Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Why I'm flagging up my opposition to DUP's policies

Basil McCrea will today vote against his party for the first time. Here he explains why

Today I am going to do what I have never done before. Not once, not ever. I am going to vote against my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party on a matter of party policy.



The Assembly will vote today on a UUP motion, debated last week, that this Assembly reaffirms its commitment to the principles of inclusivity, mutual respect, peace and democracy; condemns all acts of violence and intimidation against police officers, elected representatives, other members of society, homes and property at all times; and calls on all political parties to support the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.

I will be supporting the UUP motion, as indeed will the Alliance party, the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

I will, however, be opposing a DUP amendment which seeks to remove the reference to the Belfast Agreement. I suspect that I will be the only unionist to do so.

The UUP indicated during the debate that it was happy to accept the DUP amendment. I am not.

The Belfast Agreement was the crowning achievement of the Ulster Unionist party in the modern era.

That the DUP should introduce their amendment was entirely predictable. Its rise to political prominence was based on a strategy of undermining the Belfast Agreement, of destabilising the UUP and of vicious personal attacks on the UUP leadership - tactics it maintains to this day.

In its quest for political power, it sought to convince the electorate that the Belfast Agreement had sold them down the river.

They squandered the opportunity presented by the Agreement and today, and over the last six weeks, we have all paid the price for this strategy.

You cannot continually tell the people that they have been sold down the river and not expect a reaction.

You cannot refuse to challenge destructive narratives and expect things to improve.

And you cannot tell people only what they want to hear and expect them to accept the outcome of the democratic process without complaint.

In his opening remarks, Mike Nesbitt declared that he was "puzzled" about the opposition to the DUP amendment and later that "he/we would not die in a ditch" for the part of his motion that called on all parties to support the spirit of the Agreement.

I cannot support this position. I will not accept that the Belfast Agreement can be so easily discarded. And I refuse to accept that the DUP amendment is anything other than an attack on the Agreement.

If Mike Nesbitt had expected the DUP to respond charitably, he must be bitterly disappointed. The DUP wasted no time in explaining why it had introduced its amendment.

The party made clear its distain for the Agreement and its use of emotive and, at times, unparliamentarily language demonstrated contempt for elected representatives from other parties.

There will be no shared future from that quarter.

No one from the UUP challenged the use of language, no one from the UUP challenged the misleading propaganda on the St Andrews Agreement and no one stepped forward to defend the Belfast Agreement.

I was appalled by what I heard. Northern Ireland deserves better than this. Had I been given the opportunity to speak, I would have accepted the challenge to defend the Agreement. While not without its limitations, the Agreement was an internationally-recognised agreement voted on by the people of both parts of the island.

Without the Belfast Agreement there would be no devolved government in Stormont.

And because of the Agreement the majority of our people under the age of 40 have no concept of the horror of the Troubles. There were no losers in the Belfast Agreement.

We are all winners. All of us, all of our communities, are in a better place now because of the Belfast Agreement.

And I would have gone further:

* Those that exploit their people by deliberating heightening tensions and praying on their fears are destroying our communities.

* Those that believe that political power is best obtained by stirring up sectarian enmities are destroying our country.

* Those who fail to explain to the electorate the political compromises are necessary are destroying our future.

Our society cannot progress if this is the level of political debate. There can be no shared future if this is the approach and, if there is no shared future, we have no future.

The challenges facing the disadvantaged in our society are not, in themselves, sectarian. The health inequalities, the educational underachievement, the lack of employment, the disconnect from society, occur in many communities throughout the developed world. Arguably, the causes of the riots in Belfast are similar to the riots in London and elsewhere.

Our democracies have yet to find a way to engage with the most disadvantaged in our society. The old arguments between Right and Left are redundant.

Better housing, better healthcare and higher benefits may appear to tackle inequality and disadvantage, but such an approach breeds dependency and is not sustainable.

Our Government must think again about how we engage with all our citizens.

We must find a way to channel their energy, to give them the skills to compete in a global market and the confidence to engage in society. Above all, we must give them hope.

The Assembly, as a result of the Belfast Agreement, has the resources and the structures to deliver on this vision, but has lacked the political leadership and competence to do so effectively.

Our political leaders must not retreat to the security of the old conflicts, but step forward confidently to explain to the people that a shared future means a better future for all of us.

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