By Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph
16 May 2012

Community Relations Week has kicked off with a bitter political row over plans to end the divisions in our society.

David Ford, the Alliance leader, on Monday lashed out at Martin McGuinness for comments he made in the Belfast Telegraph that criticised his party for holding up efforts to produce a long-awaited Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy.

In an interview to mark a year of the latest power-sharing Assembly, the Deputy First Minister accused Alliance of not pulling its weight on the issue of a shared future.

He said its poor attendance at a Stormont committee on the issue “left a lot to be desired, though they are the ones who have been pushing this publicly”.

Mr Ford hit back, accusing Mr McGuinness of breaching confidentiality and of making unsubstantiated claims about Alliance’s attendance record.

“It was with disappointment that I heard at the weekend of the Deputy First Minister’s remarks about the process.

“Bad enough that he chose to breach the confidentiality that he demanded and that we had respected, but much worse to claim that Alliance attendance at the meetings ‘leaves a lot to be desired’,” Mr Ford said.

He was delivering the keynote address at a Community Relations Council (CRC) conference in Belfast. He said: “The fact is that Chris Lyttle, the MLA who I asked to lead on this, has attended all but one of the meetings that have been held, and at that meeting my special adviser attended in his place.”

He added: “I can understand why Alliance’s participation in the process may have caused some frustration within the DUP and Sinn Fein — because Chris has been persistently, doggedly, insisting that any strategy that is produced has to reflect the criticisms that poured down on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s previous attempt.”

Setting out Alliance’s bottom line, Mr Ford said the CSI strategy must include:

• Public spending tests to promote sharing on every public investment.

• Legal acknowledgement that all space is shared space with no compromise on territorialisation, including a strong protocol on flags.

• A comprehensive interface strategy which promotes openness and tolerance.

• A landmark review of equality and sharing in public housing.

• Serious investment in integration in teaching, including shared education and teacher training.

• A comprehensive youth strategy to combat sectarianism.

• An independent delivery system for community relations which has enough clout to challenge Government.

Mr Ford claimed that any document published by OFMDFM without all-party support would be “a watered down strategy that would only have the lowest common denominator between these two parties, and so would not achieve a shared future”.

But Peter Robinson hit out at the Alliance leader and said that his party should play a more productive role in the CSI talks.

“(Perhaps) the Alliance Party should try and focus itself more on trying to get an agreed result instead of going out and trying to indicate that somehow they are leading the way, when in fact they are dragging their feet,” the DUP leader said during ministerial questions at Stormont.

“So perhaps they can get their head out of the sand and start attending more meetings, stop trying to delay meetings from taking place, and make more of a contribution,”he added.

He said that compromise was inevitable given that talks on the new strategy involve all five parties that sit in the Stormont Executive.

Story so far

In June 2007, shortly after devolution, all parties promised to bring forward a strategy to combat sectarian division.

In July 2010 a document for consultation did not prove acceptable and a Stormont all-party committee has been working on the issue since then. Last week Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson expressed frustration with the lack of progress and said that if agreement couldn’t be reached soon they would publish a joint Sinn Fein/DUP document before the House rises on July 7.