Time for unity, time for hope: FORD

Time for unity, time for hope
Speech by David FORD at Alliance Party Conference
21 March 2009

It is always a pleasure to welcome Conference here to Dunadry, to South Antrim. That welcome is, however, tinged with sadness this year as we reflect on the events of two weeks ago. On Saturday 8 March, Antrim hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, with the murders of Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinzey.

However, those who planned the murders and pulled the triggers could not have foreseen the response. The following morning, Fr Tony Devlin led his parishioners across the road to stand at the security tape and make a clear statement – you do not act in our name. They were joined by others, mainly from local Protestant churches, in a further statement – whatever you do, we stand united against you.

When Constable Stephen Carroll was murdered two days later, it brought an outpouring of grief across Northern Ireland, and a determination that there would be no going back.

The tragedy of the dissident attacks seems to have brought a welcome spirit of unity among our political leaders. Although initially the Sinn Féin response to the Massereene murders was – quite frankly – inadequate, Martin McGuinness did speak out firmly, both locally and in the united states. His condemnation of the murders and the murderers was unprecedented for a Republican leader in modern times. I acknowledge that the clear and unambiguous statements made by him, and a number of his colleagues within Sinn Féin, that people should cooperate with the police, and help bring the killers to justice, marked a courageous and difficult step.

While we sometimes have had, and doubtless will continue to have, passionate, robust disagreement the response of Sinn Féin to events of the past fortnight has done an enormous amount to dispel the doubts which many of us still had about their total commitment to peaceful means.

Let me echo the words of Martin McGuinness and John O’Dowd, and appeal to people who may know something, anything, which may bring those killers to justice. You must help put these murderers behind bars.

This is not a question of ideology or about what constitutional arrangements we think are best for the people of this island. This is about whether we want our children to grow up free from fear, in a peaceful society rather than a militarised one. Whether we want our children to grow up hearing of murders on the morning news, of travelling to school through road blocks, of being stopped and searched, of seeing our towns and cities bombed.

I am of the generation where I had to bring my children up in that world. Other people in this hall grew up in that environment themselves. Whatever disagreements people may have with the arrangements at Stormont, surely the way we live now is better, immeasurably better, than the way we lived fifteen years ago?

A large and growing number of people in this hall grew up in a world where those awful experiences were, by and large, in the past. At our last Party Executive meeting, one of our young Executive members said that he couldn’t even remember the last time a policeman was murdered in Northern Ireland.

I want my grandchildren to grow up in the peaceful world we live in today, not the nightmare too many of us remember from the past.

I would also like to acknowledge what Peter Robinson has done over the past few weeks. I won’t be breaking any confidences when I say that I had profound doubts about his ability to be a First Minister for everyone in Northern Ireland. And I also have to admit that much of his performance since he became First Minister did nothing to dispel those doubts.

When Peter Robinson spoke in the Assembly on that awful Monday morning, he was called as leader of the DUP. He could have channeled the anger that so many of us, rightly, felt at those dastardly murders and, with one eye on an election in June, spoke as the leader of Unionism. He could have channeled that anger into venom and bitterness. But he didn’t.

When Peter Robinson responded to the killers, he chose to speak for everyone in Northern Ireland who was angry to see their dreams of peace shattered in a pool of blood on the streets of Antrim. He spoke for everyone – regardless of their religion, or background, or national identity – who felt their blood boil at the callousness of people prepared to murder so casually. He spoke for everyone whose sense of common humanity was outraged by the vicious and brutal squandering of the lives of men who were far too young to die.

It would have been easy for Peter Robinson to make a partisan speech. He chose instead to make a statesmanlike speech. And I want to thank him for that.

I must say, in passing, that the speech of Reg Empey was disappointing, partisan and begrudging. There’s a time and a place for point-scoring.

This is not such a time. This is a time when we must stand together to the absolute maximum extent that is possible. I could never have imagined that we could have seen a display of unity so comprehensive as we have seen over the past fortnight stretching across the political spectrum from Sinn Féin to the DUP (and even right through to the UDA). It is heartening. It is a sign of a society changing for the better, despite everything. But it must be harnessed for good.

As you will have seen from the media, that unity of purpose covers the entire political spectrum in these islands and across the Atlantic. I had the opportunity to speak to many members of the US Congress this week, as well as a long meeting with officials in the State Department. I also spoke to Shaun Woodward, to the Taoiseach and Micheál Martin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State and President Obama.

There is no support anywhere for the murderers. Those members of Congress who, in the past, would have been too close to sympathy for acts of violence are not there now, and I welcome their support for the Police Service and for the community standing against violence. The fact that the two young sappers were murdered in desert uniforms, within an hour of leaving for Afghanistan, resonates strongly in Washington.

Now, we must build on that sense of unity.

I remember the incredible display of unity that followed the murders of Philip Allen and Damian Trainor in Poyntzpass, just weeks before the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I remember how vivid a reminder it was of why we were trying so hard to find agreement through all the difficulties. I remember the tremendous spirit of unity that followed the Omagh bomb, and the impetus that awful tragedy gave to a new Executive finding its feet.

And I remember after both occasions how we all swore that we could never be divided, and that we would do everything in our power to make sure those deaths were the last. But sadly they weren’t the last.

To make political violence truly a thing of the past, we must seize this moment of unity to do two things – one of them in the immediate future, the second for the long-term.

Firstly, we must harness this spirit of unity to neuter the dissident threat. The full force of the police must bear down on the paramilitary microgroups and politicians across the political spectrum must give support to that.

As a democrat and a liberal, I would never give uncritical, unquestioning support to the police. In a democracy, elected politicians must always retain control of the police. At times police officers do wrong, and when they do wrong it needs to be dealt with swiftly and firmly.

But when the police approach us and tell us they need extra resources, or extra powers, we also need to give them a fair hearing before we say no.

And if the fair hearing makes us realise that the police do need those extra resources, then it is our duty, as political leaders, to make them available.

No-one in their right mind wants to see the army back on the streets trying to fulfil a policing role it isn’t trained or equipped for. And no-one is more committed than I am to ensuring that we have a civilian police force, committed to the rule of law and respect for human rights.

With one possible exception – and that is Hugh Orde.

Hugh Orde probably has the most difficult policing job in Europe. And in his time in that job, he has been passionate in his commitment to policing with the community, of creating a policing culture which upholds human rights, and demanding the PSNI sees its goal as becoming the best police

force in the world. If Hugh Orde, with that track record, feels that he needs the help a small number of military surveillance experts to counter the threat of the RIRA and the CIRA, then politicians must think long and hard before contradicting him. If that means challenging their own natural instincts, so be it.

We all have a duty to put common sense ahead of gut instinct in these difficult times.

The second area where we must seize the current opportunity is in building a genuinely shared society. Despite all the difficulties, we must create shared territory, shared institutions, shared social space and shared values. Flags and emblems are often seen as impossibly contentious issues, but we have a police badge which was agreed by all and an Assembly symbol which was agreed by all.

Some of these issues are not easy. But the job of political leaders is to lead. And in this area, the people are crying out for us to show leadership.

In cities and towns across Northern Ireland, there is a vibrancy and life

that has not been seen for a very long time indeed, new life which even the difficult state of the economy has not been able to dampen.

I am privileged to represent South Antrim, where Prince Charles can meet the singing priests without anyone batting an eyelid, and where the people of Antrim gave a lead to us all in standing together against terror.

But some parts of Northern Ireland have been left behind, and day-to-day community relations are as bad as they were at the height of the troubles.

The estates of Central Craigavon, where the murder of Stephen Carroll occurred, are such a place. In dozens of other estates across the region, too many people have seen nothing of any peace dividend, either economically or in terms of their ability to live their lives free from fear.

But progress can and has been made, even in places where the legacy of the past is at its most difficult. Just ask the women of Suffolk and Lenadoon, whose estates first hit the headlines in the early 1970s as a byword for intimidation and sectarianism. Suffolk is a tiny area, the last Protestant community along the seven mile stretch of road from Divis Street to Twinbrook. Its people have often felt isolated and vulnerable, have often been under attack. Their neighbours in Lenadoon have also suffered more than their fair share – far more than their fair share – of violence. You might expect them to be the last in Northern Ireland to agree to take their peace-line down.

But in reality, that peace line is the first to be coming down. Through years of painstaking work, the people of Suffolk and Lenadoon, especially the women of Suffolk and Lenadoon, have built up confidence in one another. They are taking their peace line down, fence by fence, little by little.

No outsider asked them to do it. For a long time they worked with no money, little outside help and little recognition. But they have built a beacon for what Northern Ireland could and should be like. Where they have led, it is the duty of all of us to follow.

And that’s too often the story of desectarianising Northern Ireland.

Progress is being made every day – but too often it is made by ordinary people with politicians failing to show leadership, sometimes even undermining their work. But building a shared society in Northern Ireland should be in everybody’s interest.

Let me go back to the events at Massereene barracks two weeks ago. For years, sectarian and tribal politicians have propagated the message that this is a society divided into two antagonistic and mutually exclusive groups, that everyone is either Protestant and Unionist, or Catholic and Nationalist. We in Alliance have always argued that this is a myth, but it has been an uphill fight. Until now.

The reaction in Antrim two weeks ago proves that the ‘two communities’ thesis is not only a perverse myth but is actually a complete falsehood.

It is a lie. Our people hold a variety of political and religious opinions, and are becoming more diverse in lifestyle and ethnicity. But the murders in Antrim and Craigavon have made them more united than ever.

Supposedly, the Catholic parishioners of Antrim belong to ‘the same community’ as the members of the Real IRA. It didn’t feel like that as they crossed Castle Street to the security tape that Sunday morning.

Supposedly, the Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations belong to ‘the other side’. It certainly didn’t feel like that either as they joined us on the Randalstown Road. As a representative of Antrim, as a citizen of Antrim, my sadness was tinged with pride in my community, my friends and neighbours.

Unity in revulsion at murder is moving to recognition that unity is essential for a healthy, viable community. Healthy and viable, economically, environmentally and socially.

And for all of us, only a society that is truly made up by one community can face the economic and technological challenges of the twenty first century and succeed.

This last fortnight, our political leaders have met the challenge of standing together against violence: will they now meet the challenge of standing together to build a shared future?

Building a shared future is both a top-down and bottom-up process. It requires grass-roots action and a real determination of leadership to do more than chuckle together: politicians must give a real lead and provide the resources.

That includes a willingness to take responsibility of every aspect of government locally, including the administration of Justice. Powers over justice were what brought down the Stormont government in 1972 and remain the most divisive issue facing Stormont now. But if we are to show that there is genuine power-sharing, justice is not just the last piece of the jigsaw, it is the keystone of the construction.

Devolution of justice would demonstrate that Northern Ireland is a stable society, building a shared future for all our citizens. Last year, during the five month Executive sulk, I said that the people of Northern Ireland had passed the test of stability but politicians had not. Perhaps they now have.

Whatever the future, I pledge that Alliance will continue to play a constructive role. We will argue for the proper resourcing of the justice system, especially for the Police Service, and for fundamental reforms of policy. Justice agencies must work with other parts of government on key issues like community safety and mental health, on the whole shared future agenda.

For all the progress that has been made, Northern Ireland is still a fractured society. Alliance is the only party which puts mending the divisions in our society at the top of its agenda. But we are not a single issue party, nor can the traditional divide trump every other issue facing us.

Northern Ireland’s economy has serious problems. While some of these can be put down to the state of the global economy, some of them are unique to this place. Our public sector is perhaps the largest in the developed world. According to some recent figures, over 70% – well over 70% – of our economy comes from the public sector. That’s not only the highest in the developed world today; it’s higher than many Eastern European countries endured during Communism!

Over the past year, the size of our public sector has been an advantage. It has insulated us from the worst of the downturn in the global economy.

However, while many of us have been insulated from the downturn, others have borne the brunt. The comfort of our large public sector is no use to the thousands who have been made redundant in construction, in engineering, in property and legal services or in manufacturing. It is no comfort to large swathes of Northern Ireland, especially West of the Bann, where public sector employment is low and the rise in unemployment has been severe. Magherafelt, Cookstown, Limavady, Dungannon – all these areas feature among those in the whole of the UK where unemployment has risen most sharply. These are the areas which benefit least from the size of our public sector, but more importantly, they’re also the areas where growth at the other end of the recession will be dampened if we don’t fix the imbalances in our economy. Northern Ireland has a low rate of business formation, a low level of entrepreneurship, and it isn’t because people here are any less hardworking, or well-educated, or willing to take risks than anywhere else. It’s because our economy is distorted. If we don’t rebalance our economy we risk being left behind when the worst of the global storm is past. Left behind again as we have been too often in the past.

But the defining reason why we have to tackle the imbalances in our economy is that we may not have any choice. Northern Ireland has been given a bye-ball in terms of public spending for a very long time – certainly since the days of Thatcher. And while I’m glad that we were spared the worst excesses of Maggie Thatcher’s hard-right government, as public spending has risen across the UK under New Labour it has spiralled here. We’ve been exempt from making a lot of the tough choices that are part and parcel of political life in any other country. And when we have had to make these choices, we’ve often made bad ones – like sacking nurses and workers caring for the elderly while leaving grossly overstaffed bits of the public sector untouched.

Well the bad news is, we’re likely to have to take more of those hard decisions. Gordon Brown’s rescue package for the economy is likely to cost

more than one hundred billion pounds. That’s the sort of telephone number sum that doesn’t always permit easy understanding, so let me put it a different way. That’s the same amount of money that the Northern Ireland Assembly spends in six years – the same amount that it costs to run every school, hospital and fire station, pay every civil servant and police officer, pay every state pension, pay benefit to every sick or unemployed person in Northern Ireland for six years.

I know that given the state of the world economy, the UK government had to do something. It’s easy politics just to get the boot into Brown, and that’s not what I’m about. Some of this money is being spent entirely necessarily, and some of it will pay off in the long run. But equally some of this money is being squandered. Squandered on perks for bankers and brokers, gold plated pensions and thousands of golden parachutes. That squandered money will have to be repaid some day. And when it that money has to be repaid, don’t kid yourself that Westminster and Whitehall won’t come knocking at the door of tiny, politically marginal, financially cosseted Northern Ireland to pay its fair share and more.

And we may be barely a year from the end of New Labour. If the Tories do win power, that day of reckoning will come earlier than otherwise and the cuts will bite more harshly than otherwise.

As liberals, we’re committed to a decent welfare state, to defending the weak, to protecting the public good. To preserve all that is best in Northern Ireland’s public services, we must act now before decisions are taken for us in London and a brutal axe wielded from above destroys the best.

This isn’t a natural message for me to deliver. I’m not a Thatcherite ideological warrior out to destroy the public sector and cut taxes regardless of the social consequences. In my book, there is such a thing as society. Look, I read the Guardian. Before I went into politics full-time, I was a social worker. No-one is more committed to defending our public services than I am.

But while making our public services the best in Europe should be our goal, that also includes making them the best value for money in Europe.

Our politicians have showed remarkable unity of purpose in opposing political violence – let us also now seek unity of purpose in getting Northern Ireland back to work, in rebalancing our economy and in defending all that is good about our NHS, our schools, our care services.

Another area where Alliance’s liberal values are vital to the future of Northern Ireland is the environment. It would be easy to crack a joke here about Sammy Wilson’s views on global warming. But I can’t come up with a line funnier than Sammy is already – he is the court jester at the Northern Ireland Executive, and like a court jester, his views on the environment belong in the Middle Ages. Not in the DOE and not at the Executive table.

Northern Ireland has often regarded itself as a place apart, depending on the government in Westminster to protect it from the ravages of the global economy. But one thing we can’t insulate ourselves from is the consequence of environmental degradation.

With the election of Barack Obama, the world finally has a leader of the world’s only superpower who takes global warming seriously. In the world’s great emerging superpower, China, increasingly the calculating mandarins of the Communist Party are taking global warming seriously – as a threat to China, as it is a threat to all of us. The environmental message has often been packaged in a very negative way, but I believe that this new environmental focus in the great capitals of the world can be harnessed to the enormous good of Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s image abroad is one of being clean, green, natural, unspoiled.

And despite the depredations of a few developers, the reality matches the image to a very large extent. That’s a huge advantage for business in a world where being green matters.

As well as the image, though, we also have a lot of the real ingredients to be a leader in green technology and green energy. Our location is perfect for both wind and wave energy – we might as well make some use of our fantastic climate! But our universities and companies are also centres of expertise in cutting edge engineering, electronics and software design.

We have a potentially winning combination. We have some of the besteducated people on the planet. But we too often don’t have a lead from government.

Our industrial policy still seems to be stuck in the 1950s – travelling to

the US to beg for manufacturing jobs that will never deliver all that our

people demand. Our road to recovery – the green road to recovery – must

deliver more Mivans, more Quinn Groups, more Northern Ireland firms that are world beaters in their own right. And more focus on the growing parts of the world economy – especially the industrial titans of Asia. This has already begun to happen – I am glad, for example, that Arlene Foster visited Singapore recently. But we have only scratched the surface of what we need to do to keep Northern Ireland competitive in the twenty first Century.

Walling ourselves in is no longer an option. It’s fine to talk about ‘our wee country’ in sport, but not in business. And that brings me to the subject of Europe.

People often say that the European Parliament doesn’t matter to Northern Ireland. Well, the reality is that 70% of our laws now come from the European Union. In whole swathes of our economy and our society, like agriculture, workplace safety and financial regulation, the bulk of our laws come from Europe. Our economy is massively affected by the Sterling –

Euro exchange rate. The European Parliament matters to Northern Ireland, and makes decisions which dramatically affect our lives day and daily.

The sad reality is that it is our European MPs who don’t really matter to Northern Ireland.

All three of them are hostile to the very idea of Europe. None of them has any standing or credibility in this most crucial of forums. Northern Ireland deserves better.

I’m proud of Alliance’s record as a pro-European party. I’m also proud of our record as a party committed to making the case for Europe, for selling the benefits of the EU rather than retreating into a bureaucratic ivory tower. Too often pro-Europeans have claimed some form of moral superiority, been lazy about making the difficult arguments about sovereignty, and then wondered why the public became cynical and voted against them when they got the chance.

In a democracy sovereignty flows upwards from the people, not downwards from institutions. Northern Ireland deserves better engagement with Europe, but it also deserves to have the reasons why we should engage with Europe explained and defended. Alliance will not shirk from that challenge.

We also need to give people a positive reason to vote for a European Parliament that often seems distant from their lives. In Ian Parsley, we have selected a fine candidate, a candidate who we can be confident will argue the Northern Ireland case on the European and world stage and do us proud. Other parties see the European Parliament as the dumping ground for their failures or the retirement home for their honoured comrades of the past. Only Alliance is putting forward a candidate who represents the future of the party – a candidate who can look forward to many decades of putting us first in the heart of Europe, who can make Northern Ireland a force to be recognised well beyond its size.

With the greatest of respect, can you see Jim Nicholson going into a meeting with Gary Locke, Barack Obama’s new Commerce Secretary, and negotiating an end to damaging tariffs on our goods? Can you see Bairbre de Brún going to Beijing to have top level talks on joint action between Europe and China to tackle global warming? Well, I can’t either, but I can see Ian Parsley doing both of those things and more.

Northern Ireland deserves better representation in Europe, but nothing in life is free. If people feel they deserve better, then they need to vote for better. Too often the political debate in Northern Ireland has been entirely negative. And indeed, the debate on Europe has become almost entirely negative in recent years.

In Ian Parsley, Alliance is offering Northern Ireland competence, drive, dynamism, vision. In short we are offering Northern Ireland hope.

Northern Ireland deserves hope. Ian Parsley represents that hope, the embodiment of a generation of political leaders living free from the violence of the past.

Ian can win for Northern Ireland, but to do that, he needs our help. We deserve better, but in real life you only get what you deserve if you work for it. Join him, and join me, on the streets of our cities and towns and villages this Spring, and bring hope to Northern Ireland. We can bring hope to Northern Ireland politics.

ENDS

David Ford is Party Leader and an MLA for South Antrim.

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