EAST Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long has called on the mainstream political parties to show leadership to break the cycle of violence which has engulfed Northern Ireland this week.
Ms Long was speaking during a press conference at Stormont yesterday after it emerged she had been visited by police late the previous night to inform her of a threat to her life.
While she said responsibility for the death threat clearly lay at the door of those who issued it, she criticised senior politicians for stirring tensions over the last few weeks in the run-up to a vote at Belfast City Council on Monday over the flying of the Union Flag at City Hall.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP voted at a committee meeting last month to remove the flag from the City Hall completely, but at a meeting of full council on Monday they backed an Alliance proposal to fly the flag on designated days.
Unionist councillors voted against flying the flag on designated days and wanted to see the retention of the previous policy of flying it all year round.
In the run-up to the vote, unionists distributed 40,000 leaflets to loyalist areas calling for people to express their view on the flying of the Union Flag to their local Alliance representatives.
Since the vote, a number of Alliance politicians have been targeted.
Belfast councillor Laura McNamee was forced to flee her home in Sydenham due to a threat; East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson’s office was burned; the home of North Down councillors Michael and Christine Bower in Bangor was attacked with a paint bomb, and an attempt was made to burn down North Down MLA Stephen Farry’s office.
Ms Long then received a threat that her life would be in danger if she returned to her constituency office on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast.
Protests have been taking place at the office every day since Tuesday. It was closed early each day to ensure the safety of staff.
A number of other Alliance offices have also been closed at different points including Mr Farry’s in Bangor and Kieran McCarthy’s in Newtownards.
Alliance leader David Ford denied on Thursday that there was an atmosphere of fear in his party, but did say there was an atmosphere of concern.
When asked if she was frightened following the threat, Ms Long said yes, that she was only human, but emphasised that no threat would stop her carrying out her job.
“It warned me that if I returned to my constituency office that my life would be threatened,” Ms Long said.
“I will not let that threat deter me from serving my constituents, and I will not let that influence the decisions that my party takes.
“We will take our decisions based on principles and our beliefs in delivering a shared future.
“We will not be deterred from that by violent people.”
Ms Long also hit out at those she said had been stirring tensions.
“This is a difficult time for Northern Ireland and I recognise that there is hurt in the community about flags and emblems,” she said.
“Flags and emblems are only one difficult issue that we need to learn to deal with.
“We have to find mature solutions, and we need mature political leadership from those who over this week have been stirring up tensions and pointing fingers of blame at people.
“That is not without consequence. They need to stand up now and say violence is wrong and they need to defuse this situation and allow Northern Ireland to move forward as it should.”
Ms Long stressed she did not blame other political parties for the death threat she received, but said they had stirred up tensions.
She said: “Ultimately the people who made the death threat are responsible for what they have done, and I don’t seek to absolve them from their responsibility in this.
“However the leaflet, which was distributed in east Belfast, north Belfast and south Belfast in predominantly loyalist areas, was not only a bogus leaflet, not only full of misrepresentations about the Alliance Party’s position, and indeed inflammatory language about how we would handle the flags issue, but it singled me out as an individual, it named me, it targeted me, it gave my name, my email address, my phone numbers.
“It should come as no surprise when those who slip into violence so easily also feel that I am a legitimate target for their protests.
“They need to take responsibility, they need to take a step back and reflect on their actions and the impact it has had on me and on my colleagues.”
People gathered around the balconies of Stormont applauded as Ms Long finished making her speech to the gathered media.
Earlier on the BBC’s Stephen Nolan Show, Ms Long also said that her strong personal faith was helping her to cope with the situation.
“I have a strong faith and I trust in God for my safety and security, and so today I lean on him and am being held up in prayer by lots of people, lots of friends and lots of members of different churches across the city,” she said.
The threat against Ms Long has been roundly condemned.
Bishop of Down and Dromore the Rev Harold Miller said he was deeply disturbed by the threat to Ms Long and by the attacks on other elected representatives.
“There can be no moral justification for such a threat or acts of violence in the name of protest, however strongly held one’s views are on any symbols of identity or allegiance,” he said.
“To resort to intimidation and attack is an affront to the high values of democratic freedom within the United Kingdom and to its flag and offers nothing to our society in Northern Ireland.
“My prayer is that across our communities we will reject what is wrong and all work constructively for the building up of the common good.”
First Minister Peter Robinson said he totally condemned those responsible for issuing a death threat against Ms Long.
“Such threats are an affront to democracy and an attack on us all,” he said.
“As someone who in the past has been visited many times by the police to be told of death threats issued against me, I know how difficult and testing a time this is.
“My thoughts and prayers are very much with Naomi at this time and I would call upon all concerned not to allow themselves to be used by those who have very sinister motives.
“Regardless of political difference, public representatives should not be attacked or threatened in any way.”
In a separate statement, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called for the threat against Ms Long to be withdrawn immediately.
“The death threat against the East Belfast MP Naomi Long is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms and needs to be withdrawn immediately,” he said.
“It is the latest in a series of threats against elected representatives since Monday.
“This is the work of fascists who cannot accept the democratic decision of Belfast City Council.
“Threats remain against Alliance councillor Laura McNamee, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly and councillor Jim McVeigh. Each and every one of these threats must be lifted.”
The Ulster Unionist Party said in a statement: “Violence is wrong, legally and morally.
“Resorting to violence is not, and never has been, an appropriate response.
“This has been the longstanding position of the Ulster Unionist Party throughout the darkest days of the troubles and remains so.
“We again place on record our condemnation of all forms of violence including threats of violence made most recently to the East Belfast MP Naomi Long and other elected representatives.
“As a party we are all too aware of the upset and hurt associated with the targeting of elected representatives and others.”
SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan also strongly condemned the threat.
“I want to show my support for – and solidarity with – Naomi,” he said.
“This death threat is not only an attack on her or her politics but on the democratic process.
“Such attacks on democratic representatives show that the perpetrators are bankrupt of principle and barren of ideals.
“These vicious tactics which we have seen against a number of Alliance Party representatives this week have to be condemned without excuses of any kind.”