Unicorns, donkeys and even some misogyny – the #APNI19 weekend

05 March 2019 - by Matthew Coyle

Saturday’s annual Alliance Party conference, which took place at the Stormont Hotel and featured Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as Friday evening dinner guest, marked two years to the day since voters went to the polls following the collapse of the power-sharing Executive in January 2017.

With the power-sharing stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Féin continuing, that impasse was a focal point of the conference, party leader Naomi Long MLA condemning an “appalling dereliction of duty exhibited by the main political parties”.

In her third speech as leader, Long, who once again hosted this annual gathering – the party's 49th – in the heart of her Belfast East constituency, also took aim at the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP: “she is responsible for the lack of urgency attached to either get the Assembly restored or put in place alternative arrangements to deliver government if parties continue to refuse to step up to their responsibilities.

The airing of frustration over the lack of progress at Stormont was replicated in the condemnation of the UK Government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations. Long claimed those who voted for Brexit were sold “the promise of a unicorn” but would be presented with a “donkey” by Prime Minister Theresa May on her return from talks in Brussels.

But there was no bigger target of Brexit-related criticism than the DUP. Its backing of Brexit represented, she said, as “an act of gratuitous self-harm”.

After labelling parliament’s attempts to articulate its demands over the past two and a half years a “failure,” Long repeated her calls for a referendum on May’s Brexit deal.

While all party leaders expect, and indeed plan for media attention during party conferences, commentator Jude Collins’s preamble in a blog post on Sunday, focusing on Long’s appearance, weight and state of health, was unnecessary and misogynistic.

Long posted a riposte on Facebook to denounce the comments, stating that Collins had“no right to speculate” about her health and that his comments were evidence of "his misogyny as well as his lack of manners.” The fact that as party leader Long had to spend her Sunday responding to personal comments dressed up as political punditry, proves that women in public life are subject to abuse of a nature that their male counterparts simply do not experience. 

Viewed through this prism, the 24 women who are contesting the upcoming local council elections for the Alliance Party cannot be looking forward to exposing themselves to the internet’s battalions of trolls and keyboard warriors. Collins’s readiness to offer so pointed an assessment, and the attitudes it speaks to, is unlikely to encourage a deluge of others to join the fray

As well as the speeches and a fringe event on Integrated Education, deputy leader Dr Stephen Farry MLA joined the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) fringe event focusing on one of the most important aspects of the government’s domestic, post-Brexit agenda: the future Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU regional and structural funding.  

As part of its Solving Poverty After Brexit series, JRF has previously outlined its thinking on how future investment promotes inclusive growth and enables places to respond flexibly to local priorities in Designing the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Dr Theresa Donaldson, the former chief executive of Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, and JRF’s Northern Ireland adviser, Quintin Oliver, appeared alongside Dr Farry. The discussion largely focused on investment beyond the promise of a Shared Prosperity Fund; there has been little debate on how the future funds will be distributed.

Dr Farry suggested that the ultimate shape of Brexit will determine how the Fund is used, while Dr Donaldson emphasised the importance of avoiding the development of “a whole new apparatus” to deliver the money, particularly in avoiding duplication between local and central governments. She held up the partnerships being established on foot of the Belfast City Deal as an example of potentially effective collaboration.

Once again, the Alliance Party provided a reliable forum for vital policy discussions. However, as Brexit and, perhaps, direct rule creep closer, it finds itself striving to remain in the political mix. The coming months hold answers as well as questions.