David Ford MLA said: “The last week has been a dreadful week for Northern Ireland. Let me start by expressing my sympathy to those who have suffered.
“Three children had their homes damaged. Grace Bower is well known, but the other two live next door to what was Stewart Dickson’s office. Their home was smoked damaged last week. People have had homes, cars and businesses destroyed or damaged by street violence, or their business activity disrupted in these difficult economic times, in what should have been one of the main shopping weeks of the year.
“I want to express sympathy to Gerry Kelly and Cllr Jim McVeigh who have received death threats and Cllr Sammy Brush, whose home was attacked yesterday. These incidents are an affront to democracy.
“I especially want to recognise the role of the police over the past few days. They have been faced with a challenging situation on a scale that was not envisaged only a week ago. Many officers have been injured. Yet they have played a sterling role in responding to a wide range of incidents and threats.
“The Alliance Party has borne the brunt of the attacks and intimidation over the past few days. Colleagues have had their home and offices attacked and others have been threatened. Let me put on record, without repeating the details, the names of Cllr Christine Bower, Cllr Michael Bower, Cllr Linda Cleland, Stewart Dickson MLA, Stephen Farry MLA and Cllr Laura McNamee.
“Our MP, Naomi Long, continues to live under death threat, but unsurprisingly remains resolute, defiant and true to her values.
“We have seen images that people contacting us from around the world said reminded them of the worst experiences of fascism – because these attacks were not attacks on Alliance alone – they were direct attacks on democracy and the rule of law. The people who called, expressed support and solidarity, for both the attacks we have endured and for the stance that we have taken.
“It has been a week of contrasts. Contrasts between the exercise of democracy inside Belfast City Hall, and the exercise of intimidation and violence outside; between the actions of those who claimed to be protecting the union flag, and the values of freedom and democracy that the flag is supposed to represent; between the cowardice of thugs covering their faces with masks and the dignity and fortitude of elected representatives under attack; between the response when the same decision was taken by other councils at other times, and the effect that whipping up tensions had on this occasion.
“There are two issues which this Assembly, and our community, must face up to: where we stand on the principle of democracy; and what we are going to do to accommodate differing identities and allegiances in a genuinely shared future.
“On the principle of democracy, it is striking that the motion we tabled last Thursday differed from today’s in one respect only, and that was our description of last week’s decision by Belfast City Council as democratic and legitimate. It is beyond me why all parties refused to sign up to those words. Because any decision, by a democratically elected body, taken in accordance with the law and Standing Orders, is democratic. And any democratic decision is, as a result, legitimate. That is the very essence of democracy.
“If we refuse to accept that democratic decisions are legitimate, why bother with democracy? How do we tell the people who rioted, threatened and burned their way through last week that they were wrong to do so? How do we tell dissident republicans that democracy is the only route to influence our future? How do we stand over the principle that only the people of Northern Ireland can determine their future – the principle of consent – if democratic decisions aren’t legitimate?
“So I say to everyone in the House today, if you want Northern Ireland’s present and future to be ruled by democracy, you have to accept that every democratic decision, including those that affect your sense of identity, is legitimate.
“Let me turn then to the challenge of accommodating differing identities in a shared future. The achievement of devolution was the symbol that Unionists, Nationalists and those who reject either label could now work together to address the issues facing our community. Along the way there have been real moments of important change, albeit often more symbolic than substantial.
“Yet despite this, the Executive so far has utterly failed to face the need to make real and far-reaching progress towards a shared society in which sectarianism, fear and threat belong only in the past. Every survey shows strong, majority support for shared education, workplaces, leisure and housing.
“Growing numbers, especially of young people, feel marginalised by our political process and economic situation, and are easily manipulated. More and more people are moving away from traditional forms of identity and expressing mixed and multiple identities. Yet getting OFMDFM to bring forward serious policy to address this has been like pulling teeth.
“We have worked successfully to find a political settlement that allows Northern Ireland to be governed. But we have failed to use it to prioritise the building of a genuinely shared society. And the longer we fail to do so, the more our talk of building an economy becomes both unrealistic and delusional. Last week’s events have shown that it can be put off no longer.
“An immediate priority must be to find a means to accommodate different identities through a shared approach to symbols, and yes, even if that is perceived by some as “meddling with identity”. The Agreement both confirmed Northern Ireland’s position within the UK as long as a majority continue to want that to be so, and recognised our diverse society as a place where people who are British, Irish and both live together.
“We must find a better way of regulating the display of flags and symbols as part of cultural celebrations at a community level, and to find an effective mechanism for enforcing breaches or protocols and the misuse of flags.
“The challenge is to rise above the win-loss politics of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ to find a common, shared approach to flags in which we are all winners. In our view, the flags decision of Belfast City Council, like that of other Councils, is respectful of national sovereignty and of the variety of allegiances that make up our community. What was potentially most significant from last Monday’s vote was to see Nationalist parties pragmatically, but nonetheless positively, respecting that position. It showed that accommodation is possible, if people are prepared to move beyond zero-sum approaches.
“Last week was a horrific and frightening experience. The sense that some people in this house had more understanding for those targeting the houses and premises of my friends and colleagues was palpable.
“Today we must turn this moment of danger into one of opportunity, stand up for the doctrine of ‘Purely political means’, act to protect the lives of all our citizens and find democratic answers to our divisions. With the necessary leadership and commitment henceforth from today, it may yet not be too late for this opportunity to be seized, and to build a genuine inclusive shared future.”