We have choice of shared future or scared future, says MP Naomi Long
The fragility of the Northern Ireland peace process has been laid bare by months of turbulence stoked up by the Union flag row, Naomi Long has warned.
The Alliance Party's sole MP, who received a death threat in the wake of the row, warned that the province is standing at the crossroads as it faces a "shared future or a scared future".
Ms Long told her party's annual conference it faced the task of building for the future "in a political earthquake zone".
And she talked of the toll the upheaval of recent months has taken in terms of businesses, the province's international reputation and future opportunities.
There was enhanced but discreet PSNI security at the event in the La Mon hotel following a barrage of attacks on party representatives, their homes and arson attacks on their offices.
In the worst single attack, a woman police officer guarding Ms Long's office escaped death or serious injury when a bomb was thrown into her vehicle. There were also arson attacks on the offices of senior MLAs Stewart Dickson and Stephen Farry, the Employment and Learning Minister.
In her address to delegates, the party deputy leader said the turbulent weeks of threats, intimidation and violence had exposed how thin the veneer of normality is and "laid bare the increasing fragility of the peace process".
The East Belfast MP, who along with her party leader David Ford is meeting Prime Minister David Cameron this week, said: "Our choice – put bluntly – is between a shared future and a scared future. I for one am not interested in the politics of fear."
In his keynote address, Mr Ford accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of engaging in daily "sham fights" – like the flag and border poll rows – to cover their failure to deliver on the issues affecting people's lives.
He also made clear that Alliance supports the right of all to fly flags on their own houses, whether rented or owned, but not to use lampposts and telegraph poles "like a dog marking out territory".
In a blistering attack on the two main partners in the Stormont Executive, the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Justice Minister said unionism in particular is still at its "old trick" of distracting working class communities from the disadvantage they live with "by focusing on perceived threats to their identity and culture".
Mr Ford argued that 15 years after the political deadlock was broken by the Good Friday Agreement, a new kind of stalemate is developing, with an impasse in the Executive and Assembly which is holding Northern Ireland back.
"This should have been the moment of maximum transformation – an opportunity to take dramatic steps forward towards a future that is very different to the past; to use the end of violence to allow fears to recede, communities to be integrated, Northern Ireland's international image to be transformed and the investment and tourism that would come with that," he said.
"Yet despite this, the Executive so far has utterly failed to face the need to make real and far-reaching progress towards a shared society in which sectarianism, fear and threat belong only in the past."
"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."