SDLP Leader addresses UUP Conference 2016
He said, “Let me start by thanking you for your invitation and for your warm welcome. At the beginning of this year I think we were all of the belief that remembrance and commemoration would be the dominant feature of 2016.
"As it turned out managing momentous centenaries was the easy part.
Throughout this year both traditions on these islands have remembered the diversity and depth of our shared history with a maturity and an openness of which I think we can all be proud.
"Unusually for us in Northern Ireland, it is our new political present rather than the weight of our own history, which is proving so problematic.
Whilst we were busy behaving ourselves in 2016 our outside world decided to test the very sinews of its stability.
"The Brexit referendum fallout, unprecedented flows in refugees and migration, continuing tension between a more protectionist or open economic model and the sheer awfulness of the violence in Syria and in the city of Aleppo are all unfolding before us. As things fall apart, the centre ground is struggling to know what is worth holding on to.
"Mainstream politics remains uneasy and unsure as to its place, its power and its purpose. As your leader Mike Nesbitt has rightly identified, we are all living in an era of uncertainty. The volatility of this moment has inevitably been seized upon by those who thrive on the politics of hate and simplistic slogan.
"But Northern Ireland cannot afford to face inward amidst the bigness and the broadness of this evolving world. We may live in a small part of Ireland but there is a prevailing political wind blowing across our entire continent.
In facing into that wind though we should all be confident of one thing - there is nothing wrong in Europe that cannot be cured by what is right in Europe.
"Looking ahead the future offers many choices - but the only future worth knowing is the one which chooses co-operation. It is that very sentiment and its substance which has always been at the heart of the European Union.
"Building common ground and common cause is the only effective weapon in the face of the divisiveness which threatens the consensus of decency that is the centre ground. That is why the SDLP is so determined to retain the benefits of the EU and its membership across this island.
"It is that same principle of partnership which brings me to this stage today.
"If cooperation is required in Europe it is equally required in Northern Ireland.
"Since the election there has been plenty of interest as to whether the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party will work together in opposition. The answer is simple - of course we will. We are already doing so. Only this week we have scrutinised and offered solutions to ongoing emergencies in housing, homelessness and in our health service. That will continue and expand during the course of this mandate.
"The commitment to co-operation does not mean absolute unanimity or uniformity - and nor should it. Let me state the obvious -we are different parties with different policies and different visions of the future. Our Irish Nationalism and your Unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon.
"However, this difference does not diminish our ability to pursue the commonality of our immediate cause. Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work. That’s a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow.
The constitutional change of the future will be the product of persuasion.
"But amongst all that pleasantness let me say something slightly more difficult. Let me say something about the possibility of that constitutional change.
"If the last year has shown us anything, it is that we can’t blindly trust the permanence of the status quo. As a Nationalist party leader I have been honest that we have thus far failed to develop a credible and detailed vision of what a New Ireland can look like. We’re now beginning that work.
"As the SDLP engages in that work, I would welcome if Unionism began its own process of mapping out how it sees the future. The United Kingdom, as you have known it, as we all have known it, is no more. We all need to renew our thinking as to what political shape Britain and Ireland will take in this new century.
"My appeal is this – try to convince us of your vision for the future and we’ll try to convince you of ours. Let it be a discussion based on hard facts and hard truths. Most of all let it be creative - and then in time let the people decide. That’s the way politics is supposed to work. It’s how it works at its best - without threat or theatrics.
"It is the generation of that newly refreshed kind of politics which is the big prize at the stake in the time ahead. It is badly needed.
"From a position in 1998 where politics here was shown to be creative and courageous enough to overcome the Anglo-Irish conflict, we are now sadly in the position where the public is unsure as to whether Executive ministers can really deliver substantial difference. That’s had a real effect.
"Turnout at elections and trust in our institutions has plummeted. The biggest challenge of the official opposition is to begin the process of proving that our devolved institutions contain a power and importance beyond the maintenance of peace.
"True reconciliation here will not be achieved through warm words but through practical politics, a politics which fundamentally changes the economic and social patterns of this society.
"For those who cast predictable cynicism upon the scale of this ambition, let them remember that both of our parties were the architects and the builders of the institutions which stand today. It was our two parties who had the bravery to imagine and build the change we now live amongst.
We continue to believe that high politics is capable of delivering the radical change we all wish to see.
"In contrast, the DUP and Sinn Féin have no such ambition or aspiration for our people or this place. They never had. They believe the symbolism of their coalition suffices, and offer nothing more. They’re all guff and no governance. Even with 55 press officers, 16 special advisers and their new press secretary they struggle to fabricate the illusion of progress.
"Together we must break up and break down that cosy establishment.
"We do that by building trust and credibility across this society. We do it by embracing the politics of partnership and cooperation.
"Let’s be honest - we are not there yet. We have work to do and that work goes on. Our success can permanently transform the politics of this place - old battles of identity will be replaced by a new battle of ideas.
"For me, for the SDLP, that’s work that’s well worthwhile.