By Martin McGuinness MP (for the Irish News)
The recent historic initiative by the IRA created an unprecedented sense of optimism and expectation that renewed progress can be made towards a lasting peace. The response has been almost universally positive and forward thinking. Except that is within the leadership of unionism. There the response has been negative, cynical and backward looking.
Last week this negativity manifested itself in widespread violence orchestrated by unionist paramilitaries clearly designed to undermine progress and throw the peace process into crisis.
Disgracefully, unionist leaders have compounded this dangerous situation with inflammatory and totally inaccurate statements. In particular, they have made wholly unfounded claims that the current loyalist violence stems from inequality and growing disadvantage in loyalist areas. In fact, all of the evidence shows that nationalists continue to suffer the effects of ingrained and institutionalised inequality and disadvantage. For example, of the 10 most deprived wards in the north of Ireland, 7 are predominantly nationalist, two are mixed and one is mainly unionist. The most affluent wards, of course, are unionist.
Of course there is deprivation and poverty in working class unionist communities and this should and must to be tackled. But this is not the root cause of the recent violence.
The reality is that the unease and instability in unionist communities stems from a political vacuum created by unionist politicians and now filled by loyalist violence.
Unionist parties have abjectly failed to provide responsible or positive leadership. Instead they had provided negative leadership, which hankers after a failed and unacceptable status quo. The political leadership of some working class unionist areas has been ceded to loyalist paramilitaries and the deprivation that these areas undoubtedly suffer has been compounded by the drug dealing, infighting and other criminal activities of the paramilitaries.
Rather than show positive leadership or undertake any serious initiative to tackle the very real problems faced by their constituents, the DUP, and now the UUP, have chosen to allow the loyalist paramilitaries to assert this negative agenda. Influential unionist politicians are blatantly playing to the lowest common dominator by justifying and excusing widespread sectarian violence. The stark but unacknowledged reality is that the greatest threat to unionist communities comes from the criminal and sectarian activities of loyalist paramilitaries yet unionist leaders are strangely and uncharacteristically silent.
The leaderships of unionism, represented by the DUP and the UUP, claim that their communities have no voice. Is this not their responsibility? Is this not the result of their failure, as politicians, to provide that voice - their failure to show positive leadership and their failure to engage on behalf of those they represent.
The leaderships of unionism and loyalism have presented the peace process as a threat to their communities.
In this weekend’s events we saw the playing out - at a violent street level - of the comments of James Molyneaux, the then UUP leader, when he described the IRA cessation in 1994 as the most destabilising event since partition.
Last weekend’s violence is a response to the realisation that the status quo is not an option and to the uncertainties of a process of change which demands equality, human rights, proper policing, justice and inclusion. It is a response to the dawning reality that the days of domination, triumphalism and second class citizenships are gone forever.
The peace process is about equality and justice. It is a threat to no-one, unionist or nationalist. It has been of enormous benefit right across our society. There have been enormous improvements in all communities over the past 10 years. Of course, there is still much to be done. Inequality and disadvantage has to be tackled wherever it occurs. But that is not the focus or concern of unionist politicians. They are more interested in forcing a sectarian march along the Springfield Road. How, in any way, could the grievances that they describe within their communities be resolved or eased by pushing a triumphalist sectarian parade through a nationalist area of West Belfast?
If the leadership of unionism, represented by the DUP and the UUP, genuinely wish to deal with the very real and immediate problems faced by the people they purport to represent, particularly those living in inner city working class areas dominated by loyalists, then they should sit down and talk about these problems.
We in Sinn Féin genuinely share their concern. We want to tackle deprivation, poverty and disadvantage no matter where it occurs and in Sinn Féin they will find a ready ally in bringing forward effective solutions and demanding action from the British and Irish governments.
Unionist political leaders should deal with the short-comings of direct rule through the return of accountable local government. They should show by example that a better future can only be found through equality, co-operation and mutual respect. Unionists whether in the DUP, the UUP or the Orange Order should sit down and talk with us, their fellow citizens. That is the best way to tackle the very real social and economic issues which affect all of us in this society.