As I discovered before Christmas, Northern Ireland political party conferences are funny affairs. The most enthusiastic members turn up to listen, applaud, vote (generally en masse), pick up a stash of free pens, chat to old friends and eat. I imagine that most go away quite tired, feeling good about their party but not having changed their minds on many policy matters.
It is obvious that the arrival of the media – in particular, live streaming on BBC News website – has sharpened up conference time keeping and changed the agendas to talk to the people outside the conference hall as much as the people inside.
Members of the Alliance Party followed their traditional route this morning and turned up in bigger numbers than normal at the Dunadry Hotel outside Templepatrick.
Arriving late, as I pulled off the main road and up in towards the hotel, I was greeted by cars parked in the verge on both sides of the lane, the overflow from a packed hotel car park.
During David Ford’s leader’s speech, the main conference auditorium was packed, with every seat filled by delegates and interested stall holders from the exhibition areas. There were a fair number of younger faces in the audience.
The leader’s speech was really the sandwich between a set of motions that the conference was debating.
- Climate change – demanding that world leaders try harder after the failure of the Copenhagen Conference
- Young people not in education, employment or training – calling on the Departments of Employment and Learning to partner with the Department of Education to address the fifth of 16–24 year olds not in education, employment or training.
- Criminal justice system – reducing offending and making prisons about rehabilitation and not just security, as well as building a shared future
- Afghanistan – calling for coherent plan for withdrawal within one year
- Drugs policy – wanting a new NI drugs strategy based n evidence rather than fear
- Kickstarting NI’s economy – which included tackling the billion+ pounds wasted annually on providing services to a segregated society
The mood of the conference seemed upbeat and confident. David Ford’s speech – at nearly 40 minutes long, perhaps it should have been described as a lecture – ticked a lot of boxes. Update - You can now watch it on the BBC website. Also check out Mr Ulster's blog posts and videos of the speeches.
He referred back to the party’s beginnings and its early members, including Oliver Napier and Bob Cooper.
“Just forty years ago this year, a group of people had a dream. They came up with the ludicrous idea that politics in Northern Ireland should not be dominated by division, but should be about co-operation, partnership and reconciliation. The sceptics had a field day.
How could such a naïve bunch of do-gooders have any prospect of success? The notion of overcoming tribal politics was preposterous. Commentators generally predicted that a party founded on such principles could not survive a single election.
They were wrong. Alliance stands here today as a mature party, confident and capable, determined to play a part in transforming Northern Ireland. Out vision and our values have stood the test of time. We are more relevant today than we have been for many years.”
He paid tribute to elected representatives, in particular drawing attention to the four Alliance councillors in Castlereagh. Lagan Valley’s Trevor Lunn was thanked for his role in chairing the four party talk on “the transfer procedure debacle” while the party’s deputy leader Naomi Long was singled out as “the epitome of what a public representative should be”.
Commenting on the dissident attack on Constable Peadar Heffron just a few miles from the hotel, Ford reflected on the reasons why he was targeted.
“First, because he is a police officer and second, because he is exactly the sort of police officer this community needs: a Catholic, an Irish speaker, a Gaelic player. Today, on behalf of this party, I wish Peadar and his colleagues well and salute the courage of every member of the Police Service.”
Ford also led his audience on a short bus tour of stately buildings.
“I was in Parliament Buildings for the talks of 1991 and 1992, I know Lancaster House and Dublin Castle, I have been to Weston Park and Leeds Castle, I have been to St Andrews and flown home from RAF Leuchars, I know every corridor in Block B of Castle Buildings. I am fed up with such travel and meetings.”
He demanded leadership from local parties.
“The largest parties still expect to be mollycoddled by governments. If parties were really showing leadership, we would see action in Stormont, by politicians elected to Stormont, to solve the problems at Stormont.”
Reckoning that politics was in a deepening crisis, Ford suggested:
“We are not just in a crisis over the devolution of justice, or the regulation of parades. We are in a crisis because the parties in the Executive have no shared vision, no shared values and no plans for a shared future.
Last March, in the wake of three murders, we saw the First Minister and Deputy First Minster stand together with the Chief Constable.
The problem was that they stood together because of what they were against, not because of what they were for.”
Looking forward to the Westminster election, there was hope. Party Executive Director Gerry Lynch trying his hand in the East Antrim constituency. No matter what happens to the other parties, Stephen Farry will run in North Down:
“... a constituency that sharply points up the inconsistencies of the pact between the Conservatives and the UUP. We have recently seen our vote in that area start to grow again and can be cautiously optimistic about Stephen’s chances in a field with up to four unionists.”
Anna Lo will be back in South Belfast. And Deborah Girvan – joint owner of a certain home heating oil company I’ll not being doing business with again – is standing in Strangford where she may be “seen as a very positive alternative to the various shades of unionism”.
Having celebrated the talents of Naomi Long ...
“I believe that Naomi’s political career is not going to end on the opposition benches at Stormont and that there are significant opportunities ahead. I know that both DUP and UUP members are frightened of her in the context of the coming elections and they have every reason to be.”
... Ford went on to talk about her East Belfast constituency. While there hasn’t yet been an official selection meeting, it was obvious that Naomi’s name is very much in the frame.
“East Belfast is now wide open: it is now a classic two horse race between a faltering DUP and a resurgent Alliance. Look at the Assembly election. Naomi was just behind the DUP leader, with the UUP leader a distant third and nationalists trailing further behind. This could well be our best opportunity since Oliver Napier came within 1,000 votes of beating Peter Robinson in 1979 and I know we have an excellent team capable of pulling it off this time.”
The 1979 General Election result in East Belfast was nearly a three way tie, with the DUP’s Peter Robinson winning by 64 votes over the UUP’s William Craig (15,994 vs 15,930) with Alliance’s Oliver Napier in third place with 15,066 votes. Psephologists might point out that former party leader John Alderdice got an even higher percentage of the vote in the 1987 General Election in the same seat coming second with 32% of the vote, but 9798 votes down on Peter Robinson. But then the names of John Alderdice, Ian Parsley and perhaps even Seamus Close seem far from the minds and lips of the party faithful these days.
Much later in his speech, Ford stretched his hope further:
“This year, there is a real chance of change, at least in East Belfast, but maybe elsewhere too. Just imagine the effect that the election of an Alliance MP or two would have.”
Ford saw potential for Policing and Justice to be like previous issues (eg, 11+, independent environment protection agency) facing the Executive “when agreement was not reached in advance and individual ministers did not agree with the majority of their Executive colleagues”.
“That is why, 18 months ago, we very specifically refused the suggestion that we should provide a Minister who would have no real role, no powers, no influence. There has been a continuing media storm about who the Minister might be and we have continued to say, on every occasion in every way possible, that the issue is about policy, not personality.
Of course, I am ambitious for Alliance. Of course, I believe an Alliance Minister could be relied on to do a good job, a fair job, an impartial job as Minister in the Department of Justice, or any other Department ...
It is immensely flattering to have people suggest that an Alliance Minister would be the best option to ensure smooth devolution of justice.”
Party insiders seemed clear that if the Ministry of Policing and Justice eventually ended up with the Alliance Party, they would be able to internally agree to take it, and that party leader David Ford would take on the role rather than any other party colleagues.
Ford scolded the UUP for holding two seats in the “dysfunctional Executive” while “allowing its backbenchers to indulge in cheap attacks” on the DUP. He welcomed the possibility that the secret talks had included the Conservative leadership telling the UUP “to start to be less negative and work with others to bring about stability”. However, he felt that was not the entire agenda.
The Tory claim “to be non-sectarian and progressive” was undermined by “the way they need to highlight the role of Catholics – like women in their organisation”. And “talk of unionist pacts and realignments with the DUP” would mean that “claims of non-sectarian progressive politics are sunk without trace”.
Leaving his pre-printed speech, Ford added:
“Now is the time to join us as we do prioritise progressive non-sectarian politics.”
Both SDLP leadership candidates got a light bashing, but the DUP and UUP picked up the main wrath. The TUV didn’t get a mention in the entire speech.
“Faced with the behaviour of the UUP and SDLP, it seems there are really only three coherent positions in local politics. The DUP holds the unionist territory, Sinn Fein holds the field of nationalism and Alliance stands firmly on the ground of the anti-sectarian centre, of a shared future for all our citizens, regardless of their background or beliefs.”
Looking forward to the seemingly inevitable intervention of British and Irish governments in the collapsed Policing and Justice negotiations:
“Frankly, calling in the Governments is asking for a figleaf to cover the embarrassment of doing the deal that they have known for a long time must be done. It is not just on environmental grounds that I hate the sight of helicopters on the Stormont lawn, but it may be necessary again.”
Ford’s speech ended with a kissing babies moment when he left the hall carrying his grandchild.
Being a mobile dead-zone, word of Gerry Adams’ statement following the meeting of Sinn Féin’s Ard Chomhairle would have taken time to filter through to the Alliance conference for reaction. However, the main topic of conversation between delegates all day was the implication of the talks between the DUP an UCUNF.
Overall, there were few surprises from the sessions I sat in on and the other speeches I read through. It’s obvious that as a party they are grappling with the issues around the criminal justice system and would not walk into the Justice Ministry as naïve novices.
It’s difficult to be sure, but the members attending did seem to be mostly from a middle class / professional background. And there’s a definite trend towards eccentricity. (That’s a very positive thing in my book!)
There was a trend towards talking about unionism rather than nationalism. It felt like a lot more time and effort was going into analysing the UUP and DUP viewpoints – and perhaps seeking to attract their voters – than Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Which I found strange, as surely the SDLP cast a shadow and an opportunity on the centre ground that Alliance hold so dearly?
But people were kind and hospitable – lunch was good – and there was an atmosphere of determination laced with hope that as a party they will make a difference.