Alex Maskey: It's time for the leaders of unionism to do exactly that
Politics on the island of Ireland have been transformed and the process of change will undoubtedly continue to deliver for citizens across the island in the years ahead. But it is now 20 years since the first IRA ceasefire and 16 years since the Good Friday Agreement.
Yet political unionism does not seem to have altered its view that there can only be one perspective on our troubled past. They act as though obstinate opposition to change will prevent or inhibit the march towards equality. Unionist politicians do not seem to have learned the lessons of the past. As a result of a similar refusal by the Stormont regime in 1969 to accept the need for reform and its violent suppression of change, society descended into almost 30 years of conflict. The Good Friday Agreement marked an historic and defining point of change in the history and future development of this island.
Politics in the North until the Agreement was one of discrimination, domination and exclusion of nationalists.
Most unionists accept that those days are gone, never to return, but few – if any – of their political leaders will accept this by publicly acknowledging and accepting that the only way to build a peaceful and prosperous future is through partnership grounded in equality and mutual respect.
There is no justification for sectarianism in any form no matter where it emanates from. But it is disappointing to hear prominent unionist politicians attempting to justify clearly sectarian motivations by some loyal order branches in insisting on parading in districts where they are not welcome.
This attitude, at times with both verbal and physical support from unionist elected representatives, only serves to exacerbate tension and division and provides tacit approval to those opposed to the process of reconciliation and equality.
So I would appeal to progressive unionist leaders to assert themselves and not allow individuals working to a wreckers' charter to misrepresent the views of the majority of unionists.
Political and religious representatives across the divide must act with one voice in showing leadership by demonstrating that respectful discussion and not confrontation is the way to resolve differences.
By any objective analysis, the only source of positive political leadership and extension of the hand of reconciliation presently being deployed is by Martin McGuinness.
I can assure unionists that Sinn Fein will continue to strive to marginalise those within our society who attempt to fan the flames of bigotry and sectarianism. But it is frustrating from the republican/nationalist community's viewpoint that there have been no acts of similar magnitude emanating from any leadership figure within unionism.
It is long past time for the leadership of unionism to step up to the plate and show that they too wish to see reconciliation and equality for everyone. It is, as never before, a time for leadership to halt the tide of sectarianism and its overflow into racism and other areas of phobia.
All parties need to come back to the table to find a way to resolve the issues that are frustrating reconciliation – parading, flags and dealing with the past. Although important to many people, if we take a serious look at the situation in the Middle East and Ukraine it should put these matters into perspective and maybe give us the push required to move forward.
We in Sinn Fein are passionate about getting a resolution to these issues and to do that we all need to work collectively and get back to the table with a view to resolving these issues.
Alex Maskey is Sinn Fein MLA for South Belfast