By Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph
25 May 2012

The Alliance Party has walked away from a crucial Stormont committee on combating sectarianism and building a shared future together, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The five-party working group was set up after a plan produced by Sinn Fein and the DUP was rejected in a public consultation process which ended in September 2010.

The committee, which was set up last year to agree a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy, has met in secret, but has so far failed in its task to produce a way forward.

“We have now lost our faith in the integrity of this process,” Alliance leader David Ford said.

He accused the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), headed by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, of “bad faith”, and called for the private meetings between the five parties to be replaced by open public debate.

“The current process has become an attempt at creating an illusion that the DUP and Sinn Fein are serious about agreeing a strategy that will actually promote a shared society,” he said.

His comments follow interviews with Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness in the Belfast Telegraph on May 12 to mark the current Executive’s first year in office.

Both men said that they had found it impossible to agree a CSI strategy in the committee.

They said that they intended publishing a compromise paper which “would find maximum acceptability within the community” some time next month.

Mr McGuinness blamed Alliance for the delay. “I do think the Alliance party’s attendance leaves a lot to be desired, although they are the ones who have been pushing this publicly,” he said.

Later Mr Robinson also blamed Alliance by name in Stormont.

Yesterday, Mr Ford responded by writing to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to warn that “the paper that is emerging from the process falls far short” of what is needed. He pledged that if they did publish a paper “Alliance will of course participate constructively in Executive and Assembly discussions on any such strategy”.

The CSI committee meets every Tuesday and its proceedings are not made public. According to Alliance records, their representative, Chris Lyttle, has attended all but one of the meetings when he was absent on paternity leave.

On that occasion, in January, he was replaced by Richard Good, Mr Ford’s special adviser.

Last week, DUP Junior Minister Jonathan Bell criticised Alliance’s record and accused Mr Lyttle of being absent for much of January.

Alliance has asked OFMDFM to provide attendance records, but has received no reply. They say they asked on May 14 and that, under the rules, a reply should have been made by May 17.

At Tuesday’s meeting Alliance brought things to a head by presenting a list of eight essential items which they believe should be on any document to promote a shared society. It includes a review of segregated housing, a framework for dealing with illegal flags and emblems and a test of all public spending to ensure it prioritises sharing over separation.

“The responses we received made clear that the other parties aren’t prepared to commit to the actions the Executive needs to take to build a genuinely shared future,” Mr Ford stated.

He wrote in his letter: “The current approach within the group, of seeking to agree a strategy that everyone can sign up to on the basis that it makes little change to the status quo, is not one that we will participate in any longer.”

An Alliance spokesman added: “We were mainly concerned about policy, but the comments by the deputy First Minister and subsequent comments by the First Minister and Jonathan Bell have made the situation more difficult.”

This shot across the bows is a wake-up call

If Alliance ever withdraws from the Executive, as it has threatened in the past, this will be seen as the moment the rot started and the party of accommodation showed its tough side.

The DUP and Sinn Fein needed Alliance to help them with the devolution of policing and justice because no other party could command cross-community support to take on such a contentious job.

Then Alliance built its vote and got a second ministry under d’Hondt, Education and Learning (DEL).

DEL is being abolished later this year, but that is unlikely to provoke a walkout. Threatening Cohesion Sharing and Integration, Alliance’s signature policy and its main raison d’etre as an organisation, and then blaming it for the problem undermines its self respect.

Pulling out of the CSI committee is a first shot across the bows of the bigger parties and the first time in years Alliance has used its elbows like this.

For all our sakes a comprehensive CSI strategy needs to be agreed. Division along sectarian lines is the poison which has brought our society into conflict in the past. It could do so again if it is not tackled in a systematic way.

Sectarianism makes all our other problems worse and communal division is that much harder to tackle because our political system is built on it.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness both say their parties are reaching out to the other community. Indeed they have personally given a lead by attending sporting events, religious services and other functions. This helps but it is not a comprehensive strategy to tackle problems on the ground where rioting and violence are a danger. It is good to talk of a shared future and an integrated education system, like Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, but it is not enough in itself. We need a road map which will bring us to these objectives in a reasonable time frame.

Each year’s delay is a year in which society can be torn apart by loyalist or dissident violence — and is a year in which our pitch for investment and tourism can be marred by a mishandled marching season.

Alliance’s withdrawal from the committee must provide a wake-up call, not provoke a crisis. It is up to our politicians to work this out and find a way forward.

They were elected to pull together productively and they must do so.