Belfast Telegraph

Let's end prejudice, starting with our political leadership

There is more to politics in Northern Ireland than the constitutional question, argues Stephen Farry

In recent days in the Belfast Telegraph, Chris Donnelly has challenged the Alliance Party to become a 'liberal unionist' party and Colin McCusker has questioned how anyone describing themselves as a unionist could be a member of Alliance.

Both fail to appreciate the particular identity of Alliance as a cross-community party and the crucial role that can be provided in a divided society by a party that spans that the divide. Continuing to grow on the basis of a cross-community appeal is central to the ethos of Alliance. Our members will have different views on the constitutional question. People with clearly-defined, but different views on this matter can readily be members of Alliance and support it in elections.

While the political headlines may be dominated by some high-profile unionists joining the party, the reality is that Alliance is growing across a broad front and attracting people from a wide range of backgrounds.

The party simply does not seek to express its political identity in terms of the constitutional question. Rather we seek to heal the divisions within Northern Ireland and to create a normal, civic and shared society. In their different ways, both Chris Donnelly and Colin McCusker represent the fallacy that people must be divided into separate and rigidly defined communities, where national, religious and political identity are not only mutually reinforcing, but are preordained at birth.

Putting someone into a box is the essence of prejudice. Alliance therefore stands as a liberal party in contrast of the group-based mentality of every other main party in Northern Ireland. More and more people are now expressing their identity outside the confines of the traditional blocs, particularly young people. In the 2001 census, 14% wanted to do so. This will rise considerably in this year's census.

Alliance does not ignore the constitutional question. We have always supported the principle of consent for determining Northern Ireland's constitutional status.

But in recognising this, we are concerned that, if the constitutional choice is expressed as an either/or choice, then the different aspirations will remain a source of polarisation.

This danger can be addressed. There must be a very clear focus on building a cohesive, shared and integrated society and an emphasis upon Northern Ireland as a region.

This is not about a narrow, parochial, inward-looking future, but rather promoting an outward looking region that benefits from a wide range of relationships - whether it is within the United Kingdom, on the island of Ireland, and with other devolved regions, and through the European Union and other international opportunities.

While the reality may be that, for a host of reasons, not least the level of financial subvention, Northern Ireland is likely to remain part of the United Kingdom in terms of formal sovereignty for the foreseeable future, considerable steps can be taken to further develop north-south cooperation to the mutual benefit of all.

Finally, within Northern Ireland, Alliance is not pursuing some sense of sanitised shared space that denies the ability of people, either individually or in common with others, to celebrate their culture.

Shared space need not be neutral space. Rather the challenge is to ensure that shared space remains shared space and to ensure that all sections of society can have access to it without denying the ability of others to do likewise.

Permanent, or semi-permanent, territorial marking should be resisted, but temporary and regulated displays respected.

We should look forward to the day when, in towns and cities across Northern Ireland, there could one week be a traditional Orange parade, the next week an ethnic diversity event, then a Gay Pride parade, followed by an Ancient Order of Hibernians event and no one finds this remotely strange or threatening.

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