It’s a small party in comparison with the big four (or even the big five), and it won’t get much coverage beyond a few minutes in weekend news bulletins and a report on Sunday’s The Politics Show. But perhaps there’s merit in listening to what the smaller groups have to say?
With the resolutions and motions behind her (including that one), the sessions about restorative justice and education digested, and Denis Bradley’s input carefully listened to, Dawn Purvis closed the PUP’s annual conference with her leader’s address.
For Dawn Purvis it was a year where the peace process moved forward but the Executive didn’t. A year where the UVF and Red Hand Commandos had completed decommissioning and the UDA had made a positive start. A year where “the criminal murders of Sappers Quinsey and Azimkar and of Constable Carroll could have derailed the process”.
She quickly moved to the challenge of “dealing with the past”.
“In order to build a peaceful and stable future we must deal with the issue of our conflicted past ... Loyalism needs ... to get their story out there, to write the agenda, to listen to, and answer those who ask questions in order to meet the needs of a society crying out to move on.”
“People are not born bad, nor did paramilitaries parachute in or land in a rocket from another planet but if you listen to some in the media and some political parties you get no sense of the social, political or economic context in which the conflict took place. You get no sense of the poverty, the slums that passed for houses, the sectarian rants and rabble-rousing politicians ...”
“We cannot allow a one-sided narrative to explain the causes of the conflict in Northern Ireland and we need to get to the point where we recognise and acknowledge the diversity of experiences from the last thirty or more years.”
Turning to the Consultative Group on the Past:
“[they] did a pretty good job of providing us with their honest assessment of what was possible. The ensuing debate over the recommendation for a recognition payment was unfortunate.”
“And whilst I understand the thinking behind the recommendation and I agree with the sentiment I think recognition or acknowledgement comes at the end of a process when you have been presented with evidence or knowledge that there are different experiences of the conflict, but that all hurt is the same. I think at the start of a process people are poles apart.”
She welcomed the efforts of the First and Deputy First Ministers “to secure an acceptable financial package for the devolution of policing and justice” but went on to challenge them:
”Now get on with it!”
Like nearly all the speakers at the party conference, upcoming elections weren’t far from Dawn Purvis’ mind.
“I have a message for the DUP and Sinn Fein – if you engage in out-oranging or out-greening your opponents as part of an election campaign then you make their message relevant and heighten tensions in the community. You need to move away from the politics of fear.”
“Wake up to sectarianism!”
She touched on the inefficient departments with education “split between two”, “planning spread over three departments” and “five departments responsible for some aspect of our economy”. But she was less keen to cut the number of Assembly members (something that was brought up at the recent ill-fated Assembly Roadshow in East Belfast):
“The DUP are arguing that we have too many MLAs at an unnecessary cost to the public. Yet they are the party holding the most multiple mandates.”
“... any reduction in Assembly members below 100 means that it fails to be representative of the whole community. We loose women representatives, we loose the smaller parties and independents – effectively the only opposition that exists in there at the moment. So their policies are about making politics exclusive.”
The speech finished with an articulation of the PUP’s vision:
“A society at peace with itself and its neighbours, where people can live together, go to school together, work together and socialise together. A society that celebrates diversity, promotes human rights and equality and looks after its most vulnerable citizens. We are not idealists but we do have imagination and we do know what can happen when people work together for every section of our divided society.”
While it went on an hour longer than timetabled, for me attending the PUP conference in the capacity of a blogger was an interesting and thought-provoking experience. Conference delegates were more varied than the party’s loyalist working class roots, and the party policies looked beyond their heartland to see vulnerable groups across Northern Ireland. No one and no where seemed out of bounds. Education schemes in Short Strand were celebrated, Denis Bradley was warmly welcomed, and gate-crashing bloggers even got printed copies of the main speeches!