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Alliance Party Conference Speech

March 24, 2014

Text of my speech at Alliance Party Conference on Saturday.

If there were a border poll held tomorrow, I would vote for the UK.

No doubt that is partly conditioned by my upbringing, but it is also because of many of the values it promotes – the post-war UK founded the Paralympics promoting disability in the most remarkable way; invented the World Wide Web liberalizing the flow of information and learning across the planet; and now has the most effortlessly cosmopolitan capital city on the planet, where a minority of the population are “White British”. This is a remarkable story, and I make no bones about the fact that I want Northern Ireland to share in it.

Yet here is the problem: all too often it doesn’t!

And all too often it doesn’t because of the very “Unionists” who are supposed to support the same UK values that I cherish!

Right now, at Methodist College, there is an appeal going on for everyone from the age of 18 to 50 to get tested for bone marrow to help a four-year-old boy overcome cancer. Everyone from the age of 18 to 50, that is, except gay men! The parents are friends of mine. They couldn’t care less who saves their child. Let us not forget, that Northern Ireland may soon be the only part of an otherwise liberal UK where some people will be barred from marrying the person they love and want to commit to purely on the basis of their gender. What kind of country would frankly revel in putting strict restrictions like that on vital assistance and long-term commitment purely on the grounds of sexual orientation?

When it comes to an open society, Unionists have achieved nothing.

When it comes to freedom of the press, enabling investigative correspondents to engage and ensure a free flow of information, yet again Northern Ireland wishes to be a restrictive exception – not content with threatening journalists with legal action when they actually do refer to opponents as “nutters”! Some may say one particular party is responsible for that, but are then all too happy to negotiate pacts with that party.

So, when it comes to a free press, again, Unionists have achieved nothing.

When it comes to gender equality, one glance at the benches to the right of the Speaker tells you all you need to know. The dull grey men run away from the very real and practical realities of vulnerable women being forced to go to Britain to seek abortions without proper advice at home; they even aim to penalize vulnerable women trafficked into Northern Ireland as we have heard this morning already; and they have absolutely no interest in the more widespread and open issues of proper childcare or equal representation.

When it comes to gender equality, Unionists are almost proud to have achieved nothing.

When it comes to flags – yes, flags – the British tradition is not one of flag-waving mania. That is an Americanization! The British tradition is one of respect for the Union Flag, and of putting thought into where and when it is flown to emphasize that respect. That is why, in the majority of cases across the UK, not least Westminster City Council itself, it flies on designated days. Yet when the same proposal is put for Councils in Northern Ireland, that British tradition is thrown out of the window. Those who were suggesting we should not confuse sovereignty with identity were the very ones doing so!

When it comes to respect for the Union Flag, and indeed any other flag, Unionists have achieved nothing.

Of course, we all know what that was really about. I work in the inner-city with Loyalists every day. They see their local A&Es being closed, their local schools being closed, their local businesses being closed. The infamous “leaflets” in late 2012 weren’t just about winning a Westminster seat – though that was part of it – but they were also about trying to cover up for an obvious reality to anyone who lives or works in the inner cities; the reality is that Unionists have achieved nothing.

Education gridlock – nothing. Adequate Emergency Department staffing – nothing. Jobs for the inner city – nothing. The only hint of light is in the area of skills and qualifications. You may look up who the relevant Minister for that is…!

I do not wish to suggest Nationalists have been any better. The very point is that anyone who believes in a straightforward binary identity split between “us” and “them” – regardless of who constitutes “us” and who constitutes “them” – will end up going round and round in circles and achieving nothing.

I may happen to share a broad constitutional view with Unionists, personally, but the very reasons for that view – the values of a diverse, liberal and cosmopolitan UK – are ones which Unionists universally reject. Yet they are values I want to see enhanced right here in Northern Ireland, for the good of all of Northern Ireland.

I know of someone else who shares those values. I know of someone else who fundamentally agrees that a modern Northern Ireland should not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation; I know of someone else who believes the Northern Ireland press should be as free to do their job as anywhere else in the UK; I know of someone else who stands up for gender equality; I know of someone else who respects the Union Flag; I know of someone else who has achieved plenty – for people on the ground; in legislation from charities to local government; in representing the society of diverse values and liberal tradition that I want to live in and that I want my children to live in. I know of someone else who has genuinely led change for everyone, and is now stepping forward to aim high for all the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of their long-term constitutional preference.

That “someone else” is my friend, Anna Lo…

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“New parties” are easier said than done

February 20, 2013

Is running a political party easy? Think about what goes into merely delivering, say, 10,000 leaflets in a particular constituency.

Someone has to manage the process of writing the content; a team has to go out and get the relevant photographs of the relevant campaigners (probably over several days); someone has to determine where they are to be delivered; the local Association has to ensure it has enough people right across the constituency to deliver them; maps and delivery routes have to be drawn up to ensure no cross-posting; someone has to oversee the printing and dispersal to the deliverers; and of course a few people have to have raised the money in the first place to pay for the print run (ideally in colour, of course). This requires a combination of good management, political experience and a large number of willing volunteers. It is far from straightforward!

There has been raised discussion, given recent events, of new parties in Northern Ireland. This is far from new – when I myself left the UUP in 2010, discussions had long been on-going about the potential for a new party. However, over nearly three years, they have remained just that – discussions. This is at least partly because running a political party, or even an Association of a political party, is no small undertaking and requires a lot of volunteers to be effective. Before even asking where any “new” party would fit on the spectrum, some key practical questions need to be asked.

Firstly, a new party will need volunteers. Leaflet delivery is only a minor challenge, compared to the real need to be out knocking on doors, collecting polling data and engaging with the public at civic events. This will require literally hundreds of volunteers who are prepared not just to meet for the odd lunch or write the odd letter, but to go out regularly – in the wind and the rain – and do the groundwork. Where are these people?

Secondly, to do any of this, it will need funds. Even a basic electoral campaign costs tens of thousands, usually a six-figure sum. Add to this basic running and administration costs on an on-going basis (even just for printing leaflets etc), and the turnover required is not insignificant – and even this excludes research funds (below). Where are these funds to be raised?

Thirdly, a point which is often understated – such a party will require information. Without any prospect of an Executive seat or even a Committee Chair in the near future, a new party will be poorly informed at legislative level compared to the established parties. This brings with it the need for highly knowledgeable research personnel and further funds to enable them to carry out their information and policy work. After all, you cannot develop meaningful policy if you do not know what is going on at the heart of government! How could a new party match the research resources of established parties who have access to public funds and information for this work?

Fourthly, outside a few constituencies, such a party would have no reputation for delivery “on the ground”. When Unionists in East Belfast turned away from Peter Robinson they had the choice of a well-respected, high-profile Unionist candidate in Trevor Ringland – yet they chose Alliance’s Naomi Long. They did so because of her nine years’ hard work for people “on the ground”. If a new coalition didn’t stand a chance against that, what chance a whole new party?

Fifthly, it will have to be administered – so it will need to recruit people with knowledge and experience of the legalities electoral returns, the practicalities of good corporate governance and the management of sound financial arrangements, as well as a willingness to risk a career move to a party not yet off the ground. Where are these people?

Finally, even after all this, you have to be sure you are offering something new to the electorate that no one else offers, while at the same time being broad enough to make you attractive to voters in sufficient numbers. If you are “Unionist”, what makes you different from the DUP? If you are “Republican” what makes you different from Sinn Fein? If you are for a “Shared Future”, what makes you different from the Alliance Party? If you are so sure your distinct approach and policies are capable of gaining widespread support among the electorate, why do you think none of the established parties is offering it?

It is not as if this has not happened before. 20 years ago, the “national” Conservatives were the largest party in North Down Council; 15 years ago, the “integrationist” UK Unionist Party briefly held as many legislative seats as the Alliance Party; 10 years ago, the “non-sectarian” Women’s Coalition held two Assembly seats; yet within an electoral cycle they had each lost all their elected representatives. They, alongside the UPNI, UDP, NIUP and others, all show how difficult it is without the membership base, the funds, the researchers, the reputation on the ground and the electoral knowledge. This is even more the case when the reason you exist loses relevance, or when a larger party adopts your position, or when a main rival sorts itself out. Why would a new party now be any different?

Who knows, perhaps it is time for a new party to appeal to one particular segment of the electorate or another. However, those on the sidelines must realise that establishing a new party is much easier called for than delivered. It is only possible when all the above questions can be satisfactorily answered. Can they, really?

Dunmurry High School closure an act of sabotage

April 25, 2012

I accept the need for more efficient public services and thus, in some cases, for school closures and such like. However, I cannot help but think that the closure of Dunmurry High School was nothing to do with efficiency and everything to do with pure, partisan and sectarian politics – an act of sabotage.

We may remember, first of all, that school “mergers” in the area have been going on for years, and the nearby Balmoral High School closed only four years ago. Pupils who would have gone there instead went to Dunmurry – which will now close. What hope is there for them? What does it say to them about the importance of education? What does it say to them about how the State cares?

The closure of Dunmurry High School then became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was announced that it would be looked at; parents feared the worst and many acted accordingly and withdrew children; thus the school closed. Many of those remaining were only not withdrawn because other schools were allegedly “at capacity” – yet now places seem magically to have been found. In an area of most obvious educational underachievement, the Department has mishandled the whole issue horribly.

For all Sinn Fein’s talk of tackling underachievement and specifying Protestant males as the most likely to underachieve, their actions tell us what they really think of it all. School after school is closing (or “merging”) precisely where the underachievement is most obvious – in other words, precisely where the investment needs to be put in, not taken out! We may recall that the next time they talk about it – when it comes to doing something about it, particularly in the State sector, the real facts are they couldn’t give a damn.

Who is responsible for PfG’s impractical targets?

March 18, 2012

Much has been made about how the Programme for Government sets out apparently easy targets – such as bringing a golf tournament to Northern Ireland that, behind the scenes, had already been secured.

However, my bigger concern on re-reading the final document is how many targets are utterly impractical.

Take the various jobs targets, for example. The only jobs a ‘government’ can actually create are in the public sector. The reductions in public spending mean, inevitably, that there are going to be fewer of those, not more. So how can the government set any practical target for jobs which will have to be created by the private sector?

To take a real-life example: neighbourhood renewal targets are based on the attainment of qualifications. Of course, the idea is that these qualifications will lead to jobs, and all the evidence suggests that, by and large, they greatly enhance job opportunities. However, you simply cannot set a reliable jobs target – there are too many other variables.

My real issue is not the targets themselves, however – perhaps some mathematical genius has done all the probability theorems and come up with a reliable figure! My real issue is accountability – who precisely is accountable for these targets?

I note several sources showing that 45% of targets in the last Programme for Government were missed – including pretty much all the economic ones. Who was accountable for this? If it is the fault of the ‘global slowdown’, where was the sensible economic advice upon which we could have based future projections taking account of likely turns of events globally?

Ultimately, this does again look like one rule for the ‘government’ and another for the rest of us. If we in the voluntary sector miss targets, we lose funding; if a businessperson misses targets, he is out of a job; if a referee at a major tournament misses targets, he is sent home. Does anyone know how that works in the public sector…?!

Cosmetic sports attendance can be good for us!

March 7, 2012

I watched with interest the debate around calls in An Phoblacht for a new approach to reconciliation, including “uncomfortable conversations”. Some believe, given the source of this call, that this is another fundamental shift forward in the process; others believe it is just cynical politics.

It is a little like the response to Peter Robinson’s attendance at a GAA game or Martin McGuinness’s at Windsor Park during the week. Is this just cosmetics?

I can understand why people would think so, but in fact I think it goes beyond cosmetics and sends a useful message to those of us engaged both in community relations and sport. I have long believed in this connection, and have been able to help deliver on it in some cases through my work with the Old Firm Alliance and, most recently, as a Director of the Belfast Community Sports Development Network (BCSDN).

BCSDN is a cross-community organisation that utilises sport to address pertinent social issues through the mediation of sport. aiming at having a positive impact on the regeneration of local communities within Belfast by organising and delivering initiatives addressing crime, employment, health and community relations – all while making participation fun!

At that ground level, it is in fact very helpful when political leaders take the steps the First and deputy First Minister have. In reality, it probably did not take too much for them to take the step, and perhaps it all was just “cosmetic” – but sometimes cosmetics count!

“The Achievement of Vision”

March 5, 2012

I attended the Alliance Party’s AGM on Saturday and was very grateful to be elected to the Party’s Executive for the next year. Excited as I was about that, there was another thing which particularly struck me about the meeting.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences when I say that one notable topic of conversation was the most basic one of all for political parties: why does a political party exist?

In Northern Ireland, we could be forgiven all too often for thinking that parties exist to win elections. I would go so far as to suggest that most parties here do think that is why they exist!

The answer was perhaps best summed up by the “Achievement of Vision” – in the Alliance Party’s case, a more integrated, more prosperous and more sustainable Northern Ireland. It has the added bonus of being positive. I look forward to playing a small role in trying to implement it!

A Shared Future is for life, not just for Christmas

February 10, 2012

Michael Bower makes the point more succinctly, but here is what I would have written!

I of course welcome Johnny Andrews’ theoretical commitment to a Shared Future, but I would welcome it rather more if he showed any political nous and real-world experience to make it happen in practice. Sitting around discussing the theory of it is all very well, but I have been doing it on the ground in one of our most marginalised communities for almost a decade, and the practice is rather different.

Firstly, Johnny and his colleagues are consistent in their public view that sectarian attacks would suddenly cease, peace walls would suddenly fall and reconciliation would magically happen if only we had a nice glossy government strategy to say so. It is this sort of detached thinking which sadly typifies too much of the community relations debate, and in fact harms the prospect of a real Shared Future in practice.

Secondly, his attack on the Alliance Party shows a complete lack of awareness of the real world of Northern Ireland politics. It is quite difficult to deliver on anti-sectarian policies when there are four larger parties dedicated to continuing to see everything through a sectarian prism. Despite this, from the first integrated school 30 years ago to a policy on integrated teacher training now, the Alliance Party has delivered in practice against the odds.

Thirdly, a “Shared Future” requires leadership within Northern Ireland on behalf of all the people in all their diversity. The notion that a party which defines “mainstream politics” as “English politics” and which is so devoid of local Leaders that it had to import a millionaire peer from the Home Counties to publicise its relaunch can provide that kind of leadership, across the divide and in marginalised communities here, is frankly laughable.

The lesson of the past few years, one accepted by increasing numbers of people, is that there is only one party capable of thinking and feeling for all the people of Northern Ireland and leading change towards a Shared Future in practice on the ground. That party is the Alliance Party, and if Johnny were genuinely serious about a Shared Future, he would sign up!