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 withdrew from key constituencies in the last Westminster election to secure the positions of pro-Agreement candidates, we attracted criticism – but again, it was the right to do.
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 had two acts of decommissioning, something many people doubted we would ever see. It benefited the political process enormously and was recognised as one of the most significant steps ever taken by the Republican Movement. True, it was late, and less than satisfactory, but at least the process had been commenced by one of the terrorist groups.
None of the three Alliance councillors in Belfast City Council will deny that the past few weeks have been difficult and soul searching. But we have not shirked our responsibilities and our record shows that those who hold the balance of power in the Council have 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, when I walked into pensioners’ homes with no natural light because of boarded up windows.
Ten minutes later, as I arrived to speak 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.
These are two communities under siege; the residents of Cluan Place and the Short Strand nationalists. Both sides in this local conflict have made it clear they will resort to extreme measures to defend their community; both have responded with force when provoked.
One of the issues which has most concerned me has been the manipulation of the violence by those from outside the area affected. The involvement of these paramilitaries and agitators has been a major factor in contributing to the heightened tension. While these people can head back to North Belfast or wherever at the end of the day, it is defenceless pensioners and families who are bearing the brunt of the trouble.
One of the first steps I would like to see is those who have no positive role to play in East Belfast should leave. We need to see genuine leadership. We need to see greater co-operation with the police. We need church and community representatives engage in dialogue. We need the cars which prevent the police entering areas taken off the roads. We need to see the milk crates and trolleys full of bricks taken away, and perhaps most importantly for the ceasefires, we need to see the guns put down.
With respect to our decision on the Lord Mayor we had to weigh up many factors. Alliance held a thorough and wide-ranging consultation in which we heard a spectrum of opinions, but we also knew from the start that whatever we decided, some would not agree with us.
There were many serious issues which we considered, and we are not going to run away from those.
Alliance is deeply concerned about the apparent links between the IRA and FARC. There are many unanswered questions lying in the South American jungle, and there may well be disturbing answers in the weeks and months to come. There are implications both for the situation in Colombia and in Northern Ireland. For Alliance, a Colombian life is every bit as important as an Irish or a British one.
At home, the IRA have been implicated in murders, have engaged in paramilitary assaults, and continue to exile many of our citizens. I was particularly concerned when the police said on Tuesday that mainstream paramilitary groups on both sides were organising the violence.
As a party of law and order, we have difficulties over Sinn Fein’s lack of support for and failure to engage with the reformed Police Service.
As first citizen, the Lord Mayor must lead by example in setting high standards for the rule of law.
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.
The best way to end continued IRA activity is to consolidate the primacy of the democratic process.
We have spent long hours over the past two weeks talking to the Secretary of State, the police and people on the ground about the status of the ceasefires. Yesterday we had a meeting with the Security Minister, Jane Kennedy.
Alliance believes that the status of the ceasefires is a matter for the Government. It is an important factor when it comes to how we vote for Lord Mayors. Alliance insists that if we vote for anyone whose party has links to terrorist groups, their ceasefire must be intact.
Unfortunately, the unionist parties have a different policy. While we have consistently upheld this policy, unionists have shown that they are prepared to elect councillors linked to terrorist groups not on ceasefire, or even considering the prospect of decommissioning! They elected Frank McCoubrey, who sat on a platform
while JohnnTheir comments this week over our decision has been an exercise in utter hypocrisy, and the opportunistic electioneering and pathetic excuses given for their opposition to Sinn Fein’s candidature has been beneath contempt.
Unionism is at odds with itself. It appears that in Belfast, people are not prepared to share power with Sinn Fein, but at a regional level, they sit together in an Executive. Given that some Belfast councillors are also Ministers or Assembly members, it seems that some unionist politicians are suffering from split personalities as well as breathtaking hypocrisy.
Regarding who we vote for for the mayoralty whose parties have links to terrorist groups has Lord Mayors has always been contingent upon any affiliated
Last week, an Alliance delegation spent well over an hour discussing the paramilitary ceasefires with the Secretary of State.
Dr Reid assured us that while he too has his concerns, the IRA ceasefire, although imperfect, does continue to hold.
It is his responsibility to determine the definition and status of ceasefires, not the role of local politicians, and his judgement is based on much better security advice than I could ever hope to have.
There has also been much progress in Belfast City Council, once a bearpit, now – while not a shining example of co-operation – much improved since the bad old days. This has happened since Alliance took the balance of power in 1997.
So after much consideration and consultation, both within and outside the party, we have 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. Once again, Alliance is taking a risk for peace. We are doing what we believe is the right thing to do.
Alliance has a duty to lead. We do not expect any thanks or want any favours from anyone for this decision. We are acting for the greater good, as we did when some of our Assembly members redesignated last November to save the Agreement.
Yes, we fully expect criticism from the various unionist parties. But the simple fact of the matter is that unionists are sitting beside Republicans in the Executive and they are serving the people of Belfast alongside Sinn Fein.
Let’s not forget that the Unionists elected a loyalist to the office of Lord Mayor before there was even a UVF ceasefire. In more recent years, they elected two Deputy Mayors, both of whom have had links with loyalists paramilitary organisations.
Listen carefully, and I’m sure you will hear the sickening sound of hypocrisy.
Alliance is proud to have pioneered power sharing in councils across Northern Ireland. This is what we believe in.
The onus is now on Sinn Fein to take up the responsibility of this office, and to demonstrate that they can act in an inclusive and a responsible manner. Fine words need translated into action.
Alliance has not made this decision lightly, nor in our own self-interest. We are an inclusive party and want to move politics in Northern Ireland forward. That is what we are doing today. Alliance is not afraid to take risks for peace – our record speaks for itself . We are prepared to take difficult decisions for the good of all.
My colleagues – Councillors Tom Ekin and Naomi Long – and I want to look to a shared future, where unionists and nationalists, loyalists, republicans and those who have broader horizons can work together for the good of the whole community, both inside Belfast City Council and throughout Northern Ireland.
Time, and only time, will tell whether Republicans can live up to the challenge that we present to them today. The onus is now on Sinn Fein.