Opinion: Alliance holds firm against intimidation

We are now just over a week on from the infamous flag vote at Belfast City Council and whilst it is now clear that the Alliance Party will emerge from this with its credibility and reputation greatly enhanced it has come at an enormous cost to its elected members, officers and activists who have been put under intolerable pressure. Now we know what mob rule looks like. If Northern Ireland was a normal society rival politicians would have by now put differences aside and be standing shoulder to shoulder with Alliance in a united front on the side of democracy against mob rule.

This is not a normal society.

On Monday morning the Assembly was supposed to be debating an emergency motion condemning the violence. What we got was the usual qualified condemnation and weasel-like point scoring. If you are looking for statesmanship and responsible leadership from the unionist parties you would be best advised to look elsewhere. This also applied to the one UKIP member who gave this qualified condemnation which was typical on the day. He said:

What happened will leave a deep and lasting scar. The wound is open and festering within the political landscape and, as a consequence, the Alliance Party will pay dearly at the ballot box. That said, I say to the joint proposers of the motion that UKIP will vote for it. It encapsulates our condemnation of violence. The rest of it comprises what any right-thinking person would endorse. Unfortunately, despite its length, the motion falls short of expressing the full rigour of unionist anger aimed at those who combined to take down the Union flag …

Essentially the unionist line is “We condemn the violence against you but it was your own fault. Because you refused to give in to the intimidation and bullyboy tactics of the mob that we stirred up you have brought this on yourselves.”

What a miserable pathetic excuse for politicians we have in Northern Ireland.

Naomi Long MP interviewed on the BBC referred to a pogrom against her party. This is what it is beginning to look like. Last night a police woman, who was keeping an eye on the MP’s office, was lucky to escape with her life after her car was surrounded by a mob and a petrol bomb thrown into it. Police are treating it as attempted murder. It is also noticeable that the night time attacks on the homes of elected members seem to be being carried out primarily against the female members. This is disturbing in itself.

The good news is that party membership applications and donations have soared in the last week but it’s come at a high cost both to both party members and the community at large.

* Declan Wilson is a councillor on Gloucester City Council

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  • This has to call into question the current NI political set-up. The tax-payer shouldn’t be expected to fund politicians whose commitment to democracy is so paper thin they can happily standby and watch repeated violence against their democratically elected colleagues. Those politicians need to see a clear personal consequence for their indifference.

  • All of which said; how mutton-headed do you have to be not to have foreseen what the likely consequences of this decision – taken why, exactly? pleasing who? – would be?

  • Declan,

    Your characterisation of the political debate in Northern Ireland will be familiar to those who watch the proceedings of the Northern Ireland Assemby. Sectarian divides are ever present and continue to impede mutual trust and cooperation in delivering progress on the ‘Bread and Butter Issues’.

    The Alliance party has shown great fortitude and committment to democracy in the face of irrational and violent rage.

    There is a long way to go yet before Northern Ireland can put the legacy of the troubles behind it, as we saw yesteday with the release of the Desilva review into the murder of Pat Finucane.

    Our hope has to lie with the emergence of a new generation, brought up in a less segregated and more equal society, with a vision of a shared future unimpaired by the vitriol of inter-communal conflict.

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 3:15pm

    I watched the Assembly briefly, but perhaps it was Tuesday rather than Monday, I thought that everyone in the main parties clearly condemned the violence, without qualification, including the attack on the policewoman, although I had to go somewhere else half way through the SDLP man’s speech – he was identifying political failure as a cause of the developing trouble, which this article is also saying.

    Seen from outside, the intransigence seems to be on all sides. Even in this article, statements like “If you are looking for statesmanship and responsible leadership from the unionist parties you would be best advised to look elsewhere” are not exactly conciliatory. Whatever you may think of others, you have to work with them, so there’s no purpose in this kind of “weasel-like point scoring” except to reiterate your own intransigence, There would be a better chance of resolving issues if people including this article’s writer were to treat their opponents with courtesy.

    Violence causes suffering, but it is also caused by suffering. Relieving only one party’s suffering therefore does not stop the violence and so does not solve the problem.

  • In a broad survey of opinion in Northern Ireland, following the Good Friday Agreement, when asked to identify the most important issues for the new Assembly to tackle, Catholics and Protestants were united in identifying the issues of health and employment. More ‘political’ or partisan issues such as reducing discrimination against Catholics or Protestants were rarely mentioned. The message, it seems, is that people want less politics and more government (Don’t we all!). That is how Assembly members on both sides of the sectarian divide can stop the violence and reduce the problems.

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 5:31pm

    It seems that the Asembly is learning the lesson that you cannot tackle the issues the population want tackling unless you also address the more political issues like discrimination, wealth sharing, and so on. These are fundamental to LibDem values. Wellbeing, in the form of employment and healthcare, is not enough.

    I’m sure that Alliance meant well, they may have thought the problem was simpler than it is, but there seems to be a charge against them. It is contained in the word “combined” in the UKIP speech. It seems to be the charge that Alliance persuaded one side to accept what the Alliance wanted, then forced that solution on the other side. If this is so, then one side would certainly feel disillusioned and abandoned. Putting this into a context of emotion, opportunism, and high unemployment, might this go some way towards explaining events, particularly why Alliance are being targetted?

    As a complete outsider, I wonderif it might help if Alliance could confirm that they accept that the way forward is to get agreeement from both sides, not to use their position to impose what they think should be the agreement?

    Here’s another suggestion – any chance of proposing that the number of days of flag flying be determined by proportionality to the number of votes cast for the up/down options?

  • Alliance did exactly what they have been elected to do and what they have been doing for many years throughout the troubles. Looking at the detail of an issue and taking a non-sectarian stance. If the Alliance group had decided that, in their considered view, it was in the best interest of the commumity they represent to accept the nationalist proposal for no flag flying at all, or decided to vote with the unionist bloc to keep the flag flying permanently throughout the year, that would have been allright too. That is representative democracy, warts and all, as Churchill famously noted when he said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    The Alliance Party’s brokering of a compromise solution was in the best traditions of political negotiation and the peace settlement that has been reached in Northern Island. As another famous statesman, John F. Kennedy, once said “We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate,” The Alliance party has stood by that dictum.

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 7:04pm

    To clarify, the charge seems to be that the Alliance did not “broker” a compromise between the main parties. Instead, they imposed, on one main party, a compromise between themselves and the other main party.

    It seems they made the mistake of not understanding that the solution to an emotive issue like this one would need to involve agreement of the two main antagonists.

  • Declan Wilson 13th Dec '12 - 7:21pm


    Whatever the Alliance Party did would have had consequences.

    Had they abstained the flag would have come down permanently and there would have been trouble.

    Had they given in to the intimidation and voted with the unionists there would have been trouble (albeit on the other side).

    The compromise was the most sensible solution and seems to have been accepted by the majority of people who are sick of the whole thing and just want to get on with their lives.

    Sometimes in NI you just can’t win (sigh).

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 7:36pm

    In situations where it seems you can’t win, you need to change a whole lot in the way you approach things. Aim, concepts, strategies, loyalties, assumptions, …. Here are some suggestions …

    You might start by asking whether “winning” and “losing” are the correct words. Why think of it as a contest? Maybe some do, but you don’t have to follow them. Is Alliance using the troubles to “win” by furthering its own political aims, rather than to solve the problems? Is that what you really mean by “win”? , Is it really a zero-sum game?

    You might want to think about what assumptions you are making when you use the word “sensible”. To whom? How can you claim that everyone supports you, when actually you have a rather small share of the vote? Who are the real important players?

    Are some side issues dominating things? Has Alliance actually completely misunderstood everything?


  • Alliance did broker a compromise though Richard, in accordance with their own political stance, between themselves and the controlling bloc of nationalist politicians on Belfast City Council. Had they simply abstained, the SinnFein/SDLP proposal to discontinue the flying of the flag on any day woud have passed without amendment to take into account the Alliance councillors position that it should be flown on designated days.

    The DUP/UUP council members have no duty to agree to a compromise. It is their right to vote against any proposal that they do not support, as is the case with councils the length and breath of the United Kingdom. Alliance have no duty or even standing to act as a referree between the different parties on the council. Their duty is to abide by the anti-sectarian democratic principles and manifesto on which they were elected and seek support for the policies they believe should be enacted.

  • Paul in Twickenham 13th Dec '12 - 7:59pm

    Declan – I’m afraid that I must disagree. I would suggest that it is much less likely that there would have been problems due to maintenance of the current situation than due to removing the flag.

    I know how ridiculous this might seem to many English readers, but the fact that Celtic are playing Barcelona this season while Rangers are playing Elgin should have been enough to indicate the most appropriate course of action to mitigate the risk of violence.

    We once again have sporadic violence on the streets of Belfast at the height of the Christmas season. This is not due to any action precipitated by the Alliance Party and I sympathize with the fact that they are the party most affected, but the consequences of this could be protracted and very damaging.

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 8:08pm

    Be realistic! People understand things in simple ways.

    If I say I’m “brokering a compromise”, many people will immediately assume I am doing it between the two main antagonists – because many people understand that I am unimportant in this context, and that a compromise between the two main partioes is the only compromise that really matters.

    So, many people will be bitterly disappointed when it turns out that I’ve brokered something else entirely. Even if I said so in the small print. They didn’t read it.

    And if some of those people are just looking for an excuse for some physical exercise, they’ll take it.

    So, if you see those people lurking, speak carefully so that the full message gets across! Don’t be complicated. There’s no shame in being careful with words.

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 8:16pm

    How about erecting two identical flagpoles?

    One could fly the flag all the time, which might satisfy one part of the community. The other could always be empty, which might satisfy the other part of the community.

    Each part of the community could claim they could see only one flagpole, and it was their one!

  • Alliance are the fourth party by size on the council holding 6 of the 51 seats. More than the UUP who have historically controlled the council.

    Seats by Party:
    Sinn Féin 16
    DUP 15
    SDLP 8
    Alliance Party 6
    UUP 3
    PUP 2
    Independent 1

    In 1977, at the height of the troubles, the Alliance Parrty were the second largest party on the council with 13 seats, just behind the UUP with 15 seats at that time.

    Alliance is ny no means unimportant. There has been no overall control of the council by nationalist or unionist blocs since 1997. Alliance support or abstention is needed to enact or defeat legislative proposals. The party can rightfully claim to be one of the main parties in Belfast both in the past and no doubt for the future.

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 9:06pm

    Which of the following does Alliance believe is more important

    1. To claim that they are a main party, although they have less than 16% of the seats?
    2. To solve political problems?

    Can any really clever person explain why Alliance has lost more than half the seats they had in 1977?

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 9:32pm

    I wonder whether the problem might be right here, in Joe’s words:

    “Alliance support or abstention is needed to enact or defeat legislative proposals”

    This seems to suggest that Alliance has disenfrachised everyone else!

    Can this be an explanation? Self-styled saints don’t usually see reason – maybe people feel they have been left with no option but a hard one?

    A lesson for coalition in Westminster too, perhaps?

  • Paul in Twickenham 13th Dec '12 - 9:36pm

    Joe – In Belfast, Alliance has six councillors – all in the relatively affluent, mostly Protestant, middle-class suburbs of South and East Belfast.

    In my home town of Derry there are no Alliance councillors at all (out of 30 in total, elected through STV) although in 1976 the Mayor of Derry was Alliance.

    There are a total of 44 Alliance councillors out of 582 in Northern Ireland (all elected through STV) and 8 out of 108 MLA’s. That’s not exactly a huge mandate and their influence in Belfast speaks more for the electoral system and the fractured nature of the voting patterns than for any inherent strength of support for Alliance.

    I’m afraid that Alliance remain overwhelmingly the party of choice for affluent, middle-class Protestant liberals. I see nothing in their current situation or the direction of travel of their support to make me think that they are more than a peripheral player.

  • The Party has a website Richard Alliance party that you can read and judge for yourself.

    Their published proposals and recommendations in ‘Building a Shared and Prosperous Northern Ireland Through Tackling the Cost of Division’ includes the following in the preamble:

    “Alliance firmly rejects the notion of a parallel society of separate but equal. An Apartheid Northern Ireland cannot work and must be resisted.

    The alternative to a divided society is a shared society. Alliance has been instrumental in pushing government to embrace the vision of a shared future where people can live and learn, work and play together in safety.

    Alliance welcomed the publication, A Shared Future — Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland, by the Government in March 2005, and the first of the triennial Shared Future Action Plans in April 2006. We await with interest the content and proposals within the long promised strategy for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration from the devolved Executive.”

  • Paul,

    “I see nothing in their current situation or the direction of travel of their support to make me think that they are more than a peripheral player.”

    Was this not said of the Liberal Democrats not too long ago? Understood, that they are not likely to make a breakthough in Derry or outside the leafier suburbs of Belfast anytime soon. However, the proportion of their MLA’s on the Assembly is not far off our proportion of MP’s at Westminster and last time I looked we were still in government.

  • Richard Dean 13th Dec '12 - 10:32pm

    I’m a really out-and-out cynic. Nasty is an understatement. And I imagine devousness where there is none. I know all about paranoia. This is the first sentence on the Alliance website:

    Alliance was founded in 1970 with the objective of healing the bitter divisions in our community.

    This means that Alliance will have no purpose once the divisions are healed. In my cynical way, I ask myself, does that mean that Alliance will, perhaps unconciously, prevent healing if it looks like it’s starting to happen?

    Healing society requires enfranchisement, But it appears that , by using their “swing vote” power, Alliance may have disenfrachised people who support the other parties, by using their “swing vote”. Violence is a well known possible result of disenfrachisment..

    So might I be correct in my nasty, cynical way?

  • Richard Dean
    The Alliance Party has adapted since the GFA to focus more on issues such as education and unemployment.
    The recent events show an end to any liberal Unionism in the UUP.There are a growing number of Catholics who value the link NI has with the UK so the Alliance Party will continue to gather support.
    It is hard to see UKIP making much headway in Ulster.

  • Richard Dean 14th Dec '12 - 11:30am

    It would certainly be nice if my cyncisism is unfounded.

    But wait, darkness beckons! Sectarianism isn’t unique to Northern Ireland. If you take away a group’s reason to exist, won’t the group resist? A group like a sect? Or a group like a paramilitary? Or a group like Alliance?

    Antagonists need to talk. Taking decisions for them prevents that. Doing dealsmwith ne and not the other prevents that too.

    Well, I will see if I can smile forat least the rest of the day.

  • Richard Dean 14th Dec '12 - 12:20pm

    The glue does not seem to have worked that way this time.

    Fractured communities get repaired through dialog between the fractured parties, not between them and a third party or glue. Trust develops, not from being glued so tight you can’t speak, but through being free to learn from the mistakes that each party makes when they speak directly to each other and thereby try to work things out themselves. Preventing them make mistakes prevents them from learning trust.

    Well, I’m still keeping that smile, yes! 🙂

  • Alex Macfie 14th Dec '12 - 1:04pm

    Paul in Twickenham: In the first post-Apartheid election in South Africa, our sister party, then called the Democratic Party, got about 1-2% of the vote and was very much a peripheral player with a niche voter base overwhelmingly comprising affluent, middle-class white liberal voters. Now, as the Democratic Alliance, it is the official opposition. There is no inherent reason why the Alliance Party could not make the same sort of breakthrough, if the people of NI becoming sufficiently tired of sectarian politics.

  • Richard Dean
    I don’t think the UUP learns from its mistakes, whether from third party(NI Conservatives) or not.

  • As a founder member of the Alliance Party and one of the 13 Alliance councillors elected to Belfast City Council in 1977 (I moved to England in 1981) I would like to thank not only Declan Wilson but also others in this thread including JoeBourke and Ian Sanderson for the degree of understanding they show of the recent events in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately Richard Dean in particular displays a brand of theorising that has little basis in the streets of Belfast. By the way ask Naomi Long MP about the proportion of her East Belfast constituency which could be described as “leafy” or “middle class” and reflect that this brave lady won it on the first past the post system.

    The Good Friday Agreement confirmed the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK as long as this had the support of a majority of its people. It also contained a plethora of provisions to recognise community divisions and intended to move decisively away from the divisive and domineering form of unionism which had been a major factor in the ongoing disruption and violent outbursts that had blighted the province for so long. The Agreement affirmed a commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community” and recognised “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance…..”.

    One of the institutions set up was the Equality Commission with the brief of adjudicating on a raft of issues likely to prove divisive. When a submission was made to it some time ago about the permanent flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall the Commission propoosed that the flying of this flag be limited to 17 designated days (royal birthdays and the like) – a practice pursued by many councils in GB and indeed by Lisburn City Council next door to Belfast. The Alliance Party supported this, the Unionists said “no – leave it up permanently ” and the SDLP and Sinn Fein said “no – take it down altogether.” Eventually a committee of the Council – on which SDLP and Sinn Fein had managed to get a majority – passed a motion demanding that the Council remove the flag completely. It was this motion which came before the Council on December 3. Alliance put down an amendment putting into effect their publicly known policy – the Equality Commission verdict. In the days before the vote DUP and Official Unionists took various actions to stir up their supporters including the distribution of a leaflet intended to look like an Alliance publication containing spurious allegations including the lie that Alliance were supporting the Sinn Fein position.

    The deadlock continued until a few days before the meeting when SDLP and Sinn Fein told Alliance they knew their position would be defeated and they would reluctantly support the Alliance amendment. The Unionist side held firm. Therefore what happened was in many ways historic – Sinn Fein voted for the display of the Union Flag, albeit on designated days. If someone had told me back in the dark days of the 1970s that this would happen I simply would not have believed it.

    Whipped up by the prior actions of irresponsible politicians a degree of mayhem transpired. We can only rely on the police service to control this and to demand real leadership from politicians, too many of whom merely pander to their tribal base. My view is that Unionist politicians have never clearly spelled out to their followers that their “win” on the maintenance of the Union came at the price of conceding progressive actions on culture and symbols and community harmony. It is also more than ever clear that nothing like enough has been done on all sides to address the basic community divide. This must change with for example more positive action towards integrated education.

  • Richard Dean 14th Dec '12 - 2:20pm

    This is an interesting and useful explanation of the events around the flag vote, thank you.

    I wonder if it really shows that Alliance damaged the process? By taking the position they did, did Alliance prevent the two sectarian sides from getting together seriously and working out something themselves? Did their action change the question for the two sides, from how to find a solution together, to when to move in a game of chicken?

    A blame game is not particularly helpful, but if you want one here’s a question – Did Alliance basically get in the way of the other parties finding a solution together?

  • Paul in Twickenham 14th Dec '12 - 2:42pm

    Let me put Belfast East into context. Here are the Alliance results in Belfast East and the nearby Strangford constituency over a number of general elections:

    Belfast East
    2010 : 37.2% (1st)
    2005 : 12.2% (3rd)
    2001 : 15.8% (3rd)
    1997 : 23.8% (3rd)
    1992 : 29.8% (2nd)
    1987 : 32.1% (2nd)

    2010 : 8.7% (3rd)
    2005 : 9.0% (3rd)
    2001 : 6.7% (3rd)
    1997 : 13.1% (3rd)
    1992 : 16.1% (2nd)
    1987 : 20.3% (2nd)

    I see a long, steady decline (cf my previous comment about “direction of travel of support”) except in Belfast East in 2010 when the party scored a sensational victory. Why?

    Because Peter Robinson’s wife was involved in a serious scandal that broke only four months before the election. The scandal forced Robinson to step down temporarily as first minister and certainly caused the huge swing against him (as sitting MP) in the general election.

    I fully agree with the comment that there was an agenda on both sides to whip up tribal feelings on the perennially contentious subject of symbols. signifiers and semiotics and that Alliance were convenient fall guys – for that they have my sympathy. But I don’t understand why it is surprising that Sinn Fein would support this proposal. If the expected outcome is loyalist violence that fuels fear in both communities then that is a win for Sinn Fein.

  • David Allen 14th Dec '12 - 3:44pm

    Hmm, did Kofi Annan get in the way of a love-in between the Free Syrian Army and Bashar Assad?

  • Richard Dean 14th Dec '12 - 4:18pm

    Alliance are nothing llike Kofi Anan. If that’s what they think, they’ve totally misunderstood.

    NI is now AFTER the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA meant that both sectarian sides were committed to a peaceful peace process. The work of the intermediary had thus mostly been done, and the subsequent work was essentially to be done by the two sides themselves. By direct interaction with each other, there was a chance that trust would grow from that beginning.

    Syria is now BEFORE an agreement. Kofi Anan was trying to get the two sides to make a peace agreement. If anything the situation was like before the GFA, not after it. If an agreement had been reached, the UN’s job would have been to help the two sides resolve their issues, not get in between. The UN’s job would have been to fade out of the picture as that happened.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Dec '12 - 4:55pm

    Richard Dean: Alliance represents those people in Northern Ireland who want nothing to do with the sectarian conflict. They have just as much right to be heard and represented in the process as those who are directly involved in it. I don’t think that it would be desirable for “the two sectarian sides from getting together seriously and working out something themselves”, presumably to the exclusion of those who do not want to take sides in sectarian fighting. Maybe because they are from some other community, or because they’re just too sensible.
    As for the idea that the party that has always distanced itself from the sectarian conflict, and has always condemned all violence, is somehow to blame for thugs on one side getting angry about an agreement, that is really rather bizarre. The people to blame in a fight in which people get injured are the ones who participate, not the person who intervenes to try to break them apart. The fact that the intimidation and violence was directed at Alliance is also quite telling: the extremists on both sides really just want the conflict to continue, because that is where they get their power base from. So the unionist extremists were basically angry at the moderates of Alliance for standing in the way of continued conflict.

  • Richard Dean 14th Dec '12 - 5:51pm

    I wonder if both sectarian sides may have concluded that Alliance has become a barrier to progress? Would that be a rather simpler explanation of recent events? Why else would they be targetted?

    Do Alliance need to re-think their mission? Have they actually operating a familiar divide-and-rule approach – support one side this time, another next? WIth 10% of the votes, how come their agreement is needed for everything?

    Still smiling, despite everything. Only trying to help! 🙂

  • Alex Macfie 14th Dec '12 - 7:15pm

    No, the reason for targeting Alliance is that it stands in the way of creating/maintaining an atmosphere of fear, hatred and prejudice that some extremists on both sides wish to cultivate. And Alliance did not “support one side” in this matter. It came up with a compromise solution in which the Union Flag is to be flown only on certain days (rather like it is in (mainland Great Britain, where we do not, unlike the US for example, have a tradition of perpetual flag-flying), and the Nationalist parties were more willing to accept this compromise than the Unionist ones were.

  • Richard Dean 14th Dec '12 - 9:09pm

    Everyone starts from the position that the other guy’s the bad guy, don’t they?

    Even Alliance.

  • @Denis

    I have to admit that I have only spent a relatively small amount of time in Northern Ireland, but one of the things I did learn about the politics of the place is that you never take anything at face value.

    Richard Dean did his usual thing of poking his stick into a hornets nest to see if he can provoke a reaction, some of the comments caused by that agitation were:

    Declan Wilson
    “Had they abstained the flag would have come down permanently and there would have been trouble.

    Had they given in to the intimidation and voted with the unionists there would have been trouble (albeit on the other side).”

    Joe Bourke
    “Alliance did broker a compromise though Richard”

    “Had they simply abstained, the SinnFein/SDLP proposal to discontinue the flying of the flag on any day woud have passed without amendment to take into account the Alliance councillors position that it should be flown on designated days.”

    Also, Joe broke down the seats by party which showed that there are 51 seats with SF/SDLP holding 24 (i.e. not quite a majority).

    In your contribution, you’ve stated that:
    “The deadlock continued until a few days before the meeting when SDLP and Sinn Fein told Alliance they knew their position would be defeated and they would reluctantly support the Alliance amendment.”

    Now you seem to know quite a lot of the history behind these events, but what you have written seems to contradict what others are saying, i.e.:

    1. If the Alliance had abstained, then it wouldn’t have been the case that “the flag would have come down permanently and there would have been trouble” because the motion would have been defeated.

    2. If the Alliance had abstained, then it is unlikely that there would have been trouble from “the other side” as they wouldn’t have voted for the status quo when the motion was defeated.

    3. Alliance did not broker a deal, it put forward what it wanted and if was approached by SF/SDLP who said that they would agree to it because their motion wouldn’t win. You make no mention of approaches to/from the other side, so I assume it was 2 party deal and no brokerage attempt was involved.

    If what you are saying is correct, then surely Alliance members must have realised that the reaction wasn’t going to be good (and no, before the accusations fly, I am not condoning the violence)? As others have stated, the big winners from this will probably be the extremists on both sides, so wouldn’t it have been good to operate on the “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” principle?

  • Alex Macfie 15th Dec '12 - 1:06am

    Regardloess of what Alliance did or didn’t do, the fact is that the violence was perpetrarted by Unionist extremists, because they hate anyone who gets in the way of their agenda of fomenting hatred, and it is THEY who are to blame for it. The attitude of some is akin to blaming non-violent anti-racist activists for riots caused by racist thugs.

  • @Alex Macfie
    As I’ve already said, I don’t condone the violence, but in a Country where myth and legend seems to have as much prominence as fact, it’s important to examine all aspects.

    It’s all very simplistic to go on about Unionist thugs etc, but just down the road from Belfast isn’t there a council (Lisburn) controlled by the DUP/UUP that actually agreed to only fly the flag on designated days? If these Unionist were happy to do this, what were the underlying issues that caused the problems elsewhere?

    As Richard said “Everyone starts from the position that the other guy’s the bad guy, don’t they?” If the Alliance if going to be the Party that “stands in the way of creating/maintaining an atmosphere of fear”, then it needs to constantly examine it’s own actions to see if it can do things better.

  • I do not know if Richard Dean has been to Northern Ireland or done any study in depth of its history. Chris_sh says he has spent “a relatively small amount of time in Northern Ireland” If they know anything of the situation there I cannot see how they can come up with the idea that, left to themselves, the political parties based upon sectarian division would get together and solve all the problems and that the barrier to all this is the Alliance Party. If so what on earth has prevented this nirvana breaking out long ago? The reality is cruelly different , not just during the horror of the 1969-1998 period but for decades, even centuries, before that.

    On points of detail –
    1. Of course Alliance told the Unionists well before the meeting that Sinn Fein and SDLP had said they would now vote for the Alliance amendment and tried to persuade them to come aboard on that . They would have none of it.
    2. I do not know where Chris_sh gets his arithmetic but if Alliance had abstained the flag would have been permanently removed.

    Those who think the extremists will win on this should know that new members and money are coming into Alliance HQ as we speak and at least one Unionist MLA has publicly supported the Alliance line against his own leadership. Messages of support have also arrived from councils in Bristol and Somerset. I take nothing for granted but I know where anyone who seeks real progress in Northern Ireland should be standing right now.

  • Richard Dean 15th Dec '12 - 11:42am

    So you too, Denis, start fom the position that the other guy’s the bad guy?

    Just like everybody else.

  • @Denis
    “I cannot see how they can come up with the idea that, left to themselves, the political parties based upon sectarian division would get together and solve all the problems”

    I didn’t come to that conclusion

    ” I do not know where Chris_sh gets his arithmetic but if Alliance had abstained the flag would have been permanently removed.”
    To quote yourself “SDLP and Sinn Fein told Alliance they knew their position would be defeated and they would reluctantly support the Alliance amendment”
    So were Alliance going to vote against the SDLP/SF proposal? If the plan was to abstain unless your compromise was implemented why did the other Parties feel that the motion wouldn’t pass?

    “2. I do not know where Chris_sh gets his arithmetic but if Alliance had abstained the flag would have been permanently removed.”
    Well, as I mentioned, I got it from Joe Bourke, so are his figures wrong?

    So why wasn’t this such an issue for the DUP/UUP politicians in Lisburn and why wasn’t a similar approach taken in Belfast?

  • Chris,

    there are 51 seats on Belfast City Council. Sinn Fein & SDLP have 24, Alliance 6. and others 21. Any proposal supported by Sinn Fein/SDLP that Alliance votes in favour of or abstains from will pass. If Alliance votes with the Unionist bloc against Sinn/SDLP the motion will fail.

    In the case of the flag, Alliance did not support the Sinn Fein/SDLP proposal, so had only two options – Vote with the Unionist bloc against the proposal or alternatively Vote for an amended motion based on the recommendation of the Equality Commission to fly the flag on designated days. The second option was only available to Alliance, if the Sinn Fein/SDLP executive were prepared to accept the amended motion – which they did.

    In Lisburn the executive is Unionist controlled – so the decision o fly the flag on designated days only was made by Unionist Councillors (in accordance with the recommendation of the equality commission) and not by nationalist councillors.

  • Dennis is absolutely right to point out that it has been in the political interest of both Sinn Fein and the DUP to take an uncompromising stand on sectarian lines.

    Since the IRA ceasefire of 1994, Sinn Fein has steadily eroded the position of the more moderate SDLP, becoming the most popular of the Irish Nationalist parties from 2001.

    In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the UUP has lost support among Northern Ireland’s unionist and Protestant community to the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

    It is Naive in the extreme to conjecture, as Richard Dean does, that the Alliance party is somehow a barrier to reconciliation between the extremes of Republicanism and Loyalism. Adversarial politics along secatarian lines is what has brought both radical parties to the fore in an environment where inter-communal trust has been so badly eroded.

    It is only by the perseverance and patience of non-sectarian parties like Alliance, that the vision of a shared future where people can live and learn, work and play together in safety, has a reasonable chance of coming to be.

  • @chris_sh
    “So were Alliance going to vote against the SDLP/SF proposal? If the plan was to abstain unless your compromise was implemented why did the other Parties feel that the motion wouldn’t pass.”

    Alliance would not have voted to remove the flag permanently or by abstention allowed the same result. Sinn Fein and SDLP knew that.

    Good on you, JoeBourke. Thank goodness some in this thread understand the situation.


  • Richard Dean 15th Dec '12 - 2:45pm

    If Denis is right that it is “in the political interest of both Sinn Fein and the DUP to take an uncompromising stand”, then what anyone sensible should do is let them do just that. Deadlock is an opportunity to learn. Let them make that mistake, let them feel the pressures from ordinary people that the mistake creates, and let them learn from the bending that those pressures will force them to do.

    That is one important way that political learning and healing works. Alliance should stop getting in the way.

  • Richard Dean 15th Dec '12 - 3:14pm

    Think of it this way.
    If there’s just two parties, they’re both going to be fighting for the middle ground.
    But if the middle ground is taken, they’ll each be forced to move to extremes.

    Or this way
    Everyone seems to define themselves by who they oppose
    If there are two parties, the distance between opponens can be small
    If there are three, they can measure distances from the middle, making the total distance larger

    Or this way
    Let 3 of the Alliance vote with the Unionists, and the other three abstain, creating deadlock
    Then let the sectarian parties talk to each other to sort it out

  • Paul in Twickenham 15th Dec '12 - 6:55pm

    Joe – I’ m afraid I will have to disagree with you. You claim that “adversarial politics along sectarian lines is what has brought both parties to the fore”. Take a trip to the Sinn Fein advice centre in Derry or in Belfast. You will see community politics in action to an extent that leaves most UK Liberal Democrats looking like hermits in ivory towers. Take a look at http://goo.gl/maps/jBNrg which is google maps view of Sinn Fein’s offices in Belfast.

    People vote for Sinn Fein (and the DUP) because they see those parties as sharing their values, aspirations and concerns. Where we all agree is that those parties then entrench their position by advocating policies that incite inter-community strife as that encourages their communities to continue supporting them.

    It is all very well and good to say that Alliance represents the desire for a non-sectarian future. Go and tell that to people who distinctly recall being burned out of their homes and see how many of them decide to lend Alliance their support. The answer is 0.6% – that’s the vote for Alliance in Foyle that I previously mentioned.

    And if Alliance do things that play into the hands of Sinn Fein and the DUP then it’s hard to feel optimism for their future prospects.

  • Paul,

    No one can dispute that Sinn Fein and the DUP have gained their position by way of the democratic process and owe their positions as the main Nationalist and Unionist parties to community activism among their respective voter bases in Northern Ireland.

    That does not change the situation that the politics of Northern Ireland has been dominated for as long as anyone can remember and in our lifetimes, at least since the riots of August 1969, by an atmosphere of fear.

    When Gerry Fitt founded the SDLP it was a coalition of civil rights and nationalist leaders and included a number of prominent protestants. The SDLP consistently denounced the actions of the IRA and were the first to advocate the principle of consent, now accepted by Sinn Fein and endorsed by a large majority of Irish people in the referendums that endorsed the Good Friday Agreement.

    n 1979, Fitt was replaced by John Hume as leader of the SDLP and he left the party altogether after he had agreed to constitutional talks with Humphrey Atkins without any provision for an ‘Irish dimension’ and had then seen his decision overturned by the SDLP party conference.

    He opposed the 1981 hunger strikes and in 1983 lost his seat in Belfast West to Gerry Adams and moved on to the House of Lords. He was driven out of Belfast, when his home was firebombed shortly after. Such is the politics of Northern Ireland.

    The SDLP nevertheless continued to grow in popularity, and by 1998 became Northern Ireland’s biggest party overall in terms of votes received. Since the retirement of John Hume the party has slipped electorally to a point where it is now dubbed the “South Down and Derry Party” where it retains a strong presence.

    The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) led to a major realignment in unionist politics in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist party (UUP), hitherto the dominant force within the Protestant British tradition, was usurped in electoral popularity by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP). Prior to the Agreement, the DUP had persistently
    trailed its rival in all non-European election contests, whereas since the deal the DUP has dominated. The DUP’s hostility to the GFA, in contrast to the support offered by the UUP, reaped electoral rewards from a unionist electorate that was often sceptical of the value of the deal. In its post-GFA rise, the DUP garnered majority support from members of the Orange order, the largest organisation in Protestant civil society.

    So where does this leave Alliance. Waiting in the wings in my view, with a message that things don’t have to be this way forever. Firstly, the party will need to attract in addition to those affluent, middle-class Protestant liberals you nention – Catholic middle class interests, as well as voters in rural areas and the professional classes before mounting a concerted effort in the Republican and Loyalist strongholds of Derry and Belfast. An electoral strategy that will not be wholly unfamiliar to Liberal Democrat Activists throughout the UK.

  • Alex Macfie 15th Dec '12 - 8:43pm

    To be clear, as I wrote earlier, the role of the Alliance Party isn’t to ‘split the difference’ between the interests of the Unionist and Nationalist communities; it is to make the case for liberalism and non-sectarianism in Northern Ireland, and thus for respecting all its citizens as individuals. As such its primary constituency consists of those who regard the conflict as nothing to do with them, as these are not represented at all by any of the sectarian parties. But as the ‘centre’ party in Northern Irish politics, it is inevitable that they hold the balance of power. Alliance are likely to propose things that some of the parties on one or both sides can support (maybe grudgingly so), and those on one side are more likely to agree with Alliance than with the other side of the sectarian divide. Therefore, most things happen with the agreement of Alliance. It is similar in the European Parliament, where the liberal group (ALDE) is part of the winning majority more often than any other group, because it holds the balance of power between the left (mainly S&D) and right (mainly EPP) blocs. [I use the EP as an example because like in the Northern Ireland Assembly, agreement is reached and majorities formed on an issue-by-issue basis, rather than by the same set of parties as part of a “Coalition” with a “programme for government”.]
    Richard Dean seems to be arguing that Alliance should ‘gag itself’ in votes by agreeing not to participate, in recognition that it does not have the moral right to exercise the power that its share of the vote and position in Northern Ireland’s political spectrum gives it. Well that is not realistic politics, and it also demonstrates a misunderstanding of Alliance’s influence. That most policy decisions require support from Alliance certainly does NOT mean that the policy that gets passed is exactly what Alliance would push through it if held a majority of seats. A pure Alliance policy would never get support in the Northern Ireland Assembly, because Alliance only commands about 10% of the seats: Alliance has to get the support of some of the sectarian parties as well if it is to win support for its policy; this means Alliance has to compromise as well. [A similar thing can be said about ALDE in the European Parliament: ALDE is usually on the winning side, but this does not mean that what gets passed is pure ALDE policy.]

    What Richard Dean and Chris_sh are saying is that the only people who should have any say in Northern Ireland are the sectarian tribalists, and that anyone who does not wish to identify with either side in the conflict should be treated as second-class citizens. And, although they say that they condemn Unionist violence in the recent events, the implication of their position is that violence is an acceptable reaction by extremists who do not get their way.

  • Richard Dean 15th Dec '12 - 9:37pm

    I think Alliance have done a good job of holding “firm” in this discussion, and I’m glad to see that, even so, they have been able to change their position on some things since we started. It has been very interesting and illuminating too.

    At one point Alliance were claiming to have “brokered a deal”. That claim could, of course, have incensed some opponents, since it is effectively an admission that Alliance did a deal with the Nationalists. At one point Alliance claimed that their agreement was needed for anything to be passed. If true, that claim means that democracy has broken down and Alliance are acting like dictators.

    Alex MacFie has identified an important point – misunderstanding. Claims like that lead easily to misunderstandings that can be used to incite unacceptable behaviours. How does anyone deal with a dictator?

    So I’m happy that Alliance are learning about language, which has been an issue from before Joe’s simplified history starts. Alliance really do have a problem of growth. If they grow in the centre, the other parties will have to go to the extremes. They need to think carefully about how to do this.

    It is a pity that some of the “extremists” from the sectarian sides didn’t particpate. I look forwards to poking their hornets nests hard when I get the chance. 🙂

  • @JoeBourke
    “In Lisburn the executive is Unionist controlled – so the decision o fly the flag on designated days only was made by Unionist Councillors ”

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my question, I wasn’t asking about the mechanics of how it happened but why a DUP/UUP controlled council in one area was happy to go with the proposal and yet a group of DUP/UUP politicians in a second area weren’t. I wonder if it is to do with a fairly basic human condition on emotions involved with giving something as a gift against having something taken. The DUP/UUP were in power at Lisburn and quite happy to “gift” this concession for the process and probably felt good about it. In Belfast they felt it was being forced from them and that doesn’t produce a nice buzz, but more a feeling of a need to entrench to protect it.

    “The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) led to a major realignment in unionist politics in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist party (UUP),”

    Would it not be fair to say that the seeds of that reversal were planted a lot earlier though? By one of those strange flukes in life, my first 2 years in NI coincided with the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the second time I was out there covered the period of the Downing Street Declaration. As I recall the first event caused a lot of consternation in the unionist community, whilst both the DUP & UUP were against it the man who seemed to get most attention was Ian Paisley Snr. That’s hardly surprising I suppose as he has a somewhat distinctive delivery. Then of course the DSD was opposed by the DUP and the UUP were less hostile. So if you’re a unionist and you want some one to defend your corner, are you going to pick David Trimble who portrays a (relatively) calm reasoned manner, or a firebrand who bangs the pulpit, blasts out a message about protecting the Union and heads a Party that has consistently opposed things that may lead to change.

  • @Denis
    “Alliance would not have voted to remove the flag permanently or by abstention allowed the same result. Sinn Fein and SDLP knew that.

    Good on you, JoeBourke. Thank goodness some in this thread understand the situation.”

    I would respectfully suggest that if there is a misunderstanding, it is partially due to the lack of information that has been placed upfront, e.g. the first part of your quote above (see my opening comment on never taking anything at face value).

    In the terms of Belfast, the question is can the various political parties act in a manner that will benefit the community in the future? There are obviously (yet more) trust issues and now everyone is digging trenches and throwing accusations at people who aren’t “one of us” (even your own supporters – see the comments from Alex Macfie). Well, if the chuckle brothers can sort out a working arrangement then I would guess anyone can.

  • Paul McKeown 17th Dec '12 - 12:07am

    It is hard to believe how ridiculously uninformed some posters on this thread have been, and unashamed and of their errors when politely corrected by those with actual knowledge and experience of Northern Ireland.

    The Alliance Party took the correct course on the issue of flags at Belfast City Hall, according to its constitution. The violence and threats to which it has been subjected afterwards have been to a large extent the result of coat trailing by the two main unionist parties. Both have grievances with the Alliance Party. The DUP lost their seat in East Belfast to Alliance at the last General Election and will fight using all means, fair or foul, to regain it in 2015. And the omens aren’t clear on that one at all. Meanwhile the Ulster Unionist Party is apparently in a terminal death spiral, unable to heal the divisions between traditionalists (particularly west of the Bann) and liberals (east of the Bann). For much of the past six months, Alliance has been polling ahead of the UUP for voting intention, for the first time in history. As it is, Alliance has two Ministers in the Executive, whereas the UUP has only one.

    Anyone with any real understanding of politics in Northern Ireland will understand what a powerful catalyst such electoral threats are for political anger to be transformed into street action through easily denied links between the mainstream parties and thugs with dark glasses and baseball bats.

    I say “Viva Alliance!”

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