Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, to Annual Conference, 3 November 2007
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Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), at the SDLP annual conference in the Armagh City Hotel, Armagh, (Saturday 3 November 2007)
"I want to begin this afternoon by directly addressing the speculation that surrounds this SDLP Conference. For some members, all the talk is causing concern. For others, confusion. Some of you look apprehensive, troubled even. More appear uncertain and unsettled. Unsure about how itís all going to finish up, or when. Let me reassure each and every one of you: the rumours are not true. I am not planning to follow David Cameronís lead by speaking without a script. I have a speech and it has a beginning, a middle and - youíll be relieved to hear - an end.
Now, I know it canít be easy for local members to accept that the SDLP Conference has made it back to Armagh before Sam Maguire. But for all of us, it is with pride and purpose that we return this weekend to the Newry & Armagh constituency.
A heartland that gave us Seamus Mallon, John Fee and so many others who should be proud of the service they have given - not just to the party or to this constituency, but to their country.
That now gives us Dominic Bradley. An Assembly member of the highest calibre. Who, as Education Spokesperson, has shown just how passionately he cares about ensuring that every child in our society gets the start in life they deserve.
We especially remember our former Party Vice-Chair and Constituency Chair here in Newry & Armagh, Mary McKeown. Whose bubbly presence and heart-warming laugh are sorely missed by so many of us, particularly this weekend. Whether it was at annual conference or at party meetings, Mary always served to enliven, enthuse and entertain. Her commitment to this party never failed to inspire. While Mary McKeown was a true one-off, this party needs more like her.
The last few years have been bruising for us all. Weíve learned the hard way that reward does not necessarily flow from vindication. While we can claim the high moral ground having won all the arguments, the bottom line is we have lost electoral ground.
So: what are we going to do about it?
Are we going to give up or are we going to step up?
Will we roll our eyes to the skies, despondent because politics is unforgiving and, at times, unrewarding? Or will we raise our sights to the horizon of a new Ireland, determined that the SDLP will be at its heart?
Do we have it in us to stand up for what we believe in? A fair and just society. An honest, accountable democracy. A vibrant, enterprising economy. An inclusive, prosperous society. Safer, stronger communities. A peaceful, truly shared future. A better Ireland.
Do we have the courage, the commitment, the character to fight for our values and our vision?
Have we confidence in our purpose and conviction in our principles?
For those who question our resolve in the face of challenge, I have just two words: Margaret Ritchie.
In spite of threats; up against out-of-hand chauvinism and underhand chicanery; under fierce pressure, Margaret has held a firm line for decency and democracy. She has shown herself to be a political leader of deep integrity, great energy and sound judgment. This has rightly won her respect and admiration across the board.
We are deeply proud of Margaret. Not just for her refusal to indulge paramilitary lawlessness at the taxpayersí expense. She brings equal determination to her work to lift communities out of deprivation and disadvantage. The same commitment to delivering a new social housing programme and other measures to make home-ownership affordable for more young families. We have entrusted Margaret with a heavy burden as the only SDLP minister in the Executive. But we know she wonít let us down. We know she wonít let the people down. And I think we know she certainly wonít let others off.
This party is made of stronger stuff than many give us credit for. And Margaret is far from the only positive example of that. Day in, day out - in circumstances often dispiriting, sometimes dangerous - SDLP members across the North uphold our values with a level of conviction and consistency to which the SDLP alone can lay claim.
Whether people come to us for help or look to us for hope, our job is to be there for them. Having the courage to take a stand for what you believe - for what you know - to be right is often not the easy way. But it is the SDLP way. And it always will be.
While we will never voice an inconvenient truth for inconvenience sake, we will always do so for truthís sake.
We wonít pretend that a contract designed and delivered by Direct Rule for the UDA now has nothing to do with the UDA.
We cannot be indifferent when someone is murdered, whether they are taken from a bar in the city or lured to a barn in the country. We canít pretend that we donít all know what spawned the "Sopranos" culture.
We donít offer victims sophistry as sympathy. We would not acquiesce in the cynical and corrupt legislation called the "Northern Ireland Offences Bill", which would have betrayed and belittled all victims. I told our last conference that we would not tolerate such wrong for process sake. As Alasdair and I opposed this connivance between the British Government and Sinn Fein in a Commons committee; the system bluffed, blustered and briefed against us. But, as you resolved against the odds, our tactics - our principled case - forced the abandonment of that odious bill.
It is my privilege to serve you as SDLP Leader. With your continued good will and good work, I will lead our party positively, energetically and ambitiously into the bigger, brighter future the SDLP deserves.
Side by side with our ever-ready Deputy Leader, Alasdair McDonnell. Who has been a first class MP for all the people of South Belfast in this parliament. And will be in the next as well.
With our new Party Chair, Eddie McGrady - bringing the same insight, intellect and integrity to that party role as he has brought to a lifetime of outstanding public service for the people of South Down.
Eddie follows Sean Farren in becoming Party Chair for a second time. Even though he was looking forward to well-earned retirement, Sean agreed to serve as acting Chair for the last ten months. He could have declined that offer - deep down he probably wanted to. But for Sean Farren, the partyís best interests have always come before his own. With dedication and diligence, he steered us through a difficult election and is spearheading our internal review. I know Sean has other interests he now intends to pursue, including more work in Sierra Leone. Having served as our Director of Elections, he probably considers that a safe haven. You will all join with me in wishing Sean a long and fulfilling retirement from front-line politics.
Sean leaves the stage at an exciting time for politics and for the SDLP.
The political institutions are working anew. Political sands have started shifting. As old certainties disappear; new opportunities, challenges and realities are emerging.
2007 is not the first time that Northern Ireland has had inclusive power-sharing institutions. Neither is it our first time to have North South ministerial and other structures. These are not the first days of the new beginning to policing. Nor are these our first steps in peace. We have had all of these before - or for some time. The problem was that, until now, some parties refused to accept that some of these things were or that some of them should be. The uncertain politics of all that created instability and frustrated the delivery of the Good Friday Agreement.
The 2007 difference is that we, at last, have acceptance of all of these things by all major parties. Now no one of electoral significance is out to bring things down. Unlike before, there is nobody out just to bring somebody else down. That difference means that we now have a settled process, free from the destabilising impact of parties trying to bring a deal or a leader down. We are now allowed the benefit of stability for the new political dispensation which was agreed by the people of Ireland in 1998.
For the SDLP, there was sheer frustration that hang-ups and hold-ups from other parties delayed this progress for so long. We suffered in the stop-go politics and the indulgence of the problem parties. But the good news for the SDLP is that we should be free of that now that we are in a settled process.
This weekend and beyond, I want us to look forward with imagination and to step forward with confidence.
To set out a bold new vision for the future of this country we love - and to set about delivering it.
Grasping the new opportunities that are unfolding.
Shaping the new politics that will emerge on this island in the years to come.
Driving a radical policy agenda in the institutions now.
Putting the SDLP, all that we believe in and all that we stand for at the heart of the new Ireland.
Rising to the challenge of change - of changing ourselves and changing this country - with conviction and purpose.
Because, since day one, we have been the party of change.
Our founder members grew up against a backdrop of injustice, prejudice and deprivation. Rose up against it. And, without firing a single bullet or taking a single life, changed the face of Northern society for ever.
As the fortieth anniversary of civil rights draws near, be warned: expect all sorts of claims from Sinn Fein. Gerry was on this march. Martin was on that march. And, given the way things have been going recently donít be surprised if youíre told that Ian was there with him.
The SDLP is deeply proud of our civil rights beginnings. As a party born of the non-violent struggle for equality, social justice and opportunity for all, our mission has always been to bring about positive change. Throughout, against the odds, we have delivered.
And now, parties that rejected these principles for years are presenting themselves as torch-bearers for peace, inclusion, equality and power-sharing.
The DUP have gone from being out to bring agreements down, to bringing civil service absenteeism down.
Sinn Fein used to support bombing hotels as "economic targets". Now they endorse increasing tourism figures as an economic goal.
The DUP opposed a cross-border gas pipeline, while Sinn Fein backed blowing up the inter-connector. But today they both celebrate the single electricity market.
Martin has made some journey from "Tiocfaidh Ar La" to Chuckle Brother. While Ian has travelled from snow balls to "no bother Taoiseach".
Sinn Fein and the DUP have gone from tit-for-tat black berets and red berets to tic-tacking on blackberries. And thereís a gooseberry too. Thatís Ian Junior - whoís there to make sure things donít go too far now that Daddy and Martin are going steady.
Letís be fair to Ian Paisley Junior. He is a model minister - a lesser, hollow version of the real thing. When people ask me things about Ian Junior, I just say: "Itís the parents I blame".
So, Ian Paisley Senior has now declared that the DUP never had a problem about power-sharing. And Gerry Adams has told us that Sinn Fein never really had a problem with policing as such. How true the observation that irony is politics is just hypocrisy with panache.
While they have been changing their lines, we have been changing this land.
Pattenís policing reforms largely implemented. Unionists said it shouldnít happen. Sinn Fein said it wouldnít. It did, because we have made it happen. Due in particular to the diligence and vigilance of Alex Attwood, Eddie McGrady, Joe Byrne and now Dolores Kelly on the Policing Board. And our District Policing Partnership members across the North.
The North South Makes Sense agenda. Which used to be feared by unionists and sneered at by Sinn Fein. Now increasingly embraced to develop better opportunities and deliver better outcomes for all.
The Good Friday Agreement - the SDLPís work, the peopleís will - now finally being implemented.
John Humeís dream of an agreed Ireland - for which he, Seamus and so many of you worked so tirelessly for so long - now a reality.
More than any other, this party has changed the face of this country. In some ways, we are the most powerful party in Irish politics. Because we have changed the policies of every other party on the island. Without changing a single principle of our own or sacrificing a single value.
As we look forward, be proud of that. Draw strength from it. Be inspired. Because we have more to do, further to go and higher to reach to fulfil the promise of a Better Way to a Better Ireland.
As the party that brought a divided people to the dawn of an agreed Ireland in the last century; our work for this new century is to lead a reconciled people into a truly united, just and prosperous new Ireland.
An Ireland free from poverty, prejudice and injustice.
A vibrant country of energy, enterprise and endeavour. Where economic prosperity delivers better public services and greater opportunities for all.
Where conflict, division and sectarianism become footnotes to our past; and reconciliation, equality and inclusion are chapter headings in the new story we will write together.
An inclusive Ireland where unionists know they have a proud place, not where unionists know their place.
Where people who have come here to make a new life for themselves and their families know that they are valued contributors to their communities and to the life our country.
An Ireland of freedom where no one will have to fear being slaughtered on the street simply for defending themselves, their family or their property. Where the only iron bars hard men will get their hands on are the ones they are locked behind.
An ever-more outward-looking Ireland that stands tall in the world as a champion of global justice, environmental protection & sustainable development. That stands out as a beacon of hope for peace, democracy, human rights and respect for diversity - from Burma to Baghdad.
Informed and inspired by the values we uphold, this is the ambitious, distinctive and hopeful vision the SDLP holds out for our country. As a party proud both of our roots in the North and of our role in the life of the nation, we will have a unique contribution to make towards its fulfilment.
Founded out of the non-violent civil rights movement, we donít have to apologise for having been formed in the North. We challenged and changed the conditions that led to our foundation and attitudes that opposed us for so long.
From our station in the North, the SDLP set the compass for all the main parties in the South through the darkness and turbulence of the troubles. From the non-violent civil rights movement to the Good Friday Agreement, the SDLP has brought our community from grievance to governance. Divided communities from rival grievances to shared governance.
Working with all the main southern parties - in and out of government - we built a consensus on unity by consent. Held the line against violence in the name of Ireland. Stood against repression in the name of security. And stood firm for our vision of partnership and co-operation.
We never deviated from the key principles of the Sunningdale Agreement. The first advocates of a British-Irish framework as the context for a solution, we worked with parties and governments in the South to get the relationship between Britain and Ireland onto a different plain.
It was our shared understanding out of the Forum for a New Ireland which informed the negotiations that produced the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In turn, that agreement - as we intended - provided the context for the peace process, as unionism came to realise the folly of intransigence and the provisional movement had to recognise the futility of violence.
Working with southern parties, we deepened the nationalist consensus around John Humeís analysis of three sets of relationships and the need for institutions in three strands. Indeed, Sinn Fein pledged to oppose all such concepts and models in any further negotiations. And did so when we were negotiating the Good Friday Agreement.
It was the will and work of all our parties that ensured the overwhelming endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by the Irish people.
So our party has a proud record of all-Ireland engagement. We owe it to ourselves and to those that worked with us to recognise the importance of these efforts and the effects that have now resulted.
The endorsement of all the southern parties mattered too when we took on the responsibility of making the new policing arrangements work - because that was the way to deliver Patten, rather than pretending to demand it.
We also valued all their involvement in our North South Makes Sense campaign, which has created such a strong platform of potential for everyone on this island.
Equipped with that agenda and confident of this record, the SDLP particularly looks forward to the establishment of the North South Parliamentary Forum - where, with others, we can play a pro-active and productive all-Ireland role.
In the current context, it is important that people in the SDLP do not devalue what we have been through and what we have seen through.
As parties who rejected earlier agreements try to claim credit for the new situation we enjoy, we owe it to ourselves and to others to put two things on record:
Ireland would not have got to this new dispensation without the SDLP; and
The SDLP could not have succeeded in that enterprise without our strategic collaboration with all southern parties.
It is good to have such senior representatives of all those parties here again with us today. Dermot Ahern, Fergus OíDowd and Ruairi Quinn are here representing Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour. It is gratifying to have so many of their fellow TDs and party colleagues among us too.
It is also encouraging that fellow MLAs, from the Ulster Unionist Party, are visiting us today. Basil McCrea and John McAllister are very welcome here with their party colleagues.
It is important to recognise how we arrived at the achievement of an agreed Ireland. It is crucial to recognise the new opportunities and challenges that arise from it.
One of the underestimated truths in politics is that change changes things.
We now have a settled process and people will come to take the Agreementís institutions as given. A context of institutional stability will produce a stage of political flux, which, in turn, will bring a new degree of electoral fluidity. Just because, from this vantage point, it might be foolhardy to try to predict all that this fluidity might entail; it would be foolish to pretend that it would not or should not involve us.
We were the first party to recognise that a new dispensation would create new possibilities for political realignment, both within the North and across the island.
We are very comfortable that other parties, not least some of the southern parties, are now recognising this too. They have - or will be - establishing their own channels for considering these questions. The SDLP have been - and will be - engaging with them. Positively. Confidently. Honestly.
The possibilities are too precious and the prospects too important for anyone to make decisions now that are forced or false. As others rightly approach this potential - strategically and gradually - so do we. We do so with proper caution for a healthy political equilibrium in the North and unmistakable ambition for a fulfilling dynamic in island-wide politics.
As we engage with different parties and some outside party politics, we will be building on our own review discussions. An SDLP working group on all-Ireland politics and realignment will develop our thinking. Both for ourselves and with others, we need to create a coherent framework to consider all the relevant issues, implications and ideas.
In classic SDLP style, we should begin by identifying the realities of the current situation. Both the realities that come with the new political dispensation and some older realities which still colour the political outlook.
Next, we need to develop a shared understanding of the possibilities that can be unfolded in this new context, both within the North and North South.
Then, we need to analyse the requirements for realising those best possibilities in ways that are sustainable, by being both reassuring and inspiring.
Following this, we can define different options for offering new political alignments that can be politically effective and democratically attractive.
As the SDLP debate among ourselves and deliberate with others, there are three main windows that we need to look through. Political. Institutional. Electoral.
As we scope and analyse on that basis, we will have a surer grasp of the implications and a truer assessment of any complications. Approaching prospects in this way will give us more than necessary due diligence. It will actually show that the permutations for forging new and evolving political axes will be more varied and versatile than a lot of comment to date has suggested.
We can do all this in ways that are exciting for people who are in the SDLP and inviting for those who arenít.
We will engage with each other and with others on the basis that we have always been and always will be constitutional nationalists and democratic republicans.
SDLP: not just nationalist internationalist. Not just democratic - social democratic. Our politics has never been about hoisting standards on flagpoles. Only ever about raising standards in health, schools, businesses and government.
For all of us, there are things about our political character, the motivations and aspirations of our politics, that will never be changed or traded.
But, in the agreed Ireland we now have, can we stick with or should we settle for party political cleavages which were determined by partition of the island, defined in the South by civil war and in the North by misrule, division, violence and the response to these?
We should be keen to foster the opportunity to redefine party politics in ways that are positive rather than negative. Which reach to others more than react to others. And which centre on vision for the future rather than division from the past.
Whatever changes or challenges political realignment may bring in the years ahead, our party needs to step up to the challenge of change now. If we want to play a key role in shaping the politics of this island for the next generation, we need to shape up ourselves.
We need to show people that - whatever the future of politics may hold - the SDLP is here for them right now. Not just at election time, but all of the time.
We all know what needs to be done. To your credit, many of you are already doing it. Getting on with the hard work. Getting out on the doorsteps. Getting old members back and new members in. Existing branches growing, new branches going.
We have been making some progress in terms of organisation and structural change. But there is so much more that we need to do - that we all need to do.
With a European election in June 2009 and a Westminster election always a possibility before then, we need to be strong on the ground and solid on the issues.
There already are signs that, in the future, it wonít only be the traditional issues that motivate voters. We can show people that they need a party fresh with ideas and firm of conviction to make the most of the devolution opportunity. A party that can offer more than karaoke versions of Whitehall policies - as are all too apparent in the Draft Programme for Government.
Now, we are not saying that there is nothing good in it. There is. But we have to say it could be better. Similarly, a good Draft Budget could be better. With more for health and housing.
I have told Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, as this regionís joint First Ministers, that anything they do which needs and merits support, they will have that from the SDLP. Anything they do that deserves opposition, or anything that they donít do that requires positive challenge, they will get that from the SDLP.
We applaud the Programme for Governmentís commitment to reduce our carbon footprint by 25% by 2025. Some have pointed out that it doesnít spell out how this will be achieved. But, letís be fair. It does show an unparalleled commitment to recycling. Unfortunately itís just recycling policies from Direct Rule and Whitehall. Recycling policy principles from the last Executive. And recycling key SDLP initiatives - which they spent years rubbishing, only to rob in weeks.
Look at some of the star features of this programme, which they say is totally different from the last Executive and from Direct Rule:
Even the answer being offered to them on water by the Independent Panel draws heavily on the consistent SDLP approach - misrepresented so often by the DUP and Sinn Fein - of no privatisation, no water-metering, no separate water charges or double taxation, but a clear component of rates. Not that they can be relied upon to fully deliver on that approach any more than they could be relied upon to stand by their election promises on water.
In their pretence that nothing good comes from before and that everything starts with them, Sinn Fein and the DUP are copying Pol Pot and "Year Zero". Which apparently began here on 8 May.
Our issues with the Draft Programme for Government are more about whatís not in it than what is - and their false claims that itís all brand new. So many of its positive-sounding aspects are retreads from the more detailed Programmes of the last Executive - including on planning, the skills agenda, adult literacy, health promotion, local government reform and research & development to underpin competitiveness. Other welcome areas are carry-overs from the work we all did in the Preparation for Government and Programme for Government Committees prior to devolution.
Had the SDLP a stronger hand in producing this Programme for Government, we would not just be taking forward the positive policies we had previously put in place.
An SDLP-led Programme would have real and clear use of the innovation funding made available by the Treasury and the Irish Government. We would create an Open Faculty for Innovation. This Open Faculty would not only engage and encourage those in our universities, but also our regional colleges. And, in a new way, our businesses as well.
Champions of innovation, whether in commerce or college, could be Fellows of this Faculty - mentoring businesses, inspiring students and fostering competitive research. Transcending education and enterprise and embracing performers in the public and third sectors - as well as the private sector - this Open Faculty could be a platform for the step-change we need to achieve a culture that thinks innovation, works innovation and grows innovation.
One supposed innovation that came in the Draft Programme for Government is the idea of one single contact number for all public services. Never mind the speculation about how long it will take to actually get through to the person you need, what will be the special number be? Will the DUP get their way with 1690? Will Sinn Fein insist on 1916? Or will there be a compromise to remind us all of Year Zero on 8 May? 08 05 07.
Of course, the single number idea presumes that people know the different agencies, who to look for, what to ask for. Too often, through no fault of their own, people donít know - particularly those most in need of support. Families living with disability. Older people coping with illness. Carers distressed by the needs of their loved ones. Those feeling alone or abandoned in their mental ill-health.
Instead of just offering a universal phone number, why not give these people their own named public service point of contact? A named public servant, who - no matter what agency they work for - will be their sherpa through the complexities of bureaucratic systems.
Something else that would have been in our Programme for Government is the Childrenís Fund. We established this in the last Executive. It was abolished by Direct Rule after suspension. Even Peter Hain saw the need to partly recreate it in a funding package. But not Peter Robinson. This Sinn Fein/DUP-led Executive has no Childrenís Fund and no clear budget for a Childrenís Strategy.
Sinn Fein MLAs are telling the country that no one prioritised children in government before now. We prioritised child poverty in the first Programme for Government. We had a Childrenís Strategy - with a budget. Child and family services were supported - not just by the Childrenís Fund - but the other Executive Programme Funds as well. We commissioned the telling research on child poverty. We made sure that child poverty was a key deprivation indicator. And we delivered the Childrenís Commissioner with world-leading powers.
The Programme for Governmentís "new" targets on child poverty are not new at all. Halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 are the Whitehall targets announced by Tony Blair, now repeated by Gordon Brown and written into the Direct Rule anti-poverty strategy by Peter Hain.
The SDLP want to pursue a bigger and better target. What is wrong with striving to fulfil by 2016 the 1916 Proclamationís commitment to cherish "all the children of the nation equally"? Given the levels of child poverty in this country, is it too ambitious, too controversial to eradicate it by 2016? Or is it just not important enough?
The Irish Governmentís National Development Plan, with its Social Inclusion pillar and the "Towards 2016" agenda offer a context for all parties, North and South - unionist, nationalist or neither - to pledge a democratic covenant for children.
To resolve the promise and resource the means to ensure that no child anywhere on this island will be neglected, abused, passed over or failed by any service, any law or any authority.
To guarantee together:
So the SDLP has a policy offering that is creative, distinctive and relevant to peopleís best ambitions for themselves and their families. But more fundamentally, we bring a different ethic to politics.
We go into government to serve. The DUP and Sinn Fein go in to rule. Together they are revising Wolfe Toneís great vision to instead impose a politics of Catholics, Protestants - but no dissenters.
Their way of carve-up, cover-up and stitch-up is not our way.
While they stand their own policies on their heads, we stand up for what we believe and others need.
While they are looking out for themselves and each other, we are looking out for the people - and for the future.
We may be in there in smaller numbers, but we bring higher values.
A stronger voice for decency.
A clearer voice for democracy.
An honest voice for just standards.
No strokes, no spin. Just standards.
No silence for political expediency. Just standards.
No equivocation or evasion on any crime. Just standards.
With better ideas for better government.
A better vision for a better country.
A better way to a better Ireland.
With the courage and conviction that sets us apart, this party is looking forward with confidence.
Ready to step up to the challenges of change.
Determined to put the SDLP, everything we believe in and all that we stand for at the heart of the new Ireland.
SDLP, lead again."
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