Northern Ireland must stop ‘ducking’ the big issues, Alliance leader says

David Ford urges support for Anna Lo following controversy over her united Ireland remarks

Northern Ireland must stop “ducking” the big issues and start properly addressing matters such as sectarianism, flags, parades and the past, Alliance leader David Ford has told his party’s annual conference in Belfast today.

Northern Ireland must stop “ducking” the big issues and start properly addressing matters such as sectarianism, flags, parades and the past, Alliance leader David Ford has told his party’s annual conference in Belfast today.

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 13:08

Northern Ireland must stop “ducking” the big issues and start properly addressing matters such as sectarianism, flags, parades and the past, Alliance leader David Ford has told his party’s annual conference in Belfast today.

Mr Ford was speaking in the La Mon Hotel in east Belfast, as Unionists continued to attack the Alliance party over the united Ireland comments by its European candidate and Assembly member Anna Lo.

Earlier this week Ms Lo said she supported a united Ireland created by consent and further implied that Northern Ireland was a colony.

While Alliance places itself as “agnostic” on the issue of the union with Britain and on a united Ireland unionists politicians, and quite a number of Alliance members, believed her comments were damaging ahead of the European and local elections in May.

Mr Ford in his conference speech 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.

“It’s time to step forward and take Northern Ireland back from these people. It’s time to show them the kind of community we want for future generations, and not the paramilitaries on the murals. In fact, it’s long beyond time when these organisations simply told their members to go home, to look after their families and their own business, and let Northern Ireland get on with the future.”

Mr Ford, the North’s Minister of Justice, 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,” he said.

Mr Ford continued, “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.

“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 is limited to whatever might keep both unionists and nationalists happy at any given moment”.

“Too often, that’s what the peace process has amounted to. No, we are a party with an entirely different vision for Northern Ireland, our own vision, and we are committed to tirelessly and determinedly pursue making that vision a reality,” he said.

“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.”