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Speech by Alasdair McDonnell to SDLP Annual Conference, 10 November 2012

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Text: Alasdair McDonnell ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Alasdair McDonell, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), at the SDLP annual conference, City Hotel, Armagh, (Saturday 10 November 2012)


"My friends, delegates, distinguished guests, throughout all our debates and discussions over the last two days, a single theme keeps emerging ... Before I go there let me take a few minutes to reflect on the heart breaking events of a few days ago. Four days ago, Mrs Yvonne Black and her children Kyle and Kyra buried David, a much loved, husband and father who was brutally and callously murdered as he went to work. The people behind this evil murder have nothing to offer us; Politically or in any other way. There are many issues on which politicians might divide in our community but on this core issue, we stand shoulder to shoulder in our condemnation of this heinous murder.

The people behind this murder claim to carry out these acts in the name of Ireland. Have they learnt nothing from our island's troubled past? Violence achieves nothing but pain, heartache and loss and pits neighbour against neighbour. We in the SDLP have always believed there is a better way - a better way to a better Ireland. Just as in the past others have slowly come round to share our point of view, we will continue to do all that we can to persuade those out there in the political wilderness.

Our view is simple. It's time for Ireland to regain its sense of pride and its sense of self confidence as an island, as a nation, as a vital part of Europe and a key player in the wider world. We in the SDLP have vision and ambition - serious ambition - for all the people of Ireland, from every tradition and every community, because we believe that you deserve better.

We have a vision of a society founded on progressive values, where prosperity is encouraged, but financial institutions must operate ethically; where the state takes care of, the sick, the elderly, the poor and the vulnerable; where every child is valued and a good quality education is guaranteed for all.

Friends, I am immensely proud of the political legacy that we have inherited. I am proud of the SDLP - the party you've elected me to lead, I am proud that we stand for compassion, respect, equality, social justice and prosperity.

I am proud that we are now stronger than we've been in years and I know we will come through this new and challenging phase of politics even stronger. Above all I am proud of the values the SDLP brought to politics here a generation ago. Those values are eternal even though we may express them differently over time.

In the new phase of politics, in our ambition, I believe we must express our values in terms of respect, equality, prosperity for all. As the people of Carrick Hill in North Belfast have shown us - respect has the potential to be the master key to unlocking entrenched positions. A simple request for respect threatens no one and if reciprocated, and that's the critical element, can be the key to a wider and deeper process of reconciliation.

Respect touches upon everything we do. Any society which wants people to enjoy respect and equality cannot let government push through savage welfare cuts; Cuts that will consolidate and entrench inequality for a generation. There is a tough battle to be fought for Social Justice - for and on behalf of all the marginalised, the disrespected and the disadvantaged in our communities - we can win this battle. And I promise you - We will win this battle.

Last year you elected me to lead this great party of ours, you put your trust in me to renew the SDLP. I intend to do so!

Today I am delighted to be able to tell you that the SDLP fight back is well underway. We are re-energised and well prepared for electoral battle again.

We are not just increasing our presence in this Great City of Armagh where the First ever Lord Mayor is our very own Sharon Haughey. We are rebuilding a renewed presence right across the North and far beyond.

We now have some 40 new local representatives, enthusiastically assisting and supporting our existing councillors and establishing good representation in those areas where we lacked a presence. We have vibrant, vital groups in Dublin, In London and in Brussels supporting the party with their time, their money and their ideas, we are truly on the move again.

The truth is, and everyone inside this room and outside it knows it - we are much stronger than we were a year ago.

A resurgent SDLP is taking on the tough issues, rejecting the stagnation of a complacent and paralysed executive at Stormont. Let there be no mistake - Doing that has major implications not just for our members. It has Major implications for Dublin, for London and Major implications for everyone with an interest in the future well-being of this island.

Fourteen long years ago we recast our political relationships within these islands to create a Peace Process. Our devolved institutions have established the stability threshold from which we can make real social and economic progress. But in order to realize our full potential, I believe that further recasting of relationships is necessary - I believe that we now need a Prosperity Process which will provide a better life for all our people.

We need a new dynamic relationship with Government in London that allows us, maximum devolved control of our own economic destiny and provides us with all the tools necessary to rebalance our economy.

We need a new dynamic relationship with Government in Dublin that allows us to maximize the full potential of north-south co-operation and to widen and deepen the all-Island economy at every level.

For us there can be no boundary between Peace and Prosperity - for us the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement will only be realized when we have created prosperity and a better life for all our people.

Since the Assembly reconvened in September the SDLP has already made a marked difference. When the DUP and Sinn Fein get it wrong, we will challenge them. We will challenge their stagnant strategies on the floor of the Assembly. Our work in calling Nelson McCausland to account on parades, and on the Welfare Reform Bill, Our work in actually making decisions in the Executive, have sent out a message about the way the SDLP will operate from here on in:

We will bring new ideas to the Assembly and to the Executive in the form of private members bills. We are a watchdog within the Executive through our Minister Alex Atwood, we will face the difficult decisions head on. And our watchdogss bite is every bit as bad as his bark.

The First Minister uses honeyed words about normalising Stormont and moving out of orange-and-green politics to left-and-right as a means of tricking voters into somehow thinking that a return to unionist domination under Peter is in their best interests. That isn't innovation. That’s just sectarianism with a fresh lick of paint.

In the deputy First Minister's office, there's even less progress. His party is paralysed into dithering indecision, by the fear, not only of what the SDLP are doing, but fear of upsetting their bed fellows in the DUP.

All the false set ups, phoney fights and mock arguments of the last month are nothing more than a fig leaf, designed to reassure supporters on both sides, that the DUP and SF are still the tough kids in the playground. But the time for playing school boy politics has long gone.

Friends - politics should be based on equality - a principle the SDLP has held dear since its foundation - But do you Remember the 'Ireland of Equals'? It was quickly forgotten by Conor Murphy when he was running Northern Ireland Water and, according to the Fair Employment tribunal, he rejected the candidate for Chairman because, 'the Candidate was a protestant.'

Since that case two more Ministers from his party now stand accused of falling far short of what is required in making honest appointments to public bodies. How's that for respect? How's that for equality? How's that for civil rights?

Sinn Fein continue to try to re write history. They will try to lay claim to the 'civil rights movement' just like they corrupted the term 'republican'. During their 40 year murderous campaign they sullied both these great ideals. Conference - we won't stand for it. The SDLP always was - and always will be - the party of civil rights for all, not jobs for the boys.

Serious questions must also be asked of the Alliance Party. Ever since they were gerrymandered into two seats at the Executive table by Peter and Martin, David Ford and his party have been the lapdogs of the two big boys. How else can you explain their vote against a human rights assessment of the impact of welfare reform? How else can you explain their attack on the mobility of third level students? You certainly can't explain it in terms of principles.

This kind of paralysis can never deliver anything for our society.

We have no interest in perpetuating paralysis. We will continue to engage with, listen to and work with the civic and business communities, trade unions and the community and voluntary sectors so that we understand even better the issues that continue to betray the tremendous potential which exists in Northern Ireland.

Top of the list is Jobs - sustainable job creation. And protecting our small businesses is at the core of that. We reject the assertions by the Executive that they are doing all they can to create jobs. The Economic Package just announced with great fanfare is a welcome step. It is only right that the Executive refocuses spending in the direction of job creation but when you scratch the surface - specific details are few and far between. And there is little to nothing in the way of new ideas or new money.

If they are doing all they can to protect and create jobs - then they are not up to the job. If they are not doing all they can, then shame on them.

What our young people really need is hope for their future not to find themselves borrowing even more money to buy a plane ticket to far off shores like Australia, in search of work.

It doesn't have to be like this. Jobs can be created. Jobs must be created.

There are tried and tested ideas in the Green New Deal with the potential to create thousands of new jobs.

A small reduction in fuel duty will save hundreds of jobs and create hundreds more.

The jobs potential from Tourism is enormous. The visitors we need to build a thriving Tourism industry are already coming to the island of Ireland - 7 million of them every year. 5 million come in through Dublin, only an hour's drive from Armagh. But how many ever cross the border?

In our town centres, we have small retail businesses going to the wall. Remember - protecting and supporting those businesses, protects jobs and protects the communities they serve. That is why the SDLP will be rolling out our own regeneration action plans for urban centres and rural towns and communities.

It's about taking the best of the ideas that are out there and winning local buy-in for action.

Our towns and communities across the North face another and more immediate threat - our elderly, our disabled, our disadvantaged are all at their wits end, wondering how they are going to afford to face the next day with the savage welfare cuts the Tories are trying to impose here - with some local help.

This is totally and utterly unacceptable.

Yes, there is a case for reform of the welfare system to limit abuses and to focus available funds on those most in need. But you know and I know, that's not what this reform is all about.

We have a much higher dependency on welfare here, for a variety of valid reasons - decades of underinvestment; severe under provision of child care - and the legacy of the Troubles with people still suffering from injuries, debilitating physical or mental distress as the result of a needless conflict.

And now we have Iain Duncan Smith proposing a benefit cut off after the birth of a second child. The last time we heard that idea it was from Basil Brooke in the 40s. That makes me angry.

It also makes me angry to hear the verbal somersaults of Sinn Fein spokesmen trying to convince voters that they're really against the Welfare Reform Bill while all the time doing little to oppose it.

Here is a message to Alex Maskey and Fra McCann. If you really are against the bill - just vote against it. Sometimes politics is that simple.

People want a bit of clarity and certainty out of politics. Parents want clarity and certainty about their children's education.

Will their child be able to get a free pre-school place in their own neighbourhood? Will their local primary school have a place for their child? Will their school be properly resourced and maintained? On a day when thousands of 10 and 11 year old children are sitting unofficial exams - many of them doing them 4 Saturdays in a row, parents are asking - will the selection fiasco ever end?

We are working to ensure, that all parents expectations are met. People need clarity and certainty about healthcare too. Make no mistake - The SDLP is firmly focused on spotting and stamping out creeping privatisation of our health service.

We don't shy away from taking the fight to Westminster. We go to Westminster, where there is a job to be done and people's interests to be protected - because it is always better to have influence on the inside, rather than posturing on the outside.

And we build influence wherever we work:- Just look at Margaret Ritchie working tirelessly for farmers on the DEFRA committee in Westminster - Mark Durkan fighting for stronger credit unions and better regulated banks - And my own efforts on your behalf to secure the reduction and devolution of Air Passenger Duty.

And we will continue to work closely with our friends in the British Labour Party particularly the Shadow Secretary of State, Vernon Coaker, whom it was a privilege to hear speak to us earlier and who has always been a friend to the SDLP as long as I have known him.

Delegates, East-West is important but North-South Relationships and Development are absolutely vital.

North-South works because this engagement ensures that the People in the South recognises and sees, first-hand, the opportunities in the North - They see our strengths and our weaknesses, economically, socially, politically and culturally, and they know where we can complement each other.

North-South development makes absolute sense, in so many areas of our lives. We firmly believe this island of ours can be so much more prosperous as a result. Whether it's in providing space for cross-border healthcare or education, shared telecommunications or a common energy strategy. We must work together, north and south, in the mutual interest of the whole island. Just look at the all-island energy market.

In terms of better North-South links - there is no greater symbol than the Narrow Water Bridge.

And let me just remind you that it was in the mid 1970s that the SDLP first proposed this bridge.

Can I pay tribute to all the representatives, all the Members and all the Party Activists who fought for and made this aspiration a reality. This is a victory for the SDLP. A victory for its values. In years to come Narrow Water Bridge will stand as a proud symbol of unity. Particularly Unity of purpose.

14 years after we proposed it, the North-South Parliamentary Association is finally bringing together legislators from Stormont and the Oireachtas to find common cause on serious issues that affect the whole island.

Within the north, the job of driving north south cooperation is increasingly being left to us. It is not enough to have Ministers and the Executive going through the motions and ticking boxes. We need to realise the practical mutual benefit as is being done with Paediatric Cardiac Surgery and can be done in the wider health care field.

The manifest reluctance of Arlene Foster to engage with Leo Varadkar's plans for "The Gathering" - a year-long tourist drive aimed at bringing home Ireland's global diaspora - was staggering in its lack of vision. The potential tourist revenue that could be generated for the North on the back of The Gathering seems to pass her by.

North South cooperation is far too important to be left to the vagaries of party politics.

We welcome the fact that others now recognise that there is more to achieve but the decades of democratic struggle show that when Dublin political parties are at one, real progress can be achieved. Peace and Progress have been well served in previous days by this approach.

In this new phase of Irish politics now opening up, we will be asking all the parties of Democratic Nationalism on the island of Ireland to reaffirm their commitment to a joint approach to building a better future, a future which has respect, equality, reconciliation, social justice and prosperity at its core.

It is only through unity of purpose in the present, that we can ever hope for national unity in the future.

On the 1st of January, Ireland will take over the presidency of the European Union's council once again. We are well advanced in our discussions with Dublin about how we can work together to ensure the whole island benefits from the opportunity of this stewardship. We in the SDLP are proud and committed Europeans as well as being proud Irishmen and women.

When we look to Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the EU has proved to be one of the great peace builders of our time - as recognised last month by the Nobel Peace Prize. Our party was once led by another of the great peace-builders of our time, recognised not just with a Nobel Prize but also a Papal Knighthood, I am humbled to ask conference to take a moment to acknowledge the presence of our hero and good friend John Hume here today.

We have a lot to offer Europe, both as a party and as a nation.

Northern Ireland deserves so much better than a group of anti-European MEPs half-heartedly representing us when we could be making much more of our position, On Agriculture and CAP reform.

So let me tell you here and now: the SDLP is determined to win back our European seat in 2014! And let me tell you - we will.

Conference, Everything I have said points in one direction - We are moving into a new phase of politics on this island. And let's be clear - We will not be thwarted by the evil attempts of a tiny minority. Just as we weren't thwarted in the past.

Delegates in my opinion, it is time now for the reconciliation and prosperity process which has been so neglected, to truly begin.

Victims deserve the truth.

If Sinn Fein are serious about a process of reconciliation and truth, let them start with telling the truth.

The protection of the peace process has been used as a barrier to progress on truth and Reconciliation issues, issues which really matter. We need real reconciliation and effective Government. Enough gestures and photo calls at sporting events from Peter and Martin! Unless they are backed up with sustained leadership and genuine credible moves towards long term reconciliation, they become cynical and serve as a barrier to meaningful reconciliation between the people of the North.

Where is the meaningful progress on CSI strategy? The SDLP is very clear - we want to make use of our hard won peace and stability to move on and create equality and prosperity for all. We want to recast our relationships to give us the power to create prosperity.

In this new phase we will begin to see the shape of a New Ireland emerging.

A very different Ireland from the Ireland of the past or the one we know today - We need to make sure it is the New Ireland we have campaigned for throughout our party's history. A prosperous New Ireland for all - that treasures all the children of this Island equally.

Where fear is removed - and where we can proactively reach out to the Unionist community to show that, as proud and confident Irish people, we fully respect their sense of Britishness, but more than that, far beyond flags and labels, we respect and will fight for them and their families right to live at peace in a land of prosperity, of equality, of social justice.

Today I want you all, each and every one of you, to go back to your constituency, your branches, and your communities and work with me to rebuild the SDLP and do what is necessary to get us back at the heart of Government again.

I know that we will in days to come be proud to look back on our work and the achievements we made for all the people of Ireland and finally say, in words yearned for through our party's history,"We have overcome".

Thank you all very much indeed."


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