When three of our MLAs redesignated last November to save the Agreement, our critics were out in force. But it was the right decision to take.
When we supported the first nationalist Lord Mayor in Belfast, it was slammed by unionists. Yet it was a brave decision that was widely respected.
And last year, when Alliance did not back Sinn Fein because, we felt it had failed to meet its main obligation under the Good Friday Agreement – to convince the IRA to begin decommissioning – it was recognised as a principled decision.
Since then, we have seen two acts of decommissioning. It benefited the political process enormously and was recognised as one of the most significant steps ever taken by the Republican Movement.
The past few weeks have involved much soul searching. But we have not shirked our responsibilities and our record shows that we have held the balance of power in the Council with a steady hand.
Last Friday we announced that Alliance will back the Sinn Fein candidate for Lord Mayor of Belfast. We did this because we believe that in the long-term, it will help to consolidate the peace process.
That may seem difficult to believe at the moment. It certainly did to me when I walked through the rubble and broken glass of Cluan Place on Monday, when I watched a video of shots being fired across the so-called peace line, and when I walked into pensioners’ homes with no natural light because of boarded up windows.
Minutes later, as I spoke to community representatives from the other side of the wall dividing these communities, Clandeboye Drive was battening down the hatches for incoming stone and petrol bomb attacks. They didn’t have to wait long.
These are two communities under siege; the unionists of Cluan Place and the Short Strand nationalists. Extremists on both sides of this local conflict have made it clear they will resort to violent measures to defend their community; both sides have responded with force when provoked.
With respect to our decision on the Lord Mayor we had to consider many serious issues, and we aren’t going to run away from them.
Alliance is deeply concerned about the apparent links between the IRA and FARC. At home, the IRA have been implicated in murders, paramilitary assaults, and exiling. I was particularly concerned when the police said on Tuesday that mainstream paramilitary groups on both sides were organising the violence.
As first citizen, the Lord Mayor must lead by example in setting high standards for the rule of law and as a party of law and order, we have concerns over Sinn Fein’s lack of support for and failure to engage with the reformed Police Service.
The IRA’s continuing existence is distasteful and its activities disgusting – we want to see a permanent end to all terrorist activities. Disband the IRA.
We cannot ignore these deeply troubling issues, and we will continue to hold Sinn Fein to account over each and every one of these.
For better or worse, Sinn Fein are now generally regarded as part of the democratic process. They are the largest party in City Hall, they have two seats on the Executive, and are in charge of the two largest spending Departments.
Yesterday we met again with the Security Minister, Jane Kennedy. She deems the ceasefires still intact.
Alliance believes that the definition and status of the ceasefires is a matter for the Government. Unlike certain politicians, we don’t consider ourselves armchair generals. It is one important factor when it comes to how we vote for Lord Mayors. Alliance has always insisted that for us to vote for anyone whose party has links to terrorist groups, their ceasefire must be intact.
Some unionist comments this week over our decision have been a showcase in utter hypocrisy, given their previous support for loyalist Lord Mayors linked to terrorist groups not on ceasefire, or even considering decommissioning. And at a regional level, unionists and republicans sit together in our Executive.
So after much consideration, the three Alliance councillors have unanimously decided to back Sinn Fein for the second time.
I believe that by doing this, we will be consolidating peace by wedding Sinn Fein even closer to the democratic process. We are taking a long-term risk for peace and doing what we believe is the right thing to do.
Politicians have a choice. They can either follow public opinion, or they can try to lead people towards a better future. Alliance has a duty to lead. We do not expect any thanks or want any favours from anyone for this decision.
Alliance is proud to have pioneered power sharing in councils across Northern Ireland. It is now commonplace across Northern Ireland, and is central to what we believe in – putting sharing before separation.
Only time will tell whether Republicans can live up to the challenge that we present to them today. Fine words now need translated into action. The onus is now on Sinn Fein.