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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…


Focus on Sinn Fein

June 3, 2013

I was happy to attend the Sinn Fein Youth Congress in March as someone who has been a community worker in what would commonly be called a “PUL” area for ten years; as a member of the Alliance Party; but most of all as a mother of two children. The topic was “reconciliation”.

The first step to what is generally called “reconciliation”, I think, is to recognize the last of those designations. We have become too used to dismissing other human beings. It is too easy to ignore someone else’s view simply because of that person’s label – “Unionist”, “Republican”, “British” or whatever. Of course, we all have our backgrounds, but the legitimacy of our views – however challenging – must be determined objectively and rationally on merit, not on the assumed label of the speaker. That does not mean that all views are equally legitimate – some, on rational reflection, have more merit than others. But it does mean that everyone has an equal right to express one!

I do wonder about the word “reconciliation”. Were we ever truly “conciled”? We grow up with our identities, they are not generally rationally chosen. None of that makes our identity any less real, of course. Every national identity is conditioned by upbringing in this way – it is just that, in Northern Ireland, we have two prime national identities rather than one. The notion that Republicans are merely guests in “British Ulster”, or that Unionists are Irish people who just got confused a bit, needs to be consigned absolutely to history. The constitutional question, and dealing with the past and working through all the other things which we tend to divide upon along the usual sectarian fault lines, cannot and will not be settled by emotional arguments suggesting people are not who they are! If we are to be “conciled”, we need to accept and indeed even rejoice in our unusual status as a jurisdiction with two principal national identities. And let us be clear, we will support Rory McIlroy in the Olympics just as we supported the rower Alan Campbell and the boxer Paddy Barnes – whether or not we share their chosen national identity, we do share their homeland! It is worth reflecting on that point.

What should “Loyalists” do and what should “Republicans” do to “concile”? Loyalists – by which I mean people who live in majority-Protestant, inner-city communities with typically poor levels of education and health – have suffered from very poor political leadership from the main Unionist parties (something which perhaps explains both my decision to join and my decision to leave the UUP). This concerns a range of areas, notably education, but it also includes the fact that they have come scarcely to recognize the country they live in. The constant refrain that this is “our country” – by which they mean a “British (and really Loyalist) country”, does not do justice to the intertwined nature of our relationships, nor to the dual national identity that we all signed up to (including the so-called “Loyalist” parties) in 1998. Loyalists have to come to terms with the fact “our country” includes Loyalists, Unionists, Protestants and British people – but not exclusively! In fact, for this to be “our country”, they have to find an accommodation with all those with whom they share a homeland. We are citizens of the same homeland – equal citizens.

However, you should be under no illusions that the path for “Republicans” is just as challenging. My family lived under security threats from “Republicans”, like many others. My father’s “offence” was that he was a businessman trying to make our homeland work! I suspect most of you would accept that was ludicrous. So, take that a bit further and ask yourselves this – if the Enniskillen bombing was wrong, which parts of that campaign were “right”?

That does not mean the “Loyalist” and “Republican” traditions are all or even mainly bad. On the contrary, part of the healing process should be restoring the strong points of each. Loyalists do have a proud military and industrial heritage, notably in World War One and around shipbuilding and other manufacturing. Of course, they fought alongside friends and relatives from every part of Ireland; and their manufacturing effort included their Catholic and Republican fellow countrymen. Republicans derive from an enlightened, cross-community political tradition based on notions of citizenship and freedom which are sharply at odds from the ethnic nationalism so-called “Republicans” too often promote. Daily, I seek to find ways to help young Loyalists focus on the prouder, inclusive aspects of their heritage. Here, I would ask you, as young Republicans, also to focus on the prouder, inclusive aspects of your heritage. Many people most “loyal” to the cause in World War One were Irish Catholics; many “Republican” leaders prior to that were Protestant. So why is it that essentially no modern “Republicans” are Protestant? Whatever it is that has gone wrong, on each side, can be put right. But first we have to identify, and accept, what went wrong.

In closing, I am not here representing the Alliance Party but I would like to say a few words about it. In the past three months, our party membership has grown by more than 10%, the fastest growth since foundation. Naturally this is welcome, but it dramatically changes the party – as people who are openly “Unionist” and openly “Nationalist” choose to join the party in the interests of a “shared future”. This changes us – it moves us away from being a party of the “neither” or “none” to the party of the “both” and “all”. Where once the Alliance Party was a default home for those who rejected “Unionism” and “Nationalist”, it now incorporates them. That will be a challenge – the “change challenge” – as the party comes to assess issues of identity, symbolism and so on in a way it had never done before.
The Alliance Party stands for a “Shared Future”. This does mean “equality”, “parity of esteem”, “reconciliation” and so on – but it also means judging people on merit, incorporating a sense of fair play, not being afraid to reward hard work and efficiency, even promoting a dose of good old common sense! A “Shared Future” – and indeed “parity of esteem”, “reconciliation” and “equality” – is the precise opposite of “Nationalism”. “Nationalism” seeks to promote the values and interests of one particular “nation” (or, in our case, “community”), in the worst case suggesting these are superior to another nation’s or community’s and even in the best case suggesting they can be “equalized” with those of another nation in a way always bound to create instability. A “Shared Future”, on the other hand, seeks to promote the values and interests of everyone, as equal citizens of the same homeland. So here is your “change challenge” – are the values of Irish Republicanism, in its traditional form, more adequately represented by the narrow interests of “Nationalism” or the broad interests of a “Shared Future”? I think it’s the latter!

Finally, therefore, my own work is to broaden the appeal of Loyalism – as once the focal point of an outward-looking industrial and trading heritage; and to broaden the appeal of a “Shared Future” – to incorporate rather than reject people’s various identities. If you could broaden the appeal of Republicanism, and make its past as an outward-looking, radical, civic tradition more relevant to the future, I think that future will be very bright.

OFMDFM “Shared Future” proposals do not reflect modern NI

May 17, 2013

In the latest “Together Building a United Community” proposals from OFMDFM there remains very little detail, but also a particular concern that a “united community” concerns only bringing together “Protestants” and “Catholics”. This does not reflect the reality of modern Northern Ireland.

Firstly, modern Northern Ireland, not least in inner-city areas, is also home to recent immigrants from other countries and to people who simply cannot be reasonably identified as “Protestant” or “Catholic”. Implicit in what little we have seen of the proposals is that people who do not neatly fit into one “side” or the other should be forgotten about. This simply does not reflect the contemporary situation.

Secondly, there is more to the issue than faith. For example, not only is the sectarian divide reinforced by the education system, but so is the class divide – is there any chance of agreement on education reform? Health inequalities continue as a marker of social and economic disparities – is there any chance of a serious anti-poverty strategy? There are often rivalries merely between neighbourhoods. Segregation exists along many more lines that the “traditional” ones. What have the proposals to say about all of this?

A serious set of “Shared Future” proposals would pay a lot more attention to the reality of the present. There is a lot of positive work going on in community relations, but the challenge is to bring people together in a “united community” from all sorts of backgrounds, not just along a single dividing line. That is the objective – can our political leaders rise to it?

“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?

To reduce tensions, just tell the truth!

January 23, 2013

Sinn Fein’s recent call for a ‘Border Poll’ in three years is outside the terms of the 1998 Agreement, and is every bit as inflammatory as the delivery of leaflets targeting the Alliance Party on false grounds. Like those leaflets, it constitutes a deliberate attempt at raising tensions for an unattainable goal within this time-frame, causing untold harm by so doing. The fundamental problem is that politicians on either “side” of the sectarian divide are simply not telling people the truth!

Sinn Fein is, of course, democratically entitled to campaign for a Border Poll and there would be nothing at all wrong with a rational debate about it. However, anyone with even the remotest comprehension of Northern Ireland knows perfectly well that, if such a debate were held ahead of a referendum right now, it would be anything but rational. That is why the conditions required for the so-called “Border Poll” were so rigidly enshrined within the 1998 Agreement; conditions which state that there has to be evidence that it would lead to a change. No such evidence exists.

On 3 December, for the first time in the history of Ireland, Irish Republicans voted to fly the Union Flag over a Civic Building in line with the Crown’s own recommendations and in line with local authorities across the UK. That is what actually happened – think about this for a second! But how rational was the “debate” which followed? How should “confident Unionism” have responded to this obvious triumph?

Northern Ireland remains a fundamentally divided society. People’s choices – educationally, socially, politically and even constitutionally – remain more often than not conditioned by their “background”. Whenever that background is perceived to be under threat, however real that threat may be, there is potential for disruption and even violence. Sinn Fein proposing a three-year campaign at this time appears to confirm the fears of so many of the protestors that the “spectre” of a United Ireland is looming – even when, rationally, we know that it isn’t.

Any parent would know that the real issues we face are jobs, not flags; education, not symbols; health, not street names. Yet children are allowed out to block roads night after night, depriving themselves of training and education, and risking a criminal record. This is not the rational thing to do – but in the history of Northern Ireland, it is what happens when fear enters a community which perceives itself to be under threat.

To be clear, some Unionist Leaders are hardly helping matters with the suggestion that a return to the old days – in general, or specifically through things such as 365-day flag flying – is an option. We have seen this through, for example, the DUP bringing this to the Assembly Commission at Stormont – also at the height of recent tensions. To overcome the fear, change towards a better Northern Ireland has to be promoted, not manipulated. One of the biggest frustrations in inner-city, majority-Protestant communities is quite simply that people are not being told the truth!

Far from suggesting constitutional change is nigh, the census in fact suggests people are becoming ever more content with a “Northern Irish” identity, and that the key priority for politicians should not be inflaming tensions over flags or mock campaigns for “Border Polls”, but actually tackling the real issues around jobs, education and health that are most people’s daily focus. If politicians were to deliver tens of thousands of leaflets demanding better educational facilities, or calling for local polls on health provision, this would be a mark of a truly functioning, democratic society – this would remove the fear which is so much in evidence on the streets currently.

There is no justification for a single road to be blocked, but we should be clear: one of the reasons for the on-going protests is the straightforward point that too many politicians are not doing their job and people feel they do not know who to trust. Now, more than ever, we need politicians prepared to stop raising false expectations and instead to tell the people they represent the truth!

My reaction to the weekend’s shennanigans…

August 27, 2012

I am the very proud mother of two children – an elder son, and a younger daughter. The age gap is nearly three years.

Soon after my daughter was born, my son was able to walk in and out of her room more or less as he pleased. After all, it is his house and it is his right. No one was worried because he caused no trouble and no damage, certainly not deliberately.

In later years, as any parent of children of different genders knows, this began to change. He began deliberately intervening when her friends were around; he began deliberately obstructing her from doing what she wanted to do; he began, frankly, being a bit of a nuisance sometimes. Inevitably this led to a situation where I, as both children’s mother, had to adjudicate on this childish behaviour. I had to determine whether his protestations of innocence were genuine; I had to determine whether she was over-stating the problem; I had to determine what the appropriate bounds of his entering her room would be. There was no doubt that he still had every right to do so, even theoretically when he was not wanted, but not if he was setting out deliberately to cause her offence or nuisance.

I seriously doubt, by the way, that every one of my own determinations was fair. There are no doubt times when I allowed him to cause nuisance for too long; there are also no doubt times she over-reacted and I was too hard on him; but in the end, someone had to determine these things and do so, on the basis of experience, as fairly as possible.

Needless to say this was another weekend when I had to determine whether his initial actions were appropriate: whether he had breached rules I had previously laid down for him; whether she had over-reacted; and what penalty if any would be appropriate. As any parent knows, it is not easy. While I admit I may not always get it right, I would not appreciate some outsider intervening on behalf of either child and suggesting that someone else should make these determinations!

I should note that, on the vast majority of occasions, they do behave reasonably; most of the time they get on perfectly well in her room, watching videos or playing games. If they behaved reasonably all the time, there would be no need for me to make any determinations at all. As they get older, the need for me to intervene becomes more infrequent. Nevertheless, the simple fact remains that until they reach full maturity, my adjudications are still sometimes needed as a last resort, when there is no agreement between them.

Good to see Elected Mayors widely rejected

May 5, 2012

My reasoning for opposing Elected Mayors during the week was specific to Northern Ireland, but nevertheless I was pleased to see them largely rejected in England.

The whole campaign smacks, as too often, of politicians trying to solve problems which none of the voters actually believes to exist. No one could explain how an elected mayor would help pay the mortgage, help secure the nursery place, or help fund the MS drug a family member desperately needs. Because, of course, it wouldn’t.

Such reforms were part of the Conservatives’ attempts to look modern. They have actually merely contributed to the Conservatives looking detached. This was why I was so staggered to hear Dawn Purvis was on against me on the subject!

Let’s get on to the real issues.