The Alliance Party’s 49th annual conference was held on Saturday 2 March at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast.
The location of the conference, directly opposite Parliament Buildings, was a stark reminder of the more than two years Northern Ireland has now gone without a functioning devolved administration.
With the Assembly still not restored, no representation at Westminster and local government elections just two months away, the party spent much of the day focusing closely on the role of local government. As party leader Naomi Long said in her speech “it is crucial that we focus all of our energy and resources in the next 8 weeks to ensure that the one tier of government which is working continues to deliver".
The importance of local government was specifically highlighted at the first panel of the conference which focused on the Belfast City Deal.
There were some references to the advanced negotiations around the North West City Deal which would seek to revolutionise the economy in the Derry and Strabane District Council area, however the panel focused almost entirely on the Belfast City Deal which was announced in last year’s budget.
With contributions from Bill Wolsey, the owner of Belfast’s Merchant Hotel, Rajesh Rana, the President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Raffaella Folli of Ulster University, Glyn Roberts of Retail NI and chaired by Councillor Nuala McAllister, former Lord Mayor of Belfast, the panel discussed the “game-changing” nature of the Belfast City Deal.
There was reference to the 20,000 jobs the City Deal is projected to create, the unprecedented nature of collaboration between NI’s University’s in R&D and the potential £1bn investment that the deal would attract.
There was a consensus from business, university and political representatives that the City Deal would revolutionise the Northern Irish economy, however there was also an acknowledgement that the City Deal alone was not enough to ensure sustainable growth in Northern Ireland’s economy.
The restoration of a functioning Assembly was identified as being necessary to encourage economic growth, with Belfast Chamber President Rajesh Rana saying "Political stability is something you take for granted when you have it and something you really miss when you don't have it".
Rajesh Rana also identified devolving regeneration powers to local councils as the first action a restored Assembly should take, to enable local government to utilise their planning powers effectively.
Glyn Roberts of Retail NI identified the root and branch reformation of the business rates system as being necessary to promote economic growth in NI, saying “We need to fix our broken and antiquated system of business rates".
Bill Wolsey also called for the reformation of Northern Ireland’s licensing laws to help support the hospitality sector, which he said is projected to be bigger than both the manufacturing and agriculture sector in the next decade.