Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Words on Wednesday...with Stephen Farry MLA

Welcome to this week's edition of Words on Wednesday here on United Irelander, a concept unique to the Irish blogosphere, which sees me interview various figures from all walks of political life.

Taking my questions this week is Alliance Party MLA for North Down, Dr Stephen Farry. My thanks to Dr Farry for the interview. So then let's begin...

You are an Alliance Party MLA for North Down and the party's General Secretary. Talk us through a typical day in your life.

Unfortunately, there is not typical day at the moment. When I was elected to the Assembly, I was serving as General Secretary of the Party. I served in both capacities until my successor was appointed. This was a challenge in itself. In June, I was elected to serve as Mayor of North Down for a year. I was fulfilling three major roles for a brief time. I tend to spend Monday and Tuesday in the Assembly for plenary business, and on Monday evening, I would frequently host a reception in Bangor Town Hall. On Tuesday evening, there is usually a Council meeting. On Wednesday morning, I sit on the Assembly’s Finance and Personnel Committee. The remainder of the week tends to be a mixture of Mayoral events, meetings with NGOs and constituents, including right through the weekends.

What prompted you to get involved in politics?

A concern for the world around me, and the need to turn Northern Ireland around, plus a desire to try to make a difference with one’s life.

You were elected the Mayor of North Down a year ago. What are some of the initiatives that you're involved in at the minute as Mayor?

My main focus as Mayor has been Good Relations. I have been working with local ethnic minority groups to build up their capacity, and we are working towards the creation of a local multicultural forum which should provide a stronger voice for dealing with all levels of government. I recently invited a large number of Polish and other Eastern European workers to the Town Hall. We are working to creating a local group for what is a present a very dispirit community. I also made the first invitation for our local Gay and Lesbian group to the Town Hall.

This year marks the the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and you yourself were involved in the negotiations that led to that accord. What are your feelings on that point in time as you reflect upon it?

I regard the Agreement as a huge missed opportunity. At the time, it only contained what could be agreed, but major issues were left unresolved, including decommissioning and policing. With hindsight, it is bizarre that no financial and economic package was negotiated – Blair would have almost certainly delivered here at the time.

Much time has been wasted in trying to implement the GFA. The Agreement has also witnessed considerable political polarisation. From the perspective of 1998, it was not anticipated that the DUP and Sinn Fein would be so dominant. The assumption in 1998 was that both parties would be inside the tent, but managed by the UUP and SDLP.

The paradox of the Agreement is that peace has come at the price of reconciliation. The Agreement essentially entrenched divisions and asked the political system to manage this. Ten years on, it should be clear that the economic, financial and social costs of this are unsustainable. This is not the case with the current DUP-Sinn Fein administration.

I understand you have spent some time in the US political scene and that you worked with the National Democratic Institute in Washington. Do you have an opinion on the US Presidential race? Is there a particular candidate that you feel would be more inclined to help out NI?

I have worked for NDI in the Balkans on a number of occasions. More recently, I spent a year in Washington as a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

I am supporting Barack Obama. I believe that he would be a breath of fresh air, both within the United States and on the international stage. I also regard John McCain to be a strong candidate for the Republicans. It is probably not going to be a Republican year, but he does stand in contrast to some of his predecessors. While I disagreed with the US invasion of Iraq at the time, I do recognise that the invasion has unleashed major sectarian tensions, something that we in Ireland can identify with. I think that there is an obligation to try to put Iraq on the course of stability, and I would be worried about a premature withdrawal. On assistance to NI, I think the challenge for us is to build a more sustainable economy.

I recall reading last year the blog by the BBC's Mark Devenport and he mentioned a debate in the Assembly involving the UUP's David McNarry about the Irish language. I remember reading the transcripts of that debate and found it amusing how you seemed to be bemused by the whole thing and of the view that it was a waste of time! Has the Irish language been too politicised north of the border in your view?

I have no problem with members of the Assembly using Irish in their comments within the chamber. This is their choice and I am happy to respect this. I thought McNarry’s motion was petty and bitter. However, I am concerned about disproportionate responsibilities being placed on public authorities to provide services in Irish. I do think that Sinn Fein is politicising the language and certain ministers play into the hands of unionists. Unionists respond in kind.

With NI seemingly becoming a more stable political environment and less reliant on extremist elements, will this bode well for the future of the Alliance Party?

Northern Ireland politics is both more moderate in the sense that tensions have been reduced and there is greater scope for co-operation, but paradoxically, it is also more polarised than every before, with the DUP and Sinn Fein in the ascendancy. Alliance does have a clear niche within the political spectrum, a strong vision and positive message. I think we are well placed in contrast to our closest political rivals who are both having somewhat of an identity crisis.

What are your thoughts on Ian Paisley stepping down as NI's First Minister?

While he was undoubtedly shafted by his own party, it was time for him to retire. While his age does not help, he is not effective as a minister and struggles with details. His performances in answering ministerial questions have been particularly telling. The big questions for historians will be whether one decision to go into government with Sinn Fein, makes up for the past four decades of political obstruction and scaremongering.

On a similar note the big news story in the Republic of late has been Bertie Ahern stepping down as Taoiseach. What is your opinion of Mr Ahern and his role in the peace process?

I rate Bertie Ahern very highly. He played a positive role and was often more straight than Blair. That said, the Irish Government institutionally did not always play as positive a role. Irish officials made a mess of the first draft of the Good Friday Agreement, meaning that the focus in the first few days of the week leading up to Good Friday 1998 were spent trying to fix problems rather than focusing on the bigger issues for the future. Also at times, the Government needed to be less a reinforcement for the nationalist parties and to make them face up to some difficult home-truths.

He also presided over what has been the most successful period in the history of Ireland. He will be missed.

What is your view of Brian Cowen and do you see him having a positive relationship with the North's political parties?

I am a little apprehensive. In my experience, he was more inflexible than Ahern in his approach to the peace process when he was Foreign Minister, but time will tell. Fianna Fail is a mirror image of the DUP.

What are your thoughts on a united Ireland? Will it ever occur in your opinion?

I have no major hang-ups about a united Ireland in principle, and will happily respect the determination of the people of Northern Ireland. My fear is that in the short-term speculation over a united Ireland will serve to further polarise the political debate and undermine political progress. A premature ‘border poll’ should be avoided. In the longer term, I do think that a united Ireland will occur during my lifetime (I am still in my 30s), but my hope is that within the context of a changing British Isles and a evolving Europe, the actual switch of formal sovereignty will be less of an issue than is often perceived. A word of caution for now is that Northern Ireland is very heavily dependent on the UK Treasury to the tune of £7bn per annum. It is much easier for a state of 60m to sustain this level of subsidy than a state of 4m people.

What are the main problems in NI that you would like to see addressed?

The biggest problems facing Northern Ireland are addressing the continued deep divisions, and problems of sectarianism and segregation. There are significant economic, financial and social costs being borne by society. These matters still remain largely unacknowledged and unaddressed. The Shared Future strategy from Direct Rule has been sidelined by the DUP and Sinn Fein, and its replacement is awaited with some apprehension.

There are also major issues relating to dealing with the relative poor performance of the NI economy, and the fiscal dependency upon the UK Treasury.

What does the future hold in store for you?

My immediate event horizon is the completion of this Assembly term and elections in 2011. I would like to complete another couple of terms in the Assembly, subject to the views of the electorate of course! In the longer term, I would like to work overseas again.

Finally I'd like to play a small round of word association. I'm sure you know what it entails. Basically just outline what word comes into your head when you hear the following:

Ian Paisley - Bluster
Martin McGuinness - IRA
Bertie Ahern - Pragmatist
Gordon Brown - Deceptive
David Ford – Grassroots campaigner
Sinn Féin - Stalinist
DUP - Stalinist
Alliance Party – Shared Future
Good Friday Agreement – Missed Opportunity
Stephen Farry - Commitment

Thank you once again for your time, Dr Farry. All the best.

Next week, I put my questions and concerns about the Lisbon Treaty to Dr Diana Panke, a lecturer on European Politics at University College Dublin. Stay tuned to United Irelander for future interviews.

Previous interviews can be found


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