Unionist parties 'drove flag protests'

Alliance party leader David Ford has alleged protests against his colleagues were part of a 'project' to damage the party. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Alliance party leader David Ford has alleged protests against his colleagues were part of a 'project' to damage the party. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Sat, Mar 2, 2013, 00:00

Alliance Party leader David Ford has accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of engaging in a “sham fight” over flags and the Border Poll to hide their failure to make progress on the big issues that affect people in Northern Ireland.

At the 43rd Alliance party conference today Mr Ford also claimed that the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party had cynically targeted his party and in particular the Alliance MP for East Belfast Naomi Long for crude electoral purposes.

In front of some 350 delegates a the La Mon Hotel in east Belfast the Alliance leader said that 19 year since the 1994 IRA and loyalist ceasefires, 15 years since the Belfast Agreement, and after 10 years of devolved government, no effective strategy has been developed to move the “community beyond the ending of violence”.

“Is it any wonder that the DUP and Sinn Féin rely on sham fights over flags and Border polls to draw attention away from their failure to deliver effectively on the big issues that would really make a difference to people’s everyday lives?” he said.

“It seems to suit unionism better to have people worried about flags and identity, protesting at the City Hall, than have them focus on the fact that their children are leaving school without the essential skills they need to make it in today’s world, and lobbying about that at Stormont,” he added.

“And for nationalists, it's better to have people thinking about a Border poll that won’t realistically happen for the foreseeable future, rather than focusing on the fact that some 43 per cent of children growing up in West Belfast are living in poverty.”

Mr Ford was particularly scathing of the DUP and UUP, claiming both parties had aided in stirring up antagonism against Alliance because it was instrumental in Belfast City Council passing a motion that the British union flag would only fly over Belfast City Hall on 15-18 days each year rather than all-year round.

Mr Ford believed that part of the strategy was to create a situation where the DUP could be in a position to win back its seat in East Belfast which in 2010 Ms Long won from First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson.

“In Belfast there was a deliberate, premeditated campaign to whip up tensions, to generate fears over loss of identity among those who perceive themselves as having little left to give; and to go after the Alliance Party and its elected representatives, especially Naomi Long who wasn’t even involved in the debate, in order to win votes,” he said.

Mr Ford said the protests and disorder over flags clearly demonstrated the need for the Northern Executive to devise a strategy on tackling sectarianism and creating a “shared future” in Northern Ireland, “the most pressing issue at this time”. He said the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, had “ducked” properly addressing this crucial issue.

“We want to see a shared and integrated society free from intimidation and discrimination and fear, where every member is safe, has opportunities to contribute and participate and is treated fairly and with respect; a truly civic society, underpinned by the shared values of equality, respect for diversity, and a celebration of our interdependence,” he said.