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Speech by David Ford, to the APNI annual conference, (5 March 2016)

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Text: David Ford . . . Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

'Forward. Faster. ', Speech by David Ford, then leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), to the APNI annual conference, Belfast (Saturday 5 March 2016)


"Thank you, Conference, and let me add my welcome to you all. Isn’t it great to be part of a Party that is bigger, more enthusiastic and more determined than ever to make a real change to Northern Ireland in the months ahead?

Let me start with a particular word of thanks to Naomi, our Deputy Leader, not just for the introduction, but for all she has done for Alliance, and for Northern Ireland. She spent five years as our first ever elected MP, a lone voice in the House of Commons, where she not only worked tirelessly for East Belfast, but she also – single handed – tightened up the rules on party funding. Naomi stood for election to Westminster with a clear manifesto and with determination, skill and style, delivered on every single commitment she made. Is it any wonder that so many more people in East Belfast wanted to see her back in Westminster for another term?

The affection and respect that we have for Naomi was shown by the massive effort that Alliance members and many others put into the East Belfast campaign last year. A massive effort devoted to keeping Northern Ireland moving forward. And it succeeded. True, Naomi is no longer an MP. But after the flag protests, the insults, the threats, the violence, Naomi added 4,000 votes to what we were told was the high water mark of 2010.

Only a cynical five-party pact, between parties which have been tearing lumps off each other ever since polling day, managed to scrabble together enough votes to unseat Naomi – and even then they couldn’t manage to get 50% in a supposedly Unionist seat like East Belfast.

Do I need to remind you of the graceless, personally insulting speech made by the new MP at the election count?  Let’s just say this. I am looking forward to the Assembly election and the start of another Five Long Years. More Long service to the people of East Belfast. More Long leadership in the Assembly. More Long work to transform Northern Ireland. Many more Long Years. Welcome back to the Assembly team, Naomi.

At the same time as that extraordinary increase in our support in East Belfast, and despite our concentration there, we put up the Alliance vote in every one of the 18 constituencies. Another election in which the movement for change grew.

In Council elections, our vote up by 50% in 2011, and up again in 2014, despite all the predictions to the contrary. Our best ever European election result in 2014. In the Assembly elections of 2007 and again 2011 an increase in votes and seats. All because of the hard work of people in this room – leading change, communicating our vision, delivering in office, knocking doors, recruiting members and convincing voters that voting Alliance is the best way to deliver a radically different Northern Ireland.

Whatever part you have played, you should be proud of it. Proud that you are part of building an alternative politics, proud that you have helped make Northern Ireland a better place, and proud that you are making it even better for future generations.

And now we move into the final few weeks of an Assembly term, and the final months of a three year cycle of elections. In the Assembly that is drawing to a close, we have faced many challenges and we face many more in the next Assembly. That starts with the challenge of ensuring enough Alliance MLAs are elected to ensure we retain a seat in the smaller Executive. Remember, last time Stephen Farry became a Minister because of both an extra seat and extra votes across Northern Ireland.

In Assembly elections, it really is the case that every vote can count, whether in East Belfast or Fermanagh, North Antrim or South Down.

But winning more Alliance seats, and ensuring an Alliance Minister, is only a prelude to putting Alliance principles into practice, to getting away from stop-go-pause-rewind politics – of which we have had far too many examples recently.

In particular, through three long autumns of talks, we have seen so-called political leaders fail time and again to deliver the significant, important changes that this society needs. Those parties charged with leading our Executive and our political process have held us back; dithering and disagreeing; protecting their own votes at the expense of progress; mis-managing public finances for short-term gain. Perhaps worst of all, preventing us from dealing with the past in a way that would allow us to move into the future.

Recently, the Secretary of State said she was disappointed at the outcome of the so-called “Fresh Start” of last November. She’s disappointed?  How does she think we feel?  And if she’s disappointed, why did she sign-off on it? 

Of course, in any agreement not everyone will get all that they want; compromise requires give and take. But when it comes to victims and survivors, all parties should have been prepared to give, and the two governments should have insisted on that. We told the Secretary of State, time and again, that we wouldn’t sign up to an agreement that, again, left victims and survivors to the side, and nor should the UK government. We told her that she had the leverage to secure a genuinely comprehensive agreement, but when a deal seemed easier to secure by ignoring victims, she blinked.

I described the so-called “Fresh Start” as a False Dawn for Victims of the past. I am amused, but pleased, that a number of journalists have repeated the phrase. But I am anything but pleased that it is true. Those who expected something for victims and survivors have been let down, yet again.

Shame on those who let them down: the two Governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP. Our position is simple, clear and resolute: deal with the past, or there’s no deal. If only others had been as resolute. And how sad that Arlene Foster, as one of her first comments when she became DUP leader, said that we couldn’t deal with past before the election. She was effectively saying that electoral politics came first; that dealing with the past requires leadership, and she and others weren’t prepared to show leadership in case it cost their party votes. Party first; victims second. So much for new leadership.

The “False Dawn” exposed this; and it demonstrated once again that Alliance’s role is not, as some people thought, to sign up to any agreement that unionist and nationalist parties can stomach, however low their common denominator might be. Yes, we will compromise when it serves Northern Ireland to do so, when it helps us to move forward and make things better.

But we won’t compromise when it holds Northern Ireland back. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: We are not a “split-the-difference” party, whose vision is limited to whatever might keep both unionists and nationalists happy at any given moment. Too often, that's what the political process has amounted to. Too often, that’s what Governments have done. Too often, that’s blocked real change.

No, we are a party with an entirely different vision for Northern Ireland, our own vision, and we are committed to tirelessly and determinedly working to make that vision a reality.

I have made it clear, both publicly and in private meetings, that the Government has a duty to fund the issues of the past. The Prime Minister agreed this in late 2014 and the Treasury has earmarked £150 million for legacy issues. The Judiciary has given a lead though the excellent work of the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Justice Weir.

There can be no excuse for the Government not funding work on legacy issues. Their current stance is merely punishing the Justice system for the failings of others, and those others include the NIO.

In stark contrast to the failures in some areas, let’s look at some of the things that have been done, some of the big issues that have been tackled. Tackled by Alliance Ministers.

I have now been Minister of Justice for nearly six years. I can honestly say that there has been more fundamental reform to the Justice system in those six years than in the previous sixteen – or possibly twenty six. All has been around the concept of building a safer community, and a shared community.

Public confidence in the fairness of the justice system: up. Confidence in the PSNI: up. Victims placed at the heart of the justice system, and their satisfaction with how that system dealt with them: up.

Rates of offending: down. The number of first-time entrants into the justice system: down. The proportion of our young people involved with youth justice services: down. Processing times for youth conferences, and delays in youth courts and magistrates’ courts: down. The number of interface structures that divide our community: down.

Millions of pounds seized from criminals and diverted to the community; new laws to tackle sexual crimes, fuel laundering and animal cruelty; the Legal Aid system reformed.

And these are only the short-term outcomes. Much of the reform agenda that I have implemented has been of a foundational nature, with outcomes to be delivered in the years ahead.

Hydebank College, formerly the Young Offenders Centre, is the first example of a secure college in the country, with over 90% of residents/inmates/students/lads now engaged in accredited courses which will integrate them with society outside. While credit is due to Prison staff and the staff of Belfast Metropolitan College, the plaque at the front door names two Ministers who provided the leadership, Stephen Farry and David Ford. Two Alliance Ministers leading: moving forward, faster.

Meanwhile, in just five years in the Department of Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry has delivered a new strategy to radically transform apprenticeship opportunities, assisted thousands of people to find sustainable employment, and delivered new investments to build our base in science and the knowledge economy; to name but a few of his achievements. He has done more than I could possibly do justice to in a single speech.

The shift that he has engineered towards upskilling the workforce of today, and tomorrow, will bear fruit for many years to come. The strength of his ministerial leadership has taken that Department from languishing on the margins of government to front and centre, and the new Department of the Economy is being built on blueprints that he drew years ago and has advocated tirelessly since.

If you want to know what “forward, faster; better, sooner” looks like, look at Stephen’s record as Minister. Of course, if you work 18 hour days, every day, things get done!

Few of you have seen Stephen in action at the Executive table, in his Department or in the Assembly, but he brings his intellect and his commitment to every task that falls to him. I remember sitting at the Executive table as the sole Alliance Minister. Stephen’s arrival made a huge difference, supporting me and putting the case for reform. Leading, delivering and ensuring we moved forward, faster. This party owes Stephen a massive debt.

While Stephen and I are standing again, at the May election three colleagues will be stepping down.

Anna Lo was first elected in 2007, when she stormed into a seat in South Belfast and told the world that Northern Ireland was becoming a diverse society and politics needed to change too. In this Assembly, she has chaired the Environment Committee, strengthened our links with the voluntary sector and amended the Marine Act to ensure that environmental concerns are central to the way our marine environment is managed. Alliance, moving forward, faster.

Judith Cochrane has been a Castlereagh Councillor (significant on its own), and gained our second seat in East Belfast in 2011. She has used her talents and knowledge to represent us on the Assembly Commission, dealing with everything from finance to flags, and is close to seeing her private member’s bill on Stadium Licensing pass its final stage. Alliance, moving forward, faster.

Kieran McCarthy is, on the other hand, what we might call a veteran. Ards Council, the Talks Forum of 1996 and the Assembly at every election since 1998. He has led for us on the important topic of Health through all that time and is one of the hardest-working Constituency representatives, as well as forcing the Department of Finance to act on apartment law. Alliance, moving forward, faster.

Anna, Judith, Kieran: as Party Leader, as a colleague and as a friend, may I say a sincere thank you for what you have done to take this community forward.

I shouldn’t forget the others who will stand again. To Chris, Stewart and Trevor, thank you for your contributions, past, present and future. Thanks also to the magnificent staff team we have, fewer than other parties, but more skilled, harder working and definitely more dedicated. Thank you Ben, Debbie, Kenneth, Lauren, Nuala, Sharon, Sam and Scott, as well as those who serve our constituents in local offices.

You have already been introduced to some of those who will take up the Alliance cause in the new Assembly. I know they will bring the same energy and commitment to the Assembly as their predecessors did, working to deliver on the manifesto we will publish next month.

A manifesto full of ambition for our community. A manifesto that includes new legislation on integrated education; that takes environmental concerns seriously with a Climate Change Bill and an independent Environment Protection Agency.

A manifesto that places mental health at the core of the public health agenda; that deals with the legacy of the past; that extends civil marriage provisions to same sex couples; that reforms the Stormont institutions; and that takes the agenda of reform that Stephen and I have delivered in two departments even further.

Of course, all our policies will be based on our key principle: it is time we stopped the delay, the fudge, and the waffle of other parties and moved ahead, further and faster, to build a United Community. No other party puts that first. No other party has that commitment. No other party can be trusted to deliver on that essential change.

Let’s look at how the other parties tackle difficult issues – or rather how they don’t. We can illustrate that by discussing the topical, and very sensitive, issue of abortion. Now, I want to be perfectly clear: this is an issue of conscience to Alliance. There are different views in the party. When I demand the right of conscience for myself, I also advocate it for those who disagree with me.

I respect those who honestly and openly express a view different from mine. What I cannot respect are lies and subterfuge. What disgusts me is the behaviour of MLAs who promised women who had experienced pregnancy with a Fatal Foetal Abnormality that they would do what they could to help and then broke that promise. Women with that tragic experience were let down by members of the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP.

To compound that, the DUP sought to cloud the issue by saying that their leader had asked the Health Minister to set up an expert group including clinicians and medically qualified persons. Nice soundbite, if you ignore the fact that I asked the DUP Health Minister to share a joint consultation two and a half years ago and he failed to reply.

Sadly, this subterfuge provided cover for nearly all the SDLP and the majority of Ulster Unionists to join the DUP in blocking modest reform. So much for commitments made. So much for honouring solemn promises.

While Alliance had a free vote, unlike the UUP we had a lengthy discussion, in which colleagues explored the issues and explained their thoughts. In Alliance, we are capable of having sensible, mature debate about very difficult issues, facing up to them with honesty, and leaving the room as friends. Conference, you should be proud of your Assembly team.

Again, I stress that the issue of abortion is a conscience issue. I highlight it simply as an argument for a different kind of politics – a politics that is honest and open, that delivers on promises made, and gets things done. That makes things better, sooner. That moves us forward, faster.

It’s with a record of that kind of politics that we will approach the election. No other party is fully committed to building a United Community, and no other party can say it is as representative of every section of the community as Alliance. But we have other issues which strengthen our unique position.

We have proved that Alliance is fiscally responsible (that’s political jargon for saying we manage money sensibly). There was much talk in the election campaign for the Dail about the economic illiteracy of Gerry Adams TD. Such personal attacks are unfair. The whole of Sinn Fein is economically illiterate, in the Assembly, just like the Dail.

The proposal that Sinn Fein made – backed by the SDLP and Green Party – to protect all welfare expenditure indefinitely was not just impossible to fund. It would also have meant maintaining expenditure on benefits even if we put nearly everyone into work and dealt with long-term sickness issues. Paying reasonable benefits to individuals is one thing: demanding the total bill never reduces is, simply nonsense.

Or we could take the planned move of the Agriculture Department HQ to Ballykelly. Not that long ago, I heard officials from DARD tell farmers proposing to invest in their business that they would need a proper business case to get a grant of a few thousand pounds. The same Department is spending tens of millions of pounds to uproot civil servants from Stormont without a business case.

However, we shouldn’t just criticise nationalists for this. The DUP are letting them away with the Ballykelly move, oblivious to the waste of money and the potential damage to business continuity.

The same two parties have just forced a budget through the Executive which does nothing, absolutely nothing, to prepare for the devolution and reduction of Corporation Tax in just two years’ time. A reduction that will cost up to £200m a year. It’s the right policy, but how can they seriously suggest that this is realistic if they aren’t yet planning for such a major change in policy?  Perhaps they weren’t serious. Perhaps it was all about allowing Peter Robinson to step down quickly, claiming success on Corporation Tax. Who cares about how our community will pay for it, or maximise its potential?  Party first, the economy and public services second.

Of course, as we have said many times before, the most important issue for attracting foreign direct investment is not the tax rate. The number one issue is an appropriately skilled workforce. We also know that the other four main parties think it is more important to train more teachers than we can employ, rather than the scientists and engineers who will create our future wealth. Doing what they do best: preserving the old ways, rather than making the progress we need.

Our fiscal responsibility stands in stark contrast to their behaviour. But we are also a progressive party, putting our liberal values into action as part of our work every day. Because of Unionist opposition, I haven’t been able to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from age 10, one of the lowest in Europe. But their backwards view won’t stop us moving forward in other ways. The Justice agencies are working to ensure that the tiny numbers of young children who come into contact with the Justice system are dealt with as an issue of care and support, not criminal sanction. Alliance in action, moving forward faster, wherever we can.

So we will go into the Assembly election campaign with a proven record of working to unite this community, of fiscal responsibility and of progressive social values. But they aren’t just issues for an election, they are our permanent values. The same values that have driven our Party for 46 years. The same values that will also be in play this year in the referendum on the European Union.

I am proud that I am a citizen of the EU. I believe that Britain’s and Northern Ireland’s position in Europe is for the benefit of our society and also of benefit to others. Much of the argument over the coming weeks will be over finance. No doubt the Brexit campaigners will continue to make claims about what might be done if the UK was not making payments to Brussels, but there is little evidence that the Treasury would be as generous as Brussels in terms of the Social Fund that underpins many social initiatives, farm subsidies that underpin our major food processing industry, and the ongoing PEACE programmes.

Speaking about those programmes is a clear reminder of what underpins the European institutions. From the establishment of the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, as part of Robert Schuman’s plans to ensure that France and Germany never went to war again, to the support given to Northern Ireland under the leadership of Jacques Delors, to the incorporation of the countries of central Europe in 2004, building peace in Europe has been essential to the structures of the Union.

Such peace-building work deserves to be treated more seriously than little Englanders whinging about bent bananas, or far more disturbingly, Sammy Wilson’s constituent indulging in xenophobic, unchallenged remarks about ethnic minorities.

On that issue, I don’t know which of the two interpretations is worse – the one in which Sammy is interpreted as agreeing with him, or the one in which he disagrees with him but doesn’t have the political guts to challenge him. Either way, Arlene Foster doesn’t seem prepared to act.

As Justice Minister, I see the positive benefits that Europe has brought to co-operation between the two justice systems of this island. I am old enough to remember when it was almost impossible to get politically motivated criminal suspects extradited from the Republic to the UK, no matter how awful the crime. Nowadays it happens almost without problem, thanks to the European Arrest Warrant.

But the old legislation has gone. If we leave the EU, we lose the current law and we could be back to the 1970s with extradition all but impossible. In fact, the behaviour of the British Government nearly lost us the EAW last year and they are putting it at risk again.

We are in real danger of losing the basis of cross-border justice co-operation as a result of the internal disputes within the Tory party. I believe that David Cameron was entirely wrong to get us to this position, attempting – unsuccessfully – to appease the UKIP tendency in the Tory party. Now, we have the spectacle of Theresa Villiers acting as the MP for Chipping Barnet, and entirely ignoring her duties as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Let’s be blunt – leaving the EU would be a massive step backwards for the UK, including, if not especially, Northern Ireland. A backward step we simply can’t afford to take. We’ve had enough of stepping backwards, or standing still. We need to move forward faster, but are held back by the actions of other parties on social and financial issues and by the two Governments in the deals they were so desperate to fix that they missed the big picture on the past.

But in Alliance we know where we want to go and we know that we need to move with a lot more determination. We need to move forward, faster to a different society, a united community with sound finances and socially progressive policies. There is only one way to get there and that is by increasing the number of Alliance MLAs. We will only do that if we get out on the doorsteps and persuade people to vote for us.

Some of you have heard me talk of the first vote that I ever cast, for Eric Lubbock, Liberal MP for Orpington, who died recently. His radio obituary recalled the story that he wore out five pairs of shoes during his by-election campaign. I think I ought to tell you that ten days ago, for my birthday, some of the family bought me a very useful present. A pair of walking shoes. Not for the mountains, but for canvassing. That’s what they told me, and I intend to make the most of them, in South Antrim and beyond.

So let’s enjoy being here today, celebrating our achievements. But let’s go from here and out onto the streets, determined to achieve even more. Carrying the Alliance message to the doorsteps of every constituency. The message that every vote for Alliance is a vote to make things better, sooner.

That it is time to move forward. That it’s time to end the stop start. That it’s time to move forward, faster.

One of Eric Lubbock’s colleagues, asked to what he attributed victory in a Council election, said “faith, hope and canvassing, and the greatest of these is canvassing”. Let’s not overstate the theological context, let’s just get canvassing. Forward, faster.

In a few weeks, there will be young people entitled to vote who weren’t even born on Good Friday 1998. A generation grown up while political leaders squabbled and squandered chances. The Agreement is no longer a fragile young child, nor even a sulky teenager. It is reaching its majority, and it is long past time that politicians in Northern Ireland stepped forward and let us all move forward, faster.

Conference, you have achieved much over recent years. You have achieved more than commentators expected, much more than our opponents thought possible, much, much more than we dared dream. You have shown we are the only people who will move this society forward, and forward faster.

You have shown that we are the only party working for everyone, determined to build a united community and transform this society.

This year, we can confound the cynics, outdo our opponents, and surprise our supporters. It’s time to step forward again. It’s time to end negative, backward politics. It’s time to get Northern Ireland moving forward, faster and who will do that?

We will. Let’s go for it."



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