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Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, to Annual Conference, 12 November 2005



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Text: Mark Durkan ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), at the SDLP annual conference in the Ramada Hotel, Belfast, (Saturday 12 November 2005)

 

"We meet this weekend just a few short months after one of the greatest days for members of this party. A day many said would never happen, no matter how hard the effort or how big the investment. But some of us knew better. Kept going, even when others said the cause was hopeless. And one of us in particular never gave up believing that things would come good, that it would all be worth it in the end. And it did happen. Jim Hume won the lottery. Now thereís someone who really has found a better way to a better Ireland!

What an honour it is for me to address Party Conference for the fourth time as Leader of the SDLP - and for the first time as MP for Foyle. I know from before that trying to succeed John Hume is no easy job. But thanks to your good support, the good counsel of John and Pat and Eddie McGradyís good tutelage in the Commons, Iím getting the hang of it.

And the SDLP is getting the hang of proving our critics wrong. What a great achievement it is that I share our Conference platform with the MP for South Belfast - our Deputy Leader, Alasdair McDonnell. For the first time ever, the people of this constituency are being represented fairly, effectively and progressively at Westminster. Each and every one of them. Long may it continue.

Alasdair and I are honoured to have joined Eddie in Parliament. We are very grateful for his guidance and good advice as we work to give people a strong voice in the Commons. And also on the ground in our constituencies, just as he has been doing.

In August the North lost, not just one of the most distinctive voices we ever had at Westminster, but one of our greatest characters as well - Gerry Fitt. Gerry was many things. As an MP in the late 60s, he championed the challenge for civil rights. An SDLP founder. Our first Leader, he helped to fashion key SDLP principles into the Sunningdale Agreement. He never feared to speak out against all violence down the years. He was courageous, caring and good company. He was single-minded to the point of going his own way. We know that he went on to get this party wrong in later years. But we remember him most for how strongly he fought for the rights of all in dark days.

August also saw the sad passing of another true friend of the SDLP - Mo Mowlam. Mo was a regular at the SDLP Conference. Just as comfortable selling raffle tickets as she was delivering a keynote address. But Mo ought not to be remembered just for her warm personality or her wicked sense of humour. She should also be remembered for her sharp political mind and her strong sense of social justice. Both of which she put to good use in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement - her greatest moment.

Each a limited edition of one, both Gerry and Mo are sorely missed and fondly remembered. Standing strong for what they believed to be right - even if it appeared out of favour - was a mark of their characters. Just like this party - and you its activists.

Tip OíNeill once told me that the most important lesson in politics is that people want to be asked and people want to be thanked. So I say a sincere thank you to all those people who came out for the SDLP in May. Not just for our Westminster candidates, but for our Local Government tickets as well. Nor just for those candidates who were successful, but for those who didnít make it this time.On a personal level, I want to express my deep gratitude to everyone in Foyle who voted for me. I pledge again to be MP for all - regardless of whether they voted for me or for other partiesí candidates. Serving all the people equally is uniquely the SDLP standard.

I want to thank all those wee Derry women who were telling me how hard they were praying I would make it. In fact, at one point during the campaign I even wondered if we could get the Returning Officer to count the number of candles lit for me instead of the votes cast!

I want to thank the young father I met who told me he hadnít voted in a while, but he was coming out for me this time because weíd got him a house and were the only party serious about jobs and offering hope for his children.

I even want to thank the Derry woman - she will remain nameless - who, when asked by a London Journalist what she thought of me, said: "I knew Mark Durkan when he was nobody, and he hasnít changed".

I know what she meant. And I know just how much a good result for the SDLP meant to her and to many others. Because they knew that a good result for the SDLP was the best result for this country. And that was reflected in the very warm response from the length and breadth of Ireland to our good result in May.

And we want to thank today the Leaders and all those members of all the parties in the South who came North to stand with us. This reflects the fact that - thanks to the first generation of the SDLP - this party enjoys a unique and special place in Irish national democratic life.

We owe it to them - to everyone who voted for us - to keep growing stronger and going forward.

They saw the prospect of two-party politics dominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein - and they rejected it. Because they know that those two parties will never give this society the reconciliation we need, the stability we want or the prosperity we deserve.

They want a stronger SDLP, because they have seen that when the SDLP was weakened, politics went nowhere. And while Sinn Fein and the DUP have been counting their votes, the only thing the people have been counting is the cost of lost opportunities and wasted years.

A resurgent SDLP isnít just the surest antidote to the directionless drift that has become the benchmark of our political process; it is also the strongest answer to the sectarianism, the deprivation and the under-investment that have tragically become the hallmark of our society in the North.

Nor is it just for the progress we want to make in the North; but for the prospects we can help raise and the prosperity we can help generate throughout the entire island as well. Especially West of the Bann and West of the Shannon where investment is badly needed.

An ever stronger SDLP is the best bet for the Good Friday Agreement and for ending the frustration and stagnation of the last seven and a half years. Not because we are protective of the Agreement we were central in delivering. But because we know how essential that agreement is to delivering change and stability. Letís be clear: we stand by the Agreement, not because of who wrote so much of it - the SDLP; but because of who voted so strongly for it - the people of Ireland.

When we last gathered in February, I called on you to fight harder than you had ever fought before for the values we uphold and the vision we hold out.

Today you should hold your heads high. You stood tall. You held a firm, strong line for the SDLP at a time when the easy, lazy line from some commentators was just to write us off. In fairness, you have to give it to a lot of pundits. They have a very disciplined diet. They never eat their own words.

Where we showed people that the SDLP was hungry for their votes as well as worthy of their support, voters came out for us. If we keep showing that enthusiasm and energy, not just during future election campaigns, but in how we approach everything we do, more people will come out for us still.

And itís not just in elections that we have been vindicated since our last Conference.

Remember back in February, we said it was time to reclaim the good name of Northern Nationalism for decency and democracy. Back then, feeling the pressure after the Northern Bank robbery and the Robert McCartney murder, the IRA had lashed out with their worrying statement, "Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation". In other words, "Back off or the peace process gets it". We stressed that democratic Ireland had to keep the positive pressure on. Democratic Ireland - and indeed Irish-America - held the line we advocated. The IRA backed off to the extent that we got their welcome statement in July and decommissioning in September.

They used to tell us decommissioning could never happen, would never happen, should never happen. That it wasnít required under the Agreement. That to move on decommissioning would be tantamount to surrender. That the IRA couldnít move while there was a question mark over David Trimbleís position. "What about the rejectionists?" That a unilateral move on decommissioning would be counter-productive and dangerous. That decommissioning would only come when "politics was working". And certainly not while unionists were failing to live up to the Agreement.

And after years of this, what has now happened? Decommissioning.

How? Unilaterally.

When? Nearly three years into suspension and counting. With the DUP - "the rejectionists" - in the ascendant.

Why? Because democratic Ireland said enough is enough. SDLP vindicated.

And itís not just the IRA. Itís loyalists. When the UVF went on their murder spree over the summer, we warned the Secretary of State that the blind eye approach had to stop with loyalists too. He responded, trying to kick to touch to the IMC months later. This at a time when the UVF were boasting about the murders and even promising more. I told him that he had to think better of the downplaying advice he was getting from the NIO - the same NIO that for years had refused to outlaw the UDA. That he could not duck his responsibility to set standards and call truth on the UVF "ceasefire". When we met him in late summer, he told us he was worried that acting on his responsibility would be counter-productive. We pointed out that it was the "anything goes" signal that was already counter-productive. We even warned that it would only encourage the UVF - and other loyalists - to flex their muscles over Whiterock.

115 shots fired at the police later, 146 blast bombs, 116 hijacks and countless petrol bombs - then the Secretary of State specified the UVF. He now says that his decision sent a very clear signal. That must mean he now accepts that his reluctance to call truth earlier had been sending an unclear signal. A dangerously mixed signal. SDLP vindicated.

Another one. In the review of the Agreement last year, we were pushing the expansion of North South and tabled lots of positive proposals for new co-operation and joint action. Others were trying to woo - or be wooed by - the DUP. It was as though North South was the strand that dare not speak its name. That showed in our frustration at the time. But it really showed in the Sinn Fein/DUP Comprehensive Agreement of last December - not a single new area of co-operation, no new North South bodies. In fact the only new thing was to be a review demanded by the DUP to question the existing bodies. Just one of the reasons why we said it was a bad deal for the Agreement and the people who voted for it.

It was also the reason we launched our North South Makes Sense campaign.

We engaged with TDs and Senators in all the Southern parties, who now see this work as a positive trailer for the work of the North South Parliamentary Forum.

We have had excellent meetings across the Southern Departments with Ministers who - encouraged by the Taoiseach - are now focussing their officials on the sort of ideas weíve been putting forward.

Our successful North South Makes Sense conference in Derry heard ideas - many our own - for new funds, new initiatives and new ways to tackle old problems.

Brian Cowen highlighted some of these opportunities for joint approaches when he addressed the Northern Ireland Economic Conference recently. He did so especially congratulating the SDLP for the strength and sense of our North South campaign.

No longer the strand that dare not speak its name. North South speaks for itself. North South Makes Sense. SDLP vindicated.

Or take Irish unity. In spring we published our document, "A United Ireland and the Agreement". This again set out the strategy you had endorsed on how we saw a united Ireland in the context of the Agreement and the Agreement in the context of a united Ireland. We launched this North and South. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein postured around a call for a Green Paper on Irish unity. They even put forward a Dail motion calling for such a Green Paper - as if the colour was the thing. No other party backed their empty proposal. Instead, they all endorsed our strategy for unity.

SDLP vindicated. On Irish unity. On an all-Ireland basis.

Just as we will be vindicated on our strong stand on the Good Friday Agreement.

Now, Iím told by some of his DUP colleagues that Peter Robinson is fed up listening to me defending the Agreement. Peter has been touting voluntary coalition.

He knows - and you know - why the SDLP has rejected such jumped up exclusion.

But it should be recognised that Peter did win the argument for a form of voluntary coalition.

Not with the SDLP, but with Sinn Fein.

Because that is what the "Comprehensive Agreement" in December last year actually provides for.

A new law would automatically exclude the SDLP and the UUP from office - in spite of our mandates - if we did not bow the knee by voting for the DUP and Sinn Fein for First and Deputy First Minister.

Excluded for no wrong - only for exercising a democratic right.

The justification given for this:

  • That people shouldnít be Ministers unless they and their parties vote for the head of the administration; and
  • The DUP and Sinn Fein have the numbers between them to control the Assembly.

You donít have to be a political scientist to know that is the essence of voluntary coalition.

Well done, Peter. You couldnít get voluntary coalition with the SDLP, but youíre getting it with Sinn Fein. Are you sure thatís what you want? Are you sure thatís what your party wants? Do they know thatís what you negotiated? Has anyone told the Paisleys?

Mightnít it be easier to do it the Agreement way? Inclusion.

We recently found ourselves in what I can only describe as the surreal situation of being lectured by the DUP on how the SDLP needs to be less intransigent and more compromising. It was like getting a lecture on modesty from Jose Mourinho.

I have to say, I didnít know what was coming next.

I was waiting for Ian Junior to start lecturing us about the need for power- sharing in local councils.

Gregory to launch into one on the value of North South co-operation.

Or Nigel to advise me to smile now and again.

At one stage, I even thought Jeffrey was going to chip in with a few words on the importance of being loyal to the party.

Instead of trying to get away with preaching at us on how to make progress, deliver stability and build trust, the DUP need to listen hard to some of their own advice.

Having recently condemned loyalist paramilitaries over attacks in North Antrim, they said they have always condemned loyalists. But for years they retailed the lie that loyalist violence was only a reaction to the IRA. They consorted with these same paramilitaries in various political campaigns. They even explained and excused their so-called protests against Catholic church-goers and Catholic school girls.

They talk the talk of law and order, but practically absolved loyalist paramilitaries in advance for anything that they might do over Whiterock. They scapegoated everybody but the paramilitaries for the attacks on the police. They now refuse to sit with the police on the Belfast District Policing Partnership, while they continue to sit with loyalist paramilitaries in the North and West Belfast Parades Forum.

After recent events in Ballymena - which they have said they condemn - they had a chance to show respect for democratic difference. In the same week that Ian Paisley was being credited for accompanying the Secretary of State to a Catholic school, the DUP refused an SDLP co-option in Ballymena after the death of our esteemed colleague Margaret Gribben. In a council in which they already hold fourteen of the twenty four seats. In the face of offensive power-grabbing like that, how can we be asked to take it on faith that the DUP are up for power-sharing?

The DUP also now say theyíre all for equal rights and opportunities, but they still have their sights set on the Equality and Human Rights Commissions and destroying the positive agendas they need to be working on.

They claim to represent working class loyalist communities and want to lift them out of deprivation; yet they want to retain the 11+ that brands so many of those children failures and keeps them locked in the cycle of despair.

"Leadership thatís Working"? No. Leadership thatís Wanting.

Now if the DUP ever do think about changing their stance, they could do worse than have a word with the past masters - Sinn Fein.

Whereas nowadays the economic targets the provisional movement talk about include increasing tourist figures, it used to be that their economic targets in tourism were the hotels bombed by the IRA.

Once they tried to bomb Manchester out. Now, it seems, they are trying to buy Manchester out. It brings a whole new meaning to the term "property boom". In 1798, Wolfe Tone was a voice for "the men of no property". Today, the provisional movementís main interest is the property empire of the men of their Army Council.

When we meet the two Governments later this month, our message will be clear: get on with the Agreement. Drop the "concession of the week" approach that has undermined confidence so badly. Get back to the consensus-building approach. That gave us the Agreement in the first place and offers the only credible basis for taking it forward now. Now is the time to start the countdown to restoration.

Whatever reasons there may have existed for not moving forward before, there is no excuse for not doing so now. It wonít be before time. If anyone was in any doubt before that suspension and Direct Rule hurts, they know it now. Water charges to come. Education cuts already biting. Funding for business start-ups dropped. And massive rates hikes to be imposed.

These and more come on top of the previous damage of Direct Rule and the opportunity costs of three years of suspension. We have never pretended that devolution is a theme park for soft options. But we absolutely believe - whatever the limits, whatever the pressures - that our own power-sharing administration would produce better choices for better reasons.

Iím tired talking about the Agreement. Iím tired having to talk about it. I want to talk about what we can do with it.

Tackling deprivation in areas that have been or are being left behind. Not just for different communities in Belfast, but also for whole counties West of the Bann.

Investing more for better public services and the higher standards that people - both service users and workers - deserve.

Not just lamenting the decline of our manufacturing sector - but implementing new strategies to generate new jobs and safeguard existing ones.

Delivering the infrastructure we need to be a competitive region with balanced development.

Not just fighting to ensure that every region in the North gets their fair share, but maximising the benefits the all-Ireland economy and North South action can give us. As workers. As public service users. As businesses. As consumers. As taxpayers.

Leading the battle against sectarianism and prejudice. Showing people that we can share more than mutual resentment towards each other. Proving that a shared society is a fair and prosperous society in which the lives and hopes of everyone can be lifted - not just for people born and bred here, but for those who have come here from other countries as well.

This partyís mission is to make the most of our future.

Our purpose is to ensure that the agreed future chosen by this generation of Irish people means that future generations will grow up in a landscape of hope.

We want to leave the past behind.

But we insist that we do so on a moral basis.

One that does not ride roughshod over the right of victims to truth and closure.

We saw collusion in the past. Now we have collusion on the past - between the British Government and Sinn Fein. Each covering up for the otherís wrongs. Covering each otherís backs.

Because letís be clear. This new "On The Runs" legislation does not just apply to a few people, as a panicked Conor Murphy - who flew over to Westminster to welcome the legislation - claimed.

This applies to every one of the 2,100 unsolved murders - including well over 300 state killings.

And not only does this deny families justice, it robs them of truth. The 2,100 killers can sit back and wait to see if the police ever come knocking on their doors.

If they do, they neednít worry. Sinn Fein even negotiated that they donít even have to go down to court and listen to how they shattered victimsí lives. They can apply from the comfort of their own homes to be an OTR.

Imagine how the members of the British Armyís murderous Force Research Unit will thank Gerry Adams for that.

Donít be fooled into thinking that this was just incompetence on Sinn Feinís part.

We warned them.

They were negotiating this with the British all summer. This is what they pushed for on the back of the extra seat they won in May.

They knew.

Are they not the "great negotiators"?

I said it over the stalled Comprehensive Agreement they negotiated last December. I say it over this offensive legislation they have negotiated now. They donít negotiate for the Irish nation. They donít negotiate for northern nationalists or the wider public interest. They negotiate for themselves.

I give notice that if the British Government proceeds with this flawed Bill, then we will table amendments at Westminster to try to undo the damage done. To try to prevent the wrongs that this corrupt law would bring. And if we cannot have justice, we must at least pursue truth.

The provisional movement may think they can get away with covering up their deeds of the past, but the one thing they canít cover up is that their "war" broke - not the rule or resolve of the British - but the hearts and hopes of their fellow Irish men and women.

They sermonise on truth. They preach about justice. But what do they practise?

Young people in working class estates get "home visits" from Sinn Feinís "alternative to the police" about anti-social behaviour, yet often see their visitors up to their necks in far worse themselves.

They share sympathy when a young girl is raped, but wonít encourage witnesses to share information with the police so that her attackers can be locked up.

Now, the Sinn Fein Leadership admit they go to the police if they have car accidents. So now we know. They put their no claims bonuses ahead of a childís right to justice and protection. So much for their Ireland of equals.

Our agenda is a better way to a better Ireland.

A well-going democracy with well-adjusted community relations.

A well-run government offering well delivered services.

A well-balanced economy fostering well-doing businesses.

Well-planned investment and a well-protected environment.

Well-educated young people and well-cared for old people.

Everybody knows the SDLP is the well-meaning party with well-thought out proposals for all these things. But we need to be well-geared in our own party organisation, if we are to be well-equipped with the mandate we need to deliver on all these prospects.

Members, in February I made the call and you didnít let me down. But, as all these challenges underline, this partyís work has only just begun.

We took a hit in the 2003 Assembly Elections and we can all remember just how deeply it hurt. But we didnít lie down. We got up again and we fought back. And the fight goes on. We did well in May, but we need to do better still - in every constituency we contest, in every election we fight and in everything we do. Not just at election time, but all the time. Nor just in how we serve the people when they look to us for hope, but in how we respond to people when they come to us for help.

Where we did well in the elections, there are clear lessons. For voters, seeing the SDLP on the doorstep of Downing Street or Leinster House is one thing; but seeing us on their doorsteps is everything. Getting voters on the register. Going back to those voters who werenít in when we called. Not giving up on people when they told us they werenít going to bother voting.

So let us show the people that the SDLP really is back by getting back out on their streets and fighting hard for them and for their votes.

So how do we fulfil all that? We do the simple things better than we have ever done them before. We get organised:

  • We get our existing branches working better and we work harder to establish new branches.
  • We get Constituency Councils, District Executives and the partyís central committees doing exactly what the Party Constitution we agreed last November says they should be doing.
  • We need more activity and accountability for performance - organisational and representative.
  • We allow more authority in preparing for the challenges ahead.
  • Above all, we need to make more of you - and recruit more like you.

This party is full of people with ability, whose talents and skills we have never fully utilised. And there are many more people out there who should be in here.

Remember what I said at our Conference in February 2004: that I am the youngest SDLP MLA and that by the time the next Assembly Elections come around, I want to be among the older candidates on the SDLP ticket. That challenge still stands. As does the challenge for the party to profile more women and young people for winnable seats.

Where we lost Assembly seats in 2003, we need to show real determination to win them back. And itís not just in the Assembly that we should be looking positively to make gains. Itís in Europe as well.

The SDLP earned a name for ourselves in Europe fighting for the people of Northern Ireland. The only name Sinn Fein or the DUP have made for themselves there is for fighting with each other and failing the people of the North. Just ask the Ulster Farmersí Union. As for Jim Nicholson, heís still working on making a name for himself.

If these are the people we are depending on to represent our best interests in Europe, let us determine today that the work begins now to reclaim the SDLP seat in Europe. So that people here get what they need in Europe - a strong, effective and mainstream voice that puts their needs first. And we donít just want Europe to be a force for growth here. We want it to be a force for good in the world as well - particularly for Africa as we approach the world trade negotiations.

I want our next candidate for Europe selected as early as possible. This will require a change in our constitution and that must be on the to-do list for the new Executive we will elect this weekend.

We know all these things present challenges. Our challenges. We are going to meet them head on. We know why weíre doing it. And we know who weíre doing it for. We need to keep rebuilding this party, because this party is going to rebuild this nation.

As we go forward from this Conference, Let the message ring out that the SDLP stands by higher values and stands for a better vision. That ours really is a Better Way to a Better Ireland.

When I was Deputy First Minister, I visited Shankill Surestart. There was a great new building. They were lovely kids, sharing their toys with me. Even if they did splash me with paint - and with food. I met their young mothers who were attending classes next door - not just to help them as parents, but as prospective workers too. I remember the bubbly grannies too, there to pass on lifeskills. One of them tried to mother me. Another one seemed to have ideas of a different relationship when she invited me to join their trip to Blackpool.

I - a nationalist - was proud to be there as their minister. They just were straight about the problems in their community. They were highlighting their solutions and the support they needed from what was their own government. I said the people there were worth every penny spent on that great project and deserving of everything they were demanding from me. On the way out, as I looked around during the hugs and the handshakes, I was struck by the fact that this was the only new building around.

The reason I want us to be getting on with things is so that I can serve not just the people of Shantallow, but the people of the Shankill too.

For the SDLP, politics is more than the choice between parties, itís the choice between two futures.

Between a society that genuinely cherishes all children equally and one that is content to label some children failures and let others fall behind.

Between economic prosperity and economic sterility.

Between the rule of law and the law of the jungle.

Between a free society and a fear society.

Between the values epitomised by people like Denis Bradley and Eugene McMenamin - and the violence employed against them.

Between a truly shared future and further Balkanisation.

Between grasping now the opportunity the Agreement gives this generation; and squandering it to consign another generation to hopelessness.

Between a truly united Ireland and one that is ever more divided.

Between a truly internationalist view and the same old insular view. Standing strong for economic justice for Africa as well as social justice in Ireland.

Between those whose mission is to close the gap between what is and what ought to be; and those who thrive on those gaps growing ever wider.

Between hatred and hope. Honesty and hypocrisy.

Between going forward and going nowhere.

Between the parties that gave us the worst of our past and the one party that is ready to give us all the best of our future.

These are the choices. That is our work. This is our time.

SDLP - Lead on.

 


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