First night of the SDLP 2010 Conference

Just back from the first night of the SDLP 2010 Conference and have a copy of the speech made by the Deputy Leader, Patsy McGlone MLA.

I have to say that, personally speaking, Patsy is a very confident speaker and performed well to the SDLP faithful.  The speech, a good rallying call for SDLP activists, covers a lot of bases focussing on the positive achievements of the Party, especially during the Westminster election, and tries to give a positive direction for activists to focus leading up to the Assembly and Council elections next year.  It will be interesting to see if the Party can maintain or increase their MLA numbers.  

He covered the elections, the Cohesion strategy, stalled Assemblies Bill, the Economy, and NI Assembly Public Attitude survey.

I also bumped into the MLA to be, Pól Callaghan, and had a quick chat.  He is delighted to be joining the 'Folks on the Hill' which will probably be officially ratified in a couple of weeks.  I expect Mark Durkan to formally resign his seat on Monday or Tuesday.

A chairde, tá mé thar a bheith buíoch bheith libh anseo anocht. Agus leis sin, tá mé bródúil as ucht aitheantas bainte amach ag iar-Cheannaire an pháirtí, John Hume.

We have returned for another SDLP conference, where old friends can reconnect, and new acquaintances can be made. And more importantly, where we can, as a united party, show the people that we are ready to lead.

And what apt timing of our conference, that only a fortnight ago our former leader and founding member, John Hume, was voted by RTE viewers as the Greatest Irish person.

Those who watched Miriam O’Callaghan’s impassioned endorsement of John could not help but fill up with pride. It may not be too much to infer John’s success in this poll as vindication of his actions. As vindication of the actions of the SDLP over the years. When hard decisions on leadership have been needed, the SDLP have been prepared to take them. We do not shirk our responsibilities.

Since Conference in February we have had the Westminster election, where many new faces came forward as SDLP candidates.

And they did us proud. None more so that our Party Leader, Margaret Ritchie. The people of south Down taught the minister for education a lesson in representative politics.

In Foyle Mark Durkan did what we all knew he would do, he showed Provisional Sinn Fein that Derry people prefer the SDLP.

If East Belfast hadn’t played out like a soap opera, the biggest story of election night would probably have been right here in south Belfast, where my good friend Alasdair McDonnell came in with a huge majority.

The voters in these constituencies want first class representation. And they will unite to vote for it. We must replicate this across the north. We all must be at the forefront of our communities.

During the election the new faces were not just on the posters and ballot papers, but on the doorsteps in our canvass teams. It’s been a boost to all our activists to have new blood to support them in their efforts.

As director of elections I had the opportunity to canvass in many constituencies, and I was lifted by the enthusiasm and organisation that I saw.

After the election I ensured that the activity did not drop. The summer provided opportunity to get out to more doors, to meet with more families, to speak to groups about the issues that were important to them. I only wish I had more time for these sorts of things.

All this activity is towards a goal. In Mid Ulster we set up a new branch in October. The Drum Manor Branch.

Every District electoral area in Mid Ulster now has a branch. And these branches will provide the support and energy to help us elect more councillors.

The support is out there. Our efforts at branch level have to be to reach out to our supporters.

I attended the fresher’s fair at Queen’s and spoke to many young people who are supportive of the SDLP. We have to reach out to these people. We have to show that we are serious about job creation and education, so that the new generation of voters can trust the SDLP.

Many people will tell you that they see the SDLP as honest. As sincere.

Our efforts must be to turn that trust into more votes. Into supporters. Into activists. Into a new generation of SDLP representatives that can lead all the people of this island forward.

The prosperous New Ireland of tomorrow is in the hands of us today.

The SDLP have stood up for the people all along. We stood up for them when others bombed and divided.
We stand for them now when the failure lies with tackling economic change.

The party, under the guidance of Alasdair, has been working with the business community, very much in listening mode, finding out what problems they are facing on a daily basis and seeing what can be done to help them. We must do more of this. We cannot assume we know what is needed or wanted by them, but we must work with them.

Similarly, our community and voluntary organisations are finding themselves in a tough time, ironically at a time when they will be needed more. Like with small, local businesses we must listen to their concerns.

And sporting organisations too, particularly the GAA, which provides so much for our local towns and villages.

We cannot wait on the media and commentators to catch up with us. A grassroots campaign must start with the grass roots, as the areas where we are most successful have shown. If we go out and connect with the people, and I mean connect with them, not just saying the right things, the swell will arrive before the columnists decide to notice it.

Now is not a time for waiting. Waiting is for the un-ambitious. And as we look forward to next year’s elections the SDLP is ambitious.

Some may criticise us for our pride in our past, would even accuse us of looking back. There’s nothing wrong with remembering the great men and women who went before us. From the SDLP or from the many traditions of Irish people who came before. For years, generation after generation of Irish people have come forward, stood tall and declared their intent to change the circumstance for their fellow Irishmen and women. With each generation a new obstacle or situation was faced. Each time it was met with a new wave of spirit to overcome it.

For this generation we have our own difficulties, and the economic difficulties ahead are a considerable challenge. Now we must stand tall and declare ourselves ready to act. We have a wealth of talents within the SDLP. We are already working hard to formulate ideas and plans that will help to see us through these times.
Politicians and leaders are defined by how they respond in difficult times. In the late 1960’s the injustice seen on the streets led to the civil rights movement, and ultimately to the formation of this great party. And now we face new challenges, and we, as the SDLP of the 21st century must show what we are made of. We must lead for the people.

The Ireland that we have now is different to all those generations that went before. But it is still far from where we want it to be. While the immediate task at hand is the economy, we can use that as an opportunity to work together, to build trust.

The working men and women of the north see themselves first and foremost as just that. They have the same daily goals. The same daily worries. It is not just a cliché to say that they have more that binds them than divides them.

The economic climate now, more than ever, can allow us to create the circumstances where we can come out of this stronger together.

With the trust that can be built when we work towards a common goal we can reconcile the great traditions of the north, and of our country. And with time we can unite the people. A unity that is real and lasting, because it is a unity of the people, it is driven by the people and it is for the benefit of all the people. That is the ambition of the SDLP.

Because division does not work.

In February I warned that the Assembly at Stormont had become detached from the real needs of society.
I warned that the Executive’s failure to deliver under Sinn Féin-DUP control was a result of those two parties failure to work together.

I warned that those two parties feared the future the Good Friday Agreement promised because they remain parties of conflict, not reconciliation.

Has anything changed?

They have dropped their draconian Parades Bill. An integral part, we were told, of the Hillsborough Agreement.

Eventually the weight of public opinion forced them to abandon that attempt to criminalise public protest. And, as we pointed out at the time, it WAS an attempt to restrict the right to protest. It was an attempt to change public protest from a Right into something that was within the gift of the First and deputy First Ministers.

It was anti-democratic and anti-civil rights.

And we will oppose any re-run of that legislation.

The long awaited Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy from the First and deputy First Ministers is Incoherent, Divisive and Segregated in its lack of vision. Even the Alliance party have re-found their voice in opposition to its determined separation of the two traditions on this island.

We cannot allow our future to become one of ‘Equal, but Separate’.

But ‘one-size-fits-all’ isn’t a solution either. Not in education, nor elsewhere.

Nobody, particularly not the first and deputy first ministers, will define who I am.

As an Irishman I define my own identity and culture, and as an Irishman I respect diversity and the identity and culture of others.

Cohesion and integration will come about through understanding, co-operation, and respect. Not by attempting to legislate away one culture or another.

And that’s all without mentioning the balls-up at NI Water when Conor Murphy was asleep in his office at the Department for Regional Development. Apparently he was waiting for a wake-up call from his Permanent Secretary.

The truth is that the recent Assembly Public Attitudes Survey shows that a large majority of the public have little confidence in the Executive and the Assembly. Too few people believe they have any influence on the decisions being made at Stormont.

All political parties need to look closely at how we can work together, and where we as a society are heading.

We had a good election this year. We fought hard against opponents who were determined to turn every contest into yet another sectarian headcount.

We focused our efforts on the areas where we knew we had good chance of victory.

We easily held the three seats we had and we strengthened our vote in those areas.

As Mark Twain almost said, Rumours of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. Again.

But now is not the time for complacency.

Our task in the elections to be held next year will be to build on that performance.

In the weeks and months ahead we must redouble our efforts.

We have been rebuilding in our constituencies and targeting new seats. Providing leadership for our communities. Dealing with the issues facing every single person in our society.

And nothing is of more concern than the continuing economic crisis and the political response.

The recent budget announced by the Coalition Government in London contained bad news for the North.
But not unexpected news.

The parties here should have been prepared for that news. Instead some of them sounded surprised. Shocked even.

Before the budget was even announced Martin McGuinness declared ‘victory’ for the “strong united case” he and Peter Robinson had put forward.

Some victory. Sinn Féin are demanding a recount.

The really bad news in that budget is the cut of up to 40% in our capital spending.

In this economic crisis, more than at any other time, our construction industry is heavily dependent on our capital spending programme.

Over 20,000 jobs have been lost in the construction sector over the last 3 years.

Less investment means less work and even more jobs lost over the next 3 years.

But the Executive are not powerless in all this. They could take the decisions required to re-shape our capital spending programme.

The Executive could commit to investing in our future. That would be a more powerful statement that anything contained in the CSI strategy.

But there is nothing surprising about the state of the budget.

The SDLP put forward economic proposals in April 2009. When we already knew there was a financial black hole ahead.

Others have, eventually, come up with proposals of their own. And some of those proposals do seem to be… familiar.

Wherever they have begged, borrowed or stolen those proposals, we welcome them. There should be an open discussion about how we fund our future. About how we invest today and tomorrow for that future. About what our priorities are for that future.

The SDLP are ready for that discussion.

We are in a continuing process of re-examining our economic proposals in order to anticipate changing circumstances. We are listening to the concerns of key sectors in our economy and working with them to develop new and innovative ideas.

The Executive’s immediate task is to agree a budget. It should already have been agreed.  The Draft Budget, as well as Savings Delivery Plans, should have been published by the end of October.  Rather than focussing on that we have seen party leaders grandstanding on their imaginary opposition to the budget.  That is not good enough. And the people know it.

But we know how well the two parties with a stranglehold on that Executive work together.

The danger of continued failure by Sinn Féin and the DUP should not be underestimated.

In failing to agree a budget they are failing our future generations. Our children deserve better.

We cannot afford the DUP and Sinn Féin’s failed politics to be our society’s future.

There are those still wedded to the failed violence of the past. They haven’t gone away either. They listen to the hypocritical words of those once wedded to that same failed violence. And they’re not convinced.

It will take more than words to show them they are wrong.

It will take an Executive working successfully together, not parties failing separately.

The SDLP understand that simple truth.

The SDLP has always put PEOPLE first. John Hume, ‘Ireland’s Greatest’ John Hume, did that before anyone else.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party’s vision is one of a democratic Irish society that works on behalf of all the people, for all the people.

It is a vision that no-one need fear.  And it is that vision we must TRUST the people with again.  The challenge is to build a consensus around our vision.

The peoples’ TRUST has been broken by the failed politics of the recent past. Broken by an Executive controlled by parties who are still unable to see beyond their own narrow party interest.

The SDLP can rebuild that TRUST. The SDLP will rebuild that TRUST.

We together. All of us in this room and beyond. We can convince more people that they can TRUST the SDLP to deliver the future other parties fear.

With Trust we can bring reconciliation, and then unity. Unity of the people.

Because the SDLP put the PEOPLE first.

And the people on the streets, the people in our towns, villages and townlands want the SDLP working for them.

So tonight, Friends, pledge that each of us, as SDLP members, will lead in our communities. That we will build on our good work. That we will be bold enough to ensure that 2011 will be a year when the SDLP reinstates itself as the party that can unite our people.  We have so much more work to do, so much more to give.

Forward to a new society for all.

Forward to a New Ireland.


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