Europe: Time for the politics of hope
Speech by Ian James PARSLEY at Alliance Party Conference
21 March 2009
After my unanimous endorsement by Party Council, I pledged to be the ‘Unity Candidate’ at this election. I am proud to be the party’s candidate at this election because both the Alliance Party and the European Union represent the things I stand for. For my generation, the union of Europe as represented by the fall of the Berlin Wall was the defining political moment — and we still need to bring down walls here at home.
Furthermore, economically the European Union stands for free trade; environmentally, it stands for united action to minimise the impact of climate change. As a Liberal, eco-friendly party, we in Alliance appreciate those things too.
That is why I am proud this is to be an Alliance campaign, but also a unity campaign reaching out beyond the party. We are looking for support from everyone — Unionist, Nationalist or neither — who cares about the economy and about the environment, and who wishes to make Europe work for us.
The recent atrocities in Antrim and Craigavon mean we must re-double our efforts to represent the whole of the new generation, a first preference vote on 4 June is the best way for people to respond to terrorists. We in this party, and in this generation, are the ones with real courage. We must meet bullets with ballots.
The new generation here is truly blessed — they have the fairest ever access to training, employment and leisure opportunities. They will not allow the recent attacks prevent a future free from bombs and bullets.
However, there is no age limit on the new generation. As a party, we are rightly campaigning for free care for older people, less red tape for small businesses, and a healthier environment in every sense. These matter to everyone here. We are a different society, and we need a different type of politics — that is why this will be a positive campaign, asking people to vote for us, not against anyone else.
We are proud to call Northern Ireland our home, and we are deeply ambitious for it. That is why we have set out on a campaign where you can replace the politics of fear with the politics of hope.
So many people, particularly the under-30s, are disillusioned with party politics. Yet never have they been so engaged by political issues — reforming post-primary education, defending our economy, and promoting conservation.
That is why this campaign is about improving our engagement with Europe, not by rolling over to every directive making us work for Europe, but by directing Europe to work for us. It is about improving our economic prospects, not by going to Brussels with a begging bowl, but by regulating to defend our small businesses and local charities against the arrogance of the big banks. It is about improving our environmental future, not through fines and scare tactics, but through a determined promotion of our local communities.
Sadly, European elections in Northern Ireland are rarely about European issues. Nevertheless, with 70% of legislation originating in Europe, this campaign has as its policy themes opportunity, responsibility, and sustainability.
The opportunity lies in proper engagement with Europe — through an MEP able to represent the whole of Northern Ireland, in several languages, with experience already of European negotiations through conflict resolution exchanges to places such as South Tyrol, Catalonia, and Estonia, and in experience in Liberal Youth politics. Others roll over to the institutions and leave us to work for Europe; we will make Europe work for us. For example, I benefited from the Erasmus student exchange programme, yet too few of our students and apprentices do. We should be maximising our opportunities to learn new skills from the very best in Europe, wherever that takes us, not just in languages but also in education, business, and health.
The responsibility lies with Europe to ensure a fair playing field for local businesses and voluntary sector organisations. Frankly, the EU’s response to the recent economic crash has been disjointed and toothless. Our responsible small businesses and charities would rightly have expected trans-EU cooperation to limit the damage caused by the irresponsibility of big banks outside our jurisdiction — instead, we see bankers walking away with big bonuses and local organisations, devoid of credit, having to lay off staff. Our MEPs should have been promoting trans-EU “collective measures” to maintain the skills base in smaller businesses and voluntary sector bodies, regulating the negative actions of the banks, particularly in complex derivative trading, and cutting some of their own expenses to establish an EU Infrastructure Bank for cross-border road and rail projects, which would have seen key routes such as the Belfast-Larne route completed already. We in Alliance have a proud record of representing our constituents and getting to know their expectations — this applies in the European Parliament just as it does on a local council, especially in this time of international crisis.
For too long the environmental case has been couched in negative terms — through threats of global weather catastrophes or European fines. I myself argued in favour of a greener European Liberal Youth policy by making the case the other way around — environment-focused politics can deliver solutions on household debts, private-sector jobs, and health care. We should ensure Europe does not lose the advantage to North America on new energy research; we should promote the green economy as a clean creator of wealth; and we should focus on the concrete health and quality of life benefits of environmental conservation in local communities. There is no reason whatsoever that the greater Belfast area should not be a world leader in all of these fields — somewhere has to be!
After the shocking attacks in Antrim and Craigavon brought us back face-to-face with the past, it has never been more important to focus on speaking with a single voice. Ours will be a wholly positive campaign, seeking the backing of everyone, regardless of how or whether they voted in the past, to speak for the new generation here. With every first preference vote they will say, “where others bring division, we choose unity; where others bring arrogance, we choose humility; where others bring doubt, we choose ambition”.
After the recent attacks sent out all the wrong messages, this campaign should send out all the right one. An Alliance MEP on the back of a unity campaign would be a defining moment for Northern Ireland. It would tell the world that, once and for all, we are replacing the politics of fear with the politics of hope.
Let’s go out and deliver!
Councillor Ian James PARSLEY is the Alliance Party candidate for the 2009 election to the European Parliament.