Party conference season
The Windsor Framework, a united Ireland, and reforming Stormont were among the hot topics as Alliance, the SDLP, the TUV, and the Green Party all held their party conferences in March 2023.
Long emphasises importance of Assembly reform
Speaking to delegates at the Stormont Hotel on 4 March 2023, Alliance leader Naomi Long MLA made reform of the devolved institutions, highlighting perceived political failure of rival parties, and the ‘Alliance surge’ the main focus of her leader’s speech.
The Belfast East representative emphasised her belief that the Alliance position on institutional reform needs to be taken more seriously by observers: “Alliance is the third largest party… Rather than unlocking the Assembly’s rigid designation system, we remain frozen by the system’s inherent vetoes and an unwillingness to embrace change.”
Long referred to Sharing Power to Build a Shared Future, a document published by the party in 2022 calling for a new process for forming an Executive, including the ending of the designation system, changing the titles of First Minister and deputy First Minister to ‘joint first minister’, and allowing an Executive to be formed on a voluntary basis.
“Irrespective of whether the DUP decide that it is in their own party-political interests to return to Stormont – for we know that is all that matters to them – the current system of stop-go, up-down, ransom politics needs to end. That is in Northern Ireland’s interests and that should take priority.”
Long also acknowledged colleague Patricia O’Lynn who has resigned her role as an MLA in North Antrim, having expressed her frustration at not being able to carry out her role as an MLA and subsequently taking a new job at Queen’s University Belfast.
Referencing the “debacle” with the passage of the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Act (known as Dáithí’s Law), Long called on parties to return to the Executive, further outlining: “The Windsor Framework is generally a much better deal than the Johnson/Frost Protocol, which we have always acknowledged was clunky and bureaucratic and which needed to be refined.”
She concluded her speech looking to the local elections, saying that supporting her party was being against: “The blockers. The wasters. The people who take the votes but deliver nothing for them in return. Those who hold Stormont and our future to ransom.”
Eastwood promotes united Ireland
Almost one year after the party’s disastrous result in the 2022 Assembly election, the SDLP held its conference on 24 March 2023 in Derry, with leader Colum Eastwood MP opening his speech slating the DUP: “It is now decision time for the DUP… The choice now is not really about a protocol or a framework. It is about whether the DUP are prepared to share power with their neighbours.” Eastwood further called on the DUP to “get back to work or get out of the way”.
Turning to institutional reform, Eastwood outlined the SDLP’s vision of having an office of a ‘joint first minister’, and election of a speaker with a simple majority, promoting his colleague Patsy McGlone MLA as “well-qualified and well-tempered for the role”.
‘Towards a new Ireland’ was the eminent theme of the SDLP conference, with the slogan appearing on the podium and in the backdrop of Eastwood as he made his speech. Pointing to Alex Salmond’s white paper released prior to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Eastwood told delegates that a similar endeavour would be required in the event of a border poll and would be intertwined with the work of the New Ireland Commission.
“My appeal to unionism is the same now as it was when I last spoke in this hall – do not avoid a new future together for fear of losing the identity you cherish.”
Eastwood concluded his address by a rallying cry to party members, saying that “the SDLP is here to stay”.
“We are redefining our movement. We are resetting our mission and we are going to embark on a long-term political strategy with the goal of reimagining our country.”
Allister: TUV ‘won’t equivocate on Protocol’
Addressing TUV delegates on 25 March 2023, party leader Jim Allister MLA said: “While others have dithered and equivocated and wondered if they could even present the Windsor Framework as the ‘Windsor Park Framework’, TUV was clear.
“There are no changes of substance only tinkering nor could there be, because the legal confines within which the ‘Windsor whitewash’ was mixed expressly prohibits changes affecting the ‘essential elements’ of the protocol.”
Allister further warned rival parties against re-entering the Executive: “If there is an Executive, its ministers must by law implement the protocol and its Irish Sea border. A ‘Vichy Stormont’ for protocol collaborators.”
Green leader O’Hara: ‘This is our comeback’
New Green Party leader Mal O’Hara rallied the Green Party base for the upcoming local elections and emphasised his party’s support for striking workers.
“The much-promised reform and investment has never materialised. That is after it carried us all through the pandemic. Yet this government refuses to give them the pay rise they deserve.”
On climate change he said: “If we invest in community-owned energy, we can prevent the most vulnerable from falling into fuel poverty… communities will produce, control, and manage their own energy.”
O’Hara further stated that drug decriminalisation will be a major focus for the Green Party in the future, and that he was “proud” that Belfast City Council supported creating an overdose prevention centre.