Alliance has never been afraid to make difficult decisions for the sake of the peace process.
Last Friday, the Alliance councillors on Belfast City Council announced that we will back the Sinn Fein candidate for Lord Mayor. The past few weeks have involved much soul-searching, but we took this decision because we believe that it will help to consolidate the peace process.
That may seem difficult to believe at the moment, with the current violence on the streets, particularly in east Belfast.
On Monday, I walked through the rubble and broken glass of Cluan Place, I watched a video of shots being fired across the so-called ‘peace line’, and I walked into pensioners’ homes with boarded up windows.
Minutes later, as I spoke to community representatives on 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.
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 violence when provoked.
In making our decision, we had to consider many serious issues and we aren’t going to run away from them.
Alliance is very concerned that the IRA has been implicated in murders, paramilitary assaults and exiling. The IRA’s continuing existence is distasteful and its activities disgusting – we want to see a permanent end to all their activities. We are deeply troubled by the apparent links with FARC.
As a party of law and order we cannot and will not ignore these deeply troubling issues and will continue to hold Sinn Fein to account over each and every one of these.
As first citizen, the Lord Mayor must lead by example in setting high standards for the rule of law and as such, we have concerns over Sinn Fein’s failure to engage with the reformed Police Service.
Last year, we took a principled decision not to back Sinn Fein because of its failure to implement the Agreement, through persuading the IRA to begin decommissioning. Since then, two significant actions have taken place.
For better or worse, Sinn Fein is now widely recognised as part of the democratic process. They already have two seats on the Executive and are in charge of the two largest spending Departments. Indeed, it is likely that they will be in an even stronger position after the next Assembly elections.
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.
Over the past two weeks, we have met both the Secretary of State, the Security Minister and senior police officers to discuss these matters. They have assured us that, while the situation is under constant review, the IRA ceasefire remains intact.
Furthermore, Sinn Fein is the largest party on Belfast City Council. We cannot dismiss the democratically expressed views of a large section of this city.
There is gross hypocrisy in the reaction of some unionists to this decision. In the past, they elected a PUP candidate as Mayor before there was even a UVF ceasefire. Since then, they have supported UDP and PUP candidates for Deputy Mayor. Either unionists are opposed to people with paramilitary links holding civic office or they are not. Otherwise, they are sending out the sectarian message that one set of terrorists is more acceptable than another.
Through this decision, I believe that we can help to consolidate an imperfect peace by wedding Sinn Fein even closer to the democratic process. The peace process has involved many distasteful actions. People have been asked to swallow hard on a number of occasions.
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.