Green Party Conference: growth, contrition, ambition & creating a surge in NI … for the common good

Steven AgnewMembership of the Green Party in NI has doubled in the last six months and there was an increase in attendance at todays party conference in the centre of Belfast.

In his conference speech, leader Steven Agnew welcomed new members and explained his priorities in the NI Assembly.

For eight years there has been a campaign to see joined-up government in relation to children’s services. Too many failures have been made; too many opportunities wasted; and the lives of too many children have been affected by the failure of our government to work together to help them achieve their true potential.

He pointed to single departmental strategies and bills for children that were seemingly 0-6 but actually started at age 3 and did not work across Education and Health and Employment and Learning.

I have produced the Children’s Bill and finally after years of political resistance the Assembly has agreed in principle to place a statutory duty on all government departments to work together to improve outcomes for children. I believe strongly this will make a dramatic impact on the lives of children growing up in Northern Ireland. More importantly than that, the experts believe so too.

Steven Agnew spoke at length about the welfare reform and described his party as the only one that had opposed the introduction of Tory cuts at every stage. He criticised Sinn Féin’s understanding and handling of welfare and explained how he had consistently warned that the figures did not add up

While others sought agreement in a behind closed doors deal, the Green Party argued that such issues should be debated on the floor of the Assembly, in full public view.

We proposed more amendments than any other party, but they were voted down. We were told by Sinn Fein that our amendments were not needed, a deal had been done, and the money was there, no one would be worse off.

The numbers never added up. Before the deal we were told by the Social Development Minister the extra cost to maintain the current system would be £115m per year while NICVA estimated it at £250m per year. Sinn Fein said it was £560m per year.

Yet we were being asked to believe that no one would be worse off because we had a top up fund of £94m per year. I believe the public were being misled.

On adding his signature to the Petition of Concern raised by Sinn Féin:

When we signed a petition of concern to stop the welfare cuts, we did not back Sinn Fein – we signed a petition of concern against something which we opposed at the start, middle and end of the process. We were never prepared to sell out the sick, the poor and the disabled in a dodgy deal with Tory Party. Sinn Fein signed the Stormont House Agreement but when we exposed them it was they who came to us. They found us where we always where – standing against welfare cuts.”

He spoke about the difference between shared education and integrated education saying that ‘shared’ meant different schools, uniforms, principals and ethos.

We should not start our children’s journey promoting difference; we should promote togetherness.

He criticised the “conscience clause” bill – calling it “an odious little bill” – and promised to do all he could to prevent its passage through the Assembly. He was disappointed that the opportunity had not been used to have a debate about the balance of rights.

Referring to his comments following English Green leader’s statements about terrorism, Steven Agnew apologised to Bangor Central councillor Noelle Robinson who recently resigned from the party and is now an independent on the North Down and Ards Council.

The issue of terrorism in Northern Ireland is a sensitive one. It is one that we still find hard to get the correct language and it is inevitably an issue that it’s hard to discuss without causing offense to someone. The comments I made on the back of a Natalie Bennett interview upset one of our councillors to the extent that she left the party. It also upset some of those who were victims and survivors.

I have met with victims groups on this issue. I’m pleased to say that they accepted by explanation and my restatement of this party’s commitments to non-violence and opposition to terrorism in whichever community it originated from in our society. And indeed they put out a press statement to that effect.

I apologise to Noelle Robinson who you know left the party. And I again explained and restatement this party’s commitment to non-violence. It was a difficult conversation. And as you’ve heard today, efforts are being made by the leader of Ards & North Down Council – Councillor Barry – to ensure that the commitment that Noelle gave to return the seat to the party becomes a reality, but preferably that she also comes back with it. And I hope that that will be the case. (applause)

But I think it’s important that I apologise to you conference. I seek to lead this party in the best interests of our society and for the promotion and growth of our party. On this one I got it wrong … it’s incumbent of me to stand up in front of you today and apologise for getting it wrong on that occasion. I will learn from the experience …

The Green leader confirmed that the party would be running five candidates at the Westminster election.

But it is more significant than that. The history of politics in Northern Ireland has meant that party loyalty has been fierce – generations of families all voting for the one party or along constitutional lines. To any different could be seen as an act of betrayal.

But I have spoken to many new members who have outlined similar stories of dissatisfaction with the traditional politics and the traditional parties of Northern Ireland. They are excited by the Green Surge, they are excited by what Caroline Lucas is doing in Westminster, what Patrick Harvey is doing in Holyrood and they are excited by what I am doing in Stormont.

They are excited about politics which offers hope, not despair. They are excited about politics which offers reconciliation not division. They are excited about politics which offers solutions not excuses. They want to work not for one community but for the common good.

He was against electoral pacts that were sectarian in the sense that the parties involved “garner support almost exclusively from only a single religious background” and reduce Westminster campaigning to …

… a single issue that was settled by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which included the principle of consent. These parties offer nothing in a Westminster election. In an election where we will be raising issues of austerity, welfare and the living wage, they will be engaging in a historical re-enactment, stuck forever in the politics of the past.

The five candidates are:

  • Clare Bailey (South Belfast)
  • Ross Brown (East Belfast)
  • Tanya Jones (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
  • Ciaran McClean (West Tyrone)
  • Steven Agnew (North Down)

Steven Agnew finished his speech by encouraging Green groups across NI to plan for the Assembly elections in 2016.

One MLA is not the height of this party’s ambitions. There is too much talent in this room and too little of it in the Assembly. (laughs and applause) Northern Ireland needs people who will work for the common good, and if not us, then who?

Green Surge panelEarlier in the day during a private session, delegates rejected a proposal by the East Belfast Constituency Group that would have required “all current councillors and prospective election candidates to pre-sign a resignation letter” that could be used to resign them from their seat if they left the party. Consensus could not be found and the motion did not pass. Dealing with people as individuals and trusting them won the day.

An afternoon session examined the Green Surge with contributions from sister parties in Ireland, Scotland England and Wales. Clare Bailey reminded delegates that their party was the only local one that did not exist because of conflict.

The audio is indistinct in places – since one of the three microphones wasn’t switched on – but it’s uploaded in two parts in case you want to listen.

Policy Motions passed:

While the party’s opposition to the privatisation of natural resources (including NI Water) remains, there was strong opposition to a motion that opposed the introduction of separate water charges and called on the rate cap to be lifted. The complex issue is likely to be revisited before the publication of the Green Party’s Assembly election manifesto. [Paragraph reworded.]

An exploratory motion on minimum pricing for alcohol was debated with party leader Steven Agnew speaking in favour and deputy leader Clare Bailey speaking against. You can hear their speeches … though I left before the discussion opened up to delegates. The motion was defeated. So too was a motion arguing that school children in Year 13 and above should not have to wear a uniform.

– – –

David McCann interviewed Green deputy leader Clare Bailey and asked her how the Green Surge applies to Northern Ireland. She characterised Northern Ireland as “quite politically juvenile … as our institutions haven’t been about for very long”.

What we’re seeing here in Northern Ireland is that the people are starting to acknowledge and recognise and see that the system we’re putting in place – or allowing to take place – is not actually meeting their needs and not representing their voices. So I don’t think we’re going to have to wait very long to see the Green Surge coming.

Electorally, in South Belfast she wants to give everyone who cast their first preference for the Greens in 2014’s elections the opportunity to put an X on the ballot paper for her in 2015 and looking forward to 2016’s Assembly elections.

– – –

Other parties will be jealous of the youthfulness of the Green delegates and the movement’s growth.

When I meet Green Party members, I’m often struck by how few sound like they would fit into another party that stands in Northern Ireland if the Greens didn’t exist or stand. They tap into a post-conflict market, that care about the environment and people as much as the economy. (While faith is never spoken about, the party – or at least its membership – is a haven for atheists.)

There’s an honesty to their manner of debate and discussion at conference. What other NI party leader would apologise in public and at length to a member and colleague who had left the party over something he had said. Contrition is largely absent from Northern Ireland politics, but today Steven Agnew demonstrated gracious humility.

The Green Party’s commitment to growth is demonstrated by the five Westminster candidates who all have an eye on further growth at the 2016 Assembly election. (Older Green Party haunts like South Down still seem to be off-limits until former members move aside and make space for new candidates.) The Greens are sticking to their guns principles and not standing aside in East Belfast due to Alliance’s approach to welfare cuts.

In previous speeches, Steven Agnew has borrowed Kermit the Frog’s line “It’s not easy being green”, though today it was comic Frankie Boyle who quipped on Twitter:

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