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National Conference Bournemouth 2002
Scotland Daily Briefings
Wednesday 19 June Later Reports

Serious players and serious partners too?

John ReidIf you are Northern Ireland Secretary, there can be few perks of the job, but there was clearly one for John Reid as he told Conference, "I think I was the only one in government with the protection to come here"

In well crafted speech, John Reid managed to raise laughs in the right places and avoid too much conflict on the fundamental issues where we and the Government are at odds.

But the speech was not without content and drove to the heart of serious issues like Northern Ireland, the NHS and public services in general.

A hushed Conference heard John talk of the Northern Ireland issue as a 'great project'.

"Because its aim is nothing less than resolving the longest running problem in British history…. To overcome decades, centuries, of division, hatred, pain and conflict. It won't be easy, but it can be done", he said.

It would not be achieved because of David Trimble or Gerry Adams or the 'great and the good', but because of hundreds of thousands of 'ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland'.

"People like Inez McCormack, not only UNISON Regional Secretary in Northern Ireland, but also a strong voice in the Womens movement", said John.

"People like those who organised the street rallies, Northern Ireland's trade unions, after the murder of postman Daniel McColgan", he added.

"No-one who witnessed them could doubt the communities' revulsion at sectarian attacks - especially when the victim was a public service worker committed to serving all the people of Northern Ireland regardless of background".

In a moment of quiet passion John pled, "If we are going to hate, then let's hate the things that truly suppress people - poverty, pain, injustice and intolerance. And above all, let's hate the exploitation of children".

Whether as the victims of community violence or as the pawns of paramilitaries, bringing up children to hate was wrong. "That for me is child abuse, the abuse of a new generation. These kids should have books in their hands, not bombs", said John.


John analysed how the Labour Government had changed the agenda on public services. From a position where taxation was a taboo, the British people were now prepared to accept a National Insurance rise to invest in public services.

And he listed the government's record of building sustained investment in public services with 9,000 more staff and 7.4% more money over the next five years.

Perhaps unaware of debates this week where President Veronica Dunn and many delegates had been calling for positive change in public services, John Reid suggested people 'naturally want to put change off'. Change wasn't easy but could be done in partnership.

Redeeming himself a bit, he acknowledged that "the real reformers are the frontline staff and I have no hesitation in paying tribute to those who have already been through massive change and delivered during the awful Tory years".

But change was still needed with flexibility and new ways of working - and this would need partnership. There was a gentle warning that "we want unions to be serious players so we expect them to be serious partners".

Realistically, he accepted that they didn't expect unions to agree with them on everything. "Dave Prentis leaves us in no doubt what UNISON members want", was the wry comment. But partners tell it to each other as it is.

"So let me say with all the sincerity and passion that I can muster - the public services should not become the battleground for a class war approach. Because the class of people who would suffer most would be the working families who are most dependent on the public services"

Whether Conference was lulled into a false sense of security by John's quiet and gentle approach, or whether we are becoming just too polite is not clear, but the response to this thinly veiled criticism of England and Wales Local Government industrial action went almost unnoticed.

It was a speech of passion, of humour (in the right places) and with a real sense of genuineness and warmth.

But like so many colleagues, he seemed to have missed the debate on public services. We want change, we want modern services.

Despite what you may think, you don't have to persuade us of that because we see those services successes and failures every day at the coal-face.

That is what Conference has been saying this week. We don't need persuaded, we just need the tools to do the job.


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