Northern Ireland

Alliance Party conference: Ford says flag violence was 'all about votes'

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Media captionBBC Newsline's Political Editor Mark Devenport reports from the Alliance Party conference.

Alliance leader David Ford has claimed that unionists have whipped up tension in east Belfast over the flag issue in order to win votes.

Mr Ford told his annual conference that his party stood by its flag policy.

He said the last three months had been a "tough time" for the party.

Mr Ford expressed support for those in the party who had suffered from intimidation including Naomi Long MP, Larne mayor Geraldine Mulvenna, and Christine and Michael Bower.

There have been street protests since Belfast City Council voted on 3 Decemer to limit the flying of the union flag from city hall.

In his speech to the Alliance Party annual conference on Saturday, Mr Ford compared the difference between Belfast and other unionist councils which flew the union flag.

"In Belfast there was a deliberate, pre-meditated campaign to whip up tensions, to generate fears over loss of identity among those who perceive themselves as having little left to give; and to go after the Alliance Party and its elected representatives, especially Naomi Long who wasn't even involved in the debate, in order to win votes.

"That's the long and short of it. All of this has been about votes."

Image caption Secretary of State Theresa Villiers addressed the Alliance Party conference

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers told the conference that the protests needed to come off the streets and "start a proper political dialogue."

"This government will not be moved by people who wrap themselves in our national flag and engage in unlawful rioting and attacks on the police," she said.

"Respecting democratic decisions and obeying the law are two of the hallmarks of our United Kingdom. This applies to flags.

"It also means complying with the decisions of the Parades Commission, as the only lawfully constituted body with the authority to make determinations on parades in Northern Ireland.

"We cannot afford a repeat of scenes that we saw in parts of Belfast last summer. At a time when we're in a global race for jobs and investment we need to be able to market the best of Northern Ireland."

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