Party Officers, Members, visitors, invited guests, and our press friends – welcome one and all to our sixth party conference. We haven’t gone away, you know, and have no intention of doing so.
And what would the DUP do if we did?
We have consistently assisted them in making difficult decisions. As a fledgling Party in 2008, on the heals of the Dromore by-election, we persuaded them that it was time Dr Paisley was put out to pasture. And he was – somewhat unceremoniously. There have been several similar issues during the subsequent years. And of course recently, just a few weeks ago, we again helped them recognise that they and Sinn Fein’s joint plans for the Maze don’t have the requisite community support. And Peter did his volte face.
I trust that we may continue to assist the DUP in this fashion. Even if we receive very little thanks for the role we play. May I be so bold as to suggest that in the very near future we may persuade the DUP that their Minister for Social Development with responsibility for Housing has lost public confidence? And who knows, if anymore of Peter’s “clever devices” blow up in his face they may have to look at the whole leadership issue again.
What a difference a year makes. A year of giant slaying. A year in which a small party led public opinion. A year in which a single MLA can earn himself the title of the Assembly’s best MLA. A year in which a bunch of dedicated nutters made the governing party perform a u-turn.
But the First Minister insists he didn’t do a u-turn. He was simply responding to the public mood. I want Peter to be my friend but I’m sorry Peter, to suggest your letter from New York was anything other that a u-turn has even less credibility that Gerry Adam’s claim he was never in the IRA.
When we met this time last year we were only discussing the SPAD Bill – it wasn’t law and the phrase Ann’s Law hadn’t been coined. This time last year the Maze proposals were still a viable proposition and a seemingly unstoppable outcome.
The two issues – Ann’s Law and the Maze – are related. They are both victim issues and we are happy to have contributed to putting victims centre stage once more.
Those issues struck a cord across the Province. Just as the suggestion of an Amnesty did. In the unionist community in particular but not just in the unionist community. Justice is a universally understood principle. You’ll note I said justice not retribution or vengeance. It is the foundation upon which a just and peaceable society is built. Not only is it unwise to tamper with, dilute, or comprise with the claims of justice upon wrongdoers in the name of peace, moving on, progress or whatever, but – something that seems to have been missed in this process – no one has the right to do so. I don’t care if they be churchmen, politicians, senior law officers, or international statesmen – who has the authority to tell the orphaned children of Jean McConville that her killers won’t be prosecuted? Who will face the Omagh relatives to tell them that the greater good requires the bombers go free? No government has the authority to do such a thing. But that is effectively what is happening in Northern Ireland. Any wonder the structures built upon such a foundation are so shambolic. A process whose starting point is the appeasement of murderers will deliver neither democracy nor justice.
This week a man was sentenced for the murder of a RUC reservist. He shot the officer as he left hospital having visited his new born son. His wife heard the shots and in her words they didn’t just shoot him once they riddled him. The convicted murderer will likely only serve 2 years. I’m sure reaching the end of the trial and securing a conviction is a great relief for the victim’s family. But 2 years is unjust. Instinctively each one of us recognises that taking any individuals life deserves more than 24 months incarceration.
But justice makes it’s own demands.
If you compromise justice in the name of peace all you really have is a cessation of violence on the thug’s terms. If you water down the demands of justice for democracy then you really only have blackmail.
We see the process writ clearly for us all to see over the past few months. Does anyone really think it just a coincidence that a whole stack of issues dear to republicans are up for discussion – the Maze, flags, parades and the past – and so called dissidents ratchet up their campaign at the same time?
Today we will discuss a range of issues including the so called bread and butter issues. The economy, employment, etc. these issues are important to all of us. But you could be the wealthiest nation on the globe but if the widow and orphan went uncared for and their misery compounded as they are forced to watch the elevation and celebration of their loved one’s killer then what would that nation really have? They have a poverty of truth and compassion.
We will be a voice for those who really suffered during the troubles. The past year has demonstrated to us that we can make a difference and should be encouragement to us to continue to try to do more of the same.