A party in search of the middle ground: Alliance Party conference 2018

26 March 2018 - by Matthew Coyle

Exhibitors, delegates and members gathered at the Stormont Hotel, in Belfast, on Saturday for the Alliance Party conference. The focus in 2018 was very much on finding solutions to the current political impasse.

This was the first time that the party had met en masse since June’s snap general election and the second since the collapse of the power-sharing institutions.

The 2017 conference saw Alliance emerging from last March’s unscheduled Assembly election boasting its largest share of the vote in three decades. In 2018, the central theme was the absence of either devolved governance or direct rule from London, something referenced more than once in speeches by the party’s leadership team.

Prior to the speeches, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) hosted a fringe event as part of its efforts to solve poverty in Northern Ireland. This session brought together politicians, stakeholders and third sector representatives to discuss the causes of poverty as well as how to tackle it.

Facilitated by JRF’s Northern Ireland Adviser, Quintin Oliver, the debate took in key contributions from Alliance deputy leader and Economy spokesperson Dr Stephen Farry MLA, Unite the Union Regional Co-Ordinating Officer Davy Thompson and former Northern Ireland Commissioner for Employment and Skills Mark Huddleston. It was also underpinned by JRF’s latest poverty data for Northern Ireland, along with analysis of future potential for City Deals, inclusive growth and an ambitious Programme for Government commitment to 'good' jobs.

Later, Dr Farry addressed conference, with a particular focus on Brexit. Pledging support for the recently dismissed shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Smith MP, he confirmed his party’s support for the approach promoted by Mr Smith last week, namely the necessity of a UK-wide referendum on the final deal emerging from the government’s negotiations with the European Union.

He stated that the result of the EU referendum had brought about the “prospect of a border” and placed Northern Ireland in “an untenable economic position.” According to Dr Farry, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as it is currently envisioned by the UK Government, represents an “existential threat to the concept of a shared and cohesive Northern Ireland”, bringing to the fore, once more, the constitutional question, which had “largely been parked” in spite of the “legitimate aspirations of unionists and nationalists.

In conjunction with the ongoing cultural war and the trench warfare of what has passed for a talks process over the past year,” he said, “it has fed an increased polarisation in our politics.”

In her leader’s speech, Naomi Long referenced the recent failure of the talks aimed at re-establishing the Northern Ireland Executive:

The distance between parties was a chasm, now the gaps are much narrower, yet seemingly more difficult to bridge.

Mrs Long spoke of her determination to remain positive about the future, saying “I refuse to give in to a counsel of despair. I choose, instead, to believe that what we were capable of once, we are capable of again.”

A “lack of optimism, trust, vision, leadership and forward momentum was what led Alliance to this week publish Next Steps Forward, our route map to restoring devolution,” she added, emphasising Alliance’s belief that “only fully inclusive multi-party talks, chaired by an independent facilitator, can re-establish trust between the parties and hold them to account, privately and publicly, for their actions.”

Proposing “transitional Assembly arrangements, running in parallel with the talks, as a step towards the restoration of full devolution”, Mrs Long called for the Northern Ireland Assembly’s committees to be reconstituted so as to provide advice, guidance and scrutiny of departmental activities, as well as the development of policy and legislation. Plenary sessions, she said, “would allow us to progress legislation, via Committee Bills or Private Member’s Bills.”

She suggested that such “time-limited transitional arrangement” – later dismissed by Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald – could afford parties scope to deal with contentious matters, and went on to call for Westminster legislation around devolved matters such as the Irish language and marriage equality.

Northern Ireland is faced with a choice, Mrs Long concluded. She asked if citizens wished to stand still or step forward together, building an equitable future in the process.