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Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, to Annual Conference, 12 February 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 City Hotel, Derry, Saturday 12 February 2005


It is my privilege and pleasure to address Conference for the third time as Party Leader.

I have to say, I thought leading this party was hard work until I tried parenthood. Whatever about "Stronger", I certainly feel "Sleepier". Pat Hume said last week that Dearbháil is beautiful - and that she is my double. I told her she might be one or the other, but she could hardly be both. Jackie and I know just how deeply we have been blessed and we want to thank you for your many kind cards, gifts and prayers.

To those of you who have travelled to be here today, I am delighted to welcome you to Derry; a city that is moving in the right direction, but needs the certainty of political stability to get there faster.

The constituency where, for twenty two years, John Hume has been a tireless champion for us all as our MP. And where, with your help and hard work, I will succeed him in May.

One of the places where, a generation ago, people of all ages and different backgrounds - many of whom are in this room today - rose against injustice, prejudice and deprivation. Marched for fair treatment and equal opportunities for all. Brought our community out of grievance and into governance. And changed the face of our society for ever.

The first SDLP generation can lay claim to many achievements. But perhaps above all, they gave my generation - and others that have followed - renewed reason to believe in the power of peaceful democracy. And gave northern nationalism moral authority, political leverage and an equality-based social agenda.

This is a legacy that no other party can claim - no matter how hard they might try to re-write history or forget their own past.

Our mission was job creation when the provisional movement were killing job creators. We provided the heartbeat for economic development when they were blowing the heart and soul out of Derry city centre and town centres across the North.

Not only did we stand strong by what we believed in, we succeeded in persuading others to change what they believed in as well.

As John and Seamus - our two great persuaders - prepare to step down from public life, we thank them. They kept their promise to this nation of an agreed Ireland - secured in peace, worked by democratic partnership and inspired by the best hopes of its diverse people. This party can assure them that, while there might be other pretenders, we will be the keepers of that promise for the next generation.

Of course, they didnít lead alone. SDLP councillors were upholding our vision through dismal and hurtful political times in the unrewarding field of local government. To those councillors who are standing down, we pay thanks for your public service and community leadership. And to those who are going forward again, along with promising new candidates, we pledge our support as you carry the banner for social democracy and stand up for the good name of northern nationalism.

Remember when we first entered local government. With a radical agenda for reform. Promoting power-sharing politics and community partnership.

Unionist parties continually rejected our approach as destabilising and even subversive. Sinn Fein and the IRA attacked it as collaboration and "empty politics".

Now they all say theyíre all on for power-sharing. Peter Robinson thinks heís credible lecturing us on cross-community governance, in the same way as Gerry Adams thinks heís credible sermonising to us all on peace-building.

And sure, havenít we had the exact same experience in our participation in the policing arrangements, as we drive the implementation of the Patten vision.

Unionists saying weíre going too far; republicans saying weíre not going go far enough. Unionists denying that change is necessary; Sinn Fein denying that change is happening.

When we succeed in completing the delivery of our vision - the Patten plan - policing working for all, working with all - again it will be as if they never opposed it.

If we believe all weíre told about Decemberís so-called "Comprehensive Agreement" - and many of us were wise enough not to - then Sinn Feinís journey is taking them to "Destination Policing Board". Of course, the "Go to Policing Board" terms did not include anything like "Go directly to the Policing Board", "Do not pass Go, do not collect £200". Which people in the provisional movement obviously took to mean that they can grab all sorts of funds in all sorts of ways in the meantime.

Look at the way things are going in policing thanks to us. Look at the way other things are not going thanks to others. The reality is by the time Sinn Fein make it into the policing arrangements, the real work of Patten will be done.

Delivered by the SDLP and others, often in the face of unionist resistance. Real change being delivered by people of real courage. People who have had protestors outside their front doors and devices left at their back doors. Their cars burnt out and their office walls daubed with threats. Their families suffering intimidation and attack.

Obviously, they are bound to be afraid of what their role in the new beginning in policing means for them and their families. But they are more afraid of what it would mean for society and for all our families if they gave up.

So we stand strong - our resolve undiminished, our determination unbroken. In there not for the police. Not for politics. Not even just for Patten. But for people.

For people who suffer attack just because they are visibly vulnerable - whether they are elderly and living alone or migrant workers living away from home.

For people who, if they suffer a crime, wonít have to suffer more if they call the police.

For people who have seen the police do wrong and want it put right.

We put the people above all. We do not put ourselves above the people. That is the mark of our true republicanism. No party is stronger for peopleís rights. Peopleís dignity. Peopleís needs. No party fights harder for social justice, growth and equality.

A generation on from civil rights and our foundation, our mission is not yet done. Our message is clear. We are:

  • Stronger for change because we get in there to win it;
  • Stronger for the Agreement because we alone defend it;
  • Stronger for a united Ireland because only we have a strategy for it; and
  • Stronger for democracy because we donít believe weíre above the law or act as if we are the law.

    By these values we stand. Offering a better way to a better Ireland. We donít deviate on these principles, we deliver. Always true to what we stand for, always ready to face the new issues and shape and embrace new ideas to move our society, our economy and our country forward.

    For Sinn Fein, fresh new thinking is condemning dissidents as "out of touch" for doing things they used to do themselves - and still excuse when the need arises.

    Sinn Fein say they donít speak for the IRA or interpret IRA statements. But Gerry Adams said the IRA didnít do the latest family hostage robbery, or the ones before it.

    To those who think the IRA donít pull off robberies - they do. Thatís what they were doing in Adare when they killed Garda Jerry McCabe. Thatís what they were doing in Newry when they killed postal worker Frank Kerr. Each time Gerry denied. Each time Gerry lied. So Gerry, how can we believe you now? Why would we believe you over the Taoiseach, who has done so much for the peace process? Why would he say what he did unless he had the clearest and most convincing Garda intelligence in front of him?

    Now, Mitchel said it was a crime, because the IRA didnít do it.

    Then he said it wouldnít have been a crime if the IRA had done it, because the IRA donít do crime.

    As for Pat Doherty, he said it was a crime, but then asked "what is a crime?"

    Democratic Ireland can tell you what a crime is.

    Holding families hostage is a crime.

    Murdering a policeman or a postman is a crime.

    Abducting a mother of ten, and disappearing her body for over thirty years is a crime. Denying her the dignity of a Christian burial is as criminal as it is cruel.

    Sinn Fein appear to believe that the provisional movement and its members are above the law. The truth is so much of what they say and so many of their actions are beneath contempt.

    On Monday, Martin McGuinness said that Sinn Fein and the IRA have a "special relationship". But by Tuesday Pat Doherty said there was no connection at all. So to those who think there might be a solution in Sinn Fein saying they have severed their links with the IRA, I say they have already tried to give us that lie.

    The reason we are in this crisis is because the provisional movement has let down everybody who made leaps of faith in this process. So donít anyone think that the answer now is to ask us to make leaps of fiction.

    When their double-speak runs out and their lies just arenít believed, what do they seek cover in? Their mandate.

    But no nationalist voted for bank robberies.

    No nationalist voted for abductions or families being threatened with death.

    Yet Sinn Fein are citing the mandate they got from nationalist voters to excuse, deny, dismiss all sorts of crime. To deny that the IRA have done crimes. To deny that crime even is crime. All by quoting the votes lent to them by honest, upstanding nationalists. It angers me when Peter Robinson says that the nationalist community are voting to indulge paramilitarism and crime. It should anger and worry all nationalists when Sinn Feinís propaganda only goes to corroborate that misrepresentation of the good values and motives of the northís nationalists.

    All the time the damage the Agreement and play right into the DUPís destructive agenda.

    Now, before the last elections, they promised to put manners on the DUP and deliver the Agreement. Then, "Weíre up for the deal and the DUP are up for the deal", they told us.

    But what did they deliver?

    They handed the DUP sweeping new vetoes in the negotiations for the so-called "Comprehensive Agreement".

    They didnít just concede to the DUP - they colluded with them - to create a new automatic exclusion, to come in British legislation, to exclude any party like the SDLP that registers its legitimate difference with their new regime. In Annex B, Strand One, Paragraph 9, they created a mechanism for excluding others - not for doing any wrong, but for exercising a democratic right.

    Two principles underpin the inclusion provisions of the Agreement - respect for democratic mandate and respect for political difference. This DUP/Sinn Fein compact would have ripped those principles out of the Agreement.

    And their dodgy deal also pretended that other problems were sorted, while they were only stored up for further stand off.

    But why such a bad deal for nationalists and other democrats, given Sinn Feinís reputed negotiating skills? Why such a good deal for the DUP?

    Because Sinn Fein werenít negotiating for nationalist rights or for the national agenda.

    They had no interest in inclusion. They didnít care about any extra North South bodies. They werenít worried that devolution of justice wasnít tied down.

    It wasnít about standing up to the DUP for the nationalist public interest. It was about protecting the self-interest and self-image of the provisional movement:

    Their ex-prisoners on DPPs;

    An amnesty for their "On the Runs";

    A blind eye to their criminality; and

    No sight of their guns.

    And what was their "deal breaker"? Release of their Garda killing bank robbers.

    Thereís only one thing Sinn Fein are true to - their name. Sinn Fein means "Ourselves". Thatís all they care about. Thatís who and what they negotiate for. "Themselves".

    So much for their Ireland of equals.

    Sinn Fein talk a lot about their mandate and I respect it. But all the other parties in Ireland have mandates too and there is no mandate greater than that given by the Irish people to the Good Friday Agreement.

    So letís get all the parties of all the people of Ireland together at the Forum for Peace & Reconciliation. Letís affirm our support for the Agreement and in face of DUP corrosion. Letís express our determination to see its institutions restored and all paramilitarism ended. Criminality is not a Ďunionist issueí. It is not a ĎBritish issueí. It is an issue for the people of Ireland because our Good Friday Agreement is in danger of being destroyed by it.

    Letís set out the explicit standards of Irish democracy in the twenty first century. What better way for us all to tell the IRA: ĎDonít worry, we donít underestimate the seriousness of the situationí.

    We would also welcome the opportunity in a reconvened Forum to conclude on the outstanding business of Irish unity and consent, which could not be agreed when it met previously.

    As the party that has set the compass for democratic nationalist politics on this island, the SDLP is uniquely placed to deliver a united Ireland.

    We have the credibility to persuade the necessary majority in the North to vote for unity. Because our approach to unity doesnít threaten the Agreementís fundamentals and, therefore, there is no reason why it should threaten unionists.

    We can build the required consensus among parties and the public in the South that unity would be an opportunity for us all.

    We have more than just a vision of unity - we have a strategy for unity. A better way to a better Ireland.

    The time has come for us to reclaim the good name of northern nationalism. To reclaim the Agreement. To restore the democratic institutions. To return to the path the Irish people chose.

    To tell the DUP (and the governments) that the DUP mandate does not override everyone elseís in the North, any more than Sinn Feinís overrides everyone elseís on the island.

    Thatís what I said I would do before the elections. Thatís what I did at Leeds Castle and in other recent negotiations. I told Ian, I told Peter, I told Nigel that what they were looking for wasnít on. We argued with the two governments for a better way. Our argument could not have been stronger. Our analysis could not have been stronger. Our case for the Agreement could not have been stronger. And, I admit it - at one stage - our language could not have been stronger. But our judgement could not have been better.

    The SDLP needs a stronger mandate if we are to prevent the mistakes, challenge the game-playing and stop the rot that has denied people what they voted for. People need to know that the strongest vote they can cast for the Agreement is a vote for the SDLP. That the best vote to force the pace on unionists and to force peace from paramilitaries is a vote for the SDLP.

    People are catching on to the elaborate con played out every time. Secret talks centring exclusively on Sinn Fein and the leading unionist party of the day. Hype about "historic breakthroughs", spin about "groundbreaking moves", hopes raised for yet another "deal to end all deals". The stilted choreography of different statements and sequencing. The deal falling apart as people come in short of what was promised or needed. Next the blame game between the supposed deal partners, rubbishing each otherís real intent. Then the pretence that the deal will just fall into place after the next election, if people vote for the same parties that served up this failure.

    Thatís what we were getting in Spring 2003, when the elections were supposed to be happening. Thatís what we were getting in autumn 2003, when the elections did happen. We got a flavour of it in last yearís European election. And it is exactly what we are seeing played out again now. People are beginning to see that each time they backed the problem parties, the problem just got worse. They are beginning to see through this pattern of failure, realising that what gets rewarded, gets repeated.

    By the time of the forthcoming elections, this current suspension will have lasted longer than the total period the institutions were allowed to operate.

    The Good Friday Agreement cannot be allowed to wither on the vine any longer. The inclusive approach that gave us the Agreement in the first place is the only approach that will save the Agreement now. Progress can and must be made and the only way to do it is by recreating a process of equals.

    Not punishing a party with silly sanctions that they will only find politically rewarding, but no longer rewarding them with negotiating advantage because of their relationship with paramilitaries and the elevated status of exclusive negotiations.

    Other parties have been canvassing various alternatives, including the failed Prior Assembly model, a sort of joint Direct Rule, deep suspension and voluntary coalition/ exclusion. All of which deviate away from the Agreement and none of which sort out the problems which have been stopping us all.

    Only the SDLP has put forward positive proposals to move politics forward by returning to the Agreement and all going as far as we possibly can.

    In the midst of all the conflicting arguments, it is worth noting that no party actually believes that an inclusive executive can be formed now or soon. All parties also claim to be for the Agreement, or to accept its fundamentals. They all claim to be for the arrangements in all the strands. And all claim to be against Direct Rule.

    Under our proposals, the two governments must show good authority by working together on the Agreement, through a reinvigorated British Irish Inter-governmental Conference. That means radical demilitarisation. Real equality - including for west of the Bann. Leading for sharing - in our communities and council chambers.

    Our proposals are for the end of suspension and restoration of all the institutions. Parties will then have six weeks to appoint an inclusive executive. If things happen to allow the parties do so, well and good. Sadly, in reality they wonít. And when they donít, we should not sink back into deep suspension. Nor have the Assembly just scrutinising Direct Rule.

    Instead, we keep the Assembly, with all its legislative, budgetary and other powers under the Agreement. We protect the executive power model of the Agreement and prevent Direct Rule, by having the two governments nominate ten people from all walks of life - not civil servants - to administer the departments and look after the business of the Executive, fully accountable to the fully functioning Assembly.

    With restoration of the Assembly, North South bodies would come off Ďcare and maintenanceí. The civic administrators would be recognised as Ministers of the Assembly and so the North South Ministerial Council would get going again - and it needs to. Similarly, for the British Irish Council.

    The civic administration panel would not only be nominated by the two governments, after consultation, but would have to be approved by the Assembly in a cross-community vote. So our proposals are not for a "super-quango", mandarin rule or unaccountable government. 108 elected MLAs would be doing the job they are meant to do. And the North South arrangements can do the job they need to do.

    The Assembly then faces a choice. Vote them in, and get as much of the Agreement up and running as we can. Or vote them out, and accept deep suspension. That puts it up to the parties - and exposes them. In public, they have to show whether they are on for the peace and progress that the people of Ireland voted for. Or whether what they really want is stalemate, suspension and runaway Direct Rule. The reality is those who argue against our proposals argue for suspension and British Direct Rule.

    There is some arrogance in the assertion that people from civic and community life outside of elected politics would not be up to the job of delivering effective governance. When we look to the social partners we can see many people who have stronger pedigrees and greater expertise in front-line community development, reconciliation, regeneration, enterprise and job creation, and delivering public services than some of the MLAs some parties might nominate to serve in an Executive. The real fear of some politicians in other parties is not that such people mightnít be any good accounting to the Assembly, but that they might be too good. Remember, civilian appointments to the Policing Board and DPPs have proven very effective.

    We want to talk to the other parties so we can debate our proposals against any alternative they might offer.

    If there is any good intent on the part of the DUP as far as the fundamentals of the Agreement are concerned, talks on our proposals will test that. Or if, as many of us believe there is not, those talks will call their bluff.

    Of course, we know others will put propositions to us.

    As in our recent meeting with Tony Blair, voluntary coalition or exclusion will be among them. As with Tony Blair, we will be saying no to such a departure from the Agreement. Our proposals are the best way for parties to prevent us all from remaining excluded from democratic opportunity because of paramilitarism. Itís not just that - as with silly sanctions - Sinn Fein would hope exclusion would prove politically rewarding to them. We would also ask, voluntary coalition with whom and on what terms? With the DUP, on the basis of their failed "Comprehensive Agreement"? No way.

    The kinds of decision being taken by Direct Rule now are more fundamental and long-term than anything we had got to when we had our own institutions. Other parties might be complacent about that, even happy to duck some issues and to see our communitiesí interests and public services compromised.

    But not the SDLP. Think about it:

    One adult in four in this society lacks basic literacy and numeracy skills. Direct Rule responds by squeezing the education boardsí funding.

    One child in three here lives below the poverty line, but instead of attacking child, Direct Rule attacks childrenís funding.

    Now, one in two might say they donít see much wrong with Direct Rule,

    But each and every one of us will be hit - and hit hard - when Direct Rule imposes water charges in spite of clear public opposition.

    Too many people are accepting water charges as inevitable in the hope that they will be reversed later. Too many others are assuming they wonít be affected if they are imposed. Perhaps too much campaigning emphasis is being placed on how we respond to charges when they come in.

    Rather than trying to pretend that itís enough to say we will repeal Direct Ruleís damage on water when devolution eventually returns, is it not better to create options and truer choices for ourselves?

    It isnít just opposition to the excesses of Direct Rule that should argue for the restoration of the institutions. Itís our own stronger agenda.

    We want a real strategy to combat poverty.

    Proper investment in our infrastructure throughout the whole region and not just in Greater Belfast. Whether it is in roads and railways, schools or hospitals - including addressing the "Gap in the Map" for acute services in Tyrone and Mid Ulster.

    The reconstitution of the Strategic Investment Board on the social partnership model we envisaged.

    Policies to reinvigorate our public services, so that they can match the best that others will have in the future. Not just meeting the needs of all of us who need those services, but also motivating those who deliver them.

    A framework to stop undervaluing and overtaxing our business sector. We have to find ways of supporting our small and medium enterprises facing added cost burdens such as insurance, energy, transport and waste management. New jobs are not just create by new government policies or new public expenditure, but by new businesses making new products, providing new services, finding new markets in the world and creating new multipliers at home.

    Support for the community and voluntary sector, which delivers so much but faces the fall-off of European funding, now without the fallback of any of the Executive Programme Funds.

    Itís not just because the SDLP created the Executive Programme Funds that we resent their abolition by Direct Rule. All five funds showed support for projects and new service models that supported particular needs of children. Not just the Childrenís Fund, although it was particularly important and even unique among them. It wasnít only through these funds that we pursued our commitment to children. We led on the creation of a Childrenís Commissioner and insisted on world leading powers for that office. We initiated the Childrenís Strategy.

    We did it because we believe passionately in the unfulfilled promise of the 1916 Proclamation, to cherish "all the children of the nation equally".

    We challenge all the parties on this island to step up to ensuring that this is a guaranteed reality by 2016. And the sooner the better.

    By making it our shared priority to eradicate child poverty.

    By ensuring that no child of Ireland is ever left behind or branded a failure.

    Where the "children of Ireland" doesnít just mean children of Irish parents.

    Where we measure our shared patriotism in the schools we build, the healthcare we provide and the hopes we raise.

    Where no child with a disabilityís parents have to negotiate with or between different services, as though their child is the first with such special needs.

    Where society, all its systems and every service says and means "every child is our child."

    Where all children live free, not just from the deprivation of poverty, but the depravity of prejudice.

    Where they will grow up with proper respect for all the differences on their island.

    Where they donít just get their history from a gable wall, but have a positive regard for all the different hurts that people have suffered at different hands.

    It is not just for victims of the troubles that we need to deal with the issues of truth, recognition and remembrance, but for our children and generations after them. But we do owe more to victims than they have been given them to date.

    Victims and survivors are fed up with politicians patting them on the shoulder, but then simply shrugging their shoulders when it comes to what we do about delivering on the Agreementís promise to them. No victim denies that this society needs to look to the future. But we must deny no victim the right to tell their story, the truth of their hurt.

    It was at our insistence that the idea of a victims and survivors forum was in the Joint Declaration. This is something the two governments should honour, without any further delay, so that victims can shape and define the truth recovery process in ways that reflect their needs. It wasnít addressed in the "Comprehensive Agreement" in December, but it needs to be delivered now. If the governments really are serious about doing things differently from now on, why not make that the first item of business at the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference? Why not at last put all victimsí rights to truth and closure ahead of the victim-makersí desire to avoid embarrassment and discomfort?

    I do not accept the argument that some have even made this week - just as we have heard before in relation to Bloody Sunday - that only when we agree something to be done for all victims, should anything be done for any victim. If we can lift a cruel cross for someone, should we not do so?

    Thatís why Tony Blair is to be commended for sincerely, completely and publicly exonerating the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven.

    On Wednesday evening, I could see from the glint in Sarah Conlonís eye, hear from the lift in her voice, feel from the strength of her hope that a big, dark stone has been rolled away from Guiseppe Conlonís memory.

    I am honoured to welcome Gerry Conlon here today. Gerry impressed and inspired today, not just by articulating his own anguish, but his feeling for others too.

    We made a promise and weíre proud to have kept it. We have so many other promises to keep. And we are proud that people look to us for help and for hope.

    Thatís why we have to keep getting stronger to carry these hopes. Stronger to go the distance for a society of equality, tolerance and prosperity. Stronger to keep building for the new Ireland.

    As we look to the elections, we owe it, not just to ourselves, but to those who look to us for help, to keep getting stronger.

    We know we have to do more to get the people who stayed at home last time out to vote this time. To convince them that when they stay away from the polls, politics stays stuck. To show them that the SDLP is not just worthy of their support, but hungry for their votes as well.

    We need to persuade people that the strongest vote they can cast is a vote for a stronger SDLP.

    That if theyíve had enough of the corrosion of the Agreement and the corruption of politics, then the best thing they can do is to use the power of their vote to make the SDLP stronger.

    Because we are stronger and we offer more.

    Stronger on the right issues. Stronger for the right reasons.

    Stronger against the Eleven Plus, stronger for students and for our senior citizens. Stronger on the environment, for farmers and for the rural community. Stronger for job creation, healthcare and public service provision.

    Stronger for victims. Stronger for the Agreement. Stronger on Irish unity. Stronger because we are straighter. Stronger because our hands are cleaner.

    Better for progress and stability. Willing to go further for peace and democracy.

    So go to the people and ask them to support our efforts to build - not just a party - but a nation.

    Tell them that the SDLP counts patriotism - not in stolen bank notes - but in the acts of decency carried out by people across this island every day of their lives.

    Get out on every doorstep and every street and tell the people that the time has come to reclaim the good name of northern nationalism.

    That the day has arrived when we must make good the promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally.

    That ours is a better way to a better Ireland.

    Get out there and fight like we have never fought before for the values we hold dear.

    Stand stronger than you have ever stood before for the vision we hold out for Ireland and all our people.

    You know I made a promise to Sarah Conlon in her daughterís kitchen eighteen months ago. And we kept it.

    She made me make another promise in the same kitchen on Wednesday evening. She told me:

    "Youíve got to keep going for everybody else. We need the SDLP to keep on for everything that needs to be done in this country."

    I made that promise. And we are going to keep it.

    SDLP are keeping on.

    SDLP - Lead on.


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