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Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, speech to annual conference, 2 November 2002

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Text: Mark Durkan ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Mark Durkan MLA, SDLP leader to the 32nd SDLP Annual Conference, Armagh City Hotel, Armagh, Saturday 2 November 2002

When I stood before you last year, I stood as the new Deputy First Minister and the new leader of the SDLP. Today, I only stand before you with only one title - and it’s the more important one.

And, of course, my predecessor as SDLP leader still carries the best title in Irish politics: John Hume.

I stand before you today proud to be the leader of a party of truth.

Privileged to be leader of a party of vision

Proud to be leader of the party of leadership.

A party of radical thought and firm resolve that has been both an anchor for stability and an engine for change.

The party that in the midst of inertia, intransigence and injustice, generated the approaches and proposals which formed the Good Friday Agreement.

The party that upholds the Agreement in spite of prevarication and provocation.

While others show no end of political neck, the SDLP are the backbone of the Agreement. In its negotiation. In its implementation. In the development of its potential.

Before we address the crisis of the moment in the Agreement, let us not forget that its institutions were working, delivering for all the people. Issues and ideas that would not have seen the light of day under direct rule were being promoted, particularly by SDLP Ministers and MLA’s.

Not only was Foot and Mouth successfully combated, a new vision for agriculture and the rural community was presented and the strategy to realize it was being put in place. Not only were student grants reintroduced - and further improved in the recent draft budget - the fees barrier was lifted for thousands of higher education students and abolished for further education students. Not only were we legislating for a Children’s Commissioner with world leading powers, we were developing a Children’s strategy and established the Children’s Fund. Not only did we make health, education and infrastructure our budget priorities, we created the Executive Programme Funds.

And we instigated the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative. Not only did this give us a borrowing power to provide the investment that we need in infrastructure and key public services such as the regional cancer centre, it also delivered a normalisation dividend with the free transfer of military bases to the Executive for civilian use.

I could go and on about our achievements in the Assembly - and too often do.

But it was not on the Executive alone that we delivered change. On the Policing Board, Alex Attwood, Joe Byrne and Eddie McGrady are drivers of the Patten agenda. Their task as champions of Patten was made harder by the fact that the parties opposed to change had extra seats courtesy of Sinn Fein. And yet they have delivered more change in the last year than in the previous eighty put together.

We can show the change that we won by making the Board work and making Patten happen. What would we have to show if instead we had followed Sinn Fein’s stance? The Patten reforms stalled. The RUC still there with its old badge. The Union Jack still flying. The old Police Authority in place. Nuala O’Loan’s Omagh report ignored. Special Branch still unaccountable. Ronnie Flanagan still in post. Loyalist paramilitaries still untouched.

The SDLP could not and would not allow that to happen. Unlike Sinn Fein, we are not in the business of aiding and abetting those who oppose change.

Sinn Fein says that it will not take seats on the Board until Patten is fully implemented. But how did Patten say that much of his report should be implemented? And by whom did he say his report should be implemented? To borrow a phrase, by the Policing Board, stupid!

And it gets more bizarre:

  • Sinn Fein are quick to wrap themselves in the inclusivity of the Executive. Yet the excluded themselves from the same inclusivity model on the Board.

  • Sinn Fein claims to want human rights. Yet they tolerate the IRA's brutal back street justice.

  • Sinn Fein claims to want an end to loyalist terror. Yet they will not encourage people to cooperate with the police in bringing it about.

Not resting on what we have already achieved, the SDLP is on to the challenges still in hand. We must carry through Patten’s agenda for dealing with Special Branch. We must have better protection of vulnerable communities coming under attack - and more prosecutions of those responsible. Further progress is needed in closing down loyalist paramilitaries - who continue to pose the greatest threat.

But we are confident that we can achieve this. After all, while Sinn Fein does the loud shouting, even they are relying on us to do the heavy lifting on delivering Patten.

Make no mistake, we signed up to the Agreement and its commitment to work in good faith to ensure the success of each and every one of its arrangements.

That included the policing arrangements coming from the Agreement as much as its political institutions. And we are the only party to do so. Sinn Fein is not on the Board. The DUP is not at the Executive or the NSMC. As for the UUP, they delayed the establishment of the institutions, impeded their operation and threatened serial withdrawal. David tells us that this is all part of his plan to save the Agreement. But it’s about as effective as Dermot Nesbitt’s intervention to save Seamus Heaney’s house.

When leaders claim to defend that which they assault, it causes confusion among their own supporters and consternation among ours.

But, of course, suspension was not brought about just the high-handed antics of some, but also underhand tactics from others.

In these difficult days of suspension, I know it is not easy to see beyond the dark clouds that have fallen over the political process. But we must focus on the prize.

I am reminded this afternoon of the words of President Clinton here in Armagh four years ago: “The question is not if the peace will be challenged - you know it will. The question is, how will you respond when it is challenged.”

Our role is not to point the finger of blame - it is to point the way forward. And any frustration must give way to a determination that, having contributed nothing to the crisis, we will contribute everything to its resolution.

Our approach has been clear-headed and sure footed. The Assembly might be suspended, but the Agreement is not. The two Governments have to press ahead implementing it. To reassure the pro-Agreement constituency that it is being upheld. To show anti-Agreement politicians that they cannot veto its democratically mandated changes.

As a result:

  • The changes to policing will continue, and further advance. The legislative changes promised to the SDLP at Weston Park will be brought forward within the next few weeks.

  • The North-South implementation bodies will work on, just as the departments do.

  • The two Governments will carry forward the Agreement's implementation through the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

Anti-Agreement politicians please note: you may be able to collapse the Assembly but you cannot collapse the Agreement. London and Dublin will work together more closely and deeply than ever before to ensure its implementation.

The SDLP has been clear: we will not deviate from the Agreement. Nor will it be renegotiated. As the party that negotiated the principle and model of inclusivity - that stuck by it throughout the talks and since - we will not depart from it either under threat from others or in pretense of renegotiation. How do we solve the problems that we face? It’s the Agreement, stupid!

Exclusion might be seen as a short term fix to the problems of a political party. But it would not have secured a long term foundation for the Agreement. It would not have resolved any of the underlying confidence issues. It would not have brought us any closer to the Agreement’s full implementation.

To achieve this, we need all of the parties dealing with all of the issues and bringing forward all of the Agreement for all of the people.

There is not just one confidence issue - and the confidence questions do not run only in one direction.

Nationalists have reason to question the “now you see it now you don’t” pro-Agreement leadership of unionism. And nationalists are perplexed when they compare indignant unionist reaction to republican violence with the indifferent response to loyalism’s relentless attacks on Catholics. These anxieties are not allayed when unionist condemnation of loyalist violence appears more concerned about feuding or serves as little more than a cue for further and bigger criticism of republicans.

Unionists have genuine confidence issues too. The continued existence and activity of the IRA, marked by a series of events and allegations, has only served to unnerve pro-Agreement unionists and undermine the institutions. There is no point in dismissing such concerns as a figment of unionist paranoia. Nor do formulaic denials suffice:

  • Martin was in the IRA, but Mitchel didn't know.

  • IRA men in Florida were buying, but the IRA didn't know.

  • Sinn Fein had a representative in Cuba, but Sinn Fein didn't know.

  • Now Gerry does know he wasn't in the IRA. It's just that nobody else knows.

Too many of these denials beg another obvious question: does anybody actually believe them?

Many people, whether unionist or nationalist, have real doubts as to whether political parties are still up for the Agreement and whether the political process is up to its requirements.

Even how the process is managed raises confidence issues. I do not believe that the confidence drop is in the Agreement itself. People are not vexed by the Executive, disturbed by the Assembly, or outraged by the NSMC. It is more about the way that Governments appear to be running after paramilitaries. Humouring hard men and bartering bits of the Agreement and things not in the Agreement. Private lines to private armies will not restore the necessary confidence. Privatising aspects of the Agreement to problem causing parties is no way to uphold the Agreement.

Now I don’t read problem pages but I know that agony aunts tell us that in emotional relationships the power rests with those who care less. Maybe so. But in a serious framework for democratic accommodation and reconciliation, the power cannot be allowed to rest with the parties who care less.

  • Those who care less for inclusion

  • Those who care little about the new beginning to policing.

  • Those who care least about non-violence and exclusively peaceful means.

  • Those who care nothing for justice and equality.

  • Or those who don't really give a damn about the Agreement.

The approach that gave the Agreement is the approach that will save the Agreement.

We need all of the parties around the table to deal with all of the confidence issues. And there can be no argument or ambiguity about the fact that sustaining and developing the Agreement into the future requires an end to paramilitarism.

It is not just a matter of individual party leaders envisaging a future without individual armed groups. We need to collectively affirm that the Agreement entails a future without paramilitaries. Each of them specifically and all of them collectively.

In terms of parties being able to assure each other and the public that they are still all on for all of the Agreement, how better to do that than to agree an implementation compact that sets out a programme for the delivery and fulfillment of all outstanding provisions of the Agreement.

Let us round up every aspect of the Agreement not yet delivered or developed and determine the agreed means and timescales for their total implementation.

There are all too many. But to name a few: the Bill of Rights. The All-Ireland Charter of Rights. The Criminal Justice Review. The North/South Parliamentary Forum. Getting the British/Irish Parliamentary Forum on a proper footing. There is still shortfall in the social, economic and cultural provisions and the Agreement’s promise to victims has yet to be fully honoured.

In moving to fulfill the entire prospectus of the Agreement, let us look to the bigger horizons of its full outworking and not just the tensions of working out immediate next steps.

For instance, let all parties and both Governments agree a clear path for the devolution of policing and justice powers. That would be a huge statement on two counts.

  • First, that we have completed the new beginning to policing.

  • Second, that we have such confidence in the stability of the institutions and their participants that policing and justice responsibilities could join our other functions. It would also allow us to improve significantly the scope of cooperation and implementation under the North South Ministerial Council.

And why not let us have it all? That way, when we come back from crisis - and we will come back - there will be no more breakdowns waiting to happen, no more blocks further on up the road, no more pending excuses for walk-outs or stand-offs.

The SDLP have also called for the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation to be reconvened. It can add real value to the work that I have just outlined.

First, it reminds those who need it that the Agreement was mandated by the people of Ireland, North and South.

Second, it can clarify for those who need it that an end to republican paramilitaries is not just a negative demand of unionism or an unwarranted insistence by the British Government. It is a positive requirement of the people of Ireland and the Agreement they mandated.

Third, there are unfinished business and unfulfilled expectations from the Forum’s previous work. Would it really be unhelpful to hear again from victims who contributed so compellingly the last time but whose grief and grievance is still far from healing? What would be wrong with giving a platform to the social partners at a time when suspension hits the Civic Forum too?

When the Forum met before, Sinn Fein would not agree the principle of consent. But when they accepted the Agreement, they accepted consent. Meeting now, the Forum could conclude definitively on it.

As leader of a party that has always believed in unity by consent and did more to achieve the Agreement than any other let me be clear:

I am 100% for a United Ireland.

I am 100% for the Agreement. Neither diminishes nor qualifies the other.

I can also state that I know others who are 100% for the Union with Britain and also 100% for the Agreement. That’s the strength of the Agreement. It offers a democratic common denominator between unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican.

For the SDLP, the Agreement is a covenant of honour between two legitimate traditions on this island. Its principles and its provisions must prevail for all, regardless of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

The Agreement provides for a referendum on the question of a United Ireland. If a majority of people in the North vote for a United Ireland, then there will be a United Ireland. That is what the Agreement provides.

But the SDLP is clear that in that United Ireland, the Agreement will endure. The institutions in the North will stand. The British Irish structures will continue. The equality guarantees and human rights protections will continue.

Our vision of a United Ireland is based on equality. The SDLP believes that the rights, protections, and inclusion that nationalists sought within Northern Ireland, while it is in the United Kingdom, must equally be guaranteed to unionists within a United Ireland.

We want the Forum to endorse this vision. And we hope that unionists can then see the Agreement in this fuller light. That the Agreement is not temporary. It is not tactical. It is not transitional. Nor is unity about the entrapment of a new minority.

Taken together, an implementation compact from all-party talks and the understanding that the Forum can declare will secure the Agreement, for good and for all.

We are not seeking a return of the institutions as an end in itself.

A new solidity for the institutions will be the foundations for the new solidarity that we have to create in this society.

We can bridge community divides, overcome border barriers and keep narrowing the gap between what ought to be and what is.

We seek not merely a peace of politicians. We need a peace of the people. It is not enough to share an Executive, Assembly or Councils. We have to share the streets. The playgrounds. The sports stands. In short, we have to share society together.

It is not just sectarian violence that it unacceptable, it is any form of sectarian prejudice. We have to eradicate sectarian confrontation at the interface and sectarian colloquialism around the fireplace.

Just as the SDLP works to build community through partnership, we strive for opportunity through social justice. We want the institutions back so that we can get back to our strategy for investing in public services and infrastructure and developing new approaches across government that serve local need and support local endeavour. We have to change the North with an ever more competitive economy and an ever more equal society.

Indicator after indicator shows us that people have all too different life experiences and expectations, depending on where they live, where they work. Or where they live and are less likely to work. We have to use the powers we hold radically if we are to eliminate these differences. If we do not, we will not be making the difference that we are in politics to make.

And as part of the Party of European Socialists, we are not just out to eradicate inequality and injustice in our own country, but for all parts and peoples of the world.

That is the high test that we set for ourselves. So much for the Stoop Down Low tag.

We never stooped to violence.

We never stooped to discrimination.

We never stooped to indulge sectarianism.

We never stooped to oppose partnership and frustrate democracy.

In fact, the only times the SDLP stooped down low was to pick up the pieces of the wreckage caused by the violence and intransigence of others.

This party in its first generation has stood resolutely for the vision and values which are the bedrock of the hope on which everybody now stands.

I am asking a new generation of young party members to recognise in themselves the same strength of conviction, courage and character to promote the ideas and ideals, which will unfold a new political landscape.

I say to you ask both what the Agreement can do for you and what you can do for the Agreement.

Stand under the SDLP’s banner of opportunity through social justice, community through partnership and unity through peace.

Stand tall against prejudice so that parents will no longer have to answer questions from their children about sectarian catcalls.

Stand determined for an education system that will not fail children in the future with structures that are socially divisive and educationally unsound.

Stand up for public services and the investment needed so that they are not just maintained on a par with past provision here but developed on a par with the best in Europe.

Stand out for a society with responsive government where sorting and coordinating the different services supposed to support a child with disability does not have to be yet another job for the child’s parents.

Stand proud for a truly inclusive society, where no voice is too young to be heard or too old to count.

Stand firm for a new culture of policing so that elderly people can be safe in their homes, young people can be safe on the streets and new recruits can be safe to serve.

Stand resolute for human rights so that there will no more beatings, no more bombs and no more bullets, lead or plastic.

Stand strong with trade unions as they protect workers’ rights and promote growth and fairness in the wider economy.

Stand part of the bigger and better Europe that is our future.

Stand by the hope we invested in the Agreement when we reached out and grasped the moment.

Stand for the opportunity it still offers us all.

Stride forward for unity in our island, prosperity in our community and peace in our society.

Work with me and we will write a brand new script for a brand new society.

Walk with me, and in this new century we will reach a new country.

SDLP lead on.

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