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Northern Ireland politics returning to 'divide and conquer' ahead of 2015 election

By Rebecca Black

Northern Ireland is rapidly descending back into the politics of divide and conquer as parties gear up for the forthcoming general election, it has been warned.

Political temperatures rose yesterday in the Assembly as point-scoring unionists and nationalists accused each other of politicising the Irish language during a debate over Education Minister John O'Dowd's decision to approve a new school for just 15 children.

Mr O'Dowd and former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane accused unionists of discrimination against the Irish language.

However, the Ulster Unionists insisted its concern over the new Irish school was simply on the basis of value for money - and that the minister made the decision against advice.

Tensions are set to rise higher still at Stormont as the Assembly Commission is poised to take a decision over how many days a year the Union flag should fly at Parliament Buildings.

It currently flies on a handful of designated days, but a number of alternative proposals have been circulated, including flying it all-year round or displaying it alongside the Irish tricolour.

In constituencies such as East Belfast, South Belfast and Fermanagh-South Tyrone unionists are in talks about agreed candidates in a bid to try to reclaim the seats for their political tradition. But things have got ugliest in North Belfast - set to be one of the tightest races of the election.

There, Sinn Fein has published a leaflet telling voters that the poll is a stark choice between DUP MP Nigel Dodds and their candidate, Gerry Kelly MLA.

Mr Kelly was around 2,000 votes behind Mr Dodds at the last Westminster poll in 2011. The republican party's leaflet shows a photograph of Mr Kelly with Stormont in the background alongside a photograph of Mr Dodds wearing an Orange collarette.

It bears the message 'Kelly vs Dodds. You can make the difference'.

Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long MP has been critical of the behaviour of the single identity parties and urged its rivals to try and inspire people to vote for them, rather than using scare tactics.

"While other parties continue to employ the politics of divide and conquer, Alliance offers people a positive vision of a shared, stable and prosperous future," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We are the alternative to tribal politics - others rely on it to survive."

Ms Long, who was targeted by loyalists during their protests against restrictions on flying the Union flag at Belfast City Hall, added: "Elections shouldn't be about the politics of fear.

"Politicians should inspire people to vote for their vision and policies rather than playing the 'them' or 'us' card."

Meanwhile, the Community Relations Council has called for political representatives and candidates of all parties to be mindful of their language in the pre-election period.

The body said politicians must understand that the tone they set in public is important for building a society respectful of difference.

Chairman Peter Osborne said public debate "must be conducted responsibly and sensitively".

"I believe that civil society here wants to see politics working, and they want politicians to do their best to make it work," he said.

"It is up to everyone, politicians and civic leaders, in what we say and do, to define how this phase of the peace process, and our civic life, will be judged in the future.

"If it is to be defined by sectional debate then history will not be kind. We have an opportunity, and we certainly have the capacity across all parties and all parts of the community, to set this society on a better trajectory.

"But it is then important that public debate is conducted responsibly and sensitively, mindful of the damage that ill-considered comment can cause to the long- term work of building relationships."

He added: "During elections everyone should be mindful of the consequences of winning the vote but in a way that damages the prospects of building a united community."

Read more:

Vote finally due on flying of Union flag at Stormont  

Unionist bid to scrap John O'Dowd's Irish-medium school fails 

General Election 2015: Curse of trophy politics looms large as parties try to motivate tribal voters 

Cameron queries absence of local parties from TV debates 

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