Alliance Party conference: Failure on talks in North risks ‘squandering future’

Leader Naomi Long says fresh proposals are genuine attempt to pursue broader agreement

Alliance Party conference panel on Delivering Societal Change held at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. Photograph: Naomi Long/Twitter

Alliance Party conference panel on Delivering Societal Change held at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. Photograph: Naomi Long/Twitter

 

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has called on the British government to inject momentum in a new Stormont talks process after Easter as she warned the “window of opportunity” to get a deal is closing.

More than 14 months after devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed and five phases of talks later there is little trust left between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

At the Alliance conference in the Stormont Hotel on Saturday, Ms Long said its new Next Steps Forward proposals document is a genuine attempt to create space politically in which broader agreement is possible and an Executive can be formed.

Proposals in it include: Westminster reforming the petition of concern veto mechanism and legislating on the contentious issues of same sex marriage, legacy and an Irish language Act; multi-party talks led by a independent facilitator, and the convening of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

She warned if a new multi-party talks process after Easter is not established, this risks “squandering what we did in the past and what we do in future”.

“We are ready to go,” she told The Irish Times.

Unsurprisingly flat

Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere at her second party conference as leader was a little flat in comparison to last year, when members were buzzing after a strong Alliance performance at the Assembly election.

The party retained eight seats and recorded its highest number of votes since 1979 (72,717) and its highest vote share (9.1 per cent) since 1987.

One delegate said people are “disheartened” over the impasse at Stormont, but believe in Ms Long’s hopeful message.

Earlier this month, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said efforts to restore Stormont should be redoubled after Easter with a reintensification of the talks, but the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley has said she “cannot impose” a timetable and “artificial deadlines” on the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Ms Long said there is a choice to make, which is to “stand still and squander progress, or step forward together in hope and build an equitable future, celebrate diversity and flourish”.

Defend Belfast Agreement

In an earlier address to delegates, deputy party leader and Brexit spokesman Dr Stephen Farry warned of the damage Brexit could cause and of the need to defend the Belfast Agreement, as its 20th anniversary approaches.

He said politics are increasingly polarised, with nationalists and others “questioning the functionality of Northern Ireland and looking to a united Ireland, while many unionists are acting irrationally, at odds with their long standing aspirations, drawing around the wagons and recasting the siege mentality of old”.

There was big applause for Dr Farry when he said the British government should consider offering a second referendum.

He contended that if this is not an option they should offer a fresh customs union with the European Union, and said it is essential Northern Ireland continues to participate within the Single Market.

He thanked the Irish Government for its commitment to avoiding a hard Border and to protecting the Belfast Agreement. “They get it,” he said.