Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

We need to shake up the next phase of our politics

The future can be stable, prosperous and fair for all - if only the politicians can see the wood for the trees, says Alasdair McDonnell

Without question, people have the right to peaceful and lawful protest and the SDLP will always defend that right. But attacks on life, democracy, property and the economy can never be defended.

Symbols, emblems and flags are highly emotive issues here, but the reality is that a DUP/UUP sectarian electoral stunt carried out to unseat Naomi Long in east Belfast has been allowed to be hijacked by loyalist paramilitaries.

As a result, over the last four weeks, multiple death-threats have been sent to elected representatives, property has been targeted and attacked, more than 60 police officers were injured, countless people were stopped from going about their business and local trade was crippled at its busiest time.

Now, with sectarian mob-rule on our streets and unionist leaders demanding the supremacy of their symbols, the concept of parity of esteem - a concept designed to lift us out of the horrors of the past and help us move forward as a society unified in respect for each other - is falling from our grasp.

It must be reclaimed and nurtured by all. Failure to do so is a failure of leadership.

But before that can happen in a meaningful manner, it is essential that the current situation is de-escalated. The protests must stop to allow for all parties to enter rolling discussions together - not in their own silos.

All those with a positive contribution to make must be involved in this debate. Back-slapping politics, where you only discuss matters with those who agree with you, is no way to create a shared society.

This must be coupled with robust policing and fearless prosecution of those who have brought the grim spectre of past violence back onto our streets. The ways of the past must not be the ways of the future.

Peter Robinson has been playing with fire on the flags issue for local electoral advantage and must face up to his responsibility for the escalation of this issue and the damage that has caused to trade and trust.

But I have wider concerns about the DUP's apparent Great Leap Backwards. Just look at 2012: their approach to Girdwood and housing last April, on parading and the Parades Commission last August, Narrow Water and north-south last October - the DUP have been working to go back to the past. Their work around flags last December was the latest expression of this.

It is time the DUP heeded the warnings I have given them - agreement politics and equality laws are not optional extras in the new order of politics: they are essential elements. I welcome that there is inclusive government, but I will not stand for the erosion of those fundamentals of inclusivity and mutual respect that have allowed Northern Ireland to work better.

These fundamentals came at a terrible price. They are the reason why progress was made on housing, policing, equality and politics.

Stability, devolution and a united stand against terror have been hard-won achievements, but the work of transforming our politics, our lives, our island is far from complete and the DUP and Sinn Fein do not have the ambition, or conviction, to take this work forward seriously.

Nationalism and, I believe, large elements of unionism realise how we must protect these gains, deepen stability and make progress.

This is the ground on which I am proud to stand with all right-thinking individuals. It is up to Peter Robinson to prove his worth and join us. Dublin and London also have authority, which they need to exercise.

The next phase of our politics must be decisively different - on the past, on north-south, on a common future, on the quality of government. There is a stable, prosperous, equitable future for us and future generations if politicians can bear in mind the need to see the wood for the trees.

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