Colleagues, Friends, I am honoured to address you all here today at the 43rd SDLP Conference.
We are gathered for our conference in the middle of a challenging three year election cycle and a talks process which we hope will get us out of political gridlock:
I want to talk to you today about:
a fairer Society;
a more productive Economy
and a New SDLP poised for Government in the 21st century.
Let’s be frank here today friends, expectations for the current talks are very low. When I talk to people in their communities, in their homes, their sports halls and in their workplace. People want the Assembly to work, they want Stormont to work, they want Government Ministers to work together. People want the Assembly to deliver; they want change for the better; change that they can rely on. But it isn’t happening. As things stand Sinn Fein and the DUP do not, cannot and will not work constructively together. We don’t have partnership Government – we have a self-serving partisan gridlock.
So look beyond the nuts and bolts of what these talks are about, because no matter what the agenda is if there is no willingness to work together then real agreement won’t happen.
So what are we bringing to the Talks, you might well ask? In the talks, we are putting peoples real needs first. We have listened to you and hundreds of others across the country. We know what you want us to do; where you want us to get to.
You have told us that you:
• Want a comprehensive settlement of all the outstanding issues
• Want to fix the broken Stormont system
• Want N.I. to work and create prosperity
• Want us to make it work for all our people
• Want to make it work at maximum efficiency so that we deliver opportunities for all our people — particularly our young people
The SDLP approach is built on putting the real needs of the people above party interest and that has been, is now and always will be our approach. We are sharing our analysis of where positive changes can be made to the way Stormont works, within the structures of the Good Friday Agreement. We have ensured that the Irish Government is fully re-engaged with the process, from day one. We are promoting partnership in Government where others are pointing their fingers. We are putting forward credible solutions where other parties list their problems. When the DUP said No to having the Irish Government located in Parliament Buildings at Stormont, it was a farce because the Irish Government met with the SDLP and other parties in Parliament Buildings within a few hours – we made room for them. Minister Charlie Flanagan and his team are welcome in Stormont, and they are very welcome to stay there for as long as they need.
In the talks we are asking the other parties and the 2 governments to return to the principles of the Haass Talks on the past, on parades and on flags – where a reasonable compromise was reached last New Year’s eve. As long as those key issues remain unresolved they will poison and further destabilize the political system and hold back our whole society. The models for resolution are in place, but they require a major degree of goodwill, genuine partnership and honorable compromise in order to achieve a lasting solution.
Where are the leaders in Unionism who will attempt to see the parading problem in north Belfast through the eyes of beleaguered residents? When will everyone agree on a method to deal with the Past that keeps the needs of victims and survivors at its heart?
I can reassure you that the SDLP will stay in the Talks as long as agreement is possible, exploring every opportunity for a positive outcome. We will reach out and cooperate with others on all the issues of genuine public concern and public need for change. If other parties share our aspiration then all the better, we will work with them to deliver a common agenda.
Conference, in the talks there is some focus on the structures of Government – and how it could be improved on. As things stand there is no official role for an opposition within the Stormont structures. We will argue for a properly structured opposition to be put in place in future years, resourced, allowed proper space and time on the floor of the Assembly, allocated a share of Assembly staff support and places on committees.
In the meantime if other Parties don’t get to grips with their responsibilities, and we can’t settle on an agreed way forward then we will reserve the right to operate from a position of constructive opposition. The Present structures do not stop us from opposing bad legislation or from highlighting the flaws and the problems with the two bigger parties. Nor do they stop us from saying ‘No’.
No – we will not be part of a broken and politically bankrupt Executive if it doesn’t get its act together. But opposition cannot simply be a one day wonder, where we walk away, and adopt some sort of abstentionist role that would only result in even more Ministerial seats more authority and more power to do damage being handed to the problem parties.
Opposition has to have clearer definition and serve the public interest it is however an option we will reserve, we will review and we will evaluate on an ongoing basis.
The Talks agenda has been weighed down with the latest budgetary problems, which go way beyond the penalties imposed by failure to agree welfare reform. We have all known that the severe cuts we are now grappling with have been heading our way since 2011. Why was there no long term planning by the two problem parties the DUP and Sinn Fein? Why in 2014 do we have a crisis around a growing budgetary problem that we have known about for the last 4 years?
The SDLP – In dealing with The Budget will put people’s needs first. We will work for a fair budget that has maximum impact on job creation and Growth and sets out to rebalance the Economy. Our idea of a good Budget is one that focuses on creating jobs, improving Health Care and provides Better Education opportunities for our children. We don’t accept anyone’s financial figures without question, whether it’s George Osborne or Simon Hamilton.
We will set up our own think tank of the best financial Brains we can muster locally to dissect the Budget and produce creative alternatives. Where are the creative and progressive ideas going to come from if we in the SDLP don’t generate them?
The economic anxiety that affects all of us is particularly worrying in the North West
There is a deep sense in the North West of a regional imbalance in inward investment projects. The SDLP will work with local Business interests in the North West and take appropriate economic Initiatives to tackle the particular economic difficulties faced in Derry; Strabane and Omagh. We will set up Local working groups to tackle the significant Economic Challenges in The North West. We will find solutions to the problems and implement those solutions.
In May this year we fielded a great slate of council candidates across the North standing alongside an experienced team of good SDLP Councillors Were many new young candidates who caught the imagination of the Public and were returned to help shape the new super councils.
Included among them we had more female candidates than ever before. While we didn’t win as many seats as we had hoped, we can take great satisfaction from the regeneration and renewal of the Party the people who stood for election this year are the future of this party, and the future of Ireland. I am confident that these new councillors at some stage in the near future will proudly take over the mantle of: John Hume; Seamus Mallon; Eddie McGrady; Austin Currie: Paddy Duffy and many others who risked everything for the ideals of Civil Rights; Peace; Social Justice; Economic prosperity and the right to live in an Ireland free from prejudice; sectarianism; and violence.
On the ground, in their council chambers, they like all elected SDLP representatives, are applying a simple formula which is:
putting people first;
putting peoples needs first;
putting peoples hopes first;
putting people’s dreams for their children first
I get an energy when I talk to these people and inspiration from their stories, about what they are doing in politics and what drove them to join the SDLP and motivated them to stand for election.
Today I am asking a group of these new young leaders to step forward and help draw up a strategy for growing our vote across the constituencies
Everyone has their own story but the principles and values are the same.
We are all here because we share a common ambition for our country – built on
A shared prosperity
A united people on the island of Ireland which accommodates all cultures, traditions, religions + beliefs
The SDLP continues as ever to have at its heart the vision of a New and United Ireland.
We have never changed that goal.
Neither have we changed our deeply held view that this goal can only be achieved by persuading the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland, from both communities, that this is the best way forward for them and their children.
We are not in the business of sectarianism, petty nationalism or militarism.
Republicanism, which should have been a term of inclusion, where all the children of the nation are treated equally regardless of politics, religion, race or opinion, has been sullied by those who would force their will on others, making it the mirror image of that under which we suffered so long.
The SDLP are solely in the business of persuasion and common decency. There can be no other pathway to the way ahead for NI.
The SDLP wants to build a New Ireland where understanding, equality, reconciliation and inclusion are principles we pass on confidently to our children and where the tyrannies of sectarianism, hatred and conflict are repulsive memories of what we have irrevocably consigned to the past.
In pursuing this the SDLP wants to create a vibrant forward and outward-looking society, which would devote all its energies to introducing progressive policies and programmes that would lead to sustainable economic prosperity and solid social security.
I am very proud of our Country and I am very ambitious for her.
Next year we will face into the Westminster elections, defending the three Parliamentary seats we hold and looking to continue growing our vote in other constituencies.
We will not get distracted by the advances of either Martin McGuinness or Mike Nesbitt, seeking pacts.
The SDLP will be standing candidates for election in every single constituency in the North, armed only with our excellent candidates and our progressive policies.
They won’t be based on sectarian selfish interests. I’m already fighting South Belfast with all of my energy and Mark Durkan has been doing the same in Derry and Margaret Ritchie in South Down.
If we weren’t here for today’s conference we would be out knocking doors, as we have been for the past few months in South Down, Foyle, and South Belfast.
In the Westminster Election Right Across N.I. we will reach out to —the voters and say.
‘Send us back to Westminster – so that we can continue to do a good job for you there.’
Working with my MP colleagues Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie we voted against the ravages of the Tory Cuts dressed up as welfare reform, while Sinn Fein were launching some pathetic online petitions. We stood up for the people of Palestine last month in supporting their campaign to recognise their statehood. We used the committee structures of the House of Commons to expose the hypocrisy of the On The Run letters.
Margaret Ritchie used her position on the EFRA Committee to be the sole voice putting the needs of Northern Irish farmers and fishermen first.
Mark Durkan on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and in the Chamber, continually represents the party’s long tradition in social justice and human rights.
On the NI Select Committee, I argue the case for local business and people.
We always put the people of Northern Ireland first – it’s the SDLP way.
So don’t think the SDLP will dilute our policies or our values in favour of a pact.
The SDLP policies and principles and values aren’t for sale.
Although most of the focus is on next year’s Westminster poll, we are also keeping an eye on the next Assembly election.
We may not have to wait to 2016. If there is a successful outcome in the Talks; it may need an early Assembly election to validate it.
But we need to examine why we are having these talks in the first place.
Seven years after the restoration of devolution, we still don’t have a credible stable functional Government in Stormont. We still have petty obstruction; argument; needling and dysfunction, instead of honest compromise and reasoned progress. In what other coalition Government would one Minister resort to courts to stop another Minister carrying out his job? When the petition of concern mechanism, designed to protect minority interests, becomes effectively a veto. I don’t need to list the examples of how Stormont is failing people,
Stormont is now a byword for blockage and failure. Is it any wonder that the majority of people are switched off by politics?
Our job is to persuade people to vote for real change, vote for something different, something better, and something that will work for them. Something that will put the real needs of all of the people of Northern Ireland first.
So in a 2016 Assembly election or 2015 if it comes sooner we will say to the public – these are our priorities, in healthcare; in job creation; in the economy; in education and across all policy areas. We will cost our proposals, we will show how they can be paid for, and we will ask for support; and we will ask people for votes to deliver a new and better agenda for Government.
We will develop a suite of proposals for Government that are so well grounded in common sense politics that they cannot be ground to a halt by the default “for and against” the Zero sum politics of Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Why can’t we pledge that we will freeze third level tuition fees for the lifetime of the next Assembly?
Why can’t we pledge that all cancer patients will get fair and reasonable access to the full range of life saving medicines that are available to patients over in Britain?
Why can’t we make a commitment that hard working families will get proper access to preschool place for their children on a fair and equal basis?
Why can’t we insure that development and investment is regionally balanced?
Why can’t we say that families will no longer have to pay for residential care for Granny or Granda?
Why can’t we give hope to young unemployed teachers by committing to reducing class sizes and opening new job opportunities for them?
There are parties and commentators who will say these objectives are undeliverable – why?
Successive Devolved Governments in Scotland are able to deliver a similar legislative programme which is socially just, targets social need, facilities economic growth and protects the vulnerable. Colleagues, it is not beyond our ability to look after the needs of our people in the same way. All we need is the Imagination and the commitment to make it happen We can do a much better job in Stormont than the DUP and Sinn Fein who have failed the public repeatedly through indecision and invective.
We have shown that through the actions and decisiveness of our Minister Mark H Durkan and before him Alex Attwood and before him Margaret Ritchie. As the party with responsibility for the Environment we made that work for the economy. We made bold decisions on planning for major projects. We protected the natural habitat in Fermanagh and elsewhere. We used our position within the Executive to promote better policies and quicker decisions.
We can deliver. In a much better way for the benefit of all who live here. That is our track record and that is our future promise.
In Dublin just a couple of weeks ago at a special SDLP lunch honouring the life of Dr. TK Whitaker, a man from Rostrevor, who is regarded as one of the great architects of modern Ireland, I said:
• If the past teaches us anything it is that, without proper structures and planning for the future we will be doomed to repeat past mistakes. This is the lesson to be taken from TK Whitaker who over a half century ago was wise enough to see the stagnation of past argument and to realise that the future was about how best to positively use the vital resource of the nation, which was then, and is now, her young people.
The SDLP has always and will always stand with the people for stability, peace, social and economic justice and the common good. It should be remembered that the overwhelming majority of people from both communities in Northern Ireland held and continue to hold these ideals and refused to be part of the lunacy that threatened to drive us all into civil war.
These people are still there and will still give their vote to achieve our objectives if we can show them we are capable of implementing these policies on their behalf.
However, we must ask them individually for that vote.
Conference, today I have set out a new vision for our Party
• How we can create better politics for NI
• How we can build a fairer economy built on the peoples principles with no one left behind.
• How we can create a New SDLP built on our proud legacy but looking to a new generation who can – and will – make NI a better place
Together if we do all this we can restore people’s faith in politics and get Government working again.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh