Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

All identities and cultures need to be given respect

Politicians need to step up to the mark over flag protests. There can be no more excuses or prevaricating, says Martin McGuinness

The last few weeks have been bad for the political process, bad for the peace process and bad for the vast majority of people who are absolutely wedded to building a new society on this island.

I have listened carefully to the various reasons put forward by those involved in the protests and the violence. None of them can excuse what has been happening on our streets.

We also must be careful not to overstate the numbers involved. Those involved in attacks on police, attacks on people's homes and businesses and attacks on political parties have been small in number.

I have long argued that there is space in the political process for all voices - be they anti-peace process republicans, or those unionists who claim to be disaffected.

What I ask - and I think it is reasonable - is that we all commit to moving forward peacefully and with respect for the political process and its institutions.

We do not have to agree on anything else. The unique political structures we operate within lend themselves to political opponents being able to exercise power jointly and in a spirit of equality.

I know from experience what it is like to feel discriminated against, to feel powerless, to feel under threat. I have no desire to see any citizen in that position.

Democratic compromise is not about discrimination; it is about how we can explore common ground and upon that build trust between communities.

In the implementation of the Good Friday, St Andrews and Hillsborough agreements, we need to be careful that we avoid any re-distribution of resentment, or disaffection.

There is clearly a powerful emotional connection between identity and symbols. This goes for all of our community. That is why compromise and dialogue is so important.

As republicans, we have made many compromises in the pursuit of peace. Likewise, unionists. That is the nature of peace-building - no section gets everything it wants, but all sections can be winners.

I will absolutely guarantee the right of any citizen here to their British identity. All I ask in return is for the same recognition to be given to my Irishness.

For too long, we have approached issues of identity as wins or losses for one community or another. That is not sustainable.

I think we can have a sensible debate on identity. I am interested to hear from unionists how they see respecting the Irish identity of their neighbours as we build a shared society.

I am sure unionists are interested in how their British identity is given equal respect and protection by political leaders like me.

We already have a position that, for example, respects people's right to hold whatever passport they wish,or indeed both. The north is not simply as British as Finchley.

I am the deputy First Minister for all people here. I respect absolutely the First Minister, Peter Robinson's, Britishness and unionism. However, I feel that there are those within the DUP who clearly do not afford the Irish identity and republican position the same respect.

Successive Sinn Fein lord mayors of Belfast have decided to keep the Union flag in the mayoral chamber and added the Irish tricolour, thereby respecting both main traditions.

I am greatly dismayed that dozens of young, working-class loyalists will end up going through the courts as a result of the foolhardy decision by sinister people like those running the UVF in east Belfast, or others with the politics of the BNP to bring them onto the streets to attack the police and Catholic homes.

One thing is certain: overcoming educational under-achievement, or a lack of job opportunities, will not be helped by criminal convictions as a result of pointless riots.

I say to those involved and indeed the vast majority of unionists, who may be uncomfortable with the decision, but abhor the violence, to engage in a debate about identity and culture and how we best respect each other's. Is it really by flying the Union flag 365 days a year? Or by having a flags dispute in Stormont? Or by seeking to march along contentious routes?

Is it really by gerrymandering Belfast's electoral boundaries, as suggested by Mike Nesbitt? Or by pretending that nationalists are unionists, or that those who are Irish are really British?

Or is it better that we, as a society, sit down and work out how we move forward, with respect and equality for all identities and cultures?

I am up for such a debate. I am up for demonstrating in practical ways respect for identities other than my own.

But all political leaders will need to step up to the mark in the time ahead. No more excuses and no more prevaricating.

We need joint action and joint initiatives.

This week I have been involved in meetings with all the party leaders. I have also met with loyalist representatives. Now I want to see action.

I will continue to work both up front and behind the scenes until the violence ends. But I am also conscious that we need to go beyond that and get down to the business of not just dealing with the past, but constructing a new future.

Change can be difficult. To some, change can feel like a loss. But change based upon equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem is a win for us all.

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