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Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the SDLP, to Annual Conference, 24 January 2009

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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, Armagh, (Saturday 24 January 2009)


"The SDLP comes together, even under economic clouds, to renew our positive vision of a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland.

To reaffirm our conviction that, far from being "mission accomplished" with the Good Friday Agreement; this partyís mission is to keep narrowing the gap between what is and what ought to be. And to make this country the very best it can be.

In these deeply uncertain times, our duty is to give the people we serve the decisive, determined leadership they deserve.

To guarantee all those out there who have recently lost, or are worried about, their jobs not just sympathy for now but real support and hope for their future.

To ensure that firms arenít forced to close or lose jobs because of credit denied or tax demanded.

To determine that recession doesnít sap the resolve to build a competitive, productive economy.

To offer graduates prospects that are not saddled with debt.

To give children, parents and teachers confidence that devolution will produce a schools system that delivers equality and excellence.

Senior citizens the comfort they have earned and any care they need.

And all citizens the promise of rights affirmed and reconciliation achieved.

As we raise our sights to all this and more, we recall the challenges the SDLP has been through and all the change we have seen through.

Like so many, SDLP members were inspired by Barack Obamaís message of change during his campaign. We have been energised by his passion; encouraged by his idealism and enthused by his call to purpose.

As the new President embarks on his journey to change America; the SDLP draws confidence from the unlikely journeys we have made ourselves and on which we have brought others too.

The road we walked - and the risks we took - for an end to violence and lasting peace.

The course we navigated to the agreed Ireland we now have.

The courageous steps we took to bring about the new beginning to policing.

The steep hills we climbed for equality, inclusive power-sharing and real partnership.

The distance we travelled to keep hope alive in the face of despair.

This party will always go the extra mile for what we believe in - and for what people need. A vibrant, enterprising economy. A fair and just society. An honest, accountable democracy. An inclusive, prosperous region. Safer, stronger communities. A peaceful, truly shared future.

Throughout the last twelve months and more, we have been honoured to salute the achievements of the civil rights movement forty years on.

We pay tribute to all those who stood up to towers of power by sitting in their own streets.

Who rose to their feet to march for justice and brought an unjust regime to its knees.

And - without firing a single bullet, planting a single bomb or drawing a single drop of anyone elseís blood - changed the face of our society for the better and forever.

Delivering more meaningful change in a matter of months than violence did in the decades that followed - or ever could.

When President Obama speaks about the promise of change, the SDLP - more than most - gets what he means. Because bringing about positive change is in our DNA. Itís why weíre here and what weíre for.

The civil rights generation - the first SDLP generation - instilled in this party an abiding commitment to social justice, equality and rights for all.

They imbued us with an enduring ambition to make tomorrow better than today. Inspired by their example, powered by our principles, this Social Democratic & Labour Party is determined to ensure that future generations grow up in a landscape of ever-greater opportunity.

Deep in me is a belief in this party and the people in it. We have it in us to recapture lost votes and recover lost ground.

Starting with Europe. Every one of us has felt the loss of the SDLP seat. So now letís all put our shoulder to the wheel to win that seat back in June. Not just for ourselves and our own interests, but for the people of Northern Ireland and theirs.

With more candidates contesting and the political dynamics radically altered from the last time, this European election will have a very different feel to it. We already see that old certainties will be gone. New opportunities will emerge. Different outcomes can be achieved. It really is all to play for. And we donít just have everything to fight for - we have everyone to fight for.

The SDLP is the strongest party for Europe in the North and the strongest party for the North in Europe. With Europe so relevant to the things that affect our lives, the North needs an MEP who will be relevant and effective in Europe again.

Only the SDLP will be offering voters a credible, positively pro-European choice in this election. In Alban Maginness, we have an outstanding candidate who will make an excellent MEP. The North needs Alban to pick up where John Hume left off; and succeed where our current MEPs have so dismally failed. Putting the needs of the people back at the top of the agenda. Bringing our interests to the very heart of decision-making. Using the SDLPís influence to deliver. Pushing the EU to be a positive force for growth here - and an ever-more potent force for good in the world.

We will be fighting the election as part of a movement that doesnít just cross one border in one region of Europe, but spans the entire European Union. Alban will be the candidate, not just for the SDLP, but for the Party of European Socialists. Offering voters right across Europe a platform for decisive intervention, concerted investment, radical action and international financial regulation. Anyone in this region who recognises that European responses and international measures are needed, if we are to have financial stability and economic growth for the future, needs to vote for the only candidate offering that manifesto: Alban Maginness of the SDLP.

Of course, there will be other candidates.

Jim Allister doesnít belong to any group in Europe. So the most memorable thing heís produced from there is a DVD of his speeches.

Bairbre De Brun. She knows what group she belongs to; itís just that nobody else has ever heard of them - maybe just as well for her. Some have been encouraging Alban to challenge Bairbre on her record as MEP; but that might be seen as attacking someoneís private life.

Then thereís Jim Nicholson. There a long time. Knows exactly what group he sits with. For now anyway. Because in June heíll be standing with the Tories. They are committed to leaving that group to see what other party might have them. So, Reg is influencing the Tories already.

Deciding which group they should sit with is the least of the DUPís woes. For months, they couldnít think of who to run. Then, the brainwave. An unprecedented, radical departure. Letís run an MPís wife.

With no record in Europe to run on, the DUP and Sinn Fein might also try to run on the devolution record they are spinning for themselves. Weíll be happy to meet them on that ground too.

Smug parties in a snug power pact. They might be getting ever more comfortable in their castle, but things are getting very uncomfortable for a lot of people. In this new regime, they strut and boast their power status; only to plead they are powerless on the issues besetting our economy. They are giving us screensaver government. Shapes are thrown, images projected, impressions generated - but is anything really being done?

Of course, these parties did not create the global downturn. But they did waste much better economic circumstances in the nine years they spent opposing, delaying and destabilising our shared institutions.

Not content with preventing us from seizing the opportunity of more prosperous times, they then failed to meet the challenge of the credit crunch and its impact on us. For 154 days, they refused to allow the Executive to meet, as issues mounted and economic confidence dwindled.

With uncertainty gripping companies as credit was switched off, markets dropped and government contracts stalled.

Uncertainty hurting families worrying about their homes, jobs, pensions and schools.

Uncertainty hitting public services, with investment held up, confusion & delay over reform and so-called efficiency savings threatening front-line services.

Uncertainty afflicting the community & voluntary sector; with European funding running down, departments refusing to support Neighbourhood Renewal, no Executive Programme Funds - and funding cut under efficiency savings.

What was the DUP/Sinn Fein answer to all that uncertainty? They created political uncertainty and government inertia, as they played a five-month game of political chicken. When every other government was taking unprecedented action, they gave us unprecedented inaction.

Of course, we were all supposed to be very impressed that the DUP and Sinn Fein produced a Programme for Government and a Budget a year ago. Peter Robinson said recently that we know nothing about finance. We knew enough not to buy his sub-prime Budget. In reasoned, measured amendments, we pointed out that one was flimsy and the other was flawed. We saw through the false assumptions, the questionable figures, the hidden stings, the borrowed policies and the hollow priorities.

Sadly, others are now starting to see those things too. Health trusts now having to work on proposals to let hundreds of nurses go, close homes, reduce beds and cut acute services. All in the name of efficiency savings. When MLAs and councillors of other parties take to the media to condemn such cuts, remind them that they condemned us all to these when they backed a bad budget.

For highlighting such problems, the DUP called us wreckers. Sinn Fein labelled us subversives. It was like being accused of bad taste by Jonathan Ross. Our crime was that we refused to go "with the flow". We go with our principles and the commitments we make to the people.

Take water. Sinn Fein and the DUP have been making a big deal out of their decision to defer charges until next year. Thatís an admission that they had decided to impose charges this year. When did they honestly announce this decision? When did they get it approved by the Assembly? When will they explain to the public why they have broken their doorstep pledges and poster promises from the last election?

The only Assembly vote which could be quoted for the imposition of new, separate water charges was the vote on the Budget last January. The SDLP stood by our manifesto and our mandate when we voted against the Budget. The other parties voted for the Budget - and betrayed theirs. So now people know: for the SDLP a promise actually means something; for others it means nothing.

It has been our consistent position that water should be funded as a clear component of the rates bill. Other parties pretended that this was not our position. They even pretended that this was their position. Let us remind voters just who mis-sold themselves and misled them on water at the last election. If people were fooled into thinking they were voting against water charges when they voted for all the parties in 2007, they will know that they can only still vote against water charges by voting for one party in 2009: the SDLP.

Deferral was one of the supposed goodies in the selection box presented by DUP/Sinn Fein just before Christmas. They also tried to choreograph things to get the credit for the reductions in fuel bills. And made much of a package for the downturn that didnít have very much in it - little new and little now.

Having stymied and diminished the Social Development Ministerís proposals on fuel poverty for months, they then presented the measures as a gift from them. In partisan spite, they colluded to leave a multi-million pound hole in the housing budget. Delaying new-build, repairs & maintenance and denying the work this would mean for firms and workers.

These are the hallmarks of this DUP/Sinn Fein regime: stroke politics, gimmick government and petty power-play.

DUP/Sinn Fein - who could be up to them? Margaret Ritchie.

It is not only Margaret who has shown our commitment to tackling fuel poverty. Our MLAs tried to get the Assembly and Executive to address this widening and deepening problem even back in the summer. Our MPs pressed the British Government to do more in terms of both social support & energy efficiency. But we also need to make the case for more strategic regulation and concerted intervention on energy at the European level, where such a difference can be made. Just one more reason why we all need an SDLP MEP again.

There is speculation that Europe may not be the only election this year. Whether the Westminster election is this year or next, we will go into it with a strong record of representation and good reasons for more SDLP MPs.

Remember, it was the SDLPís arguments and tactics that forced the abandonment of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill. Dubbed the On The Runs Bill. Which betrayed and insulted so many victims.

We didnít just oppose that Bill. We called for a proper, considered approach to the past to take account of the needs of victims for truth, recognition & remembrance and also of the wider community and future generations. Awaiting the Eames/Bradley Report, I welcome the terms in which they have already said they rule out amnesty. We appreciate the work of their group on such a vexed and sensitive area. We cannot promise to applaud the report - and Iím not sure that the Eames/Bradley group want that. We do promise to give complete and balanced consideration to all its recommendations & implications. We encourage all other parties to give it honest & honourable thinking space.

We cannot pass over the past. Nor can we pore over it endlessly. Whether and how we address and acknowledge the past will influence the future character of our society and the health of its politics. Those are the stakes we defended when, against the odds, we stopped the Offences Bill. We helped to stop another Bill too. The Counter-Terrorism Bill.

As the party of civil rights, we wouldnít fall for the offer of side-deals. We stood up for the promise of our ideals.

We exposed that the Billís provisions for secret inquests and sacking coroners & juries were digitally re-mastering part of the notorious Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. We used our credibility and experience to warn how counter-productive a so-called counter-terrorism measure like 42 day detention could prove.

Our message had an impact, not just in the Commons, but at the Labour Party Conference. I want to thank Gerry Conlon for joining us there. Gerry gripped Labour members and tipped some MPs with his powerful and poignant witness against the Bill.

Each and every member of this party should be deeply proud that, in 2009, the SDLP isnít just celebrating civil rights - we are defending civil and human rights as well. Not just of people here, but of people everywhere.

We were commended by Amnesty International last spring for seizing the initiative in Westminster on Cluster Munitions. Our motion set out how the British Government was on the wrong side of the negotiations on the draft International Treaty. We called for this to change to achieve an effective ban on these child-killing weapons, whose terrible use negates the ban on landmines. Alongside our Commons initiative, SDLP Youth ran a lively campaign - including a striking YouTube video.

When Gordon Brown did change the British position, the negotiations moved to produce the most significant Disarmament Treaty for a decade. Speaking about this later in the Commons, Gordon Brown commended our campaigning efforts.

Today I want to particularly commend SDLP Youth. While Ogra Shinn Fein glorify atrocities in our country, young SDLP members put their commitment into stopping atrocities in other countries.

It is a good sign that he has named George Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East. We know him well. We wish him well.

During the recent onslaught on Gaza, we didnít just issue press releases. We conveyed the outrage of people here directly to the British Government and Israeli Embassies. We challenged the double-barrelled pretence of military equivalence and moral difference between the terror tactics being used by both Israeli Forces and Hamas.

The SDLP takes our seats because we want to make a real difference for the people we serve - on the causes they care about and on the issues that affect them.

For instance, from day one we opposed the removal of the 10p tax band. Because we could see the unfairness for so many hard-working people.

We could not have achieved a result for the Desmondís pension scheme members - denied nearly half the pension they had earned and paid for - had we not sat in the Commons. We pushed long and hard to change the law to remove a cruel anomaly. It was too complicated for other parties to take up - it was too unfair for us to give up.

In the current crisis, we havenít just been meeting the banks locally to encourage them to keep credit lines open and rates fair for businesses here. We are also pressing questions of banking practice and performance in Westminster. But we are not using our position just to criticise banks. We are supporting decisive government intervention to stabilise the banks in order to restore economic order and prevent further chaos and collapse.

While other parties are content with excuses that things lie beyond devolved control, the SDLP tries to use our seats in Parliament to tackle such issues on behalf of everyone here. In this Parliament, we have worked to protect liberty, to protect living standards, to protect livelihoods, to protect life and, indeed, to protect the life of the planet.

We donít just work to make the most of whatever mandate is given to us. We want to make the most of what the people mandated under the Good Friday Agreement. We can do better than devolution that is under-performing. Than North South structures being under-developed. And the British Irish framework being under-used.

We need delivery, not delay, on a Bill of Rights.

Having done more than any other party to engineer our political institutions, and also to drive the new beginning to policing, we press for completion on both. We havenít indulged in hollow posturing, done dodgy deals, prepared to abuse power or spun phoney progress. We expose and oppose all of these. We make no apology for seeking devolution of Justice & Policing soon or insisting on getting it right. Right by the Agreement. Right by inclusion. Right by budget, And right by accountability.

Do the current challenges not reinforce the case for strategic co-operation on this island? Despite the pressures on them, the Irish Government commendably maintain their commitment to invest in key infrastructure in the North. In return, we see a mean sneer from a DUP Minister about the loss of jobs in the South. And the DUP table an Assembly motion questioning the value of North South structures. We could all get more value from North South if we give those structures more scope, not less. And make them more productive and more effective on more issues that matter to more people.

No matter where it is - in Councils, in the Assembly, in the Executive, in North South, at Westminster or in Europe again - the SDLP always puts people first. We can look people in the eye and tell them:

Your needs are our priority.

Your hopes are our purpose.

And our word is your promise.

We wonít make easy promises in a time that means hard choices. We cannot pretend ready answers when faced with deteriorating problems. We are in a storm of unprecedented uncertainty, but we must not surrender to fate. We cannot let the pain of the short term turn into panic for the long term.

Realism must always find room for confidence. Growth in Ireland isnít gone for good. Key investment in our infrastructure will still pay off. The skills and talents of our people will go on to produce value. Competitive enterprise can again generate work and create wealth. Financial re-ordering can mean an end of excess; it need not end success. There is still resilience in our economy, which needs to be reinforced by resolve in governments. Care in our public finances should not disregard our public services.

Irelandís best age has not gone. We must not turn in on ourselves or turn our backs on each other.

Patriotism should not mean trying to limit where we shop. It means putting no limits on the ambitions we have for each other and can pursue together. With ingenuity, industry and God-given natural resources to use but not consume, we can build a green-collar recovery on renewable energy technology. Not just to substitute imported fossil fuel, why should we not have exporting as a goal?

Our idea for an Open Faculty for Innovation is not confined to the North. Champions of innovation - in commerce or college - mentoring businesses, inspiring students and fostering competitive research and embracing performers in all sectors. Alongside the vocation to care and cure in our health services is a reserve of intellectual capital that could release more economic multipliers, as well as social benefits.

Our cultural capital and technological capacity can drive creative industries, offering employment, entertainment and enlightenment. Our pride in our country can be sold through tourism and all it offers. We can move from lobbying our special case to selling from our special place.

Patriotism can be expressed in the value we put on our public services, the quality we invest them with and the equality they deliver.

Patriotism can be served in the promotion of enterprise and shared in the protection of our environment.

It is not just about positioning a party, but about emancipating a new democratic landscape in Ireland.

Patriotism must be enhanced through respect between traditions and extended through solidarity across generations.

It is not just found in a sense of nationhood; it should also be felt in the spirit of neighbourhood.

And best seen not in badges of identity, but in bonds of community.

In this time of difficulty and doubt, yet again, the SDLP answers the call of progress, justice and prosperity.

Our vision is clear.

Our stand is straight.

We are the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Up to the challenges. Eager for change.

Showing purpose. Sharing hope. Shaping the future.

There to serve. Here to lead.

SDLP: Here for all."


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