Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

MLAs can’t even agree on words to condemn the street unrest

Politicians have clashed during an Assembly debate over inclusivity and mutual respect in Northern Ireland.

Following weeks of unrest following the decision by Belfast City Council to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall, the UUP yesterday introduced a motion calling for an end to all violence.

But even before the motion was debated by MLAs it ran into difficulties. The DUP introduced an amendment removing reference to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and replacing it with a commitment to “the consent principle which recognises Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom”.

But the SDLP and Sinn Fein objected to the DUP amendment and raised a petition of concern, which means that it would have to obtain majority support from both nationalists and unionists to be accepted.

Speaking ahead of the debate, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: “The narrow-minded amendment that DUP members have submitted to a motion which touches on the important concepts of inclusivity, mutual respect, peace and democracy is galling.

“After yet another night of violence in our city the proposed amendment, which calls on all political parties to commit to the consent principle which recognises Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, totally disregards the principle of consent as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement.

During the debate, parties clashed over comments made by Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey who told the media on Monday night, when discussing attacks on nationalist houses in the Short Strand, that he would defend his home if it came under attack.

DUP MLA Paul Givan expressed concern that Mr Maskey was not acting within the MLAs' code of conduct with regard to upholding the rule of law and promoting good community relations.

Mr Maskey said: “I'm making it very, very clear — I want not one stone thrown. But you cannot fault a family who has no other option other than to defend their home.”

He said the DUP had not complained when Edwin Poots discharged his rifle when someone invaded his home.

At times, during the hour-long debate there were heated exchanges across the Assembly chamber.

Mr Givan, who chairs the justice committee at Stormont, claimed the Prime Minister had fuelled anger among some unionists.

“Others have created the tensions, including the Prime Minister David Cameron, apologising for what happened around Pat Finucane,” he said.

“What I hear is an apologist for how the security forces defended our country. They exploit a particular narrative which republicans want to portray that they were the heroes and the security forces were the bad guys and the Prime Minister is pandering to that particular narrative and that is wrong. That is why people are out there agitated.”

Meanwhile, Chris Lyttle from the cross-community Alliance Party said elected representatives had fallen short. He also described unionist opposition to flying the Union flag over Belfast City Hall on 17 designated days as a missed opportunity to demonstrate how a shared future could work.

“I have seen the harsh consequence of interface violence at first hand,” he said. “I have sat in homes in the Newtownards Road and in Short Strand and had grown women break down in tears because they have not been able to communicate the consequences of that violence with even the closest members of their families. I have had to assist in them moving home as a result of that violence. It is not helping or serving any cause whatsoever.”

DUP MLA Gregory Campbell said politicians must show leadership on the ground and condemn all acts of violence.

“Many people in the unionist community see an unfair, non-inclusive society,” he said.

“We have made some progress but we have some progress to make. Unless you get to the point where people understand the resentment that exists within, not just in the working-class unionist communities but right across unionist communities and nationalist communities that there is an ongoing failure to understand the concept of disadvantage in their communities.”

No vote was taken on the inclusivity motion for procedural reasons. MLAs will vote on Monday.

Background

The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was reached on April 10, 1998. The 65-page document was a major breakthrough and addressed relationships within Northern Ireland; between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and between both parts of Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales. It was endorsed by 71% of the population of Northern Ireland and 94% of people in the Republic.

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