Lord Empey attacks Alliance Party for flags, participation in Irish Constitutional Convention and issues warning to Dublin government

Listening back to Lord Empey’s opening statement at today’s UUP conference, his comments seemed worthy of a post on their own.

Lord Empey at 2013 UUP conferenceIn his nine minute address he predictably attacked the Alliance Party’s role in the Belfast City Council Union flag vote, explained why they shouldn’t be viewed as Unionist, and questioned their role in the Irish Constitutional Convention.

He also laid down a white line over allowing Northerners to vote in Irish elections that the Irish Government shouldn’t cross if they wanted unionist cooperation in existing cross-border bodies.

Lord Empey began by contrasting the peaceful Ulster Covenant commemorations with the flag protests and then laid the blame firmly at the door of the Alliance Party. Referring to last year’s conference he said:

Many were privately voicing fears that the huge demonstration that would be held to commemorate this event could lead to trouble on the streets and set the tone for the other centenaries to come. To our great relief – but no surprise – the celebrations and demonstration went off peacefully. This held out the prospect that even the most contentious of anniversaries could be held without fear of trouble.

Little did we know that our hopes would be dashed in a few short weeks when a non-unionist coalition in the City Hall would vote to pull down the Union flag after 106 years. This sparked off a series of rallies and demonstrations. It is sad that with so many problems concerning the economy, education and health to be confronted, we found ourselves back dealing with flags and emblems.

How did this happen? We have known for over thirty years that Sinn Fein has been trying to get the Union flag off every building it can as that party is in denial about the settlement on the constitution contained in the Belfast Agreement. The SDLP should have known better as well. However neither of these two parties, even acting together, could have delivered the outcome of last December 3rd. The party that delivered the decision to pull down the Union flag for 350 days per year was the Alliance Party. They too should have known better.

The Alliance Party’s decision on the Union flag taken as it was in the busy run up to Christmas was a major mistake. At best that party was used by Sinn Fein and sucked into a disastrous decision that has continuing implications for city trading in Belfast.

No mention of UUP councillors’ involvement in the leafleting – something that happened without the knowledge or retrospective approval of Mike Nesbitt – nor that the timetable of voting on the flag issue was pushed by unionists to ensure Alliance would be forced to choose in the Covenant anniversary year. If the UUP had had more than three councillors, the balance of power might have been very different. Also worth remembering that unionists at Westminster were always happy to hold the balance of power in tight votes in the Commons. That’s democratic politics.

This decision came on the same evening that Newry and Mourne council reiterated its decision to name a child’s play park after an IRA gunman who had in his possession a weapon that was used in the Kingsmill massacre. Unionists – especially in Belfast – believed that there was a major campaign launched to attack our culture and identity. But worse was to come that evening. Truly a triple whammy against unionists.

Alliance leader David Ford weighed in just after the flag was pulled down. on his party’s official website he put out a statement claiming victory for the decision. And I quote: “Tonight’s result has been a clear victory for the Alliance Party. Through the dedicated work of Alliance councillors the image of a shared future has prevailed in Belfast.”

The statement is still on the Alliance Party website, and given that Alliance voted in line with their long-established policy on flags, perhaps the language is understandable, even if “victory” was stupidly waving a red, white and blue flag at an angry unionist bull.

It’s a long time since we heard a statement that was so utterly divorced from reality. The image of Belfast since that night has not been an image of shared future prevailing. It has been one of deepening divisions and civil unrest.

No mention or condemnation in Lord Empey’s analysis of Alliance offices being destroyed, or the death threats on Alliance (and other) politicians. Democratic action more worthy of critique than anti-democratic action. Lord Empey moved onto other aspects of Alliance’s behaviour that worry him.

Some people have the idea that Alliance is somehow a moderate unionist party. Alliance is not a unionist party of any description. It is agnostic about our constitutional status. By way of underlying my point, did you know that the Alliance currently has a representative on the Irish Constitutional Convention in Dublin [Ed – The UUP and DUP declined to fill their places, though the UUP had previously participated in other fora] advising the Irish Government on possible changes to the constitution of the Republic. Among the subjects being discussed are the length of the term of the President of Ireland, the electoral system, and the latest wheeze, that Irish citizens living abroad should have a vote in presidential elections.

If that was were the proposals stopped that would be their business. But it is not. The proposal is that all residents in Northern Ireland should have such a vote in elections whether we want it or not. That conference includes you and me.

This is dangerous stuff.

Being given a gift that you can freely ignore is dangerous? It isn’t like unionists have a history of 100% turnout and not choosing at times to stay away from the polls! It does feel like scaremongering given that Sinn Fein are only publicly interested [see today’s speech by Gerry Adams in London] in Irish diaspora being able to vote in Presidential elections (at least at this stage). By the way, diaspora voting may well be a Roman invention.

It will be seen as Articles 2 and 3 coming in by the back door and will bear directly on the Strand 2 provisions of the Belfast Agreement which was designed to give nationalists practical and political expression of their Irish identity. If this current proposal was successful conference, how could a proposal to allow people in Northern Ireland votes in Dáil elections be resisted?

Given that constituency work would be impractical, can’t see the Dáil offering to host TDs that would have to sit on their hands!

Alliance has no problem sitting on a body like that looking at the constitution of the Republic as that constitutional framework could be just as acceptable to them as the Union. People who support the Union who then decide to vote Alliance are no longer counted as supporters of the Union and become in Stormont terms ‘Others’. The future of the Union is secure if people vote for parties that support the union. [Ed – not ‘our party’, but ‘parties’!] That was the result of the 1998 Agreement.

Sinn Fein is already calling for a referendum on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. So we need to be aware of acting in a way that encourages Gerry Adams and his cohorts. We have felt for some years that the arrangements we have with the Irish Government have been working well. I sincerely hope that is how they will stay.

But if proposals to involve all electors of Northern Ireland in Irish Republic elections are pursued, this will undermine the Strand 2 parts of the Belfast Agreement and could lead to a review of the nature and extent of future unionist participation in these institutions.

Dublin would be wise to steer clear of any confrontation on this issue.

Alliance will listen to Lord Empey’s speech and hear a party chairman who is rattled by the electoral chances of a (smaller) rival. It wasn’t a great demonstration of confident unionism.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.