Heated exchanges at Stormont over flag trouble

editorial image

Unionist and nationalist politicians clashed at Stormont in a heated debate about the Union Flag protests on Tuesday.

During a 90-minute debate on Stormont’s second day back from its five-week Christmas holiday, the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell went as far as to suggest that a leaflet put out by the DUP and UUP had been intended to stir up violence.

Dr McDonnell claimed that the leaftlet, put out in the colours of the Alliance Party ahead of the 3 December Belfast City Council vote on the flag,

The pamphlet urged people to contact the Alliance Party but made clear: “Please be respectful at all times”.

Dr McDonnell claimed that the 40,000 “scurrilous” leaflets - which accused the Alliance Party of wanting the flag to be “ripped down” - were “intended to bring about the type of violence we have seen”.

Speaker Willie Hay struggled to maintain order in an angry debate and had to repeatedly admonish MLAs from both sides of the house to be respectful.

Although the Assembly discussed the flag protests for the first time on Monday, yesterday’s was the first full debate on the subject and was centred around an Ulster Unionist motion which said: “That this Assembly reaffirms its commitment to the principles of inclusivity, mutual respect, peace and democracy; condemns all acts of violence and intimidation against police officers, elected representatives, other members of society, homes and property at all times; and calls on all political parties to support the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.”

However, the DUP tabled an amendment to the motion which took out the reference to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. The amendment removed everything after ‘”times” and added: “and calls on all political parties to give full effect to their commitment to the consent principle, which recognises Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.”

Introducing the motion, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that he wanted to “call timeout” on the recent political arguments about the protests and “to reflect”.

He said: “ Some unionists on the Lower Newtownards Road think that leadership means me standing shoulder to shoulder with them on the streets.

“I think that it means offering a path that takes them off the streets to a political place where they can have hope of delivery on the issues that concern them. Nobody needs to be injured to do that, just as nobody needed to die to get us where we are today in this Chamber.

“My party calls for a return to the spirit of the Belfast Agreement. I acknowledge that the DUP has tabled an amendment to that part of our motion. We will not die in a ditch over that, as long as we get this opportunity to explain exactly what we mean by the spirit of the agreement.”

Both Mr Nesbitt and the DUP’s Gregory Campbell said that they were “puzzled” at Sinn Fein’s decision to lodge a Petition of Concern - which forces a cross-community vote and allows nationalists or unionists to block the amendment - against the DUP amendment.

Mr Campbell said: “The motion condemns all acts of violence and intimidation. We did that yesterday, and, as I say, we need to do so again.

“Unfortunately, a former Member of this House — a former Member for West Belfast, now a TD in the Irish Republic — Mr Gerry Adams was interviewed and said that no acts of violence of any kind emanated from the Short Strand.

“Unfortunately for him, the video evidence is contrary to that. All acts of violence, of all kinds, need to be repudiated, and the violence needs to stop.”

Alliance’s Chris Lyttle said it was “deeply concerning” that Mike Nesbitt appeared relaxed about a DUP amendment which removed any mention to the Agreement which the UUP negotiated in 1998.

Later the UUP’s Danny Kinahan said that he had “no issue” with the DUP amendment because “integral within it “ was the Principle of Consent.

Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin spoke in favour of the UUP motion, which he said “is welcome, not just because of its authorship but because it represents an attempt to return to the high ground of leadership, hope and aspiration that was endorsed, ratified and welcomed by the people of Ireland in the development of the agreement”.

And, referring to the Principle of Consent - that Northern Ireland will only leave the UK if a majority of its people wish that to be so - Mr McLaughlin said: “I embrace and respect the consent principle, which also means accepting the current constitutional status quo. I respect it and I accept it. I state that for the record.

“I say that because I have the power under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement to bring about a united Ireland. I have to convince sufficient numbers of people and my colleagues to bring about that constitutional change.

“Until that position arrives, I will accept the status quo. I hope that that is as clear as I can make it. There are no grounds for political violence against the political arrangements on this island...”

The DUP’s Paul Givan accused Prime Minister David Cameron of “pandering” to a republican narrative over Pat Finucane’s murder and said that was one of the reasons that protesters are on streets.

Speaking of the UUP motion, he added: “We can’t support the final sentence around the Belfast Agreement because the Belfast Agreement is one of the reasons that some of the people are so aggravated out on the streets.”

Sinn Fein’s Caitrione Ruane accused unionist leaders of having “forgot” to tell their supporters that there had to be compromises.

She said that Edwin Poots and Gregory Campbell had been “blustering because they forgot to tell their electorate there had to be change”, something the former Education Minister said Sinn Fein had done by preparing its supporters for compromises.

SDLP MLA Connal McDevitt said that the Assembly owed its very existence to the Belfast Agreement and argued that the DUP was trying to say it opposed the Agreement but still “sit in office and have it both ways”.

He added: “Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson enjoy the great privilege of being the joint leaders of our region. When will see them together....[calling] for an end to the protests?”

UUP MLA Michael Copeland said that he had voted against the 1998 Agreement - a time prior to him joining the UUP - because even though he supported the spirit of the accord, he believed it to be unachievable.

The East Belfast MLA said: “I do not set myself up as intelligent or politically gifted” and added that he did not have the answers to the crisis but that someone who could maintain order in the way Stormont Speaker Willie Hay had done in the debate was required in East Belfast.

But both the TUV leader Jim Allister and suspended UUP MLA Basil McCrea, neither of whom was called to speak, were critical of their exclusion from the debate.

Mr Allister said it was “totally inappropriate to restrict this debate to just 90 minutes meaning that only members of parties in the Executive were called to speak.

He said that despite the Stormont Executive claiming to have recognised that there was a disconnect between it and those on the streets, the exclusion of non-Executive MLAs from the debate showed that it was not prepared to allow opposition voices to be heard.

Speaker Willie Hay disagreed, saying that independent MLAs and representatives of smaller parties got more of a chance to speak in Stormont than they would be offered in many other legislatures.