The Green Party NI returned to the Clayton Hotel for their annual party conference this year, this time hiring a much larger room downstairs. New members were evident, including Sophie Long, previously in charge of communications at the Progressive Unionist Party (whose conference is next Saturday).
The morning session debated nine motions ranging from traditional environmental issues (a container deposit scheme, an educational ecovillage for NI) to more economic, justice and societal issues (right-to-buy, the need for a domestic abuse and abuse commissioner, top up fees in care homes and a Youth Assembly for NI).
Internal party motions and procedures will be debated in private session in Belfast on Sunday. The party members present will also elect their next deputy leader to replace Clare Bailey who is standing down: the announcement is expected on Sunday afternoon.
Jenny Muir chaired a panel discussion that examined the impact of the Assembly and the ongoing political stalemate on the lives of people in NI. Jan Melia (Women’s Aid), Nora Smith (CO3), Ben Collins (NIFHA), Danny McQuillan (Extern) and Brian Pelan (the View magazine editor) outlined how their sectors and vulnerable people they represent have been hit by funding issues that are a consequence of the lack of a budget and expressed a desire for devolved government to swiftly return. Before lunch a session looked at accessibility and rights issues for trans people.
The morose political mood across society was less evident at the Green Party’s conference than I expected, with reports of alacrity in the contributions for and against the policy motions, and hour long sessions for delegates on campaigning, looking at social media activism and a sophisticated insight into on-the-ground constituency canvassing and leafleting. There was a thankfulness for volunteer commitment and stable finances that had sustained the party through unexpected elections and a desire to see the professionalism of their ground campaign continue to grow.
Finally at quarter past four, outgoing deputy leader Clare Bailey MLA rose to speak. She described it as an honour, a privilege and a pleasure to have been given the party members’ endorsement to fulfil that role and watch the “stunning” growth of the party over recent years. Her own constituency now has more members than the whole Green Party in NI had when she first joined in 2011.
The Belfast South MLA spoke about the barriers to ambition and opportunity that women experience in NI society, adding that the Green Party didn’t have these barriers. She spoke about
“I was full of hope back in 2016 about getting elected. I had a plan. I had work. I had stuff I wanted to see done. I chose to put myself forward for the Justice Committee and was delighted when I got a place there … We are a party of social justice. But within a matter of months we are now in this stalemate. The house came down. And we now have a standoff between two parties.
“We have Sinn Féin and their mantra of the equality agenda and the full implementation of previous deals, but in their equality agenda they still don’t stand up for women. We have the DUP refusing to make any concessions. We need to reform the Petition of Concern. They make no moves to implement the mechanism for ministerial accountability at the Assembly. Instead what we get from them is the rhetoric of cultural supremacy and cultural war and all of this does nothing to further progress politics in Northern Ireland. This entrenches people and instils the fear of old.
“This is relevant to south Belfast which is the most diverse constituency that Northern Ireland has to offer. It is a microcosm of Northern Ireland as a whole. But that’s not to be confused with the notion that it is integrated, because it’s not. We still have the same problems as everywhere else. In this summer alone, in south Belfast we have seen the bonfires getting bigger, we’ve seen residents put in danger. We’ve had thirty apartments in Victoria Place damaged in the aftermath of a bonfire and the residents left to pick up the pieces and demand that statutory agencies step up and help them all by themselves.”
Bailey also spoke about the intimidation of residents in Cantrell Close.
“As I speak to you there are families packing up and leaving their homes after being advised by the PSNI that they could not guarantee their safety. Four Catholic families left homeless in south Belfast. We want to put a call out to say that we stand with those families, that we stand against sectarian hatred. All this again in a purpose built shared housing development under the Executive-approved ‘Together Building United Communities’ strategy. Where in that strategy did we see the mitigation measures to deal with these measures as they arise. Where did we give the explicit consent for the police to step in when hate crimes are happening. We don’t. So four families being made homeless this week through sectarian intimidation in south Belfast.”
She also paid tribute to staff and volunteers who have worked so hard with her in the constituency and addressed her reason for wanting to step aside as deputy leader.
“To be the deputy leader of this party I have to give equal time and attention right across the constituencies. But I want to see that we build a strong foundation. I want to see that the talent, the resource, the commitment, the integrity and most of all the capability of the membership in south Belfast brought forward, encouraged and supported as much as possible.”
Bailey has a vision to build a strong team of representatives across the Belfast South constituency and pave to way to further councillors joining Georgina Milne on Belfast City Council at the next local government elections in 2019.
“We have many people within this party who can take on the role of deputy leader, who can support Steven in his role as leader, who can step up and be capable and coherent and strong in that role, and I look forward to getting behind them.”
Party leader Steven Agnew began his speech by reflecting that “if a week’s a long time in politics, the past year has felt like a political lifetime”.
“At our last AGM we were in a celebratory mood. Clare and I had just relatively recently been elected and re-elected. We gained our second MLA having ran our largest ever Assembly campaign and achieved our highest ever Assembly vote.
Since then we’ve had the challenge of two more elections and we’re still standing strong.
“The reduction to five seat constituencies was supposed to be to the detriment of our party. All analysts … predicted that we would lose the seat in South Belfast, that was the story, that we had won just nine months before, but we wrote our own script. The challenge was even greater to retain our two seats in keeping what we had, but in a smaller Assembly we had increased the influence of the party in Northern Ireland …
“A great team needs a great candidate and as much as we value all your efforts, I do believe there was only one woman who could have taken that seat in South Belfast for the Green Party and that was Clare Bailey. She and we had little time to rest on our laurels before we were straight into a Westminster election. This was our third election in just over a year … While other parties are selling off the family silver [SDLP selling their Ormeau Road headquarters] we’re in as strong a financial position as a party as we’ve ever been in.”
He joked about the ‘magic money tree’ and said that “we can be trusted to manage a budget!”
Agnew paid tribute to outgoing treasurer Luke Robinson as well as membership secretary Tanya Jones whose work has been “unseen” and underpins the local “Green Surge”. [If bookmakers had odds for the next deputy leader to be announced tomorrow afternoon, Tanya Jones would be the bookies’ favourite.]
“It has been a good year for our party but unfortunately it has been a bad year for our country. We have had eight months without a government or an Assembly. Some may feel that the Assembly makes no difference to their everyday lives. But as you heard from the panel earlier, the people affected the most are the most vulnerable in our society.”
He spoke about the lack of an October monitoring round agreed by ministers. as well as examples of children with Special Education Needs who could not be placed in the most suitable school due to resourcing constraints but instead experience informal exclusions, being sent home from school as their teacher cannot manage them in the classroom.
“People who have additional needs are being further disadvantaged … I do not blame the schools. I blame the politicians and in particular I blame the irresponsibility of Sinn Féin pulling down the Assembly without first ensuring a budget was in place. Much was made of the fast that this was the first time Sinn Féin had ever taken the finance ministry. I have to wonder how long they had this planned. For it was – in Northern Ireland politics – momentous. But what was more momentous was that for the first time in Northern Ireland we were left without any budget whatsoever.
“So yes I support an Irish Language Act. And if needs be I will stand in photographs with whoever else does. The Green Party has supported indigenous languages all across Europe … But let me very clear: I do not support Sinn Fein in bringing this country to its knees.
“It is rare that you’ll hear me quoting Arlene Foster. But as with RHI, the Irish Language Act has become the excuse and not the reason we have no government in Northern Ireland.”
He also spoke out against the “undemocratic” abuse of the Petition of Concern by the DUP.
“Most galling to see is [Sinn Fein’s] crocodile tears over Brexit. From a party that could not even muster a campaign against Brexit. And now one that chooses not to take power when issues of the border are at the top of the agenda. While the status of the Irish border dominates the Brexit negotiations, Northern Ireland is left leaderless and rudderless …
On Brexit: “The border is the intractable issue”.
Agnew confirmed his support for “no hard border” but pointed out the DUP’s new found fear around the border.
“While I want to see the best deal for Northern Ireland but I do have sympathy with Barnier when he says ‘you propose this, now you find the solution’. So to Arlene Foster and the DUP who were so keen on Brexit that they took at a half million pound ad in London … You were so keen you told us we’d be better of. Show us how.”
Leaving the customs union means one of three options suggested Agnew: we have a hard border on the island of Ireland; we have a hard border between the two islands; or we have a hard border around these two islands.
“The only conclusion I can come to is that we ditch Brexit altogether or we secure a deal that looks so much like ‘remain’ as to make no difference.”
To Agnew this seemed to be the conclusion that Prime Minister May’s government are coming to.
In May 2019 there will be elections for the European Parliament but not in the UK.
“We are entering a period of taxation without representation … We will pay but have no say. Rather than taking back control we will be ceding power. That will be the legacy of Brexit.
“But there is another way. Rather than less democracy we should have more. Any deal between the UK and the EU government must be brought to the people through referendum. Only then can we make an informed choice as to whether or not we leave the EU and do so in full knowledge of the terms. The possibility of changing your mind is not anti-democratic, it is the essence of a participative, deliberative democracy.”
As his speech drew to a close, the NI Green Party leader recalled Green Party activists from across the island and from Scotland converging to canvas in south Belfast.
“We miss a lesson if we forget to learn from what Clare Bailey has done. She has built the Green vote and constituency group in South Belfast virtually from scratch. No one else could have done it … it is borne out by the fact that we do things arse about face in the Green Party at times and we don’t yet have a councillor in South Belfast but we have an MLA. It’s not how things are normally done in politics …”
Agnew warned against activists being over-ambitious in their pursuit of council seats in competitive south Belfast.
“It is no secret that we plan to build further in South Belfast … But anybody who plans to put themselves forward and underestimates what Clare Bailey has done will fail to get elected … it takes the networking, it takes the nights out in the rain …”
“So when Clare suggested to me she might not stand for re-election as deputy leader, I asked her to reconsider. But as she explained it to me, I did understand. Because I know the privilege of leadership but I also know the burden as well. And I know the commitment that Clare has given to her constituents and to her constituency group and her determination to build the party in south Belfast and in Belfast as a whole. When I realised that I realised that it was the right thing not just for Clare but for this party.
“I want to formally thank her for her service as deputy leader. She has been phenominal but I know that she will continue to inspire us as Green MLA for South Belfast. But while other parties have more seat than talent, we have more talent than seats. And what Clare has recognised is that in stepping down she is giving the opportunity for someone else to bring their talent to the fore. Whichever candidate is successful tomorrow I look forward to working with them. It’s like a wedding: I don’t feel like I’m losing Clare! She continues as South Belfast Green MLA. But I do feel that we will be getting a new member of our growing team.”
“While the future of politics in Northern Ireland is uncertain, one thing that is clear is the dedication and commitment of the people in this room not just to growing the Green Party but to making Northern Ireland a better place.”
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.