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Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, Speech to annual conference, 21 February 2004

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

Text of a speech delivered by Mark Durkan, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), at the SDLP annual conference in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast, Saturday 21 February 2004


I want mainly to address two inter-related issues today – the future of the SDLP and the future of politics in Ireland.

These have been a deeply difficult few months. Long standing party members and outstanding public servants – not just colleagues, but friends - lost their seats in what was a very tough Assembly election for us all.

So how do we respond?

Do we throw our hands in the air in exasperation because things have got tough? Or do we put our shoulders to the wheel and respond the only way the SDLP knows how? By rising to the challenge of change in the party so that we can keep making our uniquely positive contribution to change in this country.

We owe it to the people who support us to let the message go forth that while we have been bruised, we are not broken. We may have been fazed and dazed, but we have raised ourselves and our sights again.

People will be glad to hear that our dismay at the election result has given way to our determination to renew, rebuild and regain. That we are back on our feet and ready to step up to all the challenges that lie ahead of us - starting by holding our seat in the European election.

We can draw strength from the fact that while other parties might borrow our policies, they can’t steal our principles.

As we have met in the weeks since the election in our branches and our constituencies, in our internal consultations and other meetings, we have drawn strength from each other. We have heard from our members not just their reasons for being SDLP, but also the reasons for the SDLP being.

Like the defeated MLA, who said that while people didn’t come out for him, the SDLP still need to be there for all the people. That there is no reason to believe that those who have supported us in the past will not turn to us again. After all, don’t those who oppose the SDLP keep turning to us? While he may have lost his seat, he has lost none of his zeal for this party’s mission.

Or the founding member of the party who reminded us that at its inception, there were some people who gave less for our prospects then than they do now. That when we took the road less travelled by, it certainly wasn’t going to be easy and at times we were called for lost. But it was the right road, as proven by the fact that everybody else has now moved on to it. Instead of sitting in the congestion, we can get ahead of the traffic once again because we know the road best.

The new member who joined after the election because she believed that if the SDLP was losing, the country was losing and it was time for her to take a stand. She hadn’t been asked to join before and didn’t know if she was wanted. But she felt the election result and knew she was needed.

The publican mistreated by the police, who was clear that we are where we need to be to take policing to where it needs to be. He is even more clear that we are needed to steer the Patten agenda through - against any unionist resistance or NIO chicanery.

The community worker who said he marched for civil rights and joined the SDLP to challenge one-party majority rule in the North and the control culture and ‘jobs for the boys’ set up that came with that. Who now resents the domineering, one-party majority rule attitude being cast by Sinn Fein over the nationalist community and that ‘jobs for the boys’ and community control culture.

Or the young trade unionist who spoke of the SDLP’s credibility in opposing the war in Iraq, because of our opposition to violence in Ireland.

Or the student who has joined because we not only opposed top-up fees, but in government brought back grants and even top-up grants. She knows we are serious about the promise of change and serious about delivering.

Or the DPP members, who, in spite of having their cars burnt out or their homes attacked, spoke passionately for an ideal that can never be extinguished – that in a decent society we must do all we can to protect our older people in their homes and our young people on our streets.

All these things and more were coming through at the various Deputy Leadership Hustings. Challenging and encouraging ideas were coming not just from three good candidates, but from party members in the issues you were raising. We were not just talking about ourselves as a party, or what other parties are up to. We talked about the things that matter to us because they matter to people’s lives. What we can do for the economy. How we can improve public services. How we can recover our neighbourhoods for safety and decency. How we have to confront sectarianism and transform community relations.

Whoever the new Deputy Leader is, he will have a hard act to follow. Right from the earliest days of civil rights through thick and thin, Bríd Rodgers has been a tireless champion of non-violence, justice and equality. Fearless and peerless, she’s a true inspiration for us all.

Whether or not any bridge is named after John Hume, future generations who grow up in peace and prosperity will be grateful – like ours is – that he stood on that bridge at Strasbourg in 1979 as a newly elected MEP and dreamed the dream he did. And John, who with Seamus Mallon, engineered it into reality.

Let it never be forgotten that the SDLP in so many different ways has changed so many people’s lives for the better. History gets written, then re-written. But no one can write off what the SDLP achieved in our first generation. And a new generation will prove wrong those who write us off now.

Our first challenge is to contest the European election in June. We’re in a fight – we all know it; let’s show it.

As the only voice for Europe in Northern Ireland and the strongest voice for Northern Ireland in Europe, the SDLP will be the only party in this election that will not be a lone voice in Brussels. With the powerful influence and support our membership of the Socialist Grouping brings, only we can continue to deliver for the North in Europe - especially in the context of the enlarged EU and the end of the PEACE programmes in the next few years.

We have been consistent on Europe. Unlike others.

The Ulster Unionists have never been consistent on Europe. Starting with John Taylor as your MEP, what would you expect?

By comparison the DUP have been consistent on Europe. It’s just that they’re opposed to everything. Except they didn’t oppose the PEACE programmes - just the peace process.

Sinn Fein used to be consistent on Europe. They used to be opposed to Europe and the Euro. Now they’re opposed to Europe but for the Euro – but only until they can get the punt back.

And it’s not just on Europe.

They used to attack unity by consent as ‘a euphemism for a unionist veto’. Now Gerry says unity needs the ‘consent and assent of unionists’, which surely is a unionist veto and certainly not what the Agreement says.

They say they’re totally for the Agreement and will hold others to it, yet they also say they want no trace of it in their version of a united Ireland.

Bairbre sponsored the plan to run down hospital services in Tyrone and Mid Ulster - while only the SDLP challenged the ‘gap in the map’ at Executive meetings. But now Martin and Pat are pretending that Sinn Fein are fighting for acute services for Tyrone.

On public- private partnerships, it’s not just that Derry’s Martin differs from Kerry’s Martin. Martin’s Gerry differs from Derry’s Martin too. Confused? Me too.

Take their response to the DUP. Conor denounced it. Mitchel first sneered at it. Martin first welcomed it. Then Mitchel warmed to it, while Martin went cold on it. While between dismissive welcomes and welcome dismissals, Conor didn’t know which way the wind was blowing.

Pick any issue. Sinn Fein have had more positions than the Kama Sutra. And this is the party that we’re told has the clear message! Confusion, inconsistency, contradiction – that’s clear.

When we say we believe in something, it’s out of conviction and consistency. Not convenience or conversion.

We believe in social democracy and practiced it in government.

We believe in change and get in there to win it.

We believe in the Agreement and have lived up to all its requirements.

We believe in a united Ireland and are the only party that can deliver it.

I am proud to be the leader of a party that wants to unite Ireland and its people. I believe in a United Ireland and that it can be attained. In a united Ireland, we believe the Good Friday Agreement can and must be sustained.

To unionists I say: look at our vision of Irish unity with the Agreement. If you do so, you will see that the Agreement is not just about accommodating nationalists and offering us equality in the North. You will also see that the united Ireland which we seek – with the Agreement enduring – will respect your identity and protect your interests no less.

And I would warn unionists: do not repeat the mistakes of your history where every time you reject or undermine a reasonable accommodation you only end up narrowing your own options.

Politics here needs the SDLP. Not just for our well-documented honesty and integrity, but for our tenacity of resolve and consistency of thinking. When others are devising sound bites for short term support, we are developing strategies for long term delivery. Progress does not roll along on the wheels of inevitability. It takes hard work and a genuine commitment to solving problems, not milking them. It takes parties to put people first.

Peter Robinson might hope for a two-party system in Northern Ireland so that the DUP and Sinn Fein can enjoy mutual benefit from mutual contempt. They can be united only by their hatred of each other and their love of power. I believe the public are now awake to the fact that two parties that produced or excused some of the worst of our past are hardly going to give us the best of our future.

Jeffrey probably thinks that when Peter talks about a two-party norm that he is referring to his two party career. Fair play to Jeffrey – if you want to move from party to party at Christmas and the New Year, you should bring a carry out. He did – a "Fosters" and a "Beare." I am sorry. Jeffrey is hard to ignore. But it is well worth the effort.

While the Assembly election results have not helped the prospects for the review of the workings of the Agreement, we still approach the review positively. Because we are positive about the Agreement. We respect and defend the Agreement because we respect and defend the democracy with which it was so decisively endorsed. We also recognise and promote it as the strongest possible prospectus for political, social and economic development across the North and throughout Ireland.

The Agreement provided a review mechanism. Not because we all anticipated the compound stagnation of ongoing paramilitarism and institutional suspension. But because we all envisaged that we might want to modify its workings in light of experience and new circumstances.

Some of us knew we would want to develop aspects of the Agreement or return to issues or ideas not fully agreed in the talks and therefore not contained in the Agreement itself. Some of us also hoped that in the new environment created by partnership, some less comfortable provisions of the Agreement might prove to be biodegradable as distrust turned to trust. The Agreement text also envisaged that there could be failures to be remedied in a review context too.

So it has never been the SDLP position that nothing that flows from the Agreement can ever be modified, adjusted or improved in any way. The 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which legislated for most of the Agreement, is far more technically and structurally detailed than the Agreement itself. Indeed, many of its provisions were not even expressed in the Agreement. Now, understandably, they are seen by many as the Agreement in practice. But the SDLP is always clear about the distinction between what derives directly from the Agreement and what was legislated to cover a myriad of structural, legal, procedural and technical gaps.

We can distinguish between fixtures, fittings and furniture of the Agreement and its essential architecture.

For example, the Agreement provides for a 108 member Assembly, but we do not regard that number or six-seater constituencies as a fundamental of the Agreement. We advocated five-seater constituencies and, out of consideration for smaller parties, were prepared for a ten seat top-up possibly for the first Assembly term. So, conscious of our original proposals, informed by experience and mindful of economy and efficiency, we are ready to revisit such secondary provisions in this review or in the future.

But we will not re-negotiate the primary precepts and principles of the Agreement. In the review, we are ready to explore other parties’ propositions and explain our own. If this happens, our clear determination to uphold the Agreement and our clear distinction between essential and non-essential features will be equally evident.

We will be working not just to defend the Agreement, but to develop it. Not least in Strand Two.

We want to heighten, widen and deepen North South co-operation. The value of all-Ireland implementation is already proved. And it can only be improved with more such bodies.

The DUP needn’t think that just because they have stayed out of the North South arrangements in the past that they can either undermine them in the review or avoid them in the future. Not only must DUP ministers now join in the North South Ministerial Council, DUP MLA’s must also sit in the North South Parliamentary Forum which we are determined to establish under the Agreement. This will bring together representatives of all the parties and from all the parts of Ireland for the first time ever.

And let me also say to the DUP: you know you were not able to thwart policing change. Even with an extra seat on the Policing Board, you weren’t able to frustrate the Patten vision or the SDLP’s mission to deliver it. Don’t think that your new circumstances mean that you can now set about reversing the changes already delivered or putting the brakes on the necessary changes that are on the way.

We want to improve collectivity, accountability, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness. In all the Strands, the Agreement can work and be worked much more productively in the Assembly, Executive, North South Ministerial Council and British Irish Council than was the experience when we had these institutions.

As a party eager for reform, hungry for change and committed to development, we were frustrated some of the more turgid and tortuous workings of the system. We want the best outcomes for the public and greater openness in public policy and public spending, delivering clearer and earlier results. We have a raft of ideas to improve what is done, how it is done and how it is seen.

The SDLP is not on the back foot in this review. Some seem to think that our role in this review is to be pressurised to conform to the wishes or positions of others. These others include parties who have failed or defied the Agreement in different ways for their different reasons. Rather than choosing between them, we will stand by the people and the agreement they mandated. We will not succumb to anyone’s assumptions – be they DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, Alliance or either or both governments – that we will assist or support them in deviating from the Agreement’s requirements.

The big question in this review is not whether we will stoop to other parties’ standards. The real question is: are others ready to step up to the standards that only the SDLP has met to date?

As the one party that has met all our responsibilities under the Agreement, while others have dodged or delayed some of theirs, we are calling for an end to the a la carte approach.

The SDLP has neither held anything up for others, nor held anything back for ourselves. Other parties have copped out of one thing or opted out of another. They have been half-in half-out as ministers. Or put themselves in, then out. After years of stop-go, maybe yes-maybe no, it is time for new, clearer standards of inclusive responsibility and responsible inclusion.

Inclusive responsibility has to mean that appointed ministers don’t just go to their departments, but fully participate in the Executive and the North South Ministerial Council.

Responsible inclusion should mean that a party leader exercising the right to nominate ministers will also exercise the parallel responsibility to nominate to the Policing Board, as per Patten.

The DUP can talk about their supposed alternative agreement.

David Trimble can call for a Plan B from the two governments.

Sinn Fein can demand contingency plans and canvass their Plan B.

And Alliance can take over the DUP-lite franchise.

But the SDLP’s sights are on a new, improved Plan A: the Agreement - with added clarity, reduced ambiguity and the ambivalence taken out.

No matter what operational or procedural issues are looked at in this review; no matter how little argument or how much agreement there is on them, we can only truly go forward if we resolve the crux issues that have created the impasse.

The continued existence and activities of private armies causes damage, doubt and distrust, which has wounded the institutions to the point of suspension. The failure of unionist parties to convincingly embrace and sustain inclusive institutions has similarly wounded the Agreement.

Unionists and sympathetic commentators have cited actual and alleged IRA activity and their reluctance to deliver more convincingly on decommissioning for their reluctance to uphold inclusion. The republican movement and sympathetic commentators have cited the record and prospect of unionism raising the bar for their reluctance to decommission more convincingly.

The concept of completion was introduced to try to break this stand-off. That’s why I stressed the point that for the concept of completion to be reliable, completion has to do exactly what is says on the tin.

On the one hand, those being asked to fulfil completion have to know that that is all and that having delivered this they will not be faced with new demands for anything more.

On the other hand, those of us who are asked to accept promises and acts of completion need to know that nothing more will be asked by or given to the paramilitary interests for delivering completion than the fulfilment of commitments already in the Agreement and the Joint Declaration.

It might now be timely to return to these two dimensions to completion.

It is interesting that the DUP now put such store on Tony Blair’s standards for completion. It is interesting too that the third option in their recent paper of mandatory coalition or statutory coalition will be operated by them in the context of acts of completion. Their mandatory coalition would actually be the Agreement’s inclusive Executive.

Can the DUP clarify unmistakably that they will not ask for anything more than the ‘Blair Necessities’ for them to play their part in forming and performing in an inclusive Executive and North South Ministerial Council?

Equally, unmistakable clarity will be needed from Sinn Fein and/or the IRA. Will they give unambiguous and irreversible commitments to completion if the new unionist leadership can give unambiguous and irreversible commitments to the restoration and operation of inclusive institutions in that context?

It would also be important to have reliable clarity from both governments that such a scenario of completion and restoration would mean an end to all the side-deals, sub-deals and pseudo-deals, which have been allowed not just to interrupt but to corrupt the Agreement.

Our responsibility and our mandate is to get the best possible ‘take forward’ of all of the Agreement for all of us. If we are failed or frustrated in this by intransigence, indifference or intrigue from others, then we have the right and responsibility to seek the best possible ‘fall back’.

What exists currently clearly is not the best possible ‘fall back’.

  • Direct rule, where the inclusion and democracy of Strand One should be.

  • The North South bodies limited to a care and maintenance basis with no NSMC.

  • The British Government trying to adopt a go slow approach on both the Joint Declaration and the role of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

  • The handling of the human rights agenda, not just off the Agreement road but now seemingly completely at sea.

  • In contrast to this, thanks to the SDLP, the Policing Board is currently the most functional and productive arrangement to come out of the Agreement.

We can’t go on with directionless drift. We need decisive shift to take the Agreement’s promise forward.

Tony has told us all that clarity is our friend and ambiguity is our enemy. Tony, you gave a clear commitment that you would publish the Cory Report. You gave an unambiguous commitment that you would hold inquiries where he recommended them. Now you live up to your word. We demand nothing more. We will accept nothing less.

The two governments created the Cory approach. For very specific cases. For very particular reasons. And with categorical commitments. Now that Cory has reported, these cases cannot be re-routed or long-fingered to a more general truth mechanism, which – however - we do also need.

While we are adamant that commitments be fulfilled in these cases, the SDLP is not overlooking the right to truth and remembrance of all the other victims of the Troubles.

I met a widow who had also lost her only son to the troubles. No one left to keep working the family farm. No one to keep the family name alive in a new generation. She asked me how she is to be expected to leave the past behind when the past is all she has?

If this process as it develops is to count for anything, then we must make sure that victims, survivors and their families can feel that their sense of loss, grievance and hurt counts for something. When so much is being done to make sure that those who made victims of so many people can forget their past; the SDLP stands by ensuring that all victims, survivors and their families can at least remember theirs.

At Hillsborough last year, the SDLP pushed the two governments to commit to a Victims and Survivors Forum, which - among other things - would make recommendations on victim-centred models for truth and remembrance. We challenged the two governments as to why all they put in the Joint Declaration was that they would only consider establishing such a forum, without any reference to anything it might do. We were told that was because neither Sinn Fein nor the Ulster Unionists wanted it.

Whether it is against the will of the UUP, Sinn Fein or anyone else, I am calling on the British and Irish Governments to take the necessary steps now to establish a Victims and Survivors Forum.

It is a promise of the Agreement that hasn’t been fulfilled. At best, the political process has been occasionally waving at victims, but not really doing anything to reach or touch them. While we will make every good effort, previous form suggests that the review may not bring victims and survivors much. That’s why it’s time to hand it over to victims and survivors themselves.

But for many, remembrance alone is not enough. There are countless murders which have never been properly investigated. Their families know and feel this. Already we have seen the revelations from the Police Ombudsman into the murder of Sean Brown. We know that there will be many more.

From one perspective, the PSNI should not be burdened with investigating all these past cases. From another perspective, they would not be trusted with them. That’s why the SDLP wants to create a dedicated arrangement to independently investigate these past cases using people from outside with the appropriate expertise, competence and credibility.

We, a party with nothing to hide, are not telling any victims to just forget the past. We see it as our common responsibility to try to lift the burden of remembrance from victims’ and survivors’ shoulders. If we are all to truly move forward, we can only leave the past behind on a moral basis.

Move forward we must.

For the SDLP, it is still not enough that things are not as bad as they were in terms of violence. We have to make them as good as they should be in terms of politics, economic prosperity and social solidarity.

This is why we need to get the Agreement back working.

Not just as it was, but as it should.

Not just for the sake of being back in government.

Not to rule, but to serve. On principle. For prosperity. Through strong public services. For the people. With positive purpose. So that we can really get back to the job of making the difference.

Because one child in three in this society – one in three – is living in poverty.

If that statistic cannot shock and shame us into action, nothing can. The parties may not feel we owe much to each other, but surely we owe it to the child who is crying with hunger or cold to stop crying at one another, grow up and get on with it.

No better reason for wanting to get back to work.

Working with the social partners to devise and deliver a five year Programme for Government to ensure real strategic purpose in pursuing our biggest regional priorities. Making sure that Targeting Social Need is a cornerstone of good government and not just a good intention.

I have no doubt we have the capacity and the commitment to achieve the real and radical change for our society we so passionately believe in. But to do so we need to deliver real and radical change within this party. If people need the SDLP, then the SDLP certainly needs people. One of our core challenges can be summed up as follows: I am the youngest SDLP MLA. By the next Assembly election I want to be among the older candidates on our ticket.

This is not a blank cheque to all the young people in the party that candidacies will be secured on the basis of youth. It is an honest challenge to our young members to prove your worth over the next few months up to and through the European election, into the Local Government and Westminster elections and beyond. I have no doubt you will rise to this challenge.

The SDLP has so much to give to the future of this country. To do so we have to give the opportunities and responsibilities to those who are going to have to deliver our vision in the future.

This means recruiting a new generation of members, activists and candidates. More young people. More women. More people rooted in the community, working for the community.

And it means making more of the membership base we already have – many of whom have insight, ability and experience that we have never properly utilised. Each and every member has a role to play and a contribution to make.

The fact is, the new Bríd Rodgers, the up and coming John Hume, the next Seamus Mallon, the future Eddie McGrady, the Dan McAreavy in waiting are already in this party. Some of them are in this room. If we recognise them and encourage and promote them accordingly, then the public will soon recognise them too.

This weekend I am asking for your support for a special party conference before this year is out at which a new party constitution can be agreed. We need to restructure the party. As things rest currently, the central party functions do not add up to effective authority. Nor can they be discharged with sufficient accountability. The demand for better coherence and the desire to be better organised at all levels of the party has come through clearly in all of the feedback since the election. This is not just a challenge for the party leadership, this is a choice for us all.

We owe it to ourselves and to each other to renew, rebuild and regain. But above all we owe it to this country.

These are changed times on our political landscape and changed times demand changed approaches.

The SDLP is no longer going to spend our time commentating on or mediating in the fights among others. We need to get back to spending our time fighting for the things we believe to be right.

Fighting for the Good Friday Agreement and the prospects it offers this generation and generations to come.

Fighting for the ideal that we can share more in this society than poverty, deprivation and under-investment.

Fighting not just to achieve to achieve mutual respect, but also the shared self-respect of functioning democracy and taking ourselves off the bottom of all the wrong indicator tables.

The reason the SDLP is here is for all the reasons why people need us to be here.

We need to be here for the school child who deserves the best, so that they can do their best in secondary and well as primary schools. And who, with their teachers, deserve the best classrooms.

We need to be there for those on low pay – including all too many in the civil service. And we are here to uphold their right to fair pay for their good work.

We are here to defend the rights of others to be here. Standing up for their right to live free from racist abuse, assault or attack.

We are out there insisting that those who have had to escape persecution in their homeland should not suffer persecution and imprisonment in ours.

We have to be there for those who lose their jobs in the face of competitive commercial pressures through no fault of their own. 800 more yesterday. Not just to uphold their rights at this time, but to help their prospects for the future.

We have to be there for those who are creating the jobs through enterprise, competitive innovation and marketing. All too often, politicians are there when a firm closes it doors. We need to be there for the firms that are opening markets, opening order books and new product lines and thereby creating and sustaining the employment we need.

We are here not just to recognise some particular needs and circumstances of people with disabilities, but to affirm all of their rights – equal to all others.

We are there for the family in Larne, attacked by another loyalist pipe bomb.

We have to be there for the people in interface areas, who want no part of the tension and trouble that disfigures their streets.

We have to be there for the mother who is trying to do the most and find out more for her autistic child in a system that offers less than she has every right to expect.

We need to be there for the teenagers who feel they have lost the right even to hope, but in whose hearts there still beats the desire for something better.

And for the grandmother who should never have to fear hearing a knock on her door.

These are the people we represent. Their welfare. Their hopes. Our mission.

The depth of our idealism will be the distance we travel to uphold the ideals of opportunity through social justice, community through partnership and unity through peace.

The strength of our radicalism will be the response we give to the challenge of change – in this party and for this society.

The reach of our socialism will be the hand we extend to the single mother, the unemployed factory worker or the refugee.

The power of our real republicanism will be standards we raise, not on poles, but in schools and hospitals.

The measure of our patriotism will be the lengths we go to for our dream of an Ireland united in peace, bound by equality and ordered by human rights.

This is our work. These are our ways.

SDLP Lead on.


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