A blog From our Friends over in Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party. Peter Stitt writes in a personal capacity about the recent flag riots in Belfast and across Northern Ireland.
First, a little background on the Alliance Party for those on the mainland who may not be aware: as stated on the Alliance Party’s website “Alliance was founded in 1970 with the objective of healing the bitter divisions in our community”. Since then it has expanded its mission to become the voice for liberal politics in Northern Ireland – seeking an open, democratic society for people of all backgrounds, not just the traditional Unionist/Nationalist divide. It’s main task remains the healing of this division.
Last Monday (3rd December) there was a vote at Belfast City Council (BCC) on the flying of the Union flag. Nationalists on the Council policy committee proposed the complete removal of the flag, leading to a vote on its future. Unionists favoured the status quo of flying it 365 days a year and Alliance proposed a compromise motion that would see it flown only on designated days (which is also Party policy). This was accepted by the Nationalists and therefore the motion was successful by a vote of 29-21.
All of this had been preceded by a campaign by Unionists to oppose any reduction in the number of days the flag flies. This took the form of 40,000 leaflets distributed using Alliance’s yellow livery and was an obvious attempt to associate them with the removal of the flag or to force them into having it remain. The leaflet called for them to express their views on the matter to the Alliance Party.
The Union flag is seen as an important part of the Unionist and Loyalist traditions in Northern Ireland and flags of any nature are a sensitive issue here. It’s perfectly reasonable to disagree with the democratic decision taken by BCC and they have a right to express themselves peacefully, especially on something they feel as fundamental to their identity.
However, on the night of the vote there was violence when Loyalists attempted to storm the City Hall. This escalated over the week to include councillors being threatened and having to leave their home, others having their homes attacked, Alliance’s MP receiving a death threat and a constituency office in Carrickfergus being burnt out. This was met by condemnation from the Unionist politicians. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, this was usually suffixed with a “but they should have known better”-type statement.
The fact is that it was a democratic vote that was taken by elected representatives. No matter how much one may disagree, there can be no excuse for violence against those who are attempting to serve their community. It is worth noting that not only Alliance representatives have been affected – Sinn Fein representatives have had death threats and a DUP councillor had his home attacked (and although this is thought to have been from republicans, it is equally reprehensible). No representative of any political party should feel intimidated in this manner. It can only lead to an eroding of the democracy that we should all be supporting.
Over the last week I’ve seen many comments by those outside Northern Ireland who wish to wish to show some support for the Alliance Party and the work that they do. Speaking personally, as a citizen of Northern Ireland, this is very comforting to know that there are those outside this province who care about a liberal and shared future for its people.
If you want to join the growing ranks who support the Alliance Party and its aims for Northern Ireland then this can be done by joining the Party (legal if you’re a Lib Dem!) or making a donation. A simple expression of solidarity to any of our elected representatives hit by the current trouble would even go a long way to let them know that their work is recognised and welcomed. And when things have calmed down a bit here it might even be nice to have some you visit for some canvassing and campaigning for a shared future!
Peter Stitt is a Member without Office on the Alliance Youth executive, though this article is in a personal category. He is from East Antrim, is a long-time supporter of Alliance and has been a member since earlier this year. He is currently studying a PhD on Multichannel Audio Reproduction and Spatial Hearing at Queen’s University Belfast’s Sonic Arts Research Centre. You can contact him on twitter at @MerryLiberal and read his blog, Liberal Meritocracy.