Radical change needed for SDLP
Radical change needed for SDLP
Continuing our series of feature articles on the policies of the North's various partiers, were present an abridged version of a speech by SDLP Leader Mark Durkan to his party's annual conference at the weekend.


These have been a deeply difficult few months. Long-standing party members and outstanding public servants - not just colleagues, but friends - lost their seats in what was a very tough Assembly election for us all.

So how do we respond? Do we throw our hands in the air in exasperation because things have got tough? Or do we put our shoulders to the wheel and respond the only way the SDLP knows how? By rising to the challenge of change in the party so that we can keep making our uniquely positive contribution to change in this country.

We owe it to the people who support us to let the message go forth that while we have been bruised, we are not broken. We may have been fazed and dazed, but we have raised ourselves and our sights again.

People will be glad to hear that our dismay at the election result has given way to our determination to renew, rebuild and regain. That we are back on our feet and ready to step up to all the challenges that lie ahead of us - starting by holding our seat in the European election.

We can draw strength from the fact that while other parties might borrow our policies, they can't steal our principles.

As we have met in the weeks since the election in our branches and our constituencies, in our internal consultations and other meetings, we have drawn strength from each other. We have heard from our members not just their reasons for being SDLP, but also the reasons for the SDLP being.

Let it never be forgotten that the SDLP in so many different ways has changed so many people's lives for the better. History gets written, then re-written.

But no one can write off what the SDLP achieved in our first generation. And a new generation will prove wrong those who write us off now.

Our first challenge is to contest the European election in June. We're in a fight - we all know it; let's show it.

When we say we believe in something, it's out of conviction and consistency. Not convenience or conversion.

We believe in social democracy and practised it in government. We believe in change and get in there to win it.

We believe in the agreement and have lived up to all its requirements. We believe in a united Ireland and are the only party that can deliver it.

I am proud to be the leader of a party that wants to unite Ireland and its people. I believe in a united Ireland and that it can be attained.

In a united Ireland, we believe the Good Friday Agreement can and must be sustained.

To unionists I say: look at our vision of Irish unity with the agreement.

If you do so, you will see that the agreement is not just about accommodating nationalists and offering us equality in the North. You will also see that the united Ireland which we seek - with the agreement enduring - will respect your identity and protect your interests no less.

And I would warn unionists: do not repeat the mistakes of your history, where every time you reject or undermine a reasonable accommodation, you only end up narrowing your own options.

Politics here needs the SDLP. Not just for our well-documented honesty and integrity, but for our tenacity of resolve and consistency of thinking. When others are devising sound bites for short-term support, we are developing strategies for long-term delivery. Progress does not roll along on the wheels of inevitability. It takes hard work and a genuine commitment to solving problems, not milking them. It takes parties to put people first.

While the assembly election results have not helped the prospects for the review of the workings of the agreement, we still approach the review positively. Because we are positive about the agreement.

We respect and defend the agreement because we respect and defend the democracy with which it was so decisively endorsed. We also recognise and promote it as the strongest possible prospectus for political, social and economic development across the North and throughout Ireland.

The agreement provided a review mechanism. Not because we all anticipated the compound stagnation of ongoing paramilitarism and institutional suspension.

But because we all envisaged that we might want to modify its workings in light of experience and new circumstances.

Some of us knew we would want to develop aspects of the agreement or return to issues or ideas not fully agreed in the talks and therefore not contained in the agreement itself. Some of us also hoped that in the new environment created by partnership, some less comfortable provisions of the agreement might prove to be biodegradable as distrust turned to trust. We can distinguish between fixtures, fittings and furniture of the agreement and its essential architecture.

But we will not re-negotiate the primary precepts and principles of the agreement. In the review, we are ready to explore other parties' propositions and explain our own. If this happens, our clear determination to uphold the agreement and our clear distinction between essential and non-essential features will be equally evident.We will be working not just to defend the agreement, but to develop it. Not least in Strand Two.

We want to heighten, widen and deepen North-South co-operation. The value of all-Ireland implementation is already proved. And it can only be improved with more such bodies.

The DUP needn't think that just because they have stayed out of the North-South arrangements in the past that they can either undermine them in the review or avoid them in the future. Not only must DUP ministers now join in the North-South Ministerial Council, DUP MLAs must also sit in the North-South parliamentary forum which we are determined to establish under the agreement. This will bring together representatives of all the parties and from all the parts of Ireland for the first time ever.

The big question in this review is not whether we will stoop to other parties' standards. The real question is: are others ready to step up to the standards that only the SDLP has met to date? As the one party that has met all our responsibilities under the agreement, while others have dodged or delayed some of theirs, we are calling for an end to the a-la-carte approach.

The continued existence and activities of private armies, as last night's events show, causes damage, doubt and distrust, which has wounded the institutions to the point of suspension. The failure of unionist parties to convincingly embrace and sustain inclusive institutions has similarly wounded the agreement.

Unionists and sympathetic commentators have cited actual and alleged IRA activity and their reluctance to deliver more convincingly on decommissioning for their reluctance to uphold inclusion. The republican movement and sympathetic commentators have cited the record and prospect of unionism raising the bar for their reluctance to decommission more convincingly.

The concept of completion was introduced to try to break this stand-off.

That's why I stressed the point that for the concept of completion to be reliable, completion has to do exactly what is says on the tin.

On the one hand, those being asked to fulfil completion have to know that that is all, and that having delivered this they will not be faced with new demands for anything more.

On the other hand, those of us who are asked to accept promises and acts of completion need to know that nothing more will be asked by, or given to, the paramilitary interests for delivering completion than the fulfilment of commitments already in the agreement and the joint declaration.

Move forward we must. For the SDLP, it is still not enough that things are not as bad as they were in terms of violence. We have to make them as good as they should be in terms of politics, economic prosperity and social solidarity.

This is why we need to get the agreement back working. Not just as it was, but as it should. Not just for the sake of being back in government. Not to rule, but to serve. On principle. For prosperity. Through strong public services. For the people. With positive purpose. So that we can really getback to the job of making the difference.

Because one child in three in this society - one in three - is living in poverty.

If that statistic cannot shock and shame us into action, nothing can. The parties may not feel we owe much to each other, but surely we owe it to the child who is crying with hunger or cold to stop crying at one another, grow up and get on with it.

I have no doubt we have the capacity and the commitment to achieve the real and radical change for our society we so passionately believe in. But to do so we need to deliver real and radical change within this party.

If people need the SDLP, then the SDLP certainly needs people. One of our core challenges can be summed up as follows: I am the youngest SDLP MLA. By the next Assembly election I want to be among the older candidates on our ticket.

We owe it to ourselves and to each other to renew, rebuild and regain. But above all we owe it to this country.

These are changed times on our political landscape and changed times demand changed approaches.

The SDLP is no longer going to spend our time commentating on or mediating in the fights among others. We need to get back to spending our time fighting for the things we believe to be right.

Fighting for the Good Friday Agreement and the prospects it offers this generation and generations to come.

The depth of our idealism will be the distance we travel to uphold the ideals of opportunity through social justice, community through partnership and unity through peace.

The strength of our radicalism will be the response we give to the challenge of change - in this party and for this society.

The reach of our socialism will be the hand we extend to the single mother, the unemployed factory worker or the refugee.

The power of our real republicanism will be standards we raise, not on poles, but in schools and hospitals.

The measure of our patriotism will be the lengths we go to for our dream of an Ireland united in peace, bound by equality and ordered by human rights.

This is our work. These are our ways. SDLP lead on.

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