The deterioration in relations between nationalist and unionist politicians in the North was sparked by a decision to limit the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said.
Marking the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire, the Sinn Féin chief said Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists have retreated into a coalition with rejectionist unionism and loyalist paramilitaries.
Mr McGuinness said it was borne out of “anti-democratic protests” over the flag row and the refusal of unionist leaders to accept compromise and a democratic decision.
“The decision to restrict the flying the flag to designated days is, of course, a compromise position. A compromise which Sinn Féin was prepared to support,” he said.
“But the unionist parties have been incapable of accepting this compromise and have railed against this democratic decision. And it is that failure, the failure to accept a democratic decision, the failure to work towards compromise, the rejection of dialogue and negotiations to resolve contentious issues which is now at the heart of the problems that we are facing.”
Mr McGuinness challenged unionist leaders to take initiatives similar to his handshake with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and involvement in royal events to improve relations between the communities.
The IRA’s landmark ceasefire of August 31, 1994, still sharply divides opinion in the North. At the time was met with celebrations in republican areas, while unionists leaders said the Provos had accepted they had been defeated.
In an address at the Ráth Mór centre in Derry, Mr McGuinness called on dissident republicans to give up their struggle.
“There can be no return to the violence and repression that scarred this society for so long,” he said. “The real threat to the political institutions is stagnation and the absence of progress.
“The real threat is the retreat of political unionism from dialogue, compromise, agreement and reconciliation. And none of this is about abandoning sincerely held political beliefs or positions.”
The Sinn Féin leader said Peter Robinson threatened to collapse the institutions three times in six months — over on-the-run IRA members, the Orange Order parade past nationalist Ardoyne shops in north Belfast, and welfare cuts.
“The rejection of dialogue and negotiations has spread like a virus to all other issues, including those already agreed such as the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site. Similarly with welfare cuts,” said Mr McGuinness.
He accused the DUP of backing an “anti-poor agenda of the Tory millionaires in London” and said it was Sinn Féin’s position that cuts to welfare will hit both nationalist and unionist communities.
Mr McGuinness called for the US to reassert its influence over Northern Irish politicians and said leaders in London and Dublin also need to promote talks on the issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past.
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