This morning the parties up on the hill got to put their feelings about flags, protests and intimidation on the record.
That this Assembly unequivocally condemns the rioting and the campaign of intimidation, harassment and violent attacks on elected representatives following the decision of Belfast City Council in relation to the flying of the Union flag; expresses its sympathy to all those who have been attacked, injured or threatened with attack in recent days, including police officers, elected representatives and their staff; reaffirms the absolute and unconditional commitment of all its Members to respecting and upholding the rule of law and the pursuit of their political objectives by purely legal and political means; and insists that any further protests be peaceful, orderly and organised in accordance with the law.
Each Assembly leader of a party got to speak. Underneath the surface of the agreed wording of the motion, individual speakers added their own colour, some making pretty overt swipes at other parties.
Green Party’s Steven Agnew perhaps delivered the least predictable contribution, so I choose to quote his speech at length before following up with snippets from the other parties in order of speaking. Hansard has the full text of the debate.
As I type, news is filtering through that DUP and UUP leaders have had an hour of talks about “issues relating to unionist culture and identity” in order to “address widespread concerns across the community”. Discussions “to finalise a strategy” will resume tomorrow.
There are also reports of protests across NI: some peaceful, others not.
There was an attempted murder in East Belfast when fifteen masked men attacked a police car, smashing its windows and throwing in a petrol bomb while an officer was still inside. [Photo: @jane_utv via twitter]
Updated with a link to UTV news story and video from the scene …
Not everyone in every community is choosing to adhere to the politicians’ advice …
Steven Agnew, Green Party NI
… It is always important that we as political representatives are mindful of the language we use in political debate, recognising that our words can have an impact throughout our society. However, on Wednesday evening, when I got the word that the home of Councillors Michael and Christine Bower and their young daughter was attacked, I became acutely aware of the vulnerability of my family. For the first time in my political career, I felt that I had to watch what I said for fear that my family could face a similar attack. For some in the House, I know that that has been a reality of their political career over the past number of decades. However, when I entered politics, I hoped and believed that Northern Ireland politics had moved on, and I see these attacks as a major step backwards. Attacks and threats against any elected representative are unacceptable and undermine our democracy.
The issue of identity has been at the heart of Northern Ireland politics. We have rightly sought to move away from identity as a source of division to a position where we have mutual respect. Diversity can and should be celebrated, not feared. Speaking personally, there are many aspects to my identity. In Northern Ireland, I have the right to dual nationality, so I can be, and am, both British and Irish. However, I am like many people who probably feel more comfortable with the term “Northern Irish”, but I am also European. I am a father, a son, a brother, and an uncle. I am also a vegetarian. So, there are many things that make up who I am and my identity.
I am proud of who I am, and that includes the part of me that is proud to be British. I am proud of the National Health Service, which is free at the point of use. I am proud of our welfare state, which ensures that we all have a safety net should we find ourselves unemployed, as so many have during this economic downturn. I am proud of our democracy and the freedom of speech that underpins it. I am proud of the freedom of the press to hold us, as elected representatives, to account. Whether the Union flag flies at City Hall, Stormont or anywhere else for that matter, I will be no less British, no less Irish and no less European. Indeed, I will be no less than what I am today.
The real attack on my identity has been the attacks by those who undermine that freedom of speech by making me fear that what I say could result in attack on my family.
The attacks on the social welfare system and the institution of the NHS by politicians at Westminster and in the Assembly have led me to take to the streets … [interrupted by Speaker] … I have taken to the streets and protested with trade unions and other workers who have sought to defend the institutions that they see as integral to their identity and well-being. However, we did so peacefully, and I call on anyone who wishes to protest any decision of our democracy to do so peacefully. We must be mindful that riots tend not to happen when we have high employment, high educational achievement and financial security. So, whether it has been the riots in London or the riots in Belfast, we must remember as politicians that addressing those issues is our core duty.
If we are to show leadership in the Assembly, those are the issues that we should be tackling. You cannot eat a flag, a flag will not heat your home and a flag cannot give you self-esteem. If we are to improve the lives of those in Protestant, unionist and loyalist estates, such as Ballybeen, where I grew up, we need to get back to addressing those important issues of economic, social and environmental importance.
Within the Green Party there are members who consider themselves British, members who consider themselves Irish and members who consider themselves Northern Irish. Indeed, we have members from England, Scotland, Holland and Germany, and others from across the world. That diversity does not divide our party and should not divide our society.
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin, opened the debate.
Let me open the debate by emphasising the role that we, as political leaders, have to play in ensuring that our words and deeds are not misrepresented or, indeed, left open to misinterpretation. We, as the elected representatives of the people, must recognise that we have a responsibility to be clear in our message of condemnation of the recent lawlessness and violence on the streets, attacks on and intimidation of elected representatives, and attacks on council staff and police officers. That is utterly unacceptable and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms …
The peace process that we have collectively constructed is admired throughout the world. We have had tensions and difficulties in that process, as we have had in the past week, but we must remain resolute and not allow the recent events to undermine the agreements that we have made over the past number of years …
Collectively, we must all strive for new ideas to develop new thinking on how best we build our future together. We need a vision for our society that does not involve a victory over each other. We need to build a better future, a future together in a united community, and let the message that we send out today be one that will offer hope to those communities and not one of political points scoring.
We must dampen the tensions that have been ignited over recent days and not seek, by word or deed, to raise tensions. We must rise above all of that, and we must offer real leadership; leadership that gives our communities confidence in the political process. We must never allow those who want to destroy the political process to succeed.
Mike Nesbitt, UUP
… During the week, we actively sought out opportunities to call for an end to the illegality and, further, to argue that what was needed was a strategy rather than a knee-jerk reaction; for brains rather than brawn.
The flag, to me, stands for a society that is progressive and pluralist, a society in which Mo — short for Mohamed — Farah, born in Somalia, wraps himself in that Union flag to celebrate his contribution to a fantastic Olympic Games for the United Kingdom. That is a glimpse of what the flag means to me. It should not be abused, and it was abused this week by those who used it as an excuse for criminality.
The Ulster Unionist Party has lost many elected representatives to terrorist murder, including Senators in the old Stormont, Members of Parliament, members of earlier iterations that paved the way for this Assembly and councillors and, of course, we lost our old party headquarters in Glengall Street. This party has paid too high a price, especially in human terms, to condone or in any way incite violence …
On one level, there was a democratic vote at Belfast City Council to stop flying the flag except on a very few days of the year. It was a democratic vote, and we accept that as democrats. On another level, it has been received as part of a process described by some as a party political victory, which, of course, suggests winners and losers. I sense very clearly that some of those who took to the streets last week saw themselves as the losers, not for the first time; indeed, far from the first time. These are uncomfortable truths. People might be a little more comfortable if, for example, Newry council had not endorsed the controversial naming of a play park …
One way that unionist anger was expressed last week was by the burning of the flag of the Republic of Ireland outside Belfast City Hall. I condemn that act. This is not about oppressing others; it is about reassuring those who feel oppressed …
It is time for the House to be honest with itself and the people of Northern Ireland — honest and bold. We need to acknowledge that some issues will take many years to sort out. So let us begin. Let us say, for example, that we will set a new basic standard of numeracy and literacy for schoolchildren and reach it within five years. Let us commit to a single education system, one that is no threat to Catholics and Roman Catholicism. We will do it in 10, 15 or 20 years. Leave the detail for later, but let us commit to a principle because it is the right thing to do. In short, let us commit, like a good builder does after handing over the keys to a new house, to return to address the snag list of devolved government, but let us also accept that that snag list includes fundamental flaws that must be addressed urgently.
Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP
… For me, polite condemnation is not just enough: we, in the Assembly, are responsible for removing the reasons for such violence. When I stood with Stewart Dickson at the front of the burned-out shell of his office in Carrickfergus, I could not, in all honesty, say that we have been very effective in performing that task. We must do more — a lot more — than just condemn, and we must tell the truth, however difficult that might be.
The founding document of this Assembly states that we are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of our relationships in Northern Ireland. The fact is that the campaign of intimidation started quite a bit of time before the violence erupted, and that campaign must be condemned. Mutual respect requires that there should be no campaigns to coerce or erode anyone’s feelings of Britishness or Irishness. Our founding document recognises the birthright of all our people to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both. It is not for anyone or any party here to describe anyone else’s identity or tell them that this or that is the dominant flag or symbol that they must accept, because that is just not true. There is no flag of the country that is accepted as such by all our people. We are all signed up to an agreement that, in effect, states that we cannot force any section of our people to accept a flag of our choice. That is the basis and the only basis on which we can sort this problem out. There can be no cherry-picking. We cannot pick the bit of the Good Friday Agreement that says that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and overlook the bit that stipulates the mutual respect for Britishness and Irishness.
… We must certainly condemn those who manipulate the fears and emotions that lead to this violence, however unreasonable, around the question of identity. That is where we find the roots of last week’s violence. For many years, I have worked to draw attention to what I perceived to be government neglect in loyalist areas, and that has been wheeled out to us in the past week as a reason. I can accept that there is a great sense of alienation. There is neglect in areas such as educational achievement and quality of life. I want to put it on record that, in my opinion, this neglect will not be solved by bunging a few million to one paramilitary group or another. In fact, bunging money to paramilitary groups only compounds the problems, because the paramilitary groups are the biggest part of the problem.
Money must be directed to early years education, so that children achieve their full potential. Where there is substantiated marginalisation and deprivation, let us recognise it, let us confront it and let us remedy it as soon as possible. Let us remedy it in a sustainable way that ensures that it is alleviated permanently, and let us set out to ensure that no child is left behind now or in the future. However, let me be very clear: there is a chasm of difference between proper interventions to address disadvantage educationally and economically and those who exploit concerns and use violence and threats for their own advantage. We will help, where there are grounds for help, but we will not concede ground to any act of violence or any group involved in acts of violence.
David Ford, Alliance
The past week has been a dreadful week for Northern Ireland, so let me start by expressing my sympathy and that of my colleagues to those who have suffered. Three children had their home damaged. Grace Bower is well known — far too well known — for a 17-month-old child, and the other two live in the flat above the shop next door to what was Stewart Dickson’s office. Their home was smoke damaged last Monday, and they probably will not be back in it before Christmas … I express my sympathy to Gerry Kelly MLA and to Councillor Jim McVeigh, who have received death threats, and to Councillor Sammy Brush, whose home was attacked early yesterday. All those incidents are an affront to democracy.
I especially want to recognise the role of the police over the past few days. They have faced a challenging situation on a scale that was not envisaged only a week ago. Many officers have been injured in different places. Despite that, they have played a sterling role in responding to a wide range of incidents and threats, and they deserve our thanks.
… It has been a week of contrasts: contrast between the exercise of democracy inside Belfast City Hall and the exercise of intimidation and violence outside; contrast between the actions of those who claim to be protecting the Union flag and the values of freedom and democracy that that flag stands for; contrast between the cowardice of thugs covering their faces with masks and the dignity and fortitude of elected representatives under attack; and contrast between the response when the same decision on designated days was taken by other unionist-dominated councils at other times and the effect that whipping up tensions had on this occasion.
There are two issues that the Assembly and our community have to face up to: where we stand on the principle of democracy; and what we will do to accommodate differing identities and allegiances in a genuinely shared future.
On the principle of democracy, I find it striking that the motion that we tabled last Thursday differed from today’s in one respect only: our description of last week’s decision by Belfast City Council as legitimate and democratic. It is beyond me why all parties refused to sign up to those words because any decision taken by a democratically elected body, in accordance with the law and standing orders, is democratic. Any democratic decision is, as a result, legitimate. That is the very essence of democracy …
Let me look now at the challenge of accommodating differing identities in a shared future. The achievement of devolution was the symbol that unionists, nationalists and those who reject both labels could live together and work together to address the issues facing our community …
We must find a better way of regulating the display of flags and symbols as part of cultural celebrations at a community level and find an effective mechanism for enforcing breaches of protocols and the misuse of flags. The challenge has to be to rise above the win-lose politics of them versus us to find a common, shared approach. In my view, the flag decision at Belfast City Council, like similar decisions elsewhere, is respectful of national sovereignty and of the variety of allegiances that make up our community. What was potentially most significant last Monday was seeing nationalist parties pragmatically, but positively, responding to that position. It showed that accommodation is possible if people are prepared to move beyond zero-sum approaches …
Last week was horrific and frightening. The sense that some in the House had more than a little understanding of those targeting my friends was palpable. Today, we have to turn away from that. We have to turn the moment of danger into a moment of opportunity to supply the leadership and commitment that will ensure that we build a genuinely shared future.
Jim Allister, TUV
It was a seminal moment when the Union flag was torn down from the prime civic building in our capital city. That was not an isolated assault on our Britishness, but a new high point in insult and republican action in an orchestrated process that began in the Belfast Agreement. It has touched a nerve with many people who are frustrated by a treadmill of concessions, which is just as the Belfast Agreement intended. It, of course, was and is designed to trundle us out of the United Kingdom and to ease us and fuse us into an all Ireland, and every step of the way requires dilution of our Britishness.
Culture is Sinn Féin’s new theatre of war … Although some people in the republican movement are resting the Armalite, they have moved seamlessly to take up the weapons of cultural warfare. Hence, parades and flags must go. Those who orchestrated and justified terror must rule over us. Perpetrators of terror must be equated with victims. We must have play parks named after their evil heroes. Sinn Féin Ministers must be allowed to discriminate in appointments with impunity. The unionist community is expected to sit back and consent benignly to the trampling underfoot of its culture and identity by forces that are insatiable and still live by the mantra of “Brits out”. That is what the taking-down of the flag crystallises in its own particular way …
I want to address directly those loyalists outside the House who have fallen into the trap of spoiling legitimate protest by attendant violence. I understand completely the sentiment that I hear being expressed that, when they look at the Stormont structures, people conclude that violence pays. However, I say to them that their cause — the cause of the British flag — is far more noble and honourable than that, unlike the cause of rebellion that brought terrorism to our streets. Do not sully that cause by treading the violent path for which republicans set the way. The violence of recent days has only added to the glee of those who removed the flag. I say to young men that if they cannot go to a protest without a stone in their pocket, they should stay at home. If they have any pride in their flag, they do not need to cover their face. They should be proud to be seen to support the flag …
The House has a responsibility. It glibly talks about shared space but gives no thought to those to whom it gives no space and who see their cultural space being relentlessly suppressed.
David McNarry, UKIP
I am with the peaceful and silent protesters sickened by the irresponsible removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall. To those who turned their protest into wanton violence, I say to them categorically, “You are wrong. Despite your best efforts, the moral high ground remains with those participating in lawful, peaceful protest.” Scenes of uncontrollable anger brought disgrace and turned legitimate revulsion into unacceptable mob violence, doing no service whatsoever to the British culture that unionists under pressure strive to maintain and uphold in this part of the United Kingdom …
However, what happened will leave a deep and lasting scar. The wound is open and festering within the political landscape and, as a consequence, the Alliance Party will pay dearly at the ballot box. That said, I say to the joint proposers of the motion that UKIP will vote for it. It encapsulates our condemnation of violence. The rest of it comprises what any right-thinking person would endorse. Unfortunately, despite its length, the motion falls short of expressing the full rigour of unionist anger aimed at those who combined to take down the Union flag …
What is wrong with the motion is the glaring omission of condemnation and the pillorying of the joint action of Irish republicans and nationalists in cahoots with Alliance. Sinn Féin is the self-proclaimed proponent of a sham reconciliation policy. I accept its duplicity. As for the SDLP, I can do no other but accept its pomposity. However, the Alliance Party, with its bombasity, as so-called middle-of-the-road neutrals, I do not accept your excuses offered today for the travesty that you have promoted …
Undoubtedly, this issue will bring home repercussions, affecting future relationships in this place. That is regrettable, because my sense is that the atmosphere here had improved … These issues impact on our constituents; they are the issues of jobs, investments and spending, and they must remain uppermost in our minds in the House …
Now, however, we are plunged into crisis management, all because, in Belfast City Hall, the anti-British mask slipped off, the pretence was exposed and a reality check pushed the clock backwards. It is a serious setback for us. Much has been made of the decision taken in that place. If decisions taken elsewhere are deemed democratically binding, the same rules should apply to decisions taken in this place. I hope that decisions will be taken in this place that give confidence to the unionist people here in Northern Ireland.
Peter Robinson, DUP
When the deputy First Minister and I tabled the motion, we confined it to language that was structured to gain a united response. It was very clearly worded to ensure that we did not have, at this moment, a debate on the flags issue, but that debate will have to come. It will have to come as a democratic, legitimate debate on the issue, and I believe that that will start tomorrow in the Assembly Commission …
Politics is not about agreeing on everything, but it is about resolving our differences through exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Although we may disagree on many political issues, we must not disagree on the right of people to express their own views in a democratic manner …
Politics is about the power of persuasion. People are entitled to make their views known. Indeed, doing so is an integral part of the democratic process itself. Democracy is not conducted in secret. People are entitled to have opinions and to express them. I will defend their right to influence decisions and their right to peacefully protest if they do not agree with those decisions. The right to protest is as fundamental to the democratic process as the right to vote. But let us be clear: there is no right to attack police officers or council staff. There is no right to destroy property. There is no right to threaten or to intimidate. There is no right to endanger life, harm, injure or kill. There is no right to attack elected representatives because you do not agree with their views.
I know what it is like to get a knock on the door and to be told by the police that someone is trying to kill me. I have received that visit not once but many times, and many people in the House will have received the same kind of visit. Having received that kind of visit, I know, perhaps more than many, the impact that it has on a family and personal life. Those of us who have been through the fire know, more than any, what it is like, and, without vagueness, equivocation or reserve, we stand side by side with those who are under threat today …
In defending democratically elected politicians, we defend democracy itself. Let us be clear: those who threaten politicians or attack their homes have crossed the line from protest into terrorism. There are some who think that, to stop those who violently disagree with democratic decisions, those who politically disagree with the decisions should not express their opposition. There are even those who claim that anyone who holds and democratically expresses such views is heightening tension or, worse still, they are accused of inciting those who act outside the law.
Let us be sure that, in defending democracy, we do not shut down the means for those who are opposed to democratically taken decisions to express disapproval and seek change peacefully, legitimately and democratically. At the same time, it places a heavy burden on all who wish to protest to ensure that their protests are entirely peaceful.
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