Mark H Durkan MLA delivered a powerful speech addressing the failings to address issues affecting the electorate and what he believes needs to be done at the SDLP Annual Conference which was held in Armagh on 13th and 14th Novemeber 2015.
A Chathaoirligh, a theachtaí agus a chairde, tá áthas an domhain orm bheith anseo libh in Ard Mhacha inniu .
I’m delighted to address conference this year here in the wonderful historic city of Armagh. Armagh is famed for its great Celtic and historical past, its ecclesiastical importance, its built heritage, its Observatory and its farms and orchards.
Some significant historical events have taken place here, but the one of most significance to me personally, is that it was
here, in this very hotel, that I first met Anne, my wife – an event that truly changed the course of history!
I thought that was when I stopped being a rogue – but in recent times I may have morphed into a renegade. In thinking about this conference with its theme – A Better Way – I thought of Thomas Edison. Edison was one of our greatest inventors- indeed his most celebrated invention – the light bulb – featured prominently in a speech at conference a few years
His mantra in life was simple-“There is a way to do things better – find it”
We in the SDLP have always sought and always found ways to do things better – and to make things better for people across
the North and beyond. Our founding members had the vision and passion to oppose, to address and to finally overcome Unionist majority rule – fighting for and winning civil rights for their downtrodden communities. During the darkest hours of the troubles, it was the SDLP who provided light.
While some thought the way to a united Ireland was to murder and maim thousands, the SDLP saw that a better way was to
first unite our people.Our better way of peace and power sharing was embedded by the people of this island when they voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday Agreement.
In the early days of the Executive, we worked constructively with Unionists to make this place work. Executive Budget Funds set up by Mark Durkan, enabled government to get money to exactly where it was needed.More recently, Margaret Ritchie found ways to deliver social housing of unprecedented quality and unprecedented quantity. Margaret passed the torch to Alex Attwood who, as Minister in DSD and then DOE, led the way on regeneration and found innovative ways to tackle dereliction in our town and city centres.
As Environment Minister, I have championed the creation of a better environment and a stronger economy. Alex introduced the carrier Bag Levy into legislation, and this has come to fruition under my watch. A new bold policy that has seen a 70% reduction in the number of bags used. Not only are there fewer bags littering our streets, our hedgerows and our beaches – but, over the past 2 years, we have been able to generate millions of pounds that have been ploughed back into projects and groups that protect
our wonderful natural and built heritage.
This new, better way has SDLP written all over it. By working with environmental NGOs and business I have developed world leading Prosperity Agreements. By promoting the economic opportunities created by good, responsible environmental performance, I have consigned to the dustbin of history the notion that environmental regulation constrains economic development. I have found imaginative ways to support eNGOs, community organisations and schools to undertake environmental work and am particularly proud that 100% of schools here are now eco-schools – the only place in the world to achieve that goal. All this has been made more difficult by the fact that the only bio-diversity interest of some parties seems to be the protection of the butterfly population of West Belfast. I have championed a ZERO waste society – increasing recycling – and reducing waste to landfill.
We have delivered a better way to do local government and planning – bringing decision-making closer to people, making
new stronger councils that should be more effective, more efficient and more flexible to local needs. Despite huge cuts to my Department in a disastrous budget – I have still found ways to ensure that less well off Councils have received extra funding to provide valuable services to people and value for ratepayers.
I am currently working to bring forward legislation on Climate Change – certainly a better way to face this global challenge
than a former Environment Minister who stuck his head in the sand and denied it was happening. I have taken bold decisions on Fracking – that have led to legal proceedings against me – and ensured that a presumption against Fracking is embedded in Strategic Planning Policy. And I have bravely opened the debate about how we can tackle the scourge of bonfires – which not only cause huge damage to the environment, health and community relations but cost huge sums to the public purse to clean up. I will bring forward proposals on this in the very near future. I am also making plans for a better way to ensure good environmental governance – through the development of an independent environment agency – as a first step towards an all-island environment protection agency.
How much better could other departments work with the SDLP at the helm? And what ways would we find to make them work
This has been a bleak couple of weeks on the jobs front – with over 1000 jobs lost in the manufacturing sector alone. But the
DETI Minister, Jonathon Bell, is in denial. He maintains that the number of unemployed is dropping. No wonder it is, as our
young people continue to leave these shores in their thousands in search of work elsewhere!
We need to deliver jobs. To do so we must deliver training, skills and education to build a 21st century workforce. Where is the thinking in cutting funding to and places in further and higher education? In doing so the Executive is cutting off the supply line of talent essential to attracting inward investment and promoting indigenous entrepreneurial growth. We must make employment attractive and accessible to all – and the SDLP has led the way through our work on access to Childcare and the living wage. The economy must be at the centre of the next PfG – but there is much more to it than reducing the rate of corporation tax.
Regional imbalance has to be tackled effectively – starting with addressing the infrastructural deficit – particularly in the North
West. Derry must be the only city on these islands that doesn’t have a motorway going into it – from any direction! But how can we expect motorways from DRD, a department that can’t even repair street lights and doesn’t fix potholes – just moves them around so you can’t memorise where they are! We need an ambitious capital works programme that would give our construction industry a much-needed boost and hugely benefit the wider economy. A more prosperous society will be a healthier society; it would relieve pressure on a struggling health system – and on a struggling Health Minister.
Last week, Simon Hamilton outlined yet more plans to restructure the health system here – and I don’t have an issue with those plans – but how much time and money has his Department spent over the past number of years to find out how to spend less money? The focus has to be on delivering better outcomes for patients – and on ensuring there are fewer patients in the first place.
We must invest more in early intervention and in primary care – and we need to listen to our overworked, underpaid frontline
health workers – not overpaid external ‘experts’. If the DUP defended patients and services with as much zeal as it defends dubious decisions – like the ban on gay men donating blood – we would be in a much better place.
This morning, 14,000 children, are facing the dreaded transfer test. How many years after Sinn Fein announced its abolition?
Parties need to come together – to create an education system that improves attainment and tackles educational
underachievement right across the board. We cannot have a system that leaves any child behind. Once again, early
intervention is key. Every child should have the right to a place in a pre-school suitable to their own and their families’ needs.
And what about housing? I have already touched on how the SDLP, when it had DSD, delivered record numbers of good
quality homes for families across the North. Under the DUP, numbers have dropped as need has increased. Perhaps that
department has dropped the ball – distracted by former Minister Nelson McCausland’s war of attrition against the NIHE and his
other interests,In what sort of society does the number of vacant properties rise in parallel with the level of homelessness? Bold thinking is needed here – derelict and vacant properties should be brought back into use and put under the management of the NIHE and Housing Associations.
The Housing Executive – rather than being scrapped- should be empowered to use its housing stock as capital to borrow
money and build more homes. Homes across the North should be retrofitted to ensure energy efficiency and combat fuel poverty. This was the gist of the illfated Green New Deal. The only reason I can think of why the DUP pulled the plug on this initiative was because it is ‘green’.
The lack of delivery by Departments is symptomatic of the dysfunction right at the heart of the Executive – OFMDFM – One For Me Ditto For Martin – or should that be One For Martin Ditto For Me? The entrenched political ideologies of the DUP and SF make agreement on almost anything difficult – and the delivery of almost anything impossible.
Politics is supposed to be the Art of the Possible, but here it is politics that prevents delivery for people. The DUP is as determined as ever to dismantle the powersharing ethos that is at the core of the GFA. And the symbiotic nature of their relationship with SF means that they both thrive on division and discord rather than dialogue and delivery. The DUP are no fans of equality. Not only have they abused democracy in a bid to prevent equal marriage but is evident that their marriage of convenience with SF is not one of equals. And we all know who wears the trousers!
We saw this when SF rolled over on Welfare Reform – only to finally heed our warnings that the ‘Great Welfare Deal’ that they
had bought from the DUP and tried to sell to the public amounted to not much more than a handful of magic beans.
We are the only Party that has been consistent on Welfare – at Westminster and at Stormont. We recognise the need to
reform a system that some people abuse – but we have strived to ensure that we do not create a system that abuses people –a
It was also evident when SF backed and co-proposed amendments with the DUP to the Planning Bill, which would have created a developers’ charter – had the SDLP not taken the unprecedented step of pulling the Bill. Strangely, despite the investigative reports into the NAMA scandal, a connection between that alleged corruption and this attempted power grab has not yet been made….
See – those two parties CAN work together- but only when it means screwing over someone else.
While the media laps up the sham fights on flags, puerile insults about the Irish language and pantomime politics in general –
the public is turned off in droves. When Edwin Poots makes infantile remarks about ‘holding his nose’, right minded people everywhere hold their heads in despair. What the media describe as a crisis, people think is a circus.
The DUP has been led a merry dance by Mike Nesbitt. He painted himself into a corner but rather than leave him there the
DUP followed – then came out, then went back in, then out – and what a mighty mess they made. This poses serious questions about the leadership of the DUP – who is calling the tune?
Arlene has acted as First Minister twice in recent times – that’s two times more than Peter. Speculation continues to grow that he is planning to exit. But I don’t think he’s ready for retirement just yet and I hear there is a vacancy at FIFA that would suit him right down to the ground….
People are fed up with DUP denials about links to corruption and SF denials about links to criminality. We have to offer people a better way. We have to offer people hope. But what is that better way? How can we move beyond the lack of leadership from the
Executive? How would we improve the glacial pace of decision-making and remove the dead hand of OFMDFM
bureaucracy and DFP avoidance of risk that has brought the Executive machine grinding to a halt? Effective power-sharing and partnership arrangements are the only way to go – but we need to loosen up the stays and incentivise joined up delivery.
We don’t need to re-invent the wheel – we should look to resurrect the use of high level Executive Programme Funds for
the delivery of joint projects to tackle unemployment, social deprivation and health inequalities.
We should dust down and beef up SDLP proposals from our North South Makes Sense document – which has been almost
criminally ignored. A greater focus on North South would deliver real benefits and real savings and the prospect of greater assistance from Europe.This could deliver not just much- needed capital projects but also create huge opportunities in economic development, education and, crucially, health and wellbeing.Living in a border constituency, it is evident how much enhanced co-operation would improve people’s everyday lives.
The City Deal for Derry campaign, led by the SDLP, will work most effectively with a cross-border dimension. And our
neighbours in Donegal will share the benefits. For some time the SDLP has espoused the value of increased co-operation in tackling crime in border areas. Last week I saw a statement from SF asking for a special cross-border crime
unit – I thought they already had one. We do offer ways of doing things better.
But to convince voters – and the ever-growing number of nonvoters – we have to do things better ourselves. There has been a lot of coverage in recent weeks about our leadership candidates – and fine candidates they both are – Colum and Alasdair.
We need to get more coverage for the SDLP’s leadership qualities. We must all get behind who-ever emerges over the weekend
as Party leader. If we do not appear capable of working with each other – how can we expect people to invest their faith in
us to work for them? We are only strong when we are unified – Ní neart go cur le chéile.
Teamwork is essential to our electoral success. It is essential to our political survival. Any of you who watched the Rugby World Cup will have been in awe of the teamwork demonstrated by the all-conquering New Zealand Team. Every player knew the part they had to play and they played it. And it worked. And they won. Compare that to the 1995 World Cup, when Jonah Lomu was
at his imperious best, where the All Blacks team-talk is rumoured to have gone along the lines of “there are 15 of you
out there. So, you 14, when you get the ball – give it to Jonah.” That didn’t work. They didn’t win.
We need to harness all our resources- we cannot afford to lose the experience, knowledge and wisdom of our out-going MLAs
– Dominic Bradley, Joe Byrne and John Dallat. We need them to nurture and guide our rising stars. We need to join up and show leadership at every level. In the talks – where Alasdair, Alex and Alban – the A team – have made strong arguments and refused to accept yet another quick – fix deal that has does nothing to address the REAL issues. I’ll love it if our Plan comes together.
On Europe – the SDLP will work with all progressive parties to resist Brexit.
In Westminster – where our MPs have been steadfast in opposing Tory cuts and proposing positive action on life and death issues such as cervical smear testing for women under 25.
In the Executive – where we won’t accept budgets that will cause our people hardship and where we will push for proposals that create prosperity.
In the Assembly – where we continue to fight to protect public services.
In Councils – where we provide strong representation and ensure sound services and value for ratepayers.
And most importantly – in the community – on the ground – where you, our Party members pound the streets and knock the
doors, every day helping people with everyday problems.
To quote Edison once again – ‘Genius is 1% inspiration and
There is a way to do things better – find it!
There is a way to make things better – Vote SDLP
Ní neart go cur le chéile.