Published Saturday, 21 April 2012
Alliance leader David Ford at the annual Alliance Party conference. (© Pacemaker)
In January, Peter Robinson watched a match in the McKenna cup at Armagh's Athletic Grounds, while last month Martin McGuinness saw Derry City play Linfield at Windsor Park.
But at the Alliance Party conference on Saturday, Mr Ford said the actions were "empty gestures" and they must practice what they preach.
"Talk is cheap, just like a ticket for the odd sports event being played by the 'other side'.
"Gestures may be a good start, but gestures are empty if they don't lead to actions with more substance," he said.
Genuine leaders would turn up at Windsor Park before, and not after God Save the Queen, or arrive in Armagh in time for Amhrán na bhFiann before the Dr McKenna Cup match.
Looking to the other main parties in the region, Mr Ford described Sinn Féin and DUP as "mirror images of each other".
"But if the SDLP and UUP are to be pitied, the DUP and Sinn Féin are to be feared," he added.
He also criticised the Ulster Unionist Party and its weakened state, asking: "Are these parties really going to recover?"
"If you think they are, carry on. But if your ambition is change, if you want to see a genuinely shared future, will you ever be able to achieve it in those parties? Do you want your politics to be defined by a never-ending battle for unionist votes or nationalist votes," he asked.
The Alliance Party was celebrating its success in last year's elections, with a 50% increase in its number of councillors and seven MLAs elected.
But the leader criticised DUP and Sinn Féin proposals to remove the Department of Employment and Learning - a ministerial post held by Alliance member Stephen Farry.
"There are two possible explanations," continued Mr Ford.
"Is it vandalism against an important economic department at a time of economic difficulty, rather than the properly thought-out restructuring of departments that we need? Or is it malice against Alliance because the growing strength of our party is a threat to the big two, especially in East Belfast?
"Ministers lose their posts. That's politics. But it looks to me as if Stephen is going to establish a record: the first minister anywhere in these islands who is threatened with the sack because both he and his party are successful."
Mr Ford said one of the main challenges facing the party in coming years is to successfully defend Naomi Long's seat at Westminster.
Speaking before Mr Ford, the East Belfast MP said she had been working with the Secretary of State to seek a "comprehensive process to address the past".
"There would appear to be little enthusiasm on his part for further engagement.
"He is right that there is currently a lack of consensus amongst local parties as to the mechanism via which this can be addressed; however, this can be no excuse for lack of effort to achieve consensus," she added.
© UTV News