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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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