionism and nationalism are now led from the extremes: the only alternative is a strong centre ground, which must be led by Alliance.

As we look towards the coming elections, to Europe, Councils and Westminster, we have a real opportunity to put the case for a different politics.

A politics of unity, not division. Of diversity, not two competing monoliths. Of reconciliation, not an uneasy stand-off.

So let's take that opportunity. In the face of the failures of unionism and nationalism to come together, let's start to build a shared future.

We have always said that the Agreement was not the ceiling to our ambition, but the foundation on which we would build. The foundation is there, Alliance have the plans.

Others have failed: it is now up to us to take up the challenge to build a united community with a new vigour.

I pledge myself to that task. I will work with anyone who shares that aim. Let's go for it.

We have a favour to ask

We want to keep our publication as available as we can, so we need to ask for your help. Irish Republican News takes time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe it makes a difference. If everyone who reads our website helps fund it, our future would be much more secure.

For as little as £1, you can support Irish Republican News – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.

© 2003 Irish Republican News