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It is time the parties gave people real hope

Northern Ireland belongs to all of us who live within its boundaries and it's still home to many who have left its shores. It is a truly beautiful place, with areas such as the Mourne and Sperrin mountains, the Glens of Antrim and North Coast, Strangford Lough and Lough Erne.

As a people, we are often regarded by those who visit here as friendly and, if one looks for an example of our true character, I often reflect on the reaction from the people of the wider Belfast area to the terrible tragedy of the tsunami that occurred in the Indian Ocean in 2004.

Two weeks prior to Christmas, around £140,000 had been collected in the barrel of the Dean of St Anne's Cathedral in his annual sit-out.

Following the disaster and the worldwide appeal for help, the dean kept his wooden barrel in place for a further two weeks and, during that period, the sum of £1.25m pounds was donated.

It shows that, when the right buttons are pressed, there is a tremendous side to the people here. Yet, as we are all too aware, when other buttons are pushed too many of us exhibit a terrible and dark side.

Hence my frustration at the failure of a politics to emerge that maximises the potential of Northern Ireland's place and people.

Politics needs to show the necessary leadership to build a genuinely shared - and hence better - society. That requires us all to challenge ourselves and, in particular, the exclusive ideologies that fed our conflict.

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As Alan McBride, who lost his wife in the Shankill Bomb, said: "Without taking anything away from the personal responsibility of those who planted the bomb, I also blame the sectarian society that created their mindsets." To that I would also add the word 'racism' (in an anti-Irish/British sense).

The consequences of our society's failure was more than 3,600 dead, thousands of others injured, a deeply-divided society, a dependent economy and thousands imprisoned and, understandably, deep hurt and distrust.

Certainly, much has been achieved in many areas of Northern Ireland: relative peace, a community increasingly looking for opportunities to build relationships and a recognition that the economic problems we face, we must face together, and to tackle those issues we need a politics to bring out the best that our society can offer.

Tom Elliott is a good man with strong values and I know we both want the best for all the people of Northern Ireland. In many respects, I feel that he could be a great leader of unionism.

Politics has to be more than simply the pursuit of power. It has to really grasp this opportunity to bed down reconciliation and so create a truly shared future where the people work constructively together for their mutual benefit. While I welcome the progress that Sinn Fein and the DUP have made in their politics, they still continue to promote and construct a managed segregation of our future simply to ensure their bases of power - in spite of the fact that they show precious little ability to do anything with that power other than maintain it for themselves.

As to the SDLP, they, too, must realise that it will be difficult to maintain a political structure that shares out responsibility when the stated aim of two of the main parties is to bring about the end of Northern Ireland. They still only offer an Irish Identity and constitutional structures that are anything but inclusive to the British tradition on this island.

So it is time for our politicians to truly embrace the need for reconciliation and challenge the deep seated sectarianism and racism that fed our conflict.

Not to do so will be to risk missing this opportunity to create this better and shared future for our children which is surely the only proper tribute we can pay to those who died and suffered here.

As to how? I wish it was more complicated than this.

It is time for all of us to get our heads around the fact that Northern Ireland exists for a variety of historical reasons - not least that the only method that has ever been used to bring about its end has been violence.

So, as a unionist, I will commit to arguing for a Northern Ireland for all, inside a United Kingdom for all, and also to working to build proper and meaningful relations with those with whom we share this island.

In return, I expect nationalism/republicanism to commit to a Northern Ireland for all, but aspire constitutionally to it being part of a united Ireland at some stage in the future - if that is what the majority of the people here wish.

However, on the same basis in which it is currently part of the UK, I expect them also to commit to having good working relations with those with whom we share these islands. The reality is that all of this will be taking place, in any event, inside the evolving European Union.

By making such commitments we can then turn our focus onto building relationships and trust and tackling the real political challenges, whether they be social or economic, that face us.

In essence, it's time for our politicians to give the people here real hope.

We are in Northern Ireland, we are the Northern Irish and, as a result, we can be both British, Irish and European and, as the Commonwealth Games has highlighted, part of a greater world union.

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