David Ford is, among many other fine traits, a very nice man.
I’m not. So, here is what I would have said yesterday in the Assembly, including five key questions which need to be genuinely debated.
This week marks the anniversary of the assassination of Edgar Graham. He was not someone with whom my party always agreed, but someone we always respected. He was a man of great intellect and integrity and frankly he may well have been an Assembly Member right now, had his life not been taken far too early by those engaging in a campaign of terror while refusing to accept people’s democratic right to take an alternative position.
In the last week – by nothing more than good fortune, we may note, no one has been killed. But let us be under no illusions: a campaign of terror has been orchestrated and waged against my party for the past week.
For how else do you describe the experience of a woman living alone, being awoken at 1.30am to find a mob marauding over her house, breaking every single window as they did so?
Over the past week, we have seen vandals attacking City Hall; a paint bomb attack which could have killed a baby; the burning out of a Party Office with the neighbours forced to leave home; a young female Councillor forced to leave home; intimidation against another lone female Councillor; an arson attack on another office; a death threat against our MP; frequent nights spent under police guard by our party’s representatives and their families – spouses, children, parents; party representatives forced to leave home or unable to access their workplace; the list goes on.
This campaign has been waged very specifically against the Alliance Party because it was very specifically blamed, by Unionists, for the decision made on Monday night. That is why the attacks have affected Alliance representatives particularly. It was blamed on television and in the press, it was blamed in social media, and it was blamed on leaflets which deliberately singled out the party using complete misinformation about figures and policy in order to do so. That is an outrageous and deliberate twisting of the truth!
At this stage, more than anything, however, I wish to emphasise this point: at least 22 public servants and one press photographer have been injured as a result of these disturbances. Police officers are no different from other public servants – they have a fundamental right to go into and come home from work unharmed. Yet the campaign unleashed has seen them brought into defend the public, as well as our representatives and offices, and they have paid an intolerable toll for doing so. I salute police officers’ and journalists’ courage in serving the public interest generally, including but not limited to our own protection.
For all this there is still, outrageously, an impression being given – implicitly or explicitly – that somehow, unbelievably, the Alliance Party has brought this upon itself!
Let us be very, very clear about what happened on Monday night: Alliance Party Councillors went into an elected chamber, sought to amend a motion to bring it into line with party policy as the most sensible compromise, and then voted for it. That is what happened on Monday night – nothing more, nothing less.
I thought the timing of the motion somewhat unfortunate. Yet here is the key point: the view expressed by some that elected representatives democratically elected should refrain from a debate because others have raised tensions to the extent that that debate may result in violence is not an endorsement of democracy, it is an endorsement of mob rule.
So I will ask a series of questions to the House, as I speak, concerning which different actions could have been taken, and specifically by whom.
In fact, the truth is we went further. For months in advance, going back to the summer, in private and in public, we advised that this issue was to be brought to Council by Nationalists, and we were clear about the outcome we would seek, and about the fact that that outcome may well come to pass. Note again, for months in advance.
Tensions were already high from the summer.
So let us ask the first question, and it is a straight either/or: did the delivery of tens of thousands of leaflets, clearly orchestrated and containing misinformation, help raise or reduce those tensions, do we think?
Unionists did have another route. They could have taken on board the possibility of the designated days outcome, given they held only 21 of the 51 seats, and sought to present potential Irish Republican support for flying the Union Flag at all as a victory for them.
So let us ask the second question, and again it is a straight either/or: did Unionists’ campaign – not just leaflets, but also a petition and sharing social media calls to action – help or hinder the likely security situation last Monday night and in the week following?
To any rational person, the answers are clear. Let us here Unionists be rational here today.
Of course, tensions had been raised by leaflets, social media, petitions and so on by Unionists. This was well known.
So I do have to ask a third question, of Nationalists: was the decision (and timing of the decision) to name the play park in Newry as it was named a wise or an unwise move?
There has to be an understanding that a lot of the increased tensions outside Belfast were as much as a result of that as they were about Belfast City Council.
Let us then return to what happened subsequent to Monday’s disturbances and vandalism in Belfast.
Let me ask a fourth question, of the Ulster Unionist Party: in the context of rising tensions, did the decision to release a statement from its former Leader, utterly inaccurately and nonsensically, accusing us of being a ‘Sinn Fein delivery mechanism’ – when in fact we had amended Sinn Fein’s policy – help or hinder the deteriorating security situation and the threats against members of my party?
It was noted that the intimidation of our representatives received no condemnation from the Ulster Unionist Party at that stage.
Then we move on to Wednesday night, with mayhem in Carrickfergus and the most sinister attack of all, which could have killed a child in Bangor.
Let me ask a fifth question, this time of the DUP: in the context of attacks threatening children and the burning out of offices forcing members of the public to move home, did comments suggesting the Alliance Party had “opened a pandora’s box” – when all it had done was go into an elected chamber and make a democratic decision – help or hinder the further deteriorating security situation and threats against members of my party?
I fail to see how we can work with the Finance Minister after those comments. In no normal democracy would we have to.
I would like to extend thanks to the many thousands of people who have shown support for my party and for the police at this juncture. I cannot possibly list them, and they are still doing so. For many in my party, our sense of despair was lifted by the wonderful stories – the neighbours who cleared up our Councillor’s driveway, the people who shook our hands in the street, the donations received from people who openly said they did not support us but respected our right to a view. I would like to thank members of other parties who sent notes and visited too. And I must thank my own party’s representatives, staff and general membership for their wonderful work and solidarity.
I must thank our police officers similarly. In many districts across Northern Ireland, they have worked wonders to keep us safe; often risking their own safety to do so.
We appeal now for all sides to take decisive action to end the mayhem.
Unionist leaders must state clearly and unequivocally – no buts: what happened on Monday night was a democratic decision; all members of Council were fully entitled to cast their vote as they saw fit; and we are obliged without reservation to accept and work with the outcome.
Nationalist leaders must also consider the on-going issue of naming places – GAA grounds, play parks and so on – after even supposed terrorists. We would like to see a commitment, here this morning, to end that immediately.
I repeat: all sides have to make clear their absolute commitment to purely democratic means. We did not seek to overcome one campaign of terror merely to allow the start of another campaign of terror.
Finally, we will also take action. I can announce that we will now re-enter talks on the CSI Strategy, with just one provision we urge all sides to accept. The final document must contain:
- Proposals on flag-flying (and all sides must commit to not raising the issue of flags until these proposals are agreed as part of a final document);
- Proposals on parading;
- Proposals on shared housing and education; and
- Proposals on the past.
We have stated our concerns and stated what we will do to help, constructively. We now urge others to answer our simple questions, and then commit to similar action. Only then can we end this mayhem, and do so on a long-term and sustainable basis.