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Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, Speech to 31st Annual Conference, 11 November 2001

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Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), to the party's 31st annual conference, 11 November 2001

I have spoken before of the agreement and referendum being the emancipation of hope and our task now being the emancipation of opportunity.

At this conference we have paid tribute to the two great emancipators of our time, John and Seamus. They, along with everyone else who founded the SDLP, along with everyone else who formed the non-violent civil rights movement, delivered change and opportunity, not just for their own generation but for all to follow. Not just for their own community, but the country at large.

A generation later John and Seamus delivered the new emancipation of ceasefires, dialogue and democratic agreement. John the architect. Seamus the engineer. We thank them not just for what they have achieved to date but for what they have enabled all of us to achieve in the future.

This inheritance passed on to us will be spent, not squandered, on offering a new generation of genuine leadership that will be worthy of the trust they have earned and the hope that they have afforded. This will be a time when the We Shall Overcome anthem of civil rights will inspire a new generation.

For we shall overcome division, We shall overcome poverty. We shall overcome prejudice. We shall overcome homelessness. We shall overcome violence. We shall overcome sectarianism. We shall overcome racism.

We are not just dreamers and keepers of ideals, colleagues. Never forget we in the SDLP are the masters of persuasion. It is what we do best. We in the SDLP have never had a hardware counter when we set out our political stall! Our only force is the force of argument - we have no army. No guns, no bullets, no bombs, no plastic explosives and, we will ensure, no plastic bullets.

By politics we stand. And by our politics over many years we have persuaded. We have persuaded Irish nationalism to move beyond narrow territorialism. We have persuaded unionists to power-sharing and agreement. We have persuaded Sinn Féin to unity by consent, not violent coercion.

We have persuaded the British to legislate for equality and human rights. We have persuaded unionists to accept all-Ireland institutions. We have persuaded the Provisionals to forgo their war. We have persuaded the British government to create a new beginning to policing. We are the persuaders.

And we have done all this with "not a bullet, not an ounce." We are the original "not one bullet, not one ounce" party. We now have vindication - we never sought victory.

We have the vindication of seeing others work to our logic and of hearing them use our language after years of wasteful intransigence and wanton violence. A quick political survey shows that we now have more people on more roads to Damascus than the Syrian bus fleet.

For decades it was democratic consent. SDLP led. Sinn Féin followed. For decades we called for an end to violence. SDLP led. Sinn Féin followed. For decades we called for the three sets of relationships that are now at the core of the Good Friday agreement. SDLP led. Others followed.

More recently it was decommissioning. SDLP called for it as a requirement of the agreement. Sinn Féin followed. This year it is policing. SDLP have led. And I bet you know what I'm going to say next. That's right. Sinn Féin will follow! The best predictor of future Sinn Féin positions is current SDLP policy. It has been true about everything else and it will be true of policing.

Let me appeal to young people right across the community to play their part and consider the contribution that they can make. They can police this community in a fair and just manner for the reassurance of every citizen.

On the Policing Board we are delivering the new beginning in policing. A Police Service that will be acceptable, accessible and accountable to the whole community. We have seen responsibility and opportunity intersect and offer a new path forward. Not for the first time, the SDLP have been the pathfinders. And remember we are not alone in the struggle for progress.

We are the mainstream, in Ireland, in these islands, and in Europe. We are backed overwhelmingly by the collective democratic will of the Irish people as reflected by the presence today of leaders and Ministers from all the main parties in the South. People who have no recourse to arms, and who do not understand why any other political party needs recourse to arms or an army.

Against the odds we have made the art of persuasion politics work. With that proud record, and our positive outlook, the SDLP is as necessary today as when it was founded.

As we emerge from the curfew of the decommissioning gridlock and walk into the sunlight promised by the Good Friday agreement, it becomes clear that the SDLP's work is far from over. Immediately, we will seek to put in place those remaining aspects of the agreement not yet implemented. In particular we will give voice to the mainstreams in Ireland through an all-Ireland consultative forum and an all-Ireland parliamentary forum. This forum will bring together all the parties of all the people of Ireland.

In that way it will embody the will of the Irish people as reflected in the referendum. We will also ensure that the joint committee of the representatives of the two human rights commissions is set up so that any abuse of human rights on this island is targeted. An immediate task will be the establishment of the charter of human rights open to signature by all democratic political parties, protecting the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland.

Yes, we have, after 30 years of toil, created the institutions and the climate for fair and democratic politics. But recognise that there are still fears out there. Traditional fears, new fears, economic fears, community fears and cultural fears. Deep, deep in me I believe that it is our job to remove those fears. It is our duty to understand those fears and then work steadfastly to remove any reason for those fears. That is the essence of politics, that is the task of the persuaders. Our task.

The fears are not alone: There is deep and real hurt in this community and felt in the hearts and homes of some of you here today. It is very important at this time of change and opportunity where we have seen the process recover some progress to recognise that even our well-meant talk of moving on can cause mixed and difficult emotions for victims who have suffered harm themselves or lost loved ones.

I met a woman in this very hotel a few weeks ago whose son was killed during the life of the peace process. She told me about the beauty of his smile. She told me about the duty of his service. She told me about the brutality of his murder. She told me a bout the cruelty and futility of her private grief in the midst of big public advances. She even told me of her sense of guilt as she smothered under hurt in an atmosphere of hope. That woman spoke for all victims, and I wish she could speak to all politicians and all parties. This party will not ghettoise victims as others do but we will never patronise victims either.

I want to tell you delegates this: As party leader I have taken my first decision. It is one I hope that you will unanimously endorse. It is unprecedented in the history of this party. I have received an invitation to address in eight days time the North Down Unionist Association. I have accepted it. To listen to the other person's point of view and to explain our point of view is the essence of politics. And it will be a cornerstone of my leadership.

Taking office in this party is a doddle compared to taking office in the Assembly. I am confident that when I walk out into this hotel lobby, I will not be met with the same response that we were greeted with in the Great Hall in Stormont. It didn't look good. "What's past is prologue" wrote Shakespeare; and that's how I see it.

It is a prologue to a whole new constructive, mutually reassuring chapter of government. It is a prologue to good government. It is a prologue to the best government this part of Ireland has ever had. It is a prologue to new governance for the island as a whole. It is a prologue to peace and reconciliation.

The pro-agreement view now has a compelling majority both inside and outside the Assembly. We have a first class Executive. I'd prefer Peter and Nigel both DUP ministers to come in from the cold. It is in the interests of their voters and, believe me, they know that as much as I do, but that is their decision. No matter, we will offer good government. It's what the people want and deserve. It's what we're going to deliver. Especially as we enter a period of global economic uncertainty, people want their government to offer stability and they want their politics to guarantee peace.

As a party of government we must, with others, manage this region out of recession. We must do so imaginatively yet prudently. We must use whatever power we have in the interest of all, not the few. In so doing we will deliver change for all and change for good. Using all our leadership instincts and using all that the agreement offers us, we will create a new society and a new country.

This will be a place one day where politics will have nothing to do with different religions but where politics will be about the betterment for themselves and fairness for others that people of all religions actually pray for.

This will be a community where the only thing any child will have to worry about going to school will be the traffic. This will be a society where it will be comfortable to be sick and secure to be old. This will be a democracy where human rights are effectively protected, not affectedly protested.

This will be a region where opportunity is created and shared and community is developed in partnership. This will be an economy where it will be good to start a business, good to do business, good for trade unions to do the business of enhancing working conditions for themselves and living conditions for others.

This will be a province where some day a garda will score for Donegal and another young policeman will score for the county we are in today. This is a land whose beauty, natural resources, environment and culture will be protected for the generations that come after us.

This will be a country which will not only cherish its own diversity but provide welcome, warmth, welfare and work to those who have had to escape the circumstances of other lands. This will be a nation united in democracy, bound by peace and ordered by human rights and social justice. Where nationalism and unionism will rhyme. This will be a greater Europe of ever more stable peace and sustainable prosperity.

This will be a world that wages war on the evils of global poverty, hunger and disease to uphold the humanity of all its citizens whatever their colour, creed, class or continent. This is the party whose mission is to secure all this and more.

SDLP, lead on.

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