Activists slam ministers over peace
Northern Ireland's bickering ministers are refusing to take risks for peace, trade unionists have claimed.
Stormont's power-sharing Executive has failed in its duty to govern with collective responsibility and left a vacuum that is being filled by the enemies of progress, senior activist Peter Bunting said.
A rally has been held at Belfast city hall to demand action following a year marked by political talks but no agreement, sporadic sectarian riots and an intensified campaign by dissident republicans to kill members of the security forces.
Mr Bunting said: "The Executive we have elected has abdicated its duty to govern with collective responsibility.
"By refusing to take risks for peace, progress and equality, they have created a political vacuum. That vacuum has been filled by the enemies of peace, progress and equality."
Pre-Christmas trade was disrupted by several bomb alerts in Belfast city centre. Extremists opposed to the peace process have killed police officers, soldiers and a prison guard in recent years.
On New Year's Eve five-party negotiations chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass and aimed at resolving tensions over parades, flags and addressing Northern Ireland's conflict legacy ended without agreement.
Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson has said the talks laid foundations for a more peaceful future. But Dr Haass proposed a blueprint settlement which has yet to achieve consensus.
It follows months of sectarian violence over restrictions on the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall and contentious loyal order parades.
There are also divisions over how more than 3,000 unresolved conflict deaths are dealt with, be that by attempting to prosecute offenders or recovering as much truth as possible through granting limited immunity from legal proceedings for perpetrators.
While Sinn Fein and the nationalist SDLP aim to implement the Haass document as it stands, the DUP and Ulster Unionists want significant elements re-negotiated. The parties have met regularly since the start of the year.
Mr Bunting, assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), said the current state of affairs was untenable.
"The people of Northern Ireland demand and deserve better," he added. "For months now, we have been confronted with significant paramilitary activity, a rise in sectarian displays and stand-offs on the streets.
"But the stand-offs are happening in Stormont as well."
He said m inisters found out what other ministers were thinking and doing when they read the newspapers.
Ministers had scrapped in the High Court over how to spend money from Europe, or lost European money for investment projects such as a reconciliation centre at the former Maze prison site near Belfast, Mr Bunting added.
"These are distractions from the real issues that desperately need to be addressed," he said.
"This bickering and indecision within the Executive is deeply dysfunctional, and it is costing us jobs and money as well as undermining the peace. Their behaviour makes a mockery of the commitments they made to equality and a shared society.
"In the face of the most drastic assault on our living standards for generations, we need Stormont to stand up for the people who elected it - no one here voted for a Tory austerity regime."
Mr Robinson and his Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, have supported proposals to build a shared community including educating more children together and constructing more houses where Catholics and Protestants live alongside each other.
Relations between the two leading politicians in Northern Ireland appeared to deteriorate recently after Mr Robinson accused his deputy of trying to dictate how post-Haass talks were conducted and Mr McGuinness attacked the Orange Order.
Sinn Fein Newry and Armagh MP Conor Murphy said: "The consequences of failure to date, to deal with issues considered by Haass has been visible to all - an increase in violent protests and activity by the tiny minority who do not wish to see progress.
"T he so-called flags protests, sectarian marches, attacks on churches and homes and the attacks on other elected politicians, have been evident over the past year.
"The failure, and in some cases complicity, of unionist leaders during all of this cannot continue."