Ford says North must start confronting ‘difficult matters’
Ford backs candidate Anna Lo following controversial comments on united Ireland
Alliance Party leader and Minister of Justice David Ford addressing his party’s annual conference in Belfast. Photograph: Jonathan Porter/Presseye
Northern Ireland must starting taking “big steps” to move away from sectarianism and persistent quarrels over issues such as flags, parades and the past, the Alliance leader David Ford has told his party’s annual conference.
Alliance leader and Minister of Justice Mr Ford also used his conference speech to deliver a strong endorsement of Anna Lo, the party’s candidate in the May European elections, following the controversy triggered by her united Ireland comments.
Last week unionists lined up to condemn the South Belfast Assembly member Ms Lo after she said she supported a united Ireland created by consent and further implied that Northern Ireland was a colony. Unionist politicians – and a number of Alliance supporters privately and sometimes publicly – believed her comments would damage her prospects in the European elections.
They could also cause problems for the party in the May local elections, particularly by antagonising moderate unionists it was hoping to attract.
Mr Ford in his conference speech in the La Mon Hotel in east Belfast on Saturday, praised the work of Ms Lo and urged the party and the community to rally behind her in her campaign to win a first European seat for Alliance.
“Some in this society are motivated by hope of a united Ireland, some by the continuation of the United Kingdom. What unites us all in Alliance is an unequivocal commitment to building a united community,” he said.
He praised Ms Lo’s work as an Assembly member and defended her against the racist abuse she was recently subjected to when proposing the removal of paramilitary murals.
Mr Ford said he was “bitterly disappointed” that the Haass talks had failed to find agreement on how to deal with parades, the past and flags. He said the North must start confronting difficult matters.
“Northern Ireland needs no more ducking of big issues. We’ve had enough of the ‘small steps’, ‘no steps’ or ‘backward steps’ that have been the hallmark of politics since the Good Friday agreement,” he said. “Rather than ducking the issue of flags, murals and other paramilitary symbols, let’s face up to this issue and call it what it is – sectarian, paramilitary-led marking out of territory.
“It’s not about culture, it’s not about historical commemoration. As far as I’m concerned, a UVF flag is a paramilitary flag even if it says 1912 in the corner, and anyone who believes otherwise is naïve,” he added.
“Listen, if we want to show the world a better image of Northern Ireland, we would be taking down the paintings of gunmen and putting up posters of Anna Lo, not the other way around.”
Mr Ford said Northern Ireland must start taking the big steps. “Let’s bring in a system that allows anyone to display legal flags and symbols for a defined period, but then to remove them afterwards.
“Let’s get agreement between the political parties that any mural with a paramilitary on it should be painted out. Let’s insist that only murals of a genuinely civic nature be allowed, and get rid of the symbols of hatred and division once and for all,” he added.
“Let’s have a system for regulating parades that provides a fresh start, both in structures and behaviours. Let’s have a code of conduct that recognises and rewards good behaviour by both paraders and protesters, and punishes bad and unlawful behaviour.”
Mr Ford said that Alliance was not a “split-the-difference party, whose vision was limited to whatever might keep both unionists and nationalists happy at any given moment”.
“We aren’t the moderates in Northern Ireland politics – we’re the radicals,” added Mr Ford. “We don’t fit the unionist versus nationalist mould of Northern Ireland politics – we were made to smash it and there’s only one way we will do it – by convincing more and more people to step forward and vote Alliance. And that’s what the next 26 months will be about, through the elections to councils, to Europe, to Westminster and to the Assembly.”