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Political Unionism Is Failing Northern Ireland

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Many days have now passed since the meeting of Belfast City Council on the 3 December 2012 where a democratic compromise led by the Alliance Party was achieved on the emotive and divisive issue of flying the Union flag atop Belfast City Hall.

Fallout from the removal of the flag has been that of widespread violence and disorder. Many in Northern Ireland have been affected, particularly those living in Belfast as we now witness what has been described as the worst and most widespread disorder here in decades.

As a member of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland I cannot sit by whilst my party colleagues continue to come under systematic and targeted violence. Since the council meeting on 3 December there have been politically motivated death threats, arson attacks and intimidation.

Political discourse from mainstream Unionist parties on the flags issue has been an abysmal cocktail of inconsistency stirred up with a level of dishonesty I didn't even believe political parties capable of in today's Northern Ireland.

The bouts of chaotic and sustained attack upon democracy, now shown to the wider world through the lens of international media, are definitely the result of a failure within unionism today.

Indeed the Belfast Telegraph has published numerous articles with a general consensus that the lack of leadership is a disgrace and such madness backfired badly on unionism - sentiments which I'm inclined to wholeheartedly agree with given the vast contradictions and U-turns spun within unionist politics recently.

I am proud of my own party for not only standing up for democracy but also sticking to our robust policy surrounding flags.

Alliance had no power to determine the timing of the Union flag motion pushed by Sinn Fein at Belfast City council. We did however prove our commitment to the basic tenets of compromise, an integral part of a pluralistic and liberal democracy. Holding true to our strong leadership role my party has delivered change using our long standing policy to allow the flag to fly with dignity and respect on a designated days basis in line with Stormont and numerous other councils across the UK.

My party's policy on flags reflects a lengthy consultation process which occurred before my time but what I do know is that it falls in line with the current constitutional position of Northern Ireland, that we are part of the United Kingdom. Being comfortable with our identity in Northern Ireland is what Alliance is all about and the push to allow an increasingly diverse society to flourish here is part in parcel with delivering change in local communities in which we share and live.

Reviewing history I find our policy is not too dissimilar to that supported by the UUP and PUP in response to the Flags Order 2000. Under a written submission found in an ad-hoc report of the Northern Ireland assembly the Ulster Unionist Party position was revealed in several key statements including the symbolic expression that by accepting the "legitimate expression of British identity through the flying of the flag on the 17 designated days as specified by the Flags Regulations and as in the rest of the UK, the SDLP and Sinn Fein will be honoring their obligation in the Belfast Agreement to show 'sensitivity' and 'promote mutual respect' rather than division".

In the same report the UUP went on to state that "designating a maximum of 17 days out of 365 days in the year clearly indicates that, while upholding the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, the British Government has no intention of flaunting the Union flag".

The discussion around local authorities and district councils was a little less straight forward in the report but still the UUP acknowledged that whilst it may be "an area fraught with difficulty" they acknowledged that an appropriate way of determining the "days and locations for the flying of flags and emblems" would be for district councils to "pay particular attention to their own statutory obligations under two particular pieces of legislation (The Northern Ireland act 1998 and The Fair Employment and Treatment (N.I.) Order 1998).

Looking at the submissions by the PUP on the matter, I noticed that even though they did an about face shortly afterwards, the statements made are very revealing of their position at the time. The PUP line was that whilst Northern Ireland indeed remains part of the United Kingdom there is "no requirements to all day every day ensure that that glaring fact is appreciated" and that the PUP "believes that the Union Flag should be flown on the same designated days as the rest of the United Kingdom".

Unionist parties have ramped up tensions through supporting and actively taking part in the distribution of approximately 40,000 leaflets designed to misrepresent the Alliance Party using false information which has led to deliberate targeting of our elected officials.

No political party should conduct important discussions or decision-making in a context of violence or intimidation and I'm proud that my party will make no exception to this rule.

A community relations policy that reflects the desire of the public sphere to live in a shared society for all needs to appear very soon and include direction on flags, emblems, parades, education, housing, shared space and a way of dealing with the past.

The DUP, UUP and PUP have failed to represent a shared future decision at City Hall and are extending a false narrative, for their own political survival, that British identity is under threat.

Instead of reassuring the people of Northern Ireland to be confident with their own identities there have been clear attempts to capitalize on tribalism, further sectarianizing the flag row. Egregiously betraying working class unionist communities by building them up to break tension point has erupted into a series of violent clashes that have severely shaken Northern Ireland in recent weeks.

In my view the only viable solution at this time is for all political parties to work together in upholding peaceful and democratic means, the rule of law and to deliver on a genuine regional community relations policy that gives the reassurances needed for all sides of our community to come together cohesively as one.