Flag row hit relations between nationalist and unionists: McGuinness

The deterioration in relations between 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.”

Martin McGuinness shakes hands with the Queen.

Mr McGuinness challenged unionist leaders to take initiatives similar to his handshake with the Queen and involvement in royal events to improve relations between the communities.

The former IRA commander said: “I have personally tried to understand and reach out to the unionist population not least in my engagements with Queen Elizabeth. But reconciliation is not a one-way street. Unionist leaders need to engage in similar initiatives.”

Sharp divisions

The IRA’s landmark ceasefire of August 31, 1994 still sharply divides opinion in the North 20 years on.

At the time was met with victory celebrations in republican areas across the region, while unionists leaders declared the IRA had accepted they had been defeated.

In an address at the Rath 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, and added: “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.”

Reflecting on the peace process and the historic ceasefire, Mr McGuinness paid tribute to former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds who died just over a week ago.

He said he was set apart through his formal engagement with Sinn Féin and claimed that the Irish establishment traditionally enforced policies of isolation, censorship and repression until Mr Reynolds’ time in power.

The Sinn Féin leader, joint leader of the North's institutions with the DUP’s Peter Robinson, offered a damning assessment of the breakdown in relations at Stormont over the last year.

He said Mr Robinson threatened to collapse the institutions three times in six months – over IRA on-the-runs, the contentious Orange Order parade past the 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,” Mr McGuinness said.

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 the North's politicians and said leaders in London and Dublin also need to promote talks on the issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past.

Historic ceasefire

The historic IRA ceasefire came after years of behind the scenes talks between some leaders of the terror group and the British establishment.

It prompted a similar announcement from loyalist paramilitaries within several weeks in 1994.

The IRA returned to violence in February 1996, when it blew up London’s docklands.

It called another ceasefire in July 1997 – a move that paved the way for Sinn Féin’s inclusion in political negotiations that culminated in April 1998 with the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement.

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